3070 Embodied Faith: Theological Thinking in Congregational Life

Sponsor: Meadville Lombard Theological School


  • Rev. Dr. Lee Barker
  • Rev. Dr. M. Susan Harlow
  • Rev. Dr. Neil Gerdes
  • Dr. Michael Hogue

Prepared for UUA.org by Margy Levine Young, Reporter; Jone Johnson Lewis, Editor.

The faculty of Meadville Lombard Theological School wants to encourage a paradigm shift in adult religious education (RE) that includes more use of constructive imagination, metaphors, symbols, and religious language. As we wrestle with such imagery, we learn about ourselves and each other. Theological images powered ancient people, and they can ground us in what is important in our own lives and in the congregation.

The wisdom traditions that use religious language offer an ethic, a vision, an ideal. As we learn to live religiously, we create poetry, song, and ritual. These are ways to develop, share, and learn from others. They also lead us to ask: what is the purpose of the church? If we are to transform our community and society, we need personal transformation.

Rev. Dr. Susan Harlow suggests that the language of social science is important but not sufficient, it is useful but should not be primary. Social science language leaves out important images that help us understand what it means to live religiously.

Dr. Michael Hogue regrets that people are theologically illiterate. Theology is not a detailed science of the divine; it is logos about theos. Theos refers to what is ultimately meaningful, true, and beautiful.

Faith can be passive or active. Passive faith is that in which we trust. But what does loyalty to faith mean practically? A practical liberal theology is a critical integrated life practice aimed at increasing justice and love in the world.

An integrated discourse about theos includes both head and heart, both thinking and feeling. The discourse must also be critical because we can be wrong. For this reason, in the liberal tradition, authority includes an emphasis on reason and experience, which are the last two items of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.

To guide us in doing theological reflections, Rev. Dr. Neil Gerdes has prepared a worksheet that includes two methods and an exercise. The methods and exercise can lead us to new insight, understanding, and action. For electronic copies of the worksheet, email: ngerdes@meadville.edu.

Rev. Dr. Lee Barker asked: how might a church be different if we thought this way? For example, we offer newcomers a course in our traditions and ethos; but this is a passive process and is only the beginning. Later, in adult RE, we can stretch our minds and share our faiths; we are all teachers and learners.

The UUA Commission on Appraisal is calling on ways to engage diversity (PDF). Barker urged us first to become theologically literate, then engage in a discussion of diversity. To encourage such an expanded RE program, Rev. Dr. M. Susan Harlow is writing a book to expand the thinking surrounding adult RE and encourage a new paradigm that begins with theological language, metaphors, and symbols.