Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Curricula and Resources for Lifespan Faith Development

Introduction to Workshop 6: Sophia Lyon Fahs

Part of What Moves Us

The emotional impulses that urge [human]kind to be religious are a part of human nature everywhere and apparently always. We truly need to be religious. — Sophia Lyon Fahs

This workshop introduces Sophia Lyon Fahs' Theology of Religious Naturalism. For more than 80 years, Fahs developed and used her Theology of Religious Naturalism to show religious educators how to discover and nurture the emotional foundations of liberal faith.

For most of her professional life as a religious educator, professor, writer, editor, and public lecturer, Fahs developed and used her theological system to track basic human emotions and show how they become religious emotions. To this end, her Theology of Religious Naturalism, which she called her "natural humanism," explored five basic emotional urges and needs she believed were foundational to the religious experiences of liberal faith. She believed the task of religious educators in particular and religious professionals (clergy and laity) in general was not only to recognize these core, ever-present, human emotional states, but also to develop programs that could transform these basic feelings into religious experiences of joy and wonder and more: personal religious experiences, as she put it, of God's presence in the natural world.

As a Union Theological Seminary professor; as founding editor of The New Beacon Series in Religious Education for the American Unitarian Association; as creator of new experientially-based, progressive models for religious education; and finally as an ordained minister, Fahs revolutionized liberal, systematic theological reflections on the links among human emotion, faith, and science. By so doing, she helped to create the 1930s renaissance era of American Unitarianism. She worked tirelessly throughout her life to create a liberal theology that recognized human emotions and human experience as foundational building blocks for an enlightened, scientifically informed, liberal faith. Are these building blocks Fahs established foundational for our own Unitarian Universalist faith experiences today? This workshop tests the relevancy of Fahs' theological legacy for our lives as Unitarian Universalists today.

Please note that Fahs uses the term "man" inclusively to mean all human beings. You may choose to make her language gender inclusive whenever this change will enhance participants' understanding of Fahs' basic concerns and claims about all persons.

Before leading this workshop, review the Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters found in the program Introduction.

Preparing to lead this workshop

Read one or more of the following for background information:

Read Leader Resource 2, Why Teach Religion in an Age of Science? by Sophia L. Fahs. Fahs' basic answer to her title question can be summarized as follows:

Emotional needs and impulses create and sustain scientific explorations and moral concerns. Religious educators pay attention to such needs and impulses in order to help transform them into moral and religious values that create and sustain ethical behavior. The task of religious educators is to show children (and adults) how to kindle and sustain their own basic emotions for the sake of ethical action and universal empathy toward others. While physical and social science perspectives and insights must inform theological and moral thinking, the search for meaning is not a scientific task; it is a religious task.

Here are some guides to help you reflect upon Fahs' theological rationale and strategy as elucidated in Leader Resource 2. You may wish to write your reflections in your theology journal:

Fahs' definition of "religion in general" and her use of the term "God."

Fahs reminds her readers that she is not asking the question: "Why teach the Christian religion in an age of science?" She intends to study "religion" shorn of doctrine and tradition, putting aside the different doctrines that distinguish various religious traditions from one another, in order to discover what unites them today as religion in a scientific age: (1) basic human emotions (e.g. wonderment) and (2) human thoughts and expression regarding those emotional experiences.

Fahs rejects traditional biblically based doctrinal notions because they are often scientifically counterfactual. For Fahs, however, the ongoing use of the term God is not scientifically counterfactual because the reference for this term is flexible. (See Leader Resource 3.)

Basic human needs, impulses, and emotions.

Fahs distinguishes basic human needs and impulses from the religious emotions she believes emerge from them. Fahs characterizes each of five basic human needs and impulses that religion addresses at a basic emotional level: (1) an instinctive urge to keep alive and avoid death; (2) wonderment; (3) love and the dread of being alone; (4) the emotional need to resolve conflicting emotional impulses in an ordered way; and (5) the basic emotional need for idealized selves as heroes and/or divinity.

For reflection: Choose one of these five emotional needs (or a feeling within you that seems akin to it). Next, think of an emotional experience you would describe as a religious experience (e.g., awe, wonder, reverence). Can you think of an emotional experience that you would not describe as a religious experience? What is the difference? Compare and contrast the two personal emotional experiences. Why would you (or would you not) call one of the two emotional experiences a religious experience and, more precisely, a Unitarian Universalist religious experience?

Fahs makes a distinction between the two sets of experiences, believing that the role of the religious educator is to create the opportunity for a religious experience by helping a person think about and experience the same "general" emotion (e.g., wonderment) as a "religious" emotion. Based on your reflection on your own experience, does Fahs' distinction make sense to you? On what basis do you decide whether an emotional experience is a religious (or spiritual) emotional experience? Do you believe the basic distinction Fahs' makes between 'ordinary' emotions and 'religious' emotions is sound?

Religion is at risk of losing its relevance.

Fahs argues, "[Yet] if religion is to survive in a day of advancing scientific discoveries, it must find a way to be on the one hand intellectually sound, and on the other hand emotionally satisfying." She calls for a reformation of traditional religious beliefs about human nature, the universe, and the natural world and the discarding of antiquated doctrines, ideas, and dogma. According to Fahs, there is thrill, awe and mystery when our bodies and the rest of the universe are viewed at a subatomic level. The God of humanity, the God of gravitation, the God of hydrogen atoms, and the God of higher sentient beings is one and the same God.

For reflection: Have you ever had an experience you would call "mystical"? Do you agree with Fahs' assessment of mystical experience and her attempt to broaden the definition of mystical experience beyond the strictures of traditional religious doctrine?

Development of emotional empathy using personal experience.

Fahs believes that if we pay careful attention to a fundamental emotional feeling intently enough, with an open, reflective mind, we will move into a religious emotional state of empathy towards ourselves and towards others. She writes, "The development of moral and spiritual values today involves not so much the courage to fight for the right against the wrong, as the patience to understand the wrong, its causes and its meanings. It involves also learning the arts of negotiation and empathy."

For reflection: Consider an example from your own life in which you used the arts of negotiation and empathy to assess a moral issue. How did you develop this skill? What can help you strengthen it?


This workshop will:

  • Build historical knowledge about educational theorist, theologian, and ordained Unitarian minister Sophia Lyon Fahs
  • Explore five emotional foundations of our liberal faith and their link to scientific insights, as understood and formulated by Fahs
  • Engage participants in tracing how their own "ordinary" emotions are transformed into Unitarian Universalist "religious" emotions
  • Introduce participants to a variety of ways the term "God" is used as an expression of liberal religious Unitarian Universalist reverence in a scientific age.

Learning Objectives

Participants will:

  • Gain personal knowledge of their own emotional needs that must be in some degree satisfied, according to Sophia Lyon Fahs (1876-1978), in order to have access to a personally fulfilling and regenerative religious life
  • Demonstrate increased self-knowledge about the emotional foundations of their own Unitarian Universalist faith.