Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Activity 2: Introducing Sophia Lyon Fahs

Part of What Moves Us

Activity time: 25 minutes

Materials for Activity

Preparation for Activity

  • Review the story so you can present it effectively.
  • Copy the handouts and the story for all participants.
  • Arrange for two volunteers to read the story aloud-one to read Fahs' two anecdotes and the other to read the two analyses. If possible, provide the story to volunteers before the workshop.
  • List these five items on newsprint, and post:
    • Impulse to keep alive and to avoid death
    • Impulse to know the unknown, to delve into the mysteries of existence
    • Need for friendly companionship, or the yearning to love and to be loved, need to escape isolation
    • Need for emotional order and organization to control over conflicting impulses and provide an over-all theological picture of one's destiny within the ongoing drama of life.)
    • Need for an internalized super-ego who incarnates, at least in a measure, the desired better self
  • Prepare, but do not post, newsprint with these questions:
    • In Fahs' first story, what emotion(s) might have been present in the children? Do any of these fit into one (or more) of the five categories Fahs identifies as emotionally foundational for religious experience? If not, identify another category into which the feeling fits, one you deem to be a basic emotional state for human beings.
    • Identify any emotions (from Fahs' list of five) that might have come to the fore for Wendell and Jimmie. How are these emotions transformed into what Fahs calls religious emotions?

Description of Activity

Introduce Sophia Lyon Fahs as a 20th-century progressive religious educator and one of the creators of modern American theological liberalism. Read or convey this biographical information:

Born in 1876 to Presbyterian missionary parents in China, Fahs embraced progressive educational principles when she was a graduate student at Columbia University's Teachers College, then as a divinity student at Union Theological School in New York. Following graduation, she joined Union's faculty in 1927. Fahs came of age as a major new force in liberal religious education as young liberal parents and disenchanted orthodox parents increasingly sought out new models of religious education for their children. She actively created and shaped the progressive Sunday School at Riverside Church in New York.

For more than 80 years as a professional educator, practical theologian and author, Fahs strove to create a theology that restored human emotions and human experience to their rightful place as foundational building blocks for an enlightened liberal faith. She devoted her life to the big questions rather than to the big answers.

Fahs was Children's Editor for the Unitarian "The New Beacon Series" from 1937, at age 61, until her retirement fourteen years later in 1951. As editor, author, or co-author of more than a dozen books, she "addressed children directly using vivid stories from around the world." She said: "We wish children to come to know God directly through original approaches of their own to the universe." Fahs devoted her life to discovering the questions that led to answers that included God-talk. She joined a Unitarian Church in 1945, and was ordained as a Unitarian minister in 1959, at age 82, in what is now the Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland.

Distribute Handout 1, which contains more detail about her life, and Handout 2, which is a story about her life written for fourth and fifth grade children, for participants to take home

Distribute the story, Fahs' Religious Education Experiences. Invite volunteers to read Fahs' anecdotes and her observations and conclusions. Explain that Fahs' goal in her work was to bring the whole of Nature into the area of ethical concern and religious appreciation. Fahs used this religious naturalism-or "natural humanism," as she also called this method of theological reflection-in order to address what she characterized as five basic emotional needs. Indicate the prepared newsprint as you describe them.

Explain to participants Fahs' conclusion that when these needs are attended to and encouraged, we become aware of a personal feeling of the greatness within ourselves that creates an ongoing questioning attitude of mind and leads us and our children to talk about God. According to Fahs, the word God includes two concepts: "A Creative Power entering from outside, and a Creative Power that has always been inherent and within." She believed that "Some word or group of words is needed to express this Creativity." The term God, for Fahs as a humanist, thus refers to the personal, emotional experience of an external and internal Creative Power.

Post the questions you have prepared. Invite participants to consider Fahs' stories with the questions as a guide, writing or drawing their responses in their theology journal.

Allow ten minutes for this exercise.