Monday, September 6, 2010

Church, Religion, and Faith

As a springboard for discussion, my church had the following in the order of service:

We call ourselves the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu. Church implies religion. Are we a religion? Religion implies faith. What roles do faith and religion play in the lives of Unitarians? Reflect on these questions.

Having been urged to reflect to on the questions, I instead found my questioning the assumptions. Do these things really imply each other? Says who, and why? What do these words even mean?

We use the words "church", "religion", and "faith" and react to them without knowing their history and deep meaning. We are the inheritors of several wisdom traditions that use these words. But if we don't know what was meant by these words, we can find ourselves arguing about current definitions that have been divorced from tradition. When we do this, we are then re-inventing all of philosophy and religion with each generation. We are like listeners to a traveler who describes the animal he saw that looked like a camel with spots like a leopard, when we don't even know what a camel or a leopard are. So we spend our time talking about camels and leopards, and never do get around to picturing a giraffe.

Part of our tradition, as exemplified by Michael Servetus and William Ellery Channing, is to consider the original meaning of words and reach conclusions based on that analysis. So let us consider these three words.

"Church" comes from Greek through German, a combination of the word for Lord (kyrios) and place: hence, the Lord's house - very Jewish and Christian sounding. But one step before that, kyrios comes from kyros: power. So "church" comes from works meaning "a place of power." Now it's pretty broad - in those terms, it could even be used in a Pagan tradition. But what does it mean to us? What is the power in our church? Do we claim our power? Do we run away from it? Taking a question from Jesus, do we hide our lamp under a basket?

"Religion" is from the Latin religare, "to fasten, to bind fast", as in "a bond between humans and gods." This is the same root as the word "rely". It did not take on the meaning of "a particular system of beliefs" until the 1300s. So the assertion in opening, "religion implies faith" has been definitional since then. But it evokes a different image if we think of a religion as something that binds us together, something that we rely on. How does our religion bind use? On what do we rely?

Finally, "faith" is from the Latin fides, the root word of fidelity. This is the sense of faithful or loyal. It did not formerly mean the modern usage of "belief with no proof." The geyser named "Old Faithful" is named after its dependability, not because the geyser believes in something. When Paul writes "now abide these three, faith, hope, and charity", the word in the Greek translated as "faith" means "trust", not "belief." What do we trust? To what are we loyal?

So bring it back to the original questions. I originally found the questions full of hidden assumptions. But after my etymological detour, the set of words are much more intriguing. We are the First Unitarian Church of Honolulu - a church, a place of power. But that power is not inherent in the name, or the physical place. If there are no people to claim that power, it disappears. As Jesus said, "you are the salt of the earth - but if the salt has become tasteless, it is thrown out and trampled under foot." It is only a place of power because of our members, our practices, and our mission. It gets its power from our reliance on one another, our reliance on our inheritance of wisdom from the past, our trust in each other, and our faithfulness to our mission.