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02/19/2010

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Patrick S. O'Donnell

While some conception of "faith" (very broadly construed) is found in most of the major religious traditions, it is not found in all of them, nor does it play the prominent role it does in Christianity. In other words, and for example, it would be misleading to refer to, say, a Jewish or Buddhist charitable organization as "faith-based." I know, the retort will be that "we all know what it means, how harmful can that be," etc., but it's simply not true that we know what it means outside of Christianity, even if we resort to the notion of faith to get a foothold on a similar or related concept in a non-Christian or non-theistic tradition. I think it would be better were government officials, as well as the rest of us, to simply refer to the above as "religious organizations." It's certainly more accurate and encompassing. (This is one of those examples where a term from one tradition is privileged when comparing or referencing features from another tradition and is therefore arguably an instance of 'cultural imperialism.')

Steve Shiffrin

Patrick, I agree that religious organizations is a better term to use than faith-based for your reasons (and because it accents the potential Establishment Clause difficulties in a stronger way). I certainly see the difficulty with Buddhist organizations. Applying the term faith-based to a Buddhist organization I think, as you say, can fairly be described as imperial. I would be interested in hearing why you think it is misleading to describe a Jewish organization as faith-based because I do not yet see it.

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Steve,

One might look at how Jewish rabbis and scholars describe and discuss their tradition to outsiders. My research has convinced me that the notion of faith does not play a comparable role. Yes, there is, for example, the idea of faith in God, but beyond that, the emphasis on "laws," scriptural exegesis, ritual praxis, and ethics come to the fore in a manner that does not accord to the notion of faith anything comparable to its role in Christianity.

In Islam, the term īmān could be said in some respects close to if not identical in meaning to "faith" in some quarters of Christianity, but yet again its meanings in this tradition have in addition other important connotations and, generally, faith as such is not placed in the same functional role in the theology and praxis of Islam as it is in Christianity (given the importance of reason, its meaning is close to the natural theology tradition of Catholicism, understandable given Aquinas's debts to Islamic theology and philosophy).

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Steve,

I might have said that I believe, and anecdotal evidence from teaching many students over the years who are avowed Christians further "confirms" the belief, that Christians (present party excluded) often read back into the Jewish tradition features of their own spirituality owing to the fact that their tradition emerged, as one Jewish sect (of which there were a motley), out of Judaism. It's difficult, for example, to get many students to speak of the Hebrew Bible (Torah, Prophets and Writings: TANAKH) rather than the "Old Testament" when discussing Judaism. Many students gasp when I stress how Jesus was born, lived, and died a Jew! When I explain the Jewish meaning of messiah or the "annointed one" students with some knowledge of Christianity often seem surprised if not perplexed. Our habit of referring to the "Judeo-Christian" tradition only serves to reinforce such things. For our purposes here I'm stressing differences and discontinuity but I would not hesitate, in class for example, to emphasize the many points of continuity between the two traditions as well.

That said, and although this is not a subject to which I've given much thought, I'm in agreement with the substantive conclusion of your post.

Steve Shiffrin

Patrick, again not disputing the notion that the term religious organization is far superior to faith-based organization, I wonder whether the differences concerning faith within Christianity are as profound as the differences between Christianity and Judaism. I am thinking, foe example, that liberal Christian theologians might be far closer to Judaism regarding faith than they are to Calvin, Luther, or modern evangelicals.
As to your Christian students, I think that has to be typical. The studies I am aware of indicate that Americans know next to nothing outside their own religious tradition and precious little about their own. I recall being shocked when reading about the high percentage of American who can not name Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in this largely Christian country.
Steve

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