Abrahamic faiths - term referring to Judaism,
Christianity and Islam designed to emphasize elements the three
faiths have in common.
Agnostic - person who believes there is not
enough evidence for or against the existence of God to support a
definite stand on the issue.
Anti-Semitism - prejudice against Jews.
Atheist - person who believes s/he knows there
is no God.
Bible study- usually means individual or group
study of the Bible for purposes of religious edification as opposed
to the scholarly or academic study of the Bible.
Buddhism - Buddhism is a religion based on the
teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in roughly the
5th century BCE (before common era, or BC, "before
Christ") in what is now Nepal and northeastern India. He came to be
called "the Buddha," which means "awakened one," after he
experienced a profound realization of the nature of life, death and
Calling - Synonym of "vocation" (see
Catholic - with a small "c," any Christian who
identifies with the teachings of the ancient church (first four
centuries) and regards these teachings as normative; with a capital
"C," a Christian in communion with the bishop of Rome (aka the
Charismatic - Christian who claims to receive,
or to have received, particular spiritual gifts from God (e.g.,
ecstatic prayer, prophetic foresight, healing powers, many
Christ - from Greek Christos translating Hebrew
Mashiach, "the Anointed One," i.e., the messianic king of Israel,
or "Messiah." This name acknowledges the belief that Jesus is
Christianity- organized belief in the
messiah-ship of Joshua of Nazareth (Jesus).
Clergy - less precise term than one might
think, as the rules for clerical status vary in world
religions. Birth may be the decisive factor, or ritual
ordination, or specialized learning, or various combinations of
Communion - in catholic Christianity, sharing
in Eucharist (see below); by extension, the fellowship enjoyed by
members of a church or group of churches that share a common
Eucharist (e.g., Anglican Communion, Orthodox Communion, Roman
Catholic Communion). These churches recognize the sharing of
blessed bread and wine as a sacrament. They teach that the blessed
bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Jesus. For reformed
(protestant) Christians consuming bread and wine (or grape juice)
is symbolic of the body and blood of Jesus and of the sacrifice of
Denomination - term used in America since the
1920s to denote the various types of Protestantism. The types
are usually embodied in a national or at least trans-local
organization of some kind (e.g.,United Methodist Church, Episcopal
Church, United Church of Christ, Christian Church-Disciples of
Christ). Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians do not apply
the term to themselves, seeing it as a product of Protestant
Doctrine - a loose term indicating any sort of
"teaching" based on the Bible or promulgated by a church; in a more
restricted sense, Latin word for Greek "dogma" (see next
item). Outside Christianity, the term is often
contested. For example, many Jews deny that there is such a
thing as Jewish "doctrine" or "dogma." Hindus often say the
same thing about their
Dogma - in Christianity, a teaching of the
Bible or the Church on a matter fundamental to human salvation, as
opposed to "discipline," which has to do with less divine matters,
such as rules of conduct, church organization, social ethics, and
so on. Many liberal Christians (not all) and the purveyors of
Christianity-Lite usually relativize or expel historic Christian
dogma from their expressions of faith.
Eucharist - Greek word meaning "the
Thanksgiving"; refers to the ritual meal that is the focal point of
catholic Christian worship.
Evangelical - in its broadest sense, an
adjective meaning "of or pertaining to the Gospel." More
narrowly, refers to Protestant Christians who accept the Bible as
the ultimate religious authority and base their interpretation of
the Bible on a relative or absolute literalism.
Faith - translates Hebrew Emunah, Greek Pistis,
Arabicimān. Best English equivalent in many contexts is
"trust." Thanks in part to Protestant influence, faith has
come to mean existential trust in the mercy of God as opposed to
observance of ritual obligations. The word should not be used
to mean "belief in a proposition for which there is a low degree of
evidence," though such usage is extremely common in contemporary
religion (e.g., "I take it on faith that Jesus walked on
Fundamentalist - originally a term of
self-identification for a faction of American Protestants insisting
on the literal interpretation of the Bible. Nowadays used
widely and imprecisely to denote any contemporary religious
movement held to be irrational by those who call it
God - the ineffable One.
Grace - in a religious context, the mercy and
generosity of God.
Heretical - ancient Christian term meaning
"selective," i.e., detaching selected parts of Christian truth from
the whole and presenting them in an isolated, exaggerated or
distorted fashion. N.B. One has to be a Christian before one
can qualify as a heretic!
Hinduism - A diverse body of religion,
philosophy, and cultural practice native to and predominant in
India, characterized by a belief in reincarnation and a supreme
being of many forms and natures, by the view that opposing theories
are aspects of one eternal truth, and by a desire for liberation
from earthly evils.
Imam - any Muslim prayer leader.
Islam - in Arabic, "submission" or "surrender,"
from the roots meaning "peace" (cf.,salām, Hebrew shalom), hence,
"peace-making." The name is used already in the Qur'an to
denote the religion preached by Muhammad. Sunni and Shi'a are
two branches within Islam that have cultural roots in the Arabian
peninsula and historic Persian cultures, respectively.
Jesuit - a member of the Society of Jesus, a
Roman Catholic monastic missionary and teaching order founded in
the 16th century by the Spaniard Ignatius Loyola.
Jesus - Joshua, son of Miriam, of Nazareth.
Jewish - literally, "Judahite"; pertains to the
descendants (via the maternal line) of the people of Judah who
preserved their religious identity despite the destruction of the
Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC. Since the pluralization of Jewish
religious life in the 19th century, the term has sometimes been
divisive, as it is today between Jews of the worldwide Diaspora and
the Orthodox Jewish religious establishment in the State of
Jihad- Literally this word means struggle in
Arabic. Within Islam it is often used to describe the physical and
emotional/spiritual struggles human beings face and how the
teachings of Islam frame the work of struggle. In militant or
fundamentalist Islamic circles the word has been used to describe a
Judeo-Christian tradition - precursor to
"Abrahamic faiths" emphasizing common elements of Judaism and
Christianity. Term acquired a bad odor after
multiculturalists and particularists of various sorts protested its
"erasure" of the distinctiveness of each religion.
Liturgy - classical Greek word meaning "the
people's work" and referring to public ceremonies of various
kinds. In Christianity it came to mean the formal worship of
the church, in particular the Eucharistic service.
Lord - Word used to translate the Hebrew divine
name Yahwehin most modern English Bibles (alternative translation
in some older English Bibles-"Jehovah"). In Christianity the
term is also applied to the risen and glorified Messiah ("Lord
Mainline churches- term of recent provenance
referring to American Protestant denominations that feature forms
of worship based on classical Reformation models and that require
higher education of their clergy, as opposed to populist,
do-it-yourself or charismatic churches. The original Mainline
denominations in America were the Congregationalists, the
Presbyterians and the Episcopalians, though the term usually covers
Methodists, Disciples of Christ and a few Baptists as well.
The hegemony of the Mainline in American Protestantism has been
terminated in recent decades by Evangelical, charismatic
(Pentecostal) and non-denominational community
Messianic Jew - strictly speaking a redundancy,
since Judaism is a messianic faith. Term usually refers to a
"Jew for Jesus," i.e., a person who is or regards him/herself a Jew
while at the same time confessing a belief that Jesus is God, which
is foundational to Christian faith.
Minister - in Protestantism, an ordained
preacher of the word of God and administrator of baptism and
Eucharist. The term "minister" was chosen to stress
Protestant rejection of a "priestly" clergy.
Minister - See "Imam."
Ministry - originally, what a minister did; now
sometimes used loosely to denote any devoted, long-term activism
expressing a person's faith (e.g., "lay ministry").
Missionary - an emissary for his or her faith,
usually in a context where it is not widely shared.
Mission trip- refers to a wide variety of trips
sponsored by religious fellowships with some expression of their
faith in mind. The activities involved are as different as
handing out Bibles on the street and swinging a hammer for
Non-denominational - A term in contemporary
Christian circles to describe congregations that do not affiliate
with a denomination or historical church body. These are
congregations that, for example, are NOT Episcopalian, Lutheran,
Presbyterian, Catholic, etc. Their clergy and memberships have
great local autonomy.
Orthodox - ancient Christian term meaning "in
conformity with 'right doctrine' or 'right worship.'
Pentecostal - denominational term denoting a
variety of Protestant charismatic movements arising in American
Protestantism beginning in the first decade of the 20th
century. Glossolalia ("speaking in tongues") is only one of
many gifts of the Holy Spirit which Pentecostals claim and
cultivate. Pentecostalism is now a global phenomenon, the
fastest growing type of Christianity in the world, especially in
the global South. It is arguably American civilization's most
successful religious export-the "jazz" of the Protestant missionary
Prayer - a person's way of drawing near
Priest - Christian elder (Greek presbyteros =
presbyter = priest) charged with administration of baptism,
Eucharist and other sacraments of the church.
Priest - See "Imam."
Proselytizing - from "proselytos," proselyte,
an ancient Greek word meaning "one who has come near"; used first
in pre-Christian Greek-speaking Judaism to indicate persons who had
converted or were in the process of converting to Judaism.
Nowadays, the word usually implies the use of force or other unfair
means of persuasion by missionaries or other religious
advocates. How would YOU distinguish between "proselytizing"
and faith-sharing activity or mission work?
Protestant - any Christian whose primary
ecclesiastical identity derives from the Reformation of the
16th-17th centuries. Term is occasionally rejected by
Anglicans (in America, Episcopalians) because it suggests they are
not catholic Christians. For example, the Episcopal Church in
the United States changed its name some three decades ago. It
used to call itself the Protestant Episcopal
Quran - literally, "recitation" (oral
performance); the holy book of the Muslims; for Muslims, the
perfect Word of God.
Rabbi - in Hebrew, "teacher." An expert
scholar of the Jewish Law charged with judicial and teaching
functions in the Jewish community.
Rabbi -see "Iman"
Religion- see "Faith."
Religion - Latin word from root meaning "tie"
or "connect," hence any organized means of connecting human beings
to the divine and to each other in or through the
Sabbath - strictly speaking, the seventh and
last day of the Jewish week, designated as a day of rest and
governed by a variety of ritual requirements. The extension
of the concept to Christian Sunday or Muslim Friday should be
discouraged because it obscures fundamental differences in
religious conceptuality. In many European languages the
proper distinction is maintained, e.g., Spanish sabado for
Saturday,domingo for Sunday. Domingo means "the Lord's (Day),"
i.e., the first day of the Jewish week, the day of the
Resurrection, from Latin dominicum (dominus =
Salvation - literally, "being made healthy,
being healed." In Christian theology, standing in a right
relationship to God, one's neighbors and the cosmos.
Scripture - literally, "writing(s)," usually
denoting sacred writings of one kind or another. Term can
have a precise or loose reference depending on how a given
religious tradition organizes and defines its scriptures.
Secular - medieval Latin term meaning
"pertaining to the saeculum," i.e., to the time at hand, this age
or this world as opposed to the other world, the world to
come. Nowadays the word is also used loosely to describe an
attitude of indifference (or suspicion or hostility) toward
religiously grounded values and beliefs.
Seminary - lit., "seed bed"; used
metaphorically of an educational institution. Today it almost
always refers to a graduate theological school, but this was not
always the case, e.g., Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (original name
of Mount Holyoke College). The fact that theological
seminaries explicitly identify themselves as "theological" shows
that "seminary" once had a wider meaning.
Sin - alienation from God, neighbor and
Spirituality - historically and strictly, a
term indicating the self-conscious, disciplined pursuit of
spiritual gifts, almost always closely associated with
asceticism. In modern liberal civilization, a socially
acceptable way of talking about faith in contexts where historic
religious beliefs and affiliations have become problematic for one
reason or another. In these contexts, spirituality is not
usually associated with asceticism.
Spirituality - see "Faith."
Theology - contrary to popular belief, this is
neither a biblical word nor a Christian coinage, but a neologism
introduced by Plato (Republic, Book Ten), who has one of his
characters ask, "What types of discourse about the divine should we
have in our [ideal] city?" The term was applied to Christian
discourse about the divine early in the history of the church, the
early church being predominantly Greek-speaking.
Torah - Hebrew word meaning "teaching" (N.B. a
broader concept than "law," as it is usually translated), referring
to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Five Books of Moses,
Trinity - in catholic Christianity, the inner
life of God. God is understood as having a trans-logical,
dynamically personal character, which in turn is the foundation of
personhood in human beings.
Unorthodox - modern term referring to
non-conformity of one kind or another in some context or
other. The ancient Christian antonym of "orthodox" was not
"unorthodox" but "heterodox," meaning" thinking or worshiping in
Vocation - A calling, a way of life or
work life that is infused with a sense of purpose and a desire to
contribute to the well-being of others or of something beyond one's
Wicca - A polytheistic Neo-Pagan nature-based
religion inspired by various pre-Christian western European
beliefs, whose central deity is a mother goddess.
Witnessing - in early Christianity, publicly
professing one's faith in Jesus in the face of punishment or
death. The Greek word for "a witness" was "martys," whence
"martyr." In more peaceful times, witnessing refers to
professing one's faith in public, though usually with the
implication of vulnerability to prejudice, censure, hostility,
Worship - "worth-ship," i.e., showing reverence
for, acknowledging the "worth" of, someone or something.