|Being Religious in the Twenty-first
Before we can adequately start exploring
the manifestation of religion in the twenty-first century we have to be
clear about what it means to be religious. There is an increasing number
of people in secularised societies like New Zealand who not only say they
are not religious but who also firmly believe that all religion is
becoming as obsolete as the view that the earth is flat. As they see it,
we are moving into a non-religious era.
On their view of religion they are probably right. By religion they
are referring to belief in a personal God, in prayer as appeal to
supposed supernatural forces, in life after death and so on. These have
certainly been the traditional Christian religion. But they do not apply
to all forms of religion. Non-theistic Buddhism is an obvious example.
So what counts as religion? Can there possibly be some form of
religion consistent with today's non-supernatural understanding of
reality? When does religion become superstition? The answers to these
questions all depend on how we define religion. Much discussion about
religion turns out to be a question of semantics. So we need to avoid a
merely verbal debate.
It is only since the advent of the modern world, say about four
hundred years ago, that the problem of what constitutes religion has
emerged. W. Cantwell Smith, in his seminal book The Meaning and End
of Religion, has shown that the popular use of the noun "religion"
as an objective noun to refer to a specific set of beliefs and practices
is a quite modern usage.
For example, the word was never used in the plural, as we do today
when we talk about "the religions of the world". Smith urged us to stop
talking about "religions" and to fasten attention rather on the capacity
of people to be religious.
But what is it to be religious? Derived as it is from the Latin,
"religion" did not originally refer to a thing, such as any particular
set of doctrines, but to the attitude of devotion. Religio, and
hence "religion", basically meant devoutness or commitment, "a
conscientious concern for what really matters". It was not a concrete
noun naming a thing but an abstract noun referring to a state of being -
the state of being religious .
To be religious, therefore, is to be devoted, devout, whole-hearted,
zealous. That is why we talk about religious zeal.
But zealous for what? Albert Einstein, who was not himself religious
in any traditional sense at all, said:
To be religious is to have found an answer to the question of what
is the meaning of life.
The theologian Paul Tillich defined religion as
� the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern
which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself
contains the answer to the question of the meaning of life.
The culture of every known human society has had a religious
dimension. That is because every human culture is a coherent structure,
unified and held together by its own shared understanding of the world
and its own particular set of answers to the quest for meaning. An
Italian scholar defined religion as a total mode of the interpreting and
living of life.
To be religious within the context of any culture, therefore, is to
be devoted to whatever it is which is believed to matter most in life.
What matters most to us depends on how we view reality and how we
interpret life. All that in turn depends on the culture which has shaped
us and how we have subsequently come to interpret our experience in the
light of that cultural conditioning. There can be no religion outside of
human culture. There is no culture-free religion.
But neither can there be a human culture with any depth which does
not have a religious dimension. As Paul Tillich so rightly said,
"Morality, culture, and religion interpenetrate one another".
Religion and culture are so closely interwoven, however, that it is
easy to identify religion with the specific beliefs and common knowledge
which give unity to that culture. Then one fails to see that, in any
culture, the state of being religious has to do, not with the chief
concepts in that culture, but with the attitudes of awe and devotion
shown towards them. To illustrate this I wish first to go back to the
oldest cultures we know something about.
These are the polytheistic, ethnic cultures in which the most
pressing concerns were very basic and were largely the same as those we
humans share with the other animals: the need for air, drink, food,
shelter, survival and the regeneration of the species. Built into each
individual animal of every species are the instincts to survive and to
procreate, and on these the survival of the species depends.
From such basic needs and animal instincts our primitive human
ancestors started. Out of the primitive drive to survive there
eventually evolved the search for meaning and purpose or what we may
call the religious quest. This was only after humans had created
language, for we need language to express any quest for meaning.
Let us take the pre-European Maori culture as an example. The world
as the Maori conceived it was described by means of a cycle of myths.
(the earth mother) and Rangi (the sky father) emerged out of the
womb of the primeval night in a very close embrace. It was the gods whom
they recreated between them who forced them to separate and thus allow
the light to enter the world between the sky and the earth. The leader
of the gods was Tane, the deity of the forests and birds.
This primeval event of creation is still reflected, as the Maori see
it, in the falling rain and the rising morning mists. They represent,
respectively, the weeping of Rangi and Papa over their
enforced separation from each other.
The Maori interpreted the phenomena of nature in terms of the gods.
The reality and power of each was manifested in the area of nature under
his control. As we look back to the birth of the gods of nature in
ancient times, from a cultural context which has long abandoned
primitive polytheism, we too-readily assume that belief in the Maori
gods constituted the heart of Maori religion.
We fail to appreciate that the "gods", conceived by human imagination
to explain natural phenomena, were just as much the substance of Maori
"science" as of Maori religion. By science I mean the common body of
knowledge assumed without question by the Maori people as being
self-evidently true and beyond dispute.
Interestingly enough the Maori account of origins even told how the
gods were created. This may be interpreted as an unintended and
unconscious acknowledgement that the gods were the creation of the
storyteller - not just the storyteller but of a long, evolving tradition
Thus the Maori gods, and the myths which described their origin and
function, constituted the substance of Maori cultural knowledge or
"science". I have even heard Maori refer to it as Maori science. To the
Maori these were the self-evident truths about reality.
Being religious within this cultural context had to do, not with the
cultural beliefs as such, but with the care and devotion which they
showed towards the substance of their cultural knowledge by
participating in all the behavioural patterns which made up Maori
culture. Showing due respect to one's ancestors, acknowledging mana
where one found it, observing the tapu, sharing in the tangi,
were all just as much manifestations of religious devotion as showing
respect to Tane and the other gods of nature.
Thus permeating all the stories and rituals was the religious
dimension which provided the Maori with a sense of what life was about
in the world as they understood it. In the pre-European Maori culture,
as in all ancient cultures, there was no way to separate the primitive
equivalents of what we call religion and science. They formed an
I have taken the example of the pre-European Maori culture as an
example not only because we are in touch with that in New Zealand but
because the Maori people have been forced within the short space of two
hundred years to come to terms with a process of cultural change which
much of the rest of world has been experiencing over a very much longer
Throughout the land mass of Asia this process began with the Axial
Period some two and half thousand years ago when the polytheistic ethnic
cultures were challenged and superseded by the cultures we know by
religious names - Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, Confucian. Time allows
me merely to mention them by name and to point out briefly that, at that
transition, much that had previously been believed and practised came to
be discarded and replaced by new ideas and new patterns of behaviour.
In New Zealand all this has been telescoped. First the Europeans
brought Christian culture. The Maori were challenged to abandon their
view of reality, abandon their ancestral gods of nature and become
subservient to the God and father of Jesus Christ, the saviour of all
They were beginning to make the change with remarkable rapidity until
they began to realise that the incoming Christians did not always
practise what they preached.
There were several reasons for this failure but one which is often
overlooked is this. Hard on the heels of the invasion by Europeans came
a further wave of cultural change which was only then emerging in Europe
- a wave which was to bring the modern secular world into being. So
radical has been this change that the culture of sixteenth century
Europe was still somewhat closer to Maori culture than either is to
today's rapidly spreading secular culture.
Until the seventeenth-century our European forbears had believed
themselves surrounded by a whole host of invisible spiritual powers on
whom human destiny was thought to depend. The names of these powers
differed in Maori culture from those in European culture but the
invisible spiritual worlds were comparable. Even when, in the ancient
world, polytheism had been replaced by monotheism, first for Judaism and
then for Christianity and Islam, much of the former view of the world
was retained, exemplified in the phrase "Our Father in heaven", a
remnant of the former sky-god.
There was also a host of spiritual beings populating the invisible
world in both earth and sky. Paul had spoken very clearly about them as
"principalities and powers, rulers of darkness, spiritual hosts of
wickedness as there were also angels and archangels in the heavenly
In addition to these (which were taken very seriously by theologians
and thinking people because they were named in the Bible) there were
also, in the popular view of the world, elves and fairies, hobgoblins
and demons. All this was in addition to the devil and his demons in hell
and the angels and saints in heaven.
In the last three hundred years there has been a radical cultural
change in the Western world as we have been moving step by step from one
kind of culture to another. The elves, fairies and hobgoblins were the
first to go. From the late nineteenth-century the reality of the devil
and his demons began to be questioned and later to be abandoned.
During the twentieth-century the objective reality of God has come to
be questioned more widely. God is certainly no longer conceived as
spatially living in the sky as in the ancient and mediaeval view of the
universe. God has been completely replaced by the vast space-time
continuum of modern physics.
For an increasing number of people in modern times the whole
spiritual world on which our forebears focused their attention has
largely collapsed. It has been replaced by a complex physical universe
of unimaginable dimensions of space and time, stretching from sub-atomic
particles to distant nebulae.
Our forbears in the pre-modern age spoke of spiritual forces in a
variety of forms - gods and spirits, elves and fairies, angels and
devils. These were conceived as the basic realities which explained the
phenomena and events of their world.
By contrast we talk about physical energy in a great variety of forms
- electrons and quarks, gravity and the nuclear forces, DNA and
chromosomes, immune systems and amino acids, neurones and synapses. For
us these are the basic components of reality with which to
explain the nature of the world, the phenomenon of life within it, and
even how we human organisms think through our brains.
This does not mean, as too many have concluded, that our forbears
lived in an illusory world which they, in their ignorance, had created,
whereas we live in the real world because we have now discovered the
truth. It is not nearly as simple as that. Both sets of terms are the
creation of the human mind. Even though we feel we have very good reason
to prefer one set to the other, it is important to acknowledge that both
sets of terms have been humanly constructed and neither can claim
absoluteness or finality.
Each set of terms constitutes a conceptual language with which we
interpret and structure the world of which we are a part. When we create
a new way of talking about the world it is as if we are creating a new
An astrophysicist called Bruce Gregory wrote a book about it entitled
Inventing Reality. He put it very simply in a little anecdote
which serves as a parable:
Three umpires were discussing their role in the American game of
baseball where it was their task to judge the pitching of the ball.
The first said, "I calls 'em the way I see 'em". The second said, "I
calls 'em the way they are". The third said, "Until I calls 'em there
ain't yet nothin'". The game does not exist uncreated. The rules shape
the game. The umpires interpret the rules and, in doing so, they
create the score.
Although we may be said to experience reality through the senses
there is no way of our knowing with our minds what reality is like
except through language. We create the language and it remains the grid
or lens through which we see what we see and which always colours and
characterises what we see.
It has perhaps been quantum physics more than anything else which has
caused us to realise this about our scientific construction of the
In studying what goes on inside the atom, whether we find particles
or waves depends on what we decide to look for. What we count as fact is
finally determined by the language and methods we use and not wholly by
As Einstein said, "It is the theory which decides what we can
In the cultural change from the pre-modern world to the modern world
which I have been briefly describing, we have left behind one conceptual
language with which to describe and interpret reality, and replaced it
with a new conceptual language. The new language is not a final language
- but it is preferable to the former one in that it has more explanatory
power and is able to predict the future better. Sometimes scientists
refer to their explanations as models. If a model has good explanatory
power and enables the scientist to predict when conducting an
experiment, then there is confidence in the model.
When the model fails it is discarded and replaced by another. What
has been happening in the radical cultural shift into the modern world
is that we have been discarding as no longer workable the model which
has been used, and used with some success, for more than two thousand
years. We have been replacing it with a new model.
It is misleading, however, to interpret this cultural change as the
discarding of the religious model in favour of a non-religious one. In
discarding the gods and spirits of the old model it is not so much
religion we are discarding as the now outmoded "science" of the past.
The gods were all part of the primitive science of the ancient world.
Superstition may be defined as treating with religious devotion an
earlier concept which has survived after the dissolution of the
"thought-world" to which it belonged. To continue in the new cultural
context to use these old concepts to explain nature is to engage in
Much religious belief and practice which has survived into the modern
world is to be judged superstition from the standpoint of the world most
of us see ourselves now living in. As we are still in the process of
moving from one culture to another, some still live happily in the old
world-view, provided they stay within its restricted horizons. For them,
it is not superstition but genuine religion.
Let us now turn to the world which we have constructed with our new
language and concepts, and then explore what it means to be religious in
It has been changing out of all recognition during the last three
hundred years from that which our ancestors saw themselves living in.
The world we actually live in is confined to planet earth, but we now
see it to be only the tiniest speck in a vast universe. About the rest
of the universe we know extremely little. Whether there is life anywhere
else we have no idea and we may never know.
Life on this planet has apparently evolved over some three billion
years. Our human species emerged out of a myriad of evolving living
species, but only very recently, relative to the story of the earth, and
more by accident than by any design. There is no obvious purpose why we
have evolved or even why there should be any life at all on this planet,
since none of our planetary neighbours show any signs of life. Human
existence is a mystery for which there is no obvious reason.
We humans find it unsettling to find we have come into being
apparently by accident. It makes us feel insecure. Because we are
conscious of doing things for a purpose we jump to the conclusion that
the phenomena and events we observe in nature also reflect purpose and
result from decisions consciously made. Even in these secular times we
sometimes catch ourselves saying, as we look out of the window in the
morning, "The sun has decided to shine today!".
To the ancients it seemed self-evident that personal wills lay behind
every event in nature. That is how they came, unconsciously, to create
their gods. Today we can say they were unconsciously projecting
themselves on to the nature they observed. Our human ancestors allotted
roles and responsibilities to the spirits and gods whom they
imaginatively created. This was not merely to explain natural phenomena
but to discern some reason or purpose behind it all.
Interestingly enough, the fact that they thought of these gods as
often capricious and unpredictable in their behaviour is an indication
that they acknowledged that many things seemed to happen by chance. Thus
the gods did more than just structure their world and provide
explanatory value. They also provided for the ancients the first
elements of meaning and purpose for their lives. This was further
enhanced when, at the Axial Period in the Middle East, monotheism
evolved out of the preceding polytheism.
That transition is clearly documented in the Old Testament. A radical
shift took place in the use of language. The gods of ancient times were
mercilessly laughed out of court by the Israelite prophets; they said
the gods of the nations had no more substance than a puff of smoke.
In spite of all that, however, the Israelites retained the word "god"
but gave it a new meaning. The God of Israel not only replaced the gods
of nature but was conceived to be a different order. This God had
neither beginning nor end. This God was never to be visualised or
portrayed visibly. This God was in the process of becoming the religious
symbol par excellence. This God was not only the explanation - what
scientists today call "the theory of everything" - but was also the key
to the ultimate meaning of human existence.
The transformation of god-language from being the names of gods of
nature to a symbol of meaning was thus begun but not completed at the
Axial Period. In spite of the prohibition against making graven images
of God, Christian monotheism continued to make mental images of God and
went on to construct a whole new world around this still objective God.
This invisible spiritual world became increasingly important, for it
provided meaning for human existence in the visible world of space and
time. So convincing was the verbal description of that world of meaning
that it began to be treated as having a reality of its own in a way
which made the physical world dispensable.
Eventually that proved to be more than it could bear. The other-world
of traditional Christianity began to collapse. Indeed the whole world of
spirit inherited in the West from very ancient times has been slowly
fading into non-existence. First went the elves, fairies and hobgoblins.
Then went the devil with his demons. Then the angels and saints in
heaven. And, more recently, even the objective reality of God as a
Since God was already said to be spirit, not even God could escape
the dissolution of the spiritual world as an objective reality. The very
idea of an objective personal god, contained in the word "God", is the
last remnant of the primitive science of ancient humankind. It survives
minimally but only like the grin of the disappearing Cheshire cat in
The reason why it has survived as long as it has is that, in
replacing one conceptual language by another, there is one aspect of the
former language which has not been provided for in the new language of
electrons and gluons, DNA and amino acids.
The new language with which we have replaced the old has much better
explanatory power with respect to the physical world but it can do
nothing to provide us with any sense of ultimate purpose or meaning. We
have to do that for ourselves. The ancients did it for themselves but
they did it unconsciously. We have consciously to create meaning.
To do this we may still find it helpful to retain the God-symbol.
Just as the term was retained at the Axial Period but used differently,
we stand at a point in the evolution of human culture where we may take
God-talk to its logical conclusion as the symbol of ultimate meaning.
As the theologian Gordon Kaufmann has pointed out, the God-symbol has
already in the past served as "an ultimate point of reference":
The symbol of God claims to represent to us a focus for orientation
which will bring true fulfilment and meaning to human life. It sums
up, unifies and represents in a personification what are taken to be
the highest and most indispensable human ideals and values.
The content we put into the God-symbol is over to us. What our
ancient forbears did unconsciously, we now have to do for ourselves
quite aware that we are doing it. This is basically what it means to
be religious in the world of the future - first to enunciate the content
to be put into the word "God", and then to worship that God by the lives
In other words, to be religious in the world of the future is to
create meaning for ourselves by responding to all that ultimately
concerns in the context in which we live.
What is that context?
Let us now look more specifically at our current living conditions.
We are living through a period of accelerating change - social change,
cultural change, technological change. We are enjoying technological
inventions and a material standard of living which not even our
grandparents thought possible.
But we are also receiving some alarming signs from the earth. They
are early warning signals of a living earth which is beginning to feel
the pressure of the machinations of the human species it has brought
forth. They are the equivalent in today�s global world of the prophetic
warnings from an angry God in the kind of world in which both Jeremiah
and the early Christians lived.
There is the human population explosion, which is now expanding
exponentially and threatening to outstrip our capacity, to ensure
that all are provided with even the basics for existence.
Massive human demands made on the earth are leading to the rapid
exhaustion of the earth's non-renewable resources.
Accelerating pollution is threatening human access to air and
water, the two most basic commodities on which human existence
By destroying the rain-forests and (unintentionally) increasing
the deserts, we humans are interfering with the delicate ecological
balance of interdependent forces on which planetary life has
We are depleting the ozone layer which protects us from the
harmful effects of the sun's radiation, and increasing the amount of
carbon dioxide in the air, resulting in changing climatic conditions
and global warming.
Our growing interdependence on one another in the global village
has a complexity which also makes the global economy exceedingly
fragile. One bad move, or even a chance event, can turn order into
Increasing competition among individuals, classes, cultures,
corporations and nations, coupled with the quite unequal use of the
earth's limited resources, is building up explosive tensions which
may cause the human species to self-destruct.
If we humans do not take note of these inter-related issues and
change our ways quickly to respond, we too shall go the way of the
dinosaurs and all the other earthly species which have now become
Never have the warnings of Jeremiah been so literally apt :
I have seen what the earth is coming to,
and Lo! It is as formless and empty as when it began.
I looked and there is not a human to be found,
and all the birds of the sky have fled.
I looked and the garden-land has become a desert
and all its cities are in ruins. (Jeremiah 4.23ff)
Being religious in the 21st century is a matter of being ultimately
concerned with all of these urgent issues, of becoming clearer as to who
we are, where we are and where we choose to go. Until we allow awareness
of these things to change our scale of values and redirect our economic
planning, we remain morally and spiritually inferior to primitive
humankind in spite of our urban sophistication and spiritual
Some steps towards re-sacralising the earth have already been made.
We have even taken the concept of "sanctuary" out of the church
building and given it back to the earth, as in bird sanctuaries, fish
sanctuaries and so on. The ecosphere is itself becoming the God "in whom
we live and move and have our being", to use Paul' s words.
Indeed, the care of mother earth, and all which that involves, is to
a large extent replacing the former sense of obedience to the heavenly
It will take all the collective will we humans can amass to halt our
exploiting, polluting and destructive way of life and, of our own free
choice, turn our collective energy into avenues which respect the earth,
preserve life and promote harmony in the ecosphere.
Arnold Toynbee, in Mankind and Mother Earth, the last book he
wrote before his death, said:
Within the last two centuries, Man has increased his material power
to a degree at which he has become a menace to the biosphere's
survival; but he has not increased his spiritual potentiality. The gap
has consequently been widening. An increase in Man's spiritual
potentiality is now the only conceivable change in the constitution of
the biosphere that can insure the biosphere and Man himself, against
Toynbee was convinced that the present threat to humankind's survival
can be removed only by a revolutionary change of heart in individual
human beings, and that only religion can generate the willpower needed
for such a task - that is, understanding religion to be the human
being's necessary response to the challenge of mysteriousness of the
phenomena that he encounters in virtue of his uniquely human faculty of
Similarly the American historian Lynn White, who tended to blame
traditional Christianity for the ecological problems we have created,
nevertheless believes that it is only religion, and not science, which
will provide the answer to the ecological crisis. The crisis will
continue, he says,
... until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one ... Since
the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must
also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.
For such a religion we need to draw in part on the cultures and
languages of the past. In the evolution of culture there may be crises
and radical changes, but there are never complete breaks.
Of course in the new global context the Christian tradition is not
the only one involved in meeting the challenge. We in the West are not
in a position to prescribe or even suggest how they should respond. Our
responsibility is to see how we can respond out of the post-Christian
First, acknowledging that it is already a post-Christian West, we
must discard some concepts and beliefs of orthodox Christianity
altogether. Let me point to some of the things which must be jettisoned:
Reliance on a priestly hierarchy.
The church as a monolithic and rigid ecclesiastical organisation.
The idolising of the Bible.
The idolising of Jesus of Nazareth as the divine and only saviour
of the world.
The making of absolute and exclusive claims about the Christian
Divine revelation as a source of knowledge.
The notion of God as an objective, though invisible, personal
Prayer understood as conversation with an external personal
Expectation of a personal existence after death.
Second, we must be prepared to create new terms and concepts, and new
rituals and patterns of social behaviour. There is no way at the present
in which we can say just what those may be. But we can observe that a
great variety of such things are already beginning to emerge. Only in
the last thirty years or so, have such terms as spirituality, culture,
eco-theology, our earth-mother, come into more common use.
Third, and most importantly, we must explore how certain concepts and
themes from the past may be used in radically new ways. We have already
noted how, at the Axial Period, the concept of "god" was retained but
given a new meaning.
Now is the time to take that process a stage further. After all we
still use such words as fairies, angels, devils and gods but we now use
these terms symbolically and poetically and not as the names of
objective realities in the universe. If we still speak of God in the
21st century it will not be as the name of an objective spiritual being.
It will symbolise the meaning we are attempting to create, the values we
find attractive and compelling and the goals to which we aspire.
I am often surprised by the degree to which this is happening
already. From the New Testament itself we have long learned to say that
"God is love". Mahatma Gandhi taught us to say that "God is truth".
To this we can readily add that "God is life". God is all that we
value. All that is of lasting worth to us is, in fact, our God. That is
why we can readily speak of the "God within us" just as much as the "God
out there" - the God we encounter in our neighbour, the God we encounter
in all living creatures, the God we encounter in the mystery of the
In other words the God-symbol, if we still choose to use it in the
twenty-first century, will refer to the sum-total of those things which
will concern us most and which call forth from us the same gamut of
emotions of awe, wonder, gratitude and obligation as they did in the
past when our forbears had a different view of reality and used a
different conceptual language.
To worship God in the 21st century is to stand in awe of this
self-evolving universe of which we are a part and which is so vast in
space and time that our tiny minds cannot cope with it.
As the feminist theologian Sallie McFague has well said, "The
universe is the body of God".
To worship God in the 21st century is to
- marvel at the living ecosphere of life on this planet of which we
are the product and on which we depend for our existence and
continuing sustenance. Life on this planet is itself the manifestation
of God and we are all part of the living God;
- be grateful to the successive generations of our human ancestors
who have slowly evolved the various forms of human culture which have
enabled us to become the kind of human beings we are;
- value everything with which we are endowed as human beings, our
capacity to think and to be engaged in the quest for what is true and
meaningful, our capacity to feel, to love and be loved, to show
compassion and selfless sacrifice;
- accept in a responsible and self-sacrificing fashion the burden of
responsibility now being laid upon us for the future of our species
and for the protection of all planetary life.
To be religious in the 21st century is to be devoted to maximising
the future for all those whose destiny is increasingly in our hands. It
is to value even more than ever the importance of the human
relationships which bind us together into social groups. Because we
humans are social creatures we are dependent on one another for being
what we are, for the way we think, for the understanding and practice of
There will be no one way of being religious and no one language for
expressing it. There will not be one exclusively religious
macro-organisation but rather a whole host of relatively small social
groups, in which the members are bonded to one another on a purely
personal basis. These groups must learn to be inclusive, being not only
ready to accept any one wishing to join but also loosely linked with
There will be no one form of religious ritual but a great variety of
rituals and devotional practices, mostly drawn from our diverse cultural
past but adapted to the new situation. Indeed we shall find that, even
after discarding much of our own past cultural tradition, there is also
much of it which will suddenly light up with new meaning and relevance.
Understanding the God symbol in the way I have sketched, for example,
I have no difficulty to affirming the answer to the first question of
the Westminster Shorter Catechism, so beloved by past Presbyterians:
What is the chief end of humankind? The chief end of humankind is
to glorify God and to enjoy God for ever.
[A slightly edited version of a public address at the
Gathering in Christchurch New Zealand, Easter, 1998 taken from the
 Cantwell Smith traces the meaning of the term
through the years as Christianity became the dominant religious force in
the Roman Empire. He shows how it changed from reference to the
statutory duty of a Roman citizen to observe rituals, into a term which
was used to separate Christians from the rest, a distinction between
Christianity as vera religio (true religion) and all other
religions as falsa religio (false religion). Augustine of Hippo's
book De Vera Religione ("On Genuine Worship") addresses the
Church as the right means for genuine worship - which, writes Smith, is
a "personal confrontation with the splendour and love of God". For
Augustine, the Church exists to make this potentially perfect
relationship possible, a concept which later changed into the
traditional Christian teaching that "... one religion [Christian] is
true, others false - a major turning point in the history of man." In
the Medieval Church, however, the term was seldom used - except to
designate monks and nuns from laypeople (hence the "religious" orders of
today). And because philosophy is the pursuit of truth, and truth is
synonymous with God, therefore philosophy and religion are essentially
the same. In contrast, the modern way is to differentiate between the
secular system ("concerning this world") and the religious system
(concerning things ultimate or "of God"). So people now talk of the
world as a whole containing a number of religions, including
Christianity. Each religion is a system of ideas and beliefs. Smith
writes: "For the religion is
the doctrine: that virtually is what the word now means." Religions
together comprise the generic term "religion" - the overarching system
of all religions (systems of ideas and beliefs) which is now
increasingly opposed by the "secular" scheme of things.