What is religion?
There is an unbreakable link between our concept of God, our view of ourselves, and how we act in creation. This is because human beings are integral beings and religious by nature. There have been numerous attempts to account for human religious sensibility.
Modernist philosophy tried to account for the religious nature of man in terms of the contrast between man and the cosmos he inhabits – an immense realm inspiring him with awe and fear. ‘Religions,’ they claim, developed as a defense mechanism in which many unseen forces were posited and then ritually placated as a way of trying to gain some kind of control. This is a typically secular account of religion that implies modern technological man has outgrown such things. However, the ongoing prevalence of all kinds of beliefs about the world in our own culture undermines this simplistic account.
It is notoriously difficult to define religion to the satisfaction of everyone. The Latin words religio and religare probably take us to its root meanings of “reverence” (religio), and “to tie, to bind” (religare). The core idea here is a basic and fundamental tie that binds people together to get them growing in the same direction – an agricultural metaphor. Put another way, religion concerns the spiritual root of existence constituting the ground of unity for human life and society.
Biblically speaking, human beings are restless creatures because we somehow transcend the world in which we exist – what C.S. Lewis, through the devil Screwtape called “spiritual amphibians.” Though we are surely created for this world, living as creatures in temporal reality, we are made for fellowship with the eternal God, and so we find that eternity is in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). It is for this reason St. Augustine famously prayed to God, “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.” So, from a Christian standpoint, humans are essentially and inescapably religious beings because of the relationship we each sustain to God our creator.
Religion is therefore much more than the practice of this or that faith. Various faiths (the ‘world religions’ as they are called) are the cultic expression of religious convictions, but religion itself is an all-encompassing reality that may or may not be connected to cultic rites and liturgy. From the biblical standpoint, all of life is religion as we either worship and serve the living God in all aspects of life, or, because of the fall of man, are turned toward the worship of some aspect of creation (Romans 1); the honor of surrogate gods, which Scripture calls idolatry.
This idolatry may well take on an ideological character where one or more aspects of creation are absolutized and made the root of all meaning and the foundation of all explanations. For example, in ideologies like communism the community is absolutized; in rationalism the mind; in individualism the individual; in romanticism the feeling aspect of life; in economism the economical aspect of creation; in Darwinism the biotic; in materialism the physical aspect and so forth. The many -ism’s in Western thought are the surrogate gods of the modern world. In its broadest sense then, religion – be it faithful or rebellious – is man’s answer to God’s Word; it is our varied response as creatures to our Creator.
Although the provenance of the term religion implies tying and binding together, unity is not the first thing people tend to think of when religion is discussed in our time. In fact, the ‘ties that bind’ have in many ways been severed in modern culture. In the Western world, after the Reformation, and following the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a sense of religious unity in Christendom was increasingly broken at the societal level. Partly in view of these divisions, a solution to this problem was seized upon during the so-called Enlightenment. It was during this period that a supposedly religiously neutral secular state was born which invoked a public-private, secular-sacred separation of life in the name of achieving unity and tolerance for civil society.
Of course, based on what we have noted about the true character of religion, it is impossible for anyone who exercises office in political and civic life to be free from religious conviction – both in terms of their posture toward God and in terms of what they believe is true or false concerning reality; for example, what is the meaning and purpose of life, or what should be promoted and enforced as good, right and just in society? All such ideas about the world are shaped by acknowledged or unacknowledged religious presuppositions – in other words by a worldview.
However, the religiously motivated move of artificially creating a strict sacred-secular, private-public divide (which simply does not match up with social reality), meant that secularism essentially replaced Christianity as the new public religion of the West, the new religion of state, and the ostensible glue of Western society. By affirming religious relativism (all ‘faiths’ are equal), whilst declaring itself non-religious, secularism brilliantly enthroned itself as the ultimate religious principle. Our culture thus invokes a false dualism that is meant to separate faith from the affairs of secular society, but which is in fact designed only to deprivilege Christianity and protect the religious assumptions of secularism.
Flowing out of the Enlightenment then, the Christian teaching regarding God as the giver of law, the source of truth and meaning for all of life in every aspect, has been replaced by the idea of an ever-expanding autonomy for human affairs.
At the same time, we see ‘spirituality’ everywhere in Western society today, in the form of eastern religious practices. The difference is that these religions flourish, as far as Western people are concerned, within the rubric of the assumptions of a religious secularism. Which is to say, they flourish within a secular interpretation of the nature of things (religious relativism) which has opened up the space for them to be promoted and widely practiced. This new context is what distinguishes todays pagan secularism, from the paganism of the past.
Remember also that most non-Christian religion is essentially a form of atheism because they do not posit an infinite personal God who is stationed outside the cosmos and who governs history – what Peter Jones has memorably termed Twoism. As a consequence, eastern religions do not present a challenge to the secular claim of human autonomy – indeed they simply reinforce it.
True Religion: The Truth and Hope of the Gospel
The question that remains for us is how can we respond to the lie of pagan secularism? As Van Houten has argued, “modern society is increasingly displaying the characteristics of the oldest religion that has existed, namely paganism. It appears in the guise of secularism.”
First, it is important to note that we should not say we are a post-Christian people. We cannot fully undo the profound changes that the influence of the gospel has had upon the West, so our secular paganism is different from our pre-Christian paganism. What we can say is that we are increasingly non-Christian.
That said, there is no doubt that today’s pagan secularism is a severe crisis for Western Christianity because of its overt rejection of the gospel, making its present condition worse than the former.
Secularism’s invasion of the church in the form of rationalistic modernism decimated the mainline churches as revelation was required to submit to man’s ‘reason.’ In its post-modern outfit it is now found deep inside the walls of contemporary evangelicalism where the authority of Scripture, the doctrine of God and creation, and the scriptural view of human identity and sexuality are under serious assault. And, in the face of what appears to be the colossus of a growing neo-pagan secular state religion, we are confronted with the grave temptation to various forms of escapism and to a despairing pessimism about the Christian gospel and our life in the world. What are we to do?
The first critical thing we must do is resolutely reject the relativism of secularism based on its denial of the truth in Christ. Secular relativism is obviously self-refuting because it clearly has absolute intent – to control the whole playing field. We must expose secularism’s self-deception and confront our culture with biblical truth.
The scriptures affirm three critical and foundational realities that confront all people: 1. The Triune God 2. His Creation 3. His law-Word – the ordinances which give direction to the totality of created reality and cannot be finally overturned by man’s self-creating illusions.
In this biblical view creation IS MEANING because it is totally dependent, at all times and in every part, on the powerful Word of God which governs it and relates each part to every other aspect in terms of his design and purpose. As such, no resting point, no final explanation, can be found in creation itself. In part and in whole the cosmos points us back to God as the creator. Consequently, life is meaning-full, because creation is meaning.
By contrast, the gods of secular man are impersonal things, aspects of creation itself, which are elevated and exaggerated as though they can replace God as the source of all explanation and ground of meaning (i.e. materialism, subjectivism). This always distorts reality and destroys meaning by reducing one aspect of a dependent creation to another. When man elevates himself and his thought to the status of god – as a self-created law-giver – he lives a lie and is constantly confronted with the absurdity and meaninglessness to which his claim reduces him. As such secular man’s rejection of God’s law is self-refuting and must be exposed.
Whenever man makes an idol he begins to resemble the idol he has given his heart to. He then creates social structures in terms of what he thinks a human being should look like after the image of his counterfeit god. We must affirm that Christ is the image of the invisible God, and that we are being conformed to his image.
By affirming religious relativism, whilst declaring itself non-religious, secularism brilliantly enthroned itself as the ultimate religious principle. The biblical term for this is Idolatry.