Do you feel religious? Growing up I never really felt like I was. We live in a time when people might answer, “No” … at least it seems like people increasingly don’t view themselves as religious in traditional terms. Do you?
I guess your answer would depend on how you define “religion.” Does religion only deal in the realm of fairytales and superstition, stained glass and ritual? Or is there more to it? When I was a child, I wasn’t really able to make the connection between all of those things and something deeper. That was until I had a spiritual awakening of sorts in my teenage years. At that time, God became much more real to me. Yet it has still taken me years to see exactly how much he is at work in the world, even in terrible places. In theory, the point of religion (at least the organized kind) is to bring God near. The gold leaf of iconography, for example, is meant to communicate that the riches of heaven are in our midst. Sometimes, however, the same organization which is intended to emphasize God’s relevance can cause us to miss it. And when the things we do begin to cloud the things to which they point, our religion becomes empty and it loses its usefulness.
What about you? Would you define yourself as a religious person? I tend to think that those who would answer “no” just don’t fully understand what true religion is and that there are many ways in which all people are very religious without knowing it. It might sound a little weird but the truth is we are religious because it’s part of our chemistry, our biology or our “science,” if you know what I mean. This is true even if you’ve never found much intrigue in the topic of faith. And yet, even though I am interested, I’m certainly not the model for how a human being should think and believe. We both are, you and me, because we are both people. And what I’m saying here is that we are all religious … no matter who we are or in what situations we might find ourselves. We all have a passion or a HEART that bends toward God and here are five ways in which you, me and everyone else are far more religious than we think we are.
1. HEARING: You have the ability to hear. Well, probably. If you don’t, you understand the value of the things most of us take for granted every day. Hearing, sight and touch are examples of senses. They tell us (at least in part) that we are alive. The kind of senses that I’m talking about, though, are not of this world. They are not earthly in the sense that you can touch them. They are nonetheless very real and we all have them. Or rather, we all have “it.” What I’m talking about is the presence within our physical bodies of an immaterial soul. Sure, it’s not something you can prove empirically. But at the very least, the circumstantial evidence of our spiritual senses is all around us. I think you already believe this, but really entertain the thought for a moment: How many people go to church, temple, synagogue or mosque around the world at least once a year? How many people pray, at least occasionally? That’s right, almost everyone. And to be honest, I think people who say that they never pray probably aren’t being honest with themselves. We don’t have to look very far with our physical eyes to see that we (people) have spiritual eyes too. It’s true, we love a fresh cup of coffee and good sushi … the physical taste and smell of it. We do, on the other hand, have spiritual tastes as well … passions, desires, a drive on the inside of us that propels us towards a Creator, towards meaning, towards the fact that there is far more to life than that which we currently know and experience.
And there’s good news in that. Part of the good news is that you were made in God’s image and you have the ability to know him and to be his true child. Not the know-it-all kind (by this I mean the kind without questions or doubts). No. He’s called you to be the kind of child that is curious and has a desire to learn, learn about his creation and learn about him. That is what makes you, you. Your soul, your mind, your heart. That spiritual core is what drives you to go to church. It’s why you pray or go to funerals. Your heart tells you that loved ones are in a better place when they pass on. I also tend to think that our hearts tell there are better days ahead, even when we’re in dark places and we just want the old days, not better ones. Yet God is still going to give them to us because that’s who he is. And he speaks these things to us on the inside. So look for ways to enhance your religious nature, like I did. Be open to ways that faith can enhance what you do. Certainly it can because God himself is always speaking to you on the inside, where your true life resides.
2. ENJOYMENT: Enjoyment and religion are often perceived as enemies but it’s not true. They’re actually good friends. In reality, you can’t have one without the other. Not if you’re practicing true religion, that is. And I think we all do in many ways. Jesus himself said it many, many times. The Bible says it too, over, and over again. God’s life is true life. God’s life isn’t filled with death. Death was brought into the world to reconcile the fact that we missed the mark on God. But it’s not a permanent part. God’s life is filled with joy, and passions and creativity and culture. God’s great creation is teeming with all of these things. Can we conclude that God is any different than the amazing things that are all around us every day? Certainly not! Francis Schaeffer said, “Art is a reflection of God’s creativity.”[i] I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the things you enjoy as evidence that you are engaging in a religious activity of sorts, but those things should point you to God – not away from him.
Elsewhere it’s been said that mankind’s greatest fulfillment is to “glorify and enjoy God,”[ii] but certainly that doesn’t just mean through theology and religious practice. Instead, this opens the door for everything to become religious. Are you good at something? Do you love sports, or painting or business, or leading people? Do you want to help society, fix things or find a cure for cancer? You’re hobby, your passion and your career just might point to the fact that you are seeking to connect with a greater sense of purpose, something beyond yourself, maybe to connect with God himself. I know that in my life, my passions have lead me to a greater understanding of God’s presence in all things and I think the same will be true for you if you look for him in places you didn’t expect, in the things you know and love … in the things you enjoy every day. He’s right there in them with you!
3. ADORATION: We all have feelings of love for someone or something. Even if it’s yourself, you love something. Many contemporary sociologists have noticed this and point out that what makes us, us is that we are in fact moral, believing creatures.[iii] In other words, we are religious. We have faith in things, in people or, maybe, in God. Maybe you’ve said these words to someone, “I adore you!” Adoration or love is the most basic form of worship. In ancient languages, worship can literally mean to “bow down” or “pay homage” to someone. As living creatures, we all devote our time and energy to stuff.
So what do you love? Like I said, we all love something. That means we all worship something. In other words, we are all religious. Sometimes a person’s desires will lead them away from faith. Instead, I think it might be helpful to look at your core longings as evidence that there is more to you than meets the eye. No, you’re not a transformer. But the ordinary aspects of your life are definitely transformational, and maybe even transcendent. What I mean is they have the ability to take you outside of the ordinary into something more … that is if you’re open to it, to worship, to faith. The fact that you love one thing might mean that there’s some sort of ultimate fulfillment intended for your future when you direct your passions in worship to your Creator.
4. RESPONSIBILITY: I grew up an only child. And the older I get the more I realize how formative that was for me as a person. I’d even say it’s possible that this singular demographic was most responsible for nearly all of the pivotal decisions I’ve made in my life, whether good or bad. Some people think only children are annoying or selfish. Maybe that’s been the case with me at times, I’m not sure. But I do know that I’ve always felt an incredible drive to do something significant or to make my life count. I’ve pushed myself to extreme limits for that end. There are so many people that have far more than me. And at the end of the day I look at myself like a nobody. I’m not an only, just one in a multitude. Yet, I’ve felt so blessed through the course of my life. And I frequently feel compelled to give something back to God and to others. Maybe you’re like me or maybe you’re not, but before you dismiss what I’m saying about religion realize that you are probably a lot more like me than you realize and that humanity in general has just such an “only child complex” about itself that pushes it (and you) towards a vicarious responsibility in the world.
You’ve heard of Adam and Eve and you may or may not believe the story. If you believe in the explanations offered by contemporary science you may question the literal nature of the account. However, to just look at Genesis (or any other creation narrative for that matter) only through the eyes of empirical science (that which you can know through the senses) is to miss the point. I’m not saying that if you dismiss the story’s literal nature you’re in the wrong. You might be a better person than me. What I am saying is that the point of origins isn’t just to tell us how we exist but, more importantly, why we exist. In this regard, humanity knows it is special. It’s in our nature. We know we are different than the rest of the creation regardless of how we think we came to be in the first place. We have a sense of morality that the animals do not. We participate in charitable causes. Our religion tells us that we were made in the image of God and that we are his gardeners, his caretakers, his culture-making agents. My Christianity tells me that he (God) even sent his only Son as a sacrifice, righting humanity’s wrongs so that our mandate in the garden could be fulfilled. People feel this responsibility. It’s why they join social causes, participate in government, vote a certain way, serve at the soup kitchen or donate to charity. They, or rather “we,” are trying to bring about God’s shalom, his wholeness or his peace in the world little by little. They, you, me, we are far more religious than we think.
5. THOUGHTFULNESS: The best of religious writers are thoughtfully wrestling with meaning. In other words, they are thinking about God. This is true for philosophers, theologians and even for average people like you and me. After all, what speaks more of you as a person than your thoughts? Nothing. Your thoughts, more than anything, tell the rest of us who you are. It’s not your crooked nose, that weird birthmark or the fact that you are a little overweight. Sure those things can feed our sense of self in ways that are either helpful or harmful. But at the end of the day those things are just demographics. Who are you on the inside? It’s really who you are internally that works its way out, not the other way around. That’s what Jesus said. I think this sense of mindfulness towards self and God is something that all people have because, again, all people are religious.
You’ve heard the expression, “There are no atheists in a fox hole.” When push comes to shove people believe. They look outside of themselves for answers because they’ve come to the end of what they can do. I’ve talked to them. I’ve heard people (who say they don’t believe in God) tell me that they have prayed at some point in their lives during a moment of crisis. Have you? My gut tells me you think about God a lot more than you realize. You have to because you are wired that way. You were born. But you were also built. You, the rest of creation, and the laws of time and physics (which guide science) were engineered. Those things show us that our designer is real and he has a purpose for you. He has a path through which you can and will find happiness. That path is him. He was our beginning and he is our end. That’s why you think about the right thing to do in a situation or why you care about other people … well, maybe sometimes 🙂 The point is, these things are a form of prayer. They are ways of saying, “God, what should I do?” or “God please bless that person.” Our thoughts themselves are often religious in nature. We just don’t realize it because we think of religion as something that’s been relegated to fairytales and phony rituals. It’s not though. It’s part of you. And there might be no place where that is evident than in your thought life.
Religious faith is God’s gift: It has been said that faith is a gift. Yet I think it’s also true that we all have just the right amount of it. In other words, God gives each of us just what we need in order to find our own fulfillment. I’ve asked myself many times over the years, “Why do I do the things that I do? Why do I believe what I believe, or experience what I experience?” Maybe it’s just because of my individual psychology. Maybe it’s because of my upbringing or an inherent weakness (or strength) of some kind. Maybe it’s because I was too wrapped up in the narratives of my childhood, my culture, my family or my own misguided sense of uniqueness, or lack thereof. But even if I’m the product of all of those things, you are too. And this illustrates that we are the same. It illustrates our nature – the innate religious nature of all men and women. These things are part of your HEART, your core. And those characteristics point us to the fact that we search for God. We all long to see him at work in our midst and he is! He’s at work in our thoughts, our feelings, our relationships and our world in ways we can’t even imagine.
Faith Application: Earlier I mentioned my spiritual awakening as a teen. It happened for me as a read the Gospels – the accounts, teachings and life of Jesus that are contained in our Bible. One great place a lot of people have found inspiration to guide their faith is in the Sermon on the Mount contained in Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 5-7). There, Jesus talked about an array of topics, like God’s kingdom, social justice, religion, true morality, hypocrisy, law, faith and comfort for the brokenhearted. Maybe something there will create a spark in your heart. Give it a try. I read those words for the first time when I was a child and they still inspire me today. May God greatly bless you on your journey as he has done for me through all these years. All you have to do is follow the leading of your true self, your religious heart. It will move you to God and help you find great fulfillment in all of your pursuits!
[i] Francis Shaeffer, Francis. “The Battle for Our Culture: An Interview with Francis Schaeffer,” New Wine Magazine, volume 14, issue 2, February 1982.
[ii] Westminster Shorter Catechism Question and Answer #1
[iii] See Christian Smith, Moral, Believing Animals. Oxford University Press. New York, New York: 2003.