DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Being Religious in the Twenty-first Century
Lloyd Geering


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 [1]. 

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. Papa (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 of story-telling.

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 indivisible whole.

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 period.

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 humankind. 

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 places".

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 world order. 

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 world.

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 reality itself. 

As Einstein said, "It is the theory which decides what we can observe'.

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 superstition.

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 that world. 

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 personal being.

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 Alice's Wonderland.

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 we live. 

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.

  1. 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.

  2. Massive human demands made on the earth are leading to the rapid exhaustion of the earth's non-renewable resources.

  3. Accelerating pollution is threatening human access to air and water, the two most basic commodities on which human existence depends.

  4. 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 hitherto depended.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 chaos.

  7. 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 extinct.

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 attainments.

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 father.

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 being destroyed.

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 consciousness.

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 West.

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 Gospel.

  • Divine revelation as a source of knowledge.

  • The notion of God as an objective, though invisible, personal being.

  • Prayer understood as conversation with an external personal deity.

  • 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 universe itself.

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 religion.

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 other groups.

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 Unitarian Universalist 
Gathering in Christchurch New Zealand, Easter, 1998 taken from the Anzua site]

[1] Cantwell Smith traces the meaning of the term religio 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.

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