Many people view religion as a distraction from real life. Religious acts are useless and religious institutions are a waste of human resources. Increasingly, younger people are dropping out of church attendance and adopting a private spirituality or becoming completely secular. What can we say to this movement? What is the meaning of Christian religious practice?
First, we need to observe that the idea that religion is useless and a distraction from real life presupposes a view of the divine and divine’s relationship to human beings that supports this view of religion. In ancient religion the gods demanded sacrifice and honor from human beings. They rewarded their favorites and punished offenders. Given this belief system, religious acts and institutions could hardly be called useless and distracting from real life! Modern religious drop outs of post-Christian, post-denominational culture no longer believe in God at all or no longer believe God desires the attention of human beings or some similar thought. In any case, they cannot see a rationale for traditional, Christian religious practice.
In the previous post, I defined religion as “human action and affection directed primarily toward God.” We examined the Christian understanding of basic human affection toward God, that is, love for God. When we come to see in the self-giving of Jesus Christ how much God loves us, we cannot help but love God in return. And when we see that God is the best, most beautiful, and truest reality, we cannot help but desire to be with God and enjoy him. As we can clearly see, loving the God revealed in Jesus Christ makes perfect sense. But what about religious acts: baptism, listening to the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and praise? What about meeting together to perform these acts? What makes these things meaningful and useful?
Christianity rejects the ancient pagan view of religion. Christian religious acts are not designed to meet God’s needs. The Old Testament prophets and Paul in Acts 17 make that clear. They are not designed earn God’s favor or ward off his wrath. What then is their purpose?
The meaning of any action is revealed in its relationship to the goal to which it is directed. Acts become meaningless when we cannot see the goal at which they aim. Everyone understands that the more important the goal, the more valuable the means that helps us achieve that goal. Christian religious acts are the means by which we can achieve the goals of the Christian faith. What are those goals and how do Christian religious acts help us attain them?
As we noted in the previous essay, Christian religious acts must express our love for God or they are worthless (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). They do nothing to achieve the goal of the Christian way. In loving God, we admire his beautiful, loving character revealed in the self-giving of Jesus and we desire to participate in his goodness, beauty, and truth. In general, we want to be like what we admire and to enjoy what we desire. In loving God, our affections are directed toward becoming like him and participating in his eternal life, in its goodness, beauty, and truth. Jesus Christ reveals the true character of God and the true goal of human life; and Christian religious acts make sense only as means to this goal.
In one-time act of baptism, we imitate physically the self-giving of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and publicly declare our intention to imitate and become like Jesus, whom we love. In our repeated act of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of Jesus’ self-giving and we reaffirm our baptismal intention to be assimilated to Jesus’ sacrifice and his life. In listening to the Scriptures, we open ourselves to God’s word of grace, guidance, and judgment for the purpose of becoming like him.
When we praise God, we express our admiration for God’s character and our desire to enjoy his perfection. In praising God, we keep before our minds and hearts the truth that God himself is the goal of all human action. To possess and be possessed by God is the greatest of all goods. In the practice of communal and private prayer, we keep our minds focused on the reality of God’s presence and the truth of his grace.
And in meeting together to perform these acts we give and receive the strength, love, friendship, help, and kindness that the Spirit of God gives to each and all. The meeting itself is a means by which we are helped on our way toward the goal of becoming like God and enjoying him now and forever.
If the goal of human life to have as much pleasure, to gather as much wealth, to achieve as much professional success, or to garner as much fame as possible within this life, religious acts make no sense at all. They are useless and the institutions that support them are a waste of human resources. But if the goal of human life is to become like God in character and to enjoy his goodness, beauty, and truth forever, Christian religious acts are the most meaningful things we can do.