Thursday, September 25, 2014

What is the Point of Religion?

The essence of an image consists in the fact that it represents something… with the fact that it goes beyond itself… thus the image of God means, first of all, that the human being cannot be closed in on himself. If he attempts this he betrays himself. To be the image of God implies relationality. It is the dynamic that sets the human being in motion toward the totally Other. Hence it means the capacity for relationship; it is the human capacity for God.

Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning

Reflection – ‘What is the point of religion, anyway?’ In a novel I read on my holidays, one of the characters, completely steeped in secular values and irreligious, asked this perfectly reasonable question. What is the purpose of prayer in human life, of religious observance, of turning towards God?

It is an important question – one might argue that it is the question the world poses to the Church right now. What are we bringing to the table? We have to avoid, it seems to me, giving answers that are utilitarian in nature. Religion helps us to be more peaceful… or helps us to work for social justice… or makes us more generous… or creates a more stable society…

All of these may be true to greater or lesser degrees, but none of these is the ‘point’ of religion. Prayer, and hence God, are not tools we use to achieve some greater purpose, some end of our own. This quote from Ratzinger gives us the real answer. The real answer to the question, hard as this may be to present to a thoroughly secular person, is that the point of God is that God is the point of everything.

We are not religious people because we hope to gain some other good from being religious—having our prayers answered so that we get what we want, or some variation on that. We are religious people because we believe that the purpose of creation is to enter into relationship with God.

Really the question is not ‘what is the point of religion?’ The question is ‘what is the point of anything?’ Life can be about professional success… but why bother with that? Life can be about happy family relationships… but why bother with that? Life can be about cramming in as much pleasure as we can into each moment (YOLO!)… but why bother with that?

At each twist and turn of trying to find some ultimate meaning and purpose to life, we are always confronted with human finitude, with the inevitability of death and the insufficiency of strictly human goods to genuinely satisfy us. What is the point of anything, really, unless everything is pointing us beyond the human and the finite and the mortal?

Once we open the door to that other reality, to God and to faith and to prayer, then everything becomes charged with meaning—our work, our loves, our families, our pleasures all become taken up in a world of meaning that is not doomed to the futility of the grave.

The point of religion, of faith, is that it gives a sure and solid and indestructible meaning to everything else in life, and without this meaning, everything else is really very fragile. It is quite a mysterious affair—it is only when we allow for the invisible, the unprovable, that which no eye has seen and no ear has heard, that which seems to be so insubstantial and fleeting, that all the things that are near at hand, obvious, plain, become fully solid and real with a lasting meaning and purpose.

Secularism has turned its back on the invisible and indemonstrable matters of God and the spirit in favor of what can be proven and known to the senses. Ironically, we find ourselves in a world devoid of lasting value or purpose, a world of brute matter and physical forces, a world where there is no meaning save what our frail and feeble humanity can impose on it for a short span of years.

Faith allows for this one element of impenetrable mystery—God!—and so the whole universe becomes charged with crystalline purpose and goodness, all the brute matter echoes like a resonating glass vibrating with the music of the angels, and all of humanity becomes the great priesthood of the cosmos, offering praise and worship to the Creator and so enacting that which is the utter fulfillment of all creation, the utter fulfillment of our own human destiny and vocation, the absolute and final and endless point of all that is.

And that is the point of religion.