What is Religion?

Micah 6:8.---' What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?

What is the meaning of the word? There are two definitions, each emphasizing a different aspect of the same thing. Cicero preferred the meaning "to think back," to think over again, to reflect on the meaning of life, to recollect---meditation on Divine things. Others, among them St Augustine, like best to define it as meaning "to rebind," to tie together, that which unites man to God and to His fellows. One thought runs through both definitions, the idea of a thread on which things are strung, a tie by which life is held together. Recent studies seem to arrive at the same view. More and more, religion is regarded not as one instinct among man, not as a separate faculty or interest having a character of its own, but rather a unity of all interests---an organizing principle among the values of life.

Religion, then, is the tie that binds us, first of all, to God who unites all things into one whole; and, secondly, to our fellow-men in the service of duty and the fellowship of things immortal. If we speak of religious value at all we think of it as the value of values---that which organizes life, giving it unity, purpose, meaning, as over against an impulsive and unreflective existence. Truth, love, and that thread of all-sustaining beauty that runs through all and does all unite, this is the eternal trinity; and in the deepest faith of humanity these three are one. From earliest time man has felt the tug of this threefold tie which unites him with God, his fellow, and himself, linking his little life with the eternal enterprise.

There are many imperfect ideas about religion. Some place it in the understanding, in orthodox notions and opinions, and all the account they can give of their religion is that they belong to this or the other of the sects into which Christendom is unhappily divided. Others place it in outward rites and duties. If they live peaceably with their neighbors, observe the returns of worship, and occasionally extend their hands to the relief of the poor, they think they have sufficiently acquitted themselves. Others, again, put all religion in the affections, in rapturous heats and ecstatic devotion; and all they aim at is to pray with passion, and think of heaven with pleasure. But St James in the New Testament, like Micah in the Old, tells us what religion is in its simplest motive and manifestation. 'Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and the widow in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world.' It is not this dogma or that rite, but justice, mercy, humility, and fellowship with God whose Presence inspires and hallows our mortal life. It is benevolence and purity in the sight of God---visiting those in need and keeping ourselves pure in the light of Eternity. Philanthropy, without faith, is fervish and fragile. Fraternity quickly evaporates unless it has the inspiration and consecration of the Unseen. Acts must have motives. Results require causes. We cannot produce a poem by an explosion is a printing factory. Nor can we have an abiding brotherhood among men, much less a noble and fruitful social order, without a subduing and exalting sense of a Divine Presence---a vast and benign background to life where our motives and acts derive their dignity, meaning and worth.

True religion is the union of the soul with God, a real participation of the Divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul; or, in the Apostle's phrase, it is Christ formed within us. Briefly, I know not how the nature of religion can be more fully expressed than by calling it a Divine Life---the life of God in the soul of man.

Jesus never once used the word 'religion,' so far as we have record---perhaps because in His day, the word was so empty, formal and external---but uses always the word 'life' instead. He came, He said, that men might have life, and have it more abundantly---life rich, free, sparkling, overflowing, eternal. With Him whatever makes for a deeper, purer, truer, more radiant life is religious; whatever dwarfs, retards, or pollutes life is irreligious. With Him religion did not consist in a few acts, such as prayer, worship, and solemn ritual word, but in the spirit, the faith, the motive and gesture with which we do everything; and today we are rediscovering His insight. For the first time men are learning that religion is no mystery or social convention, but a power by which to live the day through more deeply, more bravely, more fruitfully. All things have become religious that have in them the hope of joy and growth; all days are holy which abound in usefulness; all tasks are sacred which bring opportunity and fellowship; and all things are from God which draw men together in good-will and promote justice and beauty in the earth. Today we see that religion, so far from limiting and spoiling life, shakes the poison out of all our wild flowers, and reveals God in our motives and acts here on earth in every moment of time. Religion is no longer a thing apart from life; it is life itself at its best---the life of God in the soul of man, taking all the forms that love and duty and hope can take. It is 'the love of God, the union of the spirit of man with holiness, the constant endeavor to do the best and bear the worst.' Religion is the doing of all good, and for its sake the suffering of all evil. For we must suffer evil. Then formal faith, traditional creed, mere ritual will break down under the pressure of hard experience. Unless we have learned the love of God, and have attained, in some degree, to the might of holiness, it will go ill with us in our hours of difficulty and trial.

It is a risk, an adventure, and the measure of our courage is the measure of our discovery. If man acted only on what he knew, no one would stir from the spot. But we do stir. We launch ourselves confidently in all sorts of enterprise. Otherwise, we should never cross a bridge, take a bus, or make a friend. Full as life is of the element of adventure, men are not abashed by it, save in the highest matters. Literally, we live by faith every day, and it cannot be unwise to trust the highest we can think or dream. It is the kind of a world we should like to help build---that is what an honest man means today by following Christ.

Man is a citizen of two worlds. How often we may have heard the expression "one world at a time," and that would be wise if it were possible. But it is not, for he cannot live in one at a time without ceasing to be a man. Above us, within us, on all sides, are hints and intimations of a higher, finer world, and religion is the art of living in two worlds at the same time, both of them equally real and each the fulfillment of the other. Men seem to be, seek to be, dwellers in one world, but they never quite succeed. Voices keep calling us from afar, which stir us beyond words.

Today we are much under the spell of a materialism which, if it has its way, will repatriate us out of our immortality. Absorbed in the world that now is, obsessed by it, other-worldliness is taboo, and those who seek to know the Land of the Spirit are called mystics. But that mood will pass. Never, since he became a being "with face to heaven upturned," has man been able to feel entirely at home upon the earth. Busy himself as he may, seeking out many inventions, there are times when the solid earth is touched with eerie strangeness, and he is aware that he is a pilgrim. The old home-sickness of soul returns, and he pauses to look away into the heavens. Were it otherwise, we should be as the beasts that perish unvisited by 'thoughts that wander through eternity.'

But religion, so inward and intimate, is not altogether an individual adventure---it is social, communal. In spite of its history as a separating force, at bottom, religion is the tie, the thread, that binds humanity together in fellowship and fraternal righteousness. Religion is the primitive thing in humanity. Social thinkers are beginning to see that there is something deeper than economics with which we must reckon. The earliest religious rites were social, not merely utilitarian, but idealistic. They were of two kinds, imitating the processes of Nature, and celebrating the events of family and tribal life---birth, marriage, death. They were communal---nobody tried to observe them alone. If ever we find the secret of creative social evolution it will be in a deeper insight into the nature of religion as the only enduring social bond, the inspiration of all high thought, all great art, all prophetic social engineering. Such is the deeper insight of our day, and it foretells changes in thought, method, and enterprise. Men are coming to see that religion, so far from being a restraining and conserving influence, is also creative, and the inspiration and prophecy of a Divine Society. No brotherhood built on the baseness of human nature can long endure. It is a rope of sand. Jesus lived and wrought in the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven---the vision of the communal redemption of humanity here upon earth; and if we are His disciples we shall watch and work and pray for the realization of the dream, the wondrous dream.

In Christ, timothy. maranatha