Religion is all about the mystery of our life
Since we are entering the realm of religion, it may be useful to remind ourselves how traditional religions functioned. What were these religions really about?
They tried to answer fundamental questions that still confront each person in our world:
•Who am I?
•Where do I come from?
•Why am I here?
•What is the meaning of my life?
•What am I really worth?
•Why do I need to suffer?
•How can I find fulfilment and happiness?
Traditional religions provided answers by placing us, human beings, within a wider, spiritual context. Everyday happenings made sense because they were part of a `universe’ of value and meaning.
Traditional religions in their various forms taught that everything that exists has been made by a God (or the gods). We have been created for a specific purpose. Our ultimate happiness lies in fulfilling our potential and conforming to the rights and duties enshrined in our nature. Friendship with God (or the gods) guarantees life beyond the grave; whether in re-incarnation, nirvana or heaven. Egyptian religion may serve as an example.
‘Hail to you, Amon-Râ,
Lord of the thrones of the two countries
of Upper and Lower Egypt,
Eldest of heaven,
Firstborn of earth,
Lord of what is, present in all things,
Master of truth
and father of the gods and goddesses,
Who made human kind and created the animals,
Who created fruit trees, grass and cattle,
Who made what is below and what is above,
Hail to you!’
The hymn is found engraved on a statue of the Thirteenth Dynasty (1775 BC) and on a papyrus that dates from the Eighteenth Dynasty (1550-1350 BC). See: J.B.PRITCHARD, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1955, pp. 365-367 (I quote only excerpts; the hymn is 106 lines long).
Though many of the expressions are foreign to us, we have no difficulty entering into the religious contents of the prayer. We are attracted to it; and yet there are elements in Egyptian religion that worry and disturb us. The Egyptians attributed everything that happens in nature to divine powers. Their gods and goddesses were a strange lot.
•Toth, god of intelligence, depicted as an ibis; patron of artists, scribes and judges.
•Ptah, the craftsman god, who resided in Memphis. He designed the shape of creatures at creation.
•Isis, the `great goddess’, depicted as a cow or as a mother suckling a child; source of fertility and life.
There were twenty other prominent gods and goddesses. And even granted that there was a slow transition to belief in one supreme God, the god Amon-Râ, people’s lives were in reality dominated by hundreds of superstitions. There was the constant anxiety of trying to placate this or that divine power, to protect oneself by incantations, sacrifices and plain magic.
Religion for our time
Ancient religions, like the one practised by the Egyptians, cannot satisfy us any longer for two principal reasons: they rest on a world view which has been overtaken by our new scientific understanding; and they make people the slaves of fears and superstitions.
Traditional religions gave expression to the religious dimension of life. They were also right in trying to give people a framework that fitted the needs of the time. But they were a human, often all too human, attempt to formulate answers.
We, too, in our own day need a religious perspective, but we need one that is suited for our time. I for one am convinced that Christianity, if properly understood, does provide just such a perspective. But I also recognise that there are many historically dated and human aspects in all religious traditions, including in Christianity, which will simply not do for our situation today.
Video on the meaning of religion
The following 30-minute video is PART ONE of the film Journey to the Centre of Love. [Click adverts out of the way.]
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
The video clip is from Journey to the Centre of Love (scriptwriter & executive producer John Wijngaards) which was awarded the GRAND PRIX by the Tenth International Catholic Film Festival held in Warsaw (18-23 May 1995). It also received the prestigious Chris Award at the International Film Festival, Columbus Ohio, in 1997.