Our roots lie in mystery

We must return to our roots by recapturing what is mysterious and sacred



Space invaders from another galaxy landing on planet earth would in their study of human beings soon stumble on the phenomenon religion. In cities, towns and villages they would identify temples, churches, synagogues, mosques and shrines. They would observe religious festivals and rites. If they were thorough in their search, they would even discover that religion was found with all races of human beings from the earliest known history. Probably this would not surprise them. They would understand; for the odds are that our extra-terrestrials themselves would hold their own religious beliefs and practices.

It is sometimes said that human beings are `incurably religious’. This rather facetious statement hides an undeniable fact: the impressive, wide and all-pervasive influence of religion on human life. `All through human history and all through present-day societies, there appears some systematic reaching out to what is regarded as sacred’ (see: The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1986 edition, vol. 26, p. 569, 1b).

Even the onslaught of modern technology and secular living have not eradicated religion. In our world of urban conglomerates, offices, underground trains, television, computers and mobile telephones, much of our life has changed. We do new jobs. We have modernised our homes. We have acquired fresh tastes and eat different food. Health care, schools, politics and social awareness, all have undergone radical changes. But, apart from some pockets of people who are totally alienated from religion, belief in a meaning that goes beyond everyday life persists.

For what else is religion but a conviction, borne out by deeds, that there exists a dimension that reaches higher, further and deeper than we are normally aware of?

“There is more to human life than meets the eye.

More to oneself;

more to one’s neighbour;

more to the world that surrounds us.

There is more to the past out of which we come;

and especially, it would seem, more to the present moment, maybe even infinitely more.

There is more to the interrelationships that bind us together as persons.

And the further we probe as human beings, the deeper the mystery we find, or the reward, or the involvement.

It is this <“more<” that provides at least one of the bases for human religion.”

See: W.C.SMITH, The Meaning and End of Religion, New American Library, New York 1964; here in the Propaedia Volume of the New Encyclopedia Britannica, 1986, p. 299 1b.

We human beings have seldom been content to be “superficial”, to remain on the surface, to imagine that reality does not transcend our finite grasp; and throughout most of our history on this planet we have attempted to order our lives, both personal and cultural, in terms of that transcendence.

At the heart of religion lies belief in the Divine, in God. There have been wide variations in the way God has been conceived of and in the way he/she/it has been worshipped. But there is no doubt that the conviction that the Divine exists has inspired, and still inspires, thousands of millions of individuals all over the world. God is also the focus that unites countless religious groupings, making people share celebrations, institutions and value systems. Belief in God has driven some people to excesses, but it also has often brought out the best in people.

The highest, deepest and most comprehensive that human beings have been capable of has, more often than not, been motivated, nurtured and guided by openness to God.

Present-day belief in God

The European Values System Study of 1991 covered Western Europe. The figures show that 70% believe in God. 20% say they are not sure what to believe and only 10% deny the existence of God. The proportion of women who believe is slightly higher than men. Even among those who never go to Church (that is about half the population), 56% say they believe in God and 24% that occasionally they set aside time for prayer.

The figures for Britain vary only slightly from the European averages. See N.TIMMS, Family and Citizenship. Values in Contemporary Britain, Dartmouth, Aldershot 1992, pp. 67-78; S.ASHFORD and N.TIMMS, What Europe Thinks. A Study of Western European Values, Dartmouth, Aldershot 1992, pp. 33-47.

The question remains: what kind of God do people believe in?

If we combine information gleaned from many items in the survey, the following picture emerges. About half the population believe in a personal God, a God who can know and love, and to whom one can direct prayers. Note: when asked whether they believe in a `personal’ God, only 38% say Yes. However, the meaning of `personal’ is ambiguous. People’s true belief shows in the fact that 48% say they `pray to God’ outside of religious services (23.4% often; 24.7% sometimes.

Another two out of every ten consider God a Supreme Spirit or Life Force. Many of these people also pray, but their prayer is not directed to God, it takes the form of meditation or contemplation. The total proportion of people who say they take `moments of prayer, meditation or contemplation’ is 62%. Since God transcends all human concepts, different approaches are not mutually exclusive, anyway.

Obviously, the facts also reveal a great deal of confusion about God in people’s minds; and things may get worse. Since, in the West, religion is treated as a strictly private matter, the topic of God is often taboo, not only among friends, but even in families. Moreover, a thousand and one occupations tend to crowd thoughts about God from people’s minds: demands at school, pressures at work, TV, music, games, you-name-it.

It is striking that people with more opportunity to think, like farmers and housewives, score higher on personal prayer (66% and 75%), whereas the younger age group – between 18 and 24 years – score low on `praying to God’ (37%) or `taking moments of prayer or contemplation’ (51%). Is this because, in spite of having more leisure time, they fill it with distraction and noise?

Many people in our scientific age try to re-discover religion. This need not be a return to naive religious practices of one’s childhood, but a new personal conquest of deeper truth. The famous novelist Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) who lived in Russia just before the Communist era, is in many respects a pioneer for modern believers.

Return to the sacred

By any standard of reckoning Tolstoy was a highly successful man. He possessed a large estate. He had a happy family. His books had won him universal acclaim. And yet, he was deeply troubled by the meaning and purpose of life.

He tells us that he tried to find an answer from science. He was overwhelmed by factual information, without a reply to his real questions.

“I received an endless quantity of exact answers about what I did not ask: about the chemical composition of stars, about the movement of the sun towards the constellation of Hercules, about the origin of species and of human beings . . . but the answer to my question what the meaning of life was, was always: `You are what you call your life; you are a temporal, accidental conglomeration of particles. The interrelation, the change of these particles, produces in you that which you call life. Their congeries will last for some time; then the interaction of these particles will cease, and that which you call life and all your questions will come to an end.’

`What is the meaning of my life?’


`What will come of my life?’


`Why does everything that exists, exist, and why do I exist?’

`Because you exist’.”

L.TOLSTOY, My Confession, London 1905.>

Tolstoy goes on to say that like this he blundered on as a man who has lost his way in a forest. The only way out for him was to rediscover the central place of religion.

Tolstoy called this his `conversion’. He shaped his life by his new convictions. He started a school for peasant children. He abandoned smoking and drinking, became a vegetarian and adopted a simple life style. He took up the cause of the poor and promoted a philosophy of non-violence based on the Gospel.

In War and Peace, which has been called the greatest novel of the nineteenth century, Tolstoy works out the quest for meaning in many characters: in Prince Andrew Bolkonsky, in Andrew’s sister, Princess Marya, and in Pierre Bezuhov, the illegitimate son of a count who believed in equality, brotherhood and love, but who lost all confidence in state or Church institutions.

The hero in War and Peace is a simple peasant, Platon Karataev, who was pressed into army service on false charges of robbery. Like the majority of the uneducated masses, Platon was able to meet the challenges of life by his uncomplicated faith. `You must serve God and be good to your neighbour’, was his unpretentious creed. It was Platon who helped Pierre rediscover the meaning of life. As Tolstoy was to express in many of his writings, it was faith that showed him the way back to sanity.

“Faith is the power of life. If a man lives, he believes in something. If he did not believe that he ought to live for some purpose, he would not live. If he does not see and understand the flimsiness of what is finite, he believes in the finite; if he understands the flimsiness of the finite, he must believe in the infinite. Without faith one cannot live”.

L. TOLSTOY, My Confession, ibidem.

Our life on earth is shrouded in mystery. Questions like: Why do we exist? What do we live for? stare us in the face. Science cannot provide the answers to such ultimate questions. Religion can, at least to some extent.


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.

View the following film on the meaning of religion