Concepts that describe God vary from religion to religion. Some religions have multiple gods. Some religions don’t even include the concept of God in their dogma. The numerous and divergent God concepts — whether from organized religions or intuitive beliefs — when taken together, may lead one to conclude:
- That neither God nor gods exist; that they are merely a construct of human thinking, thus providing a variety of made-up religious explanations;
- That God and the spirit world is real, but unknowable to humans, making the various religions equally valid attempts to help deal with those spiritual mysteries; or
- That God is real and can be known because He has revealed Himself.
Of course, other conclusions may be reached, but for the most part they will be variations of these three primary assumptions.
You either believe God exists or you don’t. And if you don’t, then you probably criticize believers because they can’t scientifically prove God exists. The conclusion that God does not exist because it cannot be scientifically proven is as irrational as the idea of studying musicology in order to become a real estate appraiser. Science and scientific theory, being based on physical reality, is useless as a means to evaluate the supernatural.
Atheists generally lump religion together with superstitions, fantasies, fairy-tales, myths and legends. They see religious people as being mentally incompetent, either by ignorance or impairment. Therefore, the assumption that God or gods do not exist is antithetical to any reasonable discussion of faith, and I will not reference it further.
The second assumption, that all religions are equally valid, since God is “unknowable”, initially appears to be open-minded and big-hearted. It’s ecumenical. It believes in the brotherhood of Man. It believes we’re all children of God, even if we have divergent or even contradictory beliefs. If supernatural reality is unknowable, then the truth about God is unknowable, and anything you want to believe is O.K.
The consequence of this “We Are The World” philosophy is that it makes Truth relative. For if Truth cannot be known, yet all are free to believe as they please (each believing they believe in Truth and each expressing that “truth” differently) then Truth becomes relative. It is impossible for anyone to claim they believe in absolute Truth when what is true for you may not be true for me.
This “unknowable” assumption boils down to a sort of hypocritical tolerance of others who don’t believe in your particular version of the “truth”. Hypocritical, because if you really believe your religion is true, you will consider other religions false. But those who make this politically correct assumption avoid the intellectual dilemma of conflicting religious views (each claiming to represent the Truth) by being diplomatic. They say things like, “There are many ways to God.” or “No one has a monopoly on the Truth.”
The third assumption, that God is real and can be known, is the most contentious. It insists Truth is absolute, enabling believers to make statements such as, “I am right,” and, “You are wrong.” Such statements tend to annoy whoever rejects this assumption, and for that reason, the belief that God can be known because He has revealed Himself has been blamed for stirring up strife and even causing wars.
Those who make the third assumption conclude that if one agrees there is only one true God, then there can only be one true description of Him. Rather than considering the question of what do humans say about God, they ask, “What has God revealed to humans about himself?” What God has revealed to Man is the authority for their faith.
One true God, one true description of Him
If there is one true God, wouldn’t He be of one true nature, one true essence, one true character with one true purpose? How can there be one true God without there being one true description of Him? Why would one true God allow so many different religions to ascribe different characteristics to Him? Why would He want different things being said about Him, written about Him, taught about Him or believed about Him?
The “unknowable” assumption claims that each religion sees a part of the truth, like the blind men who each describe an elephant differently after examining different parts of the animal. This implies that if they all got together, so the story goes, they would know the whole truth. But this idea quickly proves faulty.
Certainly any worthwhile religion will have at least part of the truth, and there are some “universal” beliefs that many religions have in common. However, it remains that significant beliefs of one religion contradict those of other religions. The theological points of one religion can’t simply be grafted onto the belief system of another religion. No one but the most casual follower of any particular faith would be willing to mix and match or cut and paste their tenets of faith with those of other religions. Each religion wants to preserve its own dogma because it is part of how they see themselves. For religions, identity and tradition often trump truth.
Religion vs knowing God
At this point I need to clarify that I am not so much concerned about “religion”, per se, as I am about knowing Truth and knowing God. While a person’s desire to find God may lead him to become religious, a person’s desire to be religious doesn’t automatically guarantee he will find the one true God. Religion without knowing God is like constantly reaching out yet never taking hold, but knowing God makes religion the meaningful expression of the relationship between God and the believer. Knowing God is having a personal relationship with Him.
Those who believe there are many ways to God, see religions as different means to the same end, such as, “All roads lead to Rome.” But they only say that because they do not define God in universal terms, and so it feels good to imagine everyone is on the same spiritual journey. But once God becomes identifiable, it is clear that only when you discover Him, do you discover the way to Him. This may seem a bit arcane, but it’s something like the “Aha!” phenomenon of struggling to understand something, then suddenly understanding is there. How did you come to grasp that idea?
The broadminded pessimism of the second assumption says no one really can know the ultimate truth, so it doesn’t matter what you believe in, just as long as you believe in something. But the third assumption says that:
Everyone has access to the Truth.
Everyone has the potential of knowing God, and that potential is from God, not from religion. God doesn’t hide from seekers, nor deny them access to Him, as long as they come His way. A “One Way” sign to God doesn’t exclude anyone. Those who choose not to go that way, do so of their own free will. God does not bar them. This makes sense when we understand the way to God is not religion. Belief in God only becomes confusing when it degenerates into a discussion of religions.
Belief in God entails a sort of agreement. The believer agrees that God has power (the ability to do things) and authority (the unquestioned source of command) and sovereignty (the autonomous, infinite and supreme ability to act). These, as well as all characteristics of God, go well beyond the scope and ability of the believer, making it appropriate that the believer defer to God, obey God, worship God, etc. When this “agreement” is defined in religious terms, it produces rules of a strict, formal nature, which tend to keep God removed from believers. When it is defined in personal terms, this agreement becomes the basis of an intimate relationship.
Most people focus their prayers on personal matters. Yes, they pray for world peace, yes they pray for those in far-flung corners of the world suffering from hunger, disaster, disease and war. But while they want to believe in an all-powerful deity, over them in authority and holding them accountable, they seem to turn to God most often with intimate concerns: “Keep my family safe”, “Help me get that job”, “Heal my mom”, “Help my son pass the test.” Certainly, in some cases this may reflect a casual attitude toward God, as if He were a genie for granting wishes, but on a deeper level, this illustrates the human desire and need to be personally touched by God.
Belief in God becomes meaningful when it is personal.
No one except theologians wants to examine the minutiae of theology, they just want a God who is there for them, in the most tangible sense. But here we run into a sort of paradox. When a regular person needs God, who do they turn to? They turn to Religion, assuming, “After all, isn’t that what religion is there for?” While there are many positive things to be said about religion, often as not it gets in the way of knowing God personally.
The first thing a person learns when they turn to religion to find God, is that there are certain individuals (the clergy) who, through approved study, have become qualified authorities with varying degrees of expertise, and have been duly ordained by their religious bodies to continue in the promulgation of their dogma. They will guide and oversee the neophyte’s spiritual growth.
The second thing a person learns, when they turn to religion to find God, is that they must learn and submit to the dogma of that group in order to join the religion. Dogma accumulates from a long line of religious teachers who harken back to some original, authoritative source. So, in order for the seeker to “find God”, he must first study this body of knowledge, then join the group, then continue to adhere to their identity, precepts and rules.
Once in the group, the seeker continues to be subject to all the “authorities” above him in the religion, and subject to the dogma of the group. This arrangement allows many to relinquish their spiritual responsibilities, “take a back seat” and let the clergy deal with all things spiritual. Others find that simply belonging to a group defined by their commonly shared beliefs makes them happier and fulfilled. Identifying with a religion for social benefits is, to some, just as important as spiritual considerations. Others reject identification with “organized religion” because they don’t respond well to group dynamics or don’t like having to first be approved by men in order to approach God. To a person genuinely seeking God, being spoon-fed someone else’s spiritual journey often doesn’t meet his own needs.
Religion gets in the way.
How can the one true God support religion? Religion simply has too many distractions, such as the hierarchy of leadership, symbolic rituals and rules of personal behavior, that tend to obscure the ultimate truth about God.
A hierarchy won’t lead to God any more than bureaucracy can bring about efficiency. The presumption that one man is closer to God than another is only built on the human desire to lord authority over someone of lesser standing. True, there have been examples of humans highly esteemed in the eyes of God. And, on the human level, we have various “authorities” over us, but does a person’s position of authority constitute a “closer” standing before God? And would that authority, whether granted or earned, be required, in order to provide intercession between the highest God and the lowest man? I think not. When the angels announced the birth of Christ, fulfilling Jewish prophecies, they didn’t go to the religious leaders. They went to simple, uneducated shepherds.
Perhaps the most recognizable characteristics of religions are rituals of worship and rules for personal behavior. These deal with the symbolic meanings of certain outward expressions. The good intent of rituals and rules is that they are designed to represent virtue, whether on the part of God or Man. The drawback is that it is very easy to participate in those “outer” rituals and rules without any “inner” conviction, thus making it possible for someone to identify with a religion, while simply going through the motions. That kind of person has no connection to God, making it evident that a “religious” person can be “lost”.
According to James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This places a low priority on factors that outline religion, such as dogma, clerical authority, rituals etc. This isn’t to make a blanket condemnation of religion, but to make the point that while religion is an important human institution, belief in God is something different, something better. And if that isn’t confusing, let me confuse you even more.
My own testimony
As you may have guessed, I am a Christian. That is, my belief in God is understood in the context of traditional, historical Christian theology. However, I did not come to know God because I was a Christian. I became a Christian because I came to know God. Please take a nice, deep breath. I am not trying to be cute or clever. What I am trying to say is this: in spite of being sent to Sunday School as a child, and the occasional visit to church when friends invited; singing in church choirs and even being a paid church soloist in college, I was not a Christian. I did not adhere to Christian dogma. I believed God existed, but I could not define who God was. I believed God was real, but unknowable (the second assumption). Whenever I found myself in critical situations, I would pray and hope this unknowable God cared enough to do something. I was content to leave my God concepts undefined until I was 31 years old.
Personally Seeking God
I was what is euphemistically called, “open minded”. I tried to be “tolerant” of all religions and was particularly fascinated with Animism and Shamanism, as practiced by native North American tribes. I had just started reading about the Bahai faith (which attempts to include the major faiths into one true religion). I was also smoking marijuana at that time. Without telling my whole life story, suffice it to say that these elements came together and I found myself on the receiving end of a black magic “hex”. I was sick and believed I was going to die. As if in a vision, I perceived I was standing on the brink of a bottomless pit.
The “hex” was the result of a shamanic power struggle. A shaman delivers a power object that conveys a curse to the victim as soon as it touches him. I was aware that there was a battle between opposing spiritual forces, and I was caught in the middle. In a sudden clarity, I knew that God was good, while the opposing forces were evil, and I had the power to choose which side to be on. This was all very personal. At that moment, I chose to die on the side of God, since I knew I was going to die.
Then, I decided to pray. As I started to pray, an intense desire within me made me do something I had never done before. I got on my knees, raised my hands above my head and cried to God. This was something totally new to me, coming to me like the “aha” phenomenon. As I prayed, I didn’t really know what to say. I just wanted to ask God to accept me. I wanted to be on His side. I wanted what He wanted for me. I said there were so many religions. I didn’t know in whose name I should pray. I felt I didn’t have the standing to come to Him on my own. I wasn’t good enough. I had too many faults. I asked Him to show me the way.
Though I didn’t understand it, I felt God’s love wash over me. For the first time, I felt God loving me and for the first time I felt myself loving God. This was incomprehensible. I cannot explain it. Then, the intensity of my feelings subsided, I finished my prayer and the incredible experience was over. God’s “answer” to my prayer (a strong sense of what I had to do) was two-fold: read the gospels to find out about Jesus; and love my enemies. Now that I was fighting in the “Army of God”, I was to wield the weapon issued to me by God: love.)
The immediate result was that the next day I was able to sit down and eat with the person who had put the hex on me, and actually tell him I loved him. He was taken aback and I felt the spell lifted. A few days later, as I was reading the gospel of John, I experienced another “aha” moment. It’s not that any particular content of what I read made me “get it”, but as I read about Jesus, I knew Him. Something happened between the printed pages of the Bible and me that simply never occurs while reading. I didn’t have to figure anything out, or imagine anything, or have any questions answered. I just knew Jesus. He was real. He was the Christ. Again I prayed.
This time, I prayed to receive Him into my being, I asked Him to forgive me for my sins. I thanked Him for dying for me so that I might live. I didn’t understand theology. I just knew Jesus, and best of all, He knew me. But then I struggled with a new problem: Was I a Christian now? I didn’t want to say so, because that would put me in with all those small-minded people who tried to fit God in a thimble. No, I would just call myself a follower of Christ.
For several months I didn’t talk much about my experience, but I decided to read the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. (I still had the Bible I had been given in Sunday school, upon completion of the third grade. Even though I no longer attended church, I had kept it, along with my other “important” books. It was in almost new condition, left unread for 22 years!) Before I agreed to call myself a Christian, I needed to make sure I could accept the whole Bible — not just part of it — as the authoritative word of God. I wanted to see if there was anything in the Bible that was inconsistent with or contradicted what I already experienced, that Jesus alone is the Way to God.
Unexpected and exciting was the thrill I experienced, reading the Old Testament — the Jewish Scriptures; the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings. The more I read the Bible, the stronger I got the message: This one true God that I had encountered was the same God who revealed Himself to the Hebrews thousands of years ago. But what I learned about religion is that it was tried in the Old Testament and hadn’t worked out so well. But in the New Testament, God gave us His Son, not a new religion.
The religion of the Torah was given by God. It was perfect. If the Jews had completely followed God’s instructions, their lives would have been rich with blessings of health, prosperity and unbounded joy. But unlike God’s perfect instructions, the Hebrews, like all humans, were imperfect. They did not fully obey God, but allowed their sinful nature to lead them into unrighteousness, rebellion and idolatry. They demonstrated that even God-given religion doesn’t work when your heart isn’t in it.
It is the nature of our hearts, not just sinful acts, that make us unacceptable to be in God’s presence. The Bible teaches that God is Holy and righteous and sets Himself apart from sinfulness. In other words, our sinful hearts separate us from God. That is why the LORD provided means of atonement through sacrifices. And that is why Jesus laid down his own life as the perfect sacrifice for all sin, for all time.
The first case was religion that would not work; the second case was an act of God that works every time a person responds to Him individually. It wasn’t religion that united me to God. It was my acceptance of God’s sacrifice which allowed me to receive Christ. I opened the door to my heart and let Him in. When that happened, I became a child of God. I had a personal relationship with God. I knew God.
Granted, two thousand years of history demonstrates that Christianity is a religion. And if you are merely looking for a religion, then it can satisfy you at that level. But in the deepest, purest sense, Christianity is not a religion. It is my personal relationship with God. Who I am is important to him. But even more important, is who he is. And the best “religion” in the world is simply knowing him.
Michael D. Day