Who are we? Why are we here? What is the purpose of our existence? How do we achieve the purpose of our existence? Why is the world what it is? Whom are we indebted to for the world being what it is? What do we owe o that being or beings for who we are and what we are? And what will happen after we die?
These are the questions from which the concept of religion must have been born. From the beginning of human history, each culture and civilization considered these questions and attempted to answer them. Their proposed answers varied, but overall there was a common basic theme. They maintained that there was one or more immortal beings who existed prior to the beginning of the world and were in some way responsible for the creation of the world and its continuous existence. They also believed that the gods expected much devoted respect from them, including the offering of sacrifices. Each religion tried to codify in some way a recognizable difference between ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ As such, people believed that the they ought to adhere to certain moral standards. If they did so, the gods would be more likely to bless them, or in some cases that their lot in the afterlife would be better if they did.
Little is known about the rationale any particular culture had for developing the particular customs and associations they did, the particular identities they determined for gods, etc. Even the origin of the word ‘religion’ is shrouded in mystery- different Roman writers opined that it was derived from ‘relegere’ (to treat carefully) or from ‘religare’ (to bind). One way or another, though, religion has almost universally been central in man’s life from time immemorial. This fact is even used as an argument for the existence of God- clearly there is a strong need in the human psyche and mind to recognize the existence of something, Someone, greater than mankind, greater than this world, and outside the realm of space of time. How could man conceive of such an idea, and center his life around it, m if he did not somehow intuitively know that it really was true, indeed, if it had not somehow preternaturally been made known by the Creator Himself? (St. Anselm’s controversial ontological argument for the existence of God is also related to this question. Arguments for the existence of God will be discussed in later posts.)
Today, it is very easy to laugh away these ancient religions as silly superstition, and to make fun of the ancients for taking them seriously. In actual fact, though, it is hard to say how seriously the ancients actually took the particular elements of their religions at different times throughout history. Most notably, among the ancient Greeks and Romans, it is clear that by the first century B.C., the ancient myths were no longer being taken seriously, especially as the discipline of ‘philosophy’ came to maturity. The philosopher Socrates appears to have been a monotheist, as he repeatedly refers to ‘the god’ in the singular throughout his Apology as recorded by Plato. (Indeed, the charges against Socrates included corrupting the young by dissuading them from believing in the gods of Athens, so perhaps he had promoted monotheism to them instead.) The Stoic school of philosophy also maintained that there was one God who was good. It appears overall that around this time, a conflict was being recognized between the traditional polytheistic religion and the ever-growing appreciation of reason. The deep innate need for a religion could not be denied, but the traditional forms of religion that had been in place since time immemorial were no longer found satisfactory.
Christianity is said to have emerged in the ‘fullness of time’- at a time when the entire known world had come to recognize a need for something, or indeed Someone, to come along and resolve the growing conflict and answer the most essential questions once and for all. Someone was needed who could finally explain the meaning and purpose of the world and life, just let everything fall into place and make sense. The Roman author Virgil even wrote a poem (known as Eclogue 4) which expressed longing for the birth of a baby boy who would be eagerly welcomed by all the world, would have Divine life, and would usher in a new golden age. A direct Divine Revelation was necessary to answer the questions that reason could ask but could not properly answer. And of course, that Revelation came in the Person of Jesus Christ.