Are we a religious society? The usual response is, ‘no’. Of course, data related to traditional, organised religions, indicates there has been decline for some time. It is a strong minority of people who belong to religious traditions and participate regularly – whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and the various others.
I wonder, though. As I wonder down the streets of city and suburb or journey through social media, television, radio, music, sport and other areas of life, I experience a range of ways people engage in various forms of religious activity and worship or sacrifice on the altars of the deities that fill our lives and to whom we turn for hope, meaning, comfort, distraction or joy. We speak of the economy, for example, as though it is a living, breathing reality we must care for, appease and pacify lest it not bless us and offer the fruits of that blessing through wealth and prosperity. The affluent addresses of the city, generally in high rise buildings with spectacular views, house the political, financial, legal and corporate power and wealth of our society. People who give much of themselves in work and sacrifice on the altars, to the cause they hold dear and from which they hope to derive fulfilment and life.
In the mega-malls that occupy city blocks are the plurality of shops and businesses vying for attention and consumer spending. They promise the world, if necessary, or the answer to the struggles of problems we face. It is interesting to recognise there is a plethora of places that deal with ‘image’; how we look, appear and try to define and understand ourselves, and the image we present to the world. There are therapists, gyms and professionals who deal with skin, hair, nails, diets and physique. There is a diversity of clothing stores seeking to create the image through our dress – cool, mod, chic, outdoor rugged looks, sporty, formal. The list goes on. Accessories and add to the flavour and image we present, giving us and others a sense of who we are.
Food outlets, cafes, restaurants, bars all provide for our desires in food, diet, celebration, meeting and spaces for conversation. Department stores and specialty stores seeking to provide us with everything we never dreamed or thought of owning, exist to create that need, desire and satisfaction. We enter and are greeted, given commentary on this or that product, service, gadget, for which we hand over money, receive a blessing and leave. There are elements in common with many forms of religious service. We leave with a renewed sense of hope or meaning or purpose or delight, contented and happy.
Down other lanes and byways, there are the pubs, clubs and even casinos where food, drink and gambling are possible – everything from TAB and betting the horses (or any other sporting event) through KENO, Lotto and poker machines. Many people who engage in these as regular activities sacrifice money and time for the hope of a windfall that will solve their problems, giving them life of joy and fun. There are rituals and processes that many people religiously follow, and their trust and hope is placed in these things. Of course, there forms of gambling that are more sophisticated and depend a little more on skill and knowledge than pure luck – the high roller games of casinos or the stock market and other forms of investment. Such investment demonstrates where we place hope or meaning or purpose, on money and accumulation of assets that will provide security for the future.
We are a religious people in many ways, and I suppose I am yet to meet someone who is not seeking for something more or yearning within for a deeper hope, or comfort or distraction. We seek and look in many places and where there is the tendency away from religious worship offered through churches, synagogues and so on, we turn to other places and ideologies and recreate worship, religion, hope and meaning in other forms through other deities.
Across our society there are many groups who engage in meditation and mindfulness, drawing down deep into the silent places to find peace and calm and sometimes wisdom. Ultimately, we may find ourselves drawn out of ourselves to embrace a larger picture or experience of life and the world. These practices often differ little from the forms of prayer and mediation or contemplation offered through traditional religious forms and they feed our spirit. Other people commune with nature and find themselves embraced into a world of connectedness, a web of relationship with Earth and its creatures, its forms and diversity. Most of us gasp in wonder at a beautiful vista or sunrise/sunset. Something within us is touched and moved and shifts as we encounter something bigger and more profound, a beauty that draws us in and out. There is a Spirit that touches our spirit and we know something different and bigger. This Spirit comes to us in our prayers and yearning, expressed purposely to God or into an unknown, infinite space of uncertainty. This Spirit hears the cries of people and is present to us in our awareness or lack thereof.
Paul wandered into the ancient city of Athens (see Acts 17:22-31) and observed there, the idols and gods worshipped and appealed to in statues, monuments, buildings… Amongst these monuments and idols to the gods there was one to ‘the Unknown God.’ Paul was invited to the Areopagus, the public place where people listened, discussed, debated ideas and philosophy, to speak into the crowd of what he knew, this strange and different ‘philosophy,’ perhaps. In addressing the people, Paul admired their religiosity, their search for truth and desire to worship the gods of their world. He noted all manner of gods, worshipped and remembered or symbolised in statues, monuments, idols of every form. As he spoke he highlighted the statue to ‘the Unknown God’ and said that he would speak to them of the very thing they worshipped but were ignorant of – this God who was still unknown. Paul speaks to the people about a God who created everything that is and does not live in human Temples and is not served by human hands, as thought God needs anything. This God is the One who gives everything life and breath. This God is revealed to us in Jesus, who lived amongst people, the human face of God. Jesus witnessed to the Kingdom/Kindom or Reign of God that is everywhere around. God is experienced in everything for God is the origin and source of all things, ‘the One in whom we live and move and have our being.’ This is a quote from one of their ancient poets and speaks of God as the ground, the source the origin of all things and who is experienced in love, justice, hope and peace that characterise the Reign and life of God. All things are held in God’s Spirit that breathes life and form into everything and breaks into our lives with unfolding grace that transforms and renews us. We experience this God in everything as our eyes open and our heart yearns and we let go to be embraced into the heart of Love at the centre of everything, the Living God who has a face and comes to us and loves us.