Why Are There Other Religions by The Rev. Jacob Bottom

A music that resembled

Some earlier music

That men are born remembering.

-C.S. Lewis, “Vowels and Sirens”, Poems

 

Religion, the expression of devotion to transcendent beings, is ancient; perhaps too ancient to know its actual origin. Anthropologists and historians disagree not only in their varied conclusions about why religion exists but also in their varied methods of achieving said conclusions. Furthermore, the term “religion” encapsulates different things to different scholars, especially when compared to more ancient authors. One thing is for sure, human devotion to the transcendent has been around for a long time and will be around for a long time to come. In light of this, I want to suggest that other religions exist because the created world is not a mechanism ticking away like some forgotten antique toy. Rather, it is an interwoven reality of spiritual and physical forces (or beings) that humans are able to perceive, sometimes manipulate, and directly experience.

Religion resides in the deepest parts of human history, society and culture. Even in those places where it seems to have the lost its strength, the witness of its former hold on everyday life is irrefutable. The witness of totem poles and zoomorphic cave paintings, while possibly derived from someone’s “cleverly devised tales”, may actually attest to a true encounter with the supernatural. Whether that encounter is with the LORD or with another lesser spirit remains for another discussion. However, what seems evident is that the result of one such perceived encounter with the supernatural (e.g. Tribal shamans interacting with spirits, Muhammad receiving revelations in the cave, or Buddha achieving nirvana) tends to generate some type of ritual; a repeated action or series of actions to both remember and discern significance from the supernatural encounter.

Perhaps other religions exist because humanity, at certain points in history, has come into contact with the supernatural, and subsequently created the means (religion/ritual) to both remember the encounter and discern the significance of it. Indeed, there is something that strikes a chord in our souls when we experience an ancient ceremony devoted to the transcendent. Like “some earlier music that men are born remembering”, there is within us, as humans, a lingering connection to the divine. This is, I think, what makes other religions so compelling to people. Regardless of the full truth of the religion, the devotion itself speaks to something deeply woven into the foundation of humanity. For Christians, that something is the image of the living God.  

From a Christian perspective, we believe that the supernatural exists and interacts directly in our everyday lives. As an example, we believe that we who have been baptized receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, who guides and governs us every day. We also believe that a system or network of fallen angels, under the leadership of Lucifer, upholds “this world” and works tirelessly to mislead the ignorant and derail the faithful. If these things are true, it means that the physical and spiritual realms of creation interact with each other so integrally it often happens without much notice. My suggestion is that other religions developed out of instances when humans did notice that interaction between the spiritual and physical world. In this understanding one could affirm that supernatural beings have manifested themselves in the natural plane, have had interactions with people at a point in time, and as a consequence caused new religions to sprout.

The C.S. Lewis quote comes from his book Poems from a work titled “Vowels and Sirens.” The Sirens were three mythological creatures at sea, whose angelic voices lured sailors to their deaths. Lewis describes the affect of the Sirens, saying, “Nothing of solace [for our Hero], for lovers’ longings they breathed. Of vanished knowledge was their intemperate song.” Lewis writes that the song of the Sirens sang the sweet melody “of a vanished knowledge…a music resembling some earlier music that men are born remembering.” Men followed the song of the Sirens because it spoke so deeply to something inside of them they rushed to their deaths with passion and zeal. The sound of lovers’ longing and vanished knowledge compelled them and they willed to give up everything to find the source of it. Religion, based on actual encounters with the transcendent, sings that same sweet melody that compels people to give themselves to it.

Other religions exist because there is a supernatural element to creation and sometimes humans encounter that element. The encounter transcends normal human experience and leaves a sense of awe and wonder, which can generate devotion. Devotion to the transcendent is not wrong in and of itself as long as it is directed towards the one true God, who Himself has interacted with humanity. The experience touches something deeply woven into the human soul, a muddled memory perhaps, of a time when humanity was once in an unbroken relationship with God. Rituals grow from these experiences and religions come into existence. The image of God within humanity is still so powerfully felt that encounters with lesser spirits, who still transcend our day-to-day experience, promises to take people back to that song we were born remembering.

The Rev. Jacob Bottom is a Curate at St. David of Wales in Denton

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Theology Matters: Why Read the Old Testament?

Take a moment and remember the last time you went on a really interesting vacation. What was the one place you visited or activity you did that you just couldn’t stop talking about when you got home?

On the very day of the resurrection, Jesus said to his gathered disciples, “’These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’” (Luke 24:44-47 ESV) Jesus had just been through death, harrowed Hell, risen from the dead, ascended to the Father, and is now back to report on his saving work to his disciples. That was the most exciting trip ever made! And when he gets back to his dear friends and disciples, what is the one thing he just can’t stop talking about? The Old Testament!

Three times, in this meeting, he points his disciples back to the Old Testament. He spiritually opens their minds – not so that they can work miracles or preach sermons, but so that they could understand the Scriptures of the Old Testament! The risen and glorified Christ could point to no better doorway to the Gospel than Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. He has no better advertising for the saving work he did through His passion, death, resurrection, and ascension than the Old Testament. There is no stronger platform, in his mind, from which the message of repentance and forgiveness of sins can more effectively be launched into all the world and all of history than the record of God’s saving work among His people Israel. That’s a ringing endorsement from our Lord Himself! Why read the Old Testament? – because it reveals the same Gospel of Jesus Christ as we have in the New Testament.

And this isn’t the only time Jesus points to the Old Testament, properly interpreted, as the very Gospel itself. During his ministry, he told his followers over and over again that Moses and the Prophets predicted his passion. On the day of resurrection, it was the Old Testament that held the answer to the mystery of the empty tomb (John 20:9). On the road to Emmaus, Jesus even called his disciples ‘fools and slow of heart to believe’ for not seeing the very obvious truth that the Old Testament spoke plainly about his passion. How foolish is Jesus’ church still today, if we cannot see him in those same books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms? We need Christ to enlighten our minds, open our eyes, and reinforce through the breaking of bread (yes, even our Eucharistic worship illuminates the Old Testament) that message which began in Genesis thousands of years before.

Those same disciples to whom Jesus taught the Old Testament began to write down what Jesus taught them about the Gospel in the Old Testament – we call these writings the New Testament. Whenever a New Testament author mentions “scripture” he means the Old Testament scripture, because that is all they had. Peter and Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles and in their letters, constantly quote the Old Testament. If we claim to be an apostolic church, we must continue to read the same scriptures which the apostles used: the Old Testament.

The Apostles also began to teach other people, passing on what Jesus taught them to new generations of Christian leaders – we call them the Early Church Fathers, and their works are still published today. Every one of them sees the Old Testament, properly interpreted, as a clear message about Jesus. They continued to teach what their teachers had learned from our Lord himself, the Great Teacher of the Old Testament.

With such ringing endorsements, how can Christians ignore the Old Testament? Yes, it can be difficult to understand, and its cultures and practices seem remote to us today. But it is the foundation and first proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There may also be hundreds of other reasons to read it. The history is interesting. Its story-telling is beyond compare. Hebrew poetry is gorgeous and powerful. God reveals Himself in these words. The inspired wisdom of the ancients can guide our lives today. We find models there for good communities and governments. Its stories of courage and perseverance inspire us. But first and foremost, Christians read the Old Testament because Jesus insisted that it is God’s inspired Word about himself.

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