Chapter 12: The Concern with Man and the End of Religion

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 12: The Concern with Man and the End of Religion

Religion is a difficult word to define. Christianity has been almost universally regarded as a religion, and its adherents have claimed it to be the true religion, yet notable theologians of this century have declared that Christianity is not really a religion at all. To minimize confusion we shall for this discussion define religion as a body of beliefs and practices in which man’s attention is directed towards one or more divine beings in an unseen supernatural world, upon whom he believes his true welfare to depend, and from whom he seeks the help of spiritual forces to enable him to live successfully.

In the ancient world the whole of human life was embraced by religion. It was particularly vital at those times in which man sensed the mystery of life and growth, namely birth, puberty, marriage and death, the sowing of crops, the spring lambing, the building of a new home, the going forth to battle. It came to expression in the myths in which man tried to understand his mysterious world and in the ritualistic practices by which he tried to secure divine aid. The mythological world of ancient man led of necessity to religion.

But we have seen that Israel pioneered a path which was destined to lead to the abandonment of mythology, of the gods, and of the divine unseen world in which they were believed to live. Since these are the very terms in which we have defined religion, it means that the heritage of Israel was destined to lead eventually to the eclipse of religion also.

The chief factor in this revolutionary move was the increasing attention devoted to the nature and role of man arising from Israel’s concern with history. Whereas ancient man felt himself to be at the mercy of capricious forces seated beyond his control in an unseen world, Israel came to recognize that man himself has been given power and responsibility to act decisively, and that it is on his own moral decisions that his life and destiny largely depend.

There is a very significant difference between the ancient myths and the biblical stories, in the way man’s role is described. Ancient man saw himself in a very inferior place. In the Babylonian creation myth, for example, man was created as a kind of after-thought in order to perform the menial tasks, which otherwise would have been part of the responsibilities laid as a judgment on the defeated rebel gods. But in the Old Testament man is regarded as the very crown of creation, entrusted with dominion over all other forms of life. The world was made for man, and it is his function to "be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over . . . every living thing that moves upon the earth".

It was inevitable that this much more exalted view of man would be reflected sooner or later in Israel’s attitude to traditional religion. At first the change was almost imperceptible. The chief ancient ritual of intercourse with the unseen world was sacrifice, and in her earliest traditions, sacrificial practices of some kind were assumed as a matter of course. In the very story in which YHWH delivered the promise to Abraham, we are told how Abraham responded by building an altar. In the earliest tradition of the Exodus, we learn that Moses was leading Israel out to the wilderness for the celebration of a sacrifice in a rendezvous with YHWH.

We have already seen, however, that the very same men of Israel who were responsible for developing a sense of history, were those who began to lead men’s attention away from the sanctuary. In the great prophets this attitude to traditional religious practices grew more revolutionary and iconoclastic. At first, as in the case of Elijah, it was the abolition of foreign sacrifices that was called for, but a century later this attack was taken a stage further. Amos denied any real place to sacrifice at all in the heritage of Israel, even if it were offered in the name of YHWH. He interpreted the Word of YHWH as saying to Israel:

I hate, I despise your feasts,

and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings,

I will not accept them,

and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts

I will not look upon.

Isaiah condemned the sacrifices of his day in even stronger terms.

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams

and the fat of fed beasts;

I do not delight in the blood of bulls,

or of lambs, or of he-goats.

When you come to appear before me,

who requires of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings;

incense is an abomination to me . . . .

Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

It is sometimes argued that the prophets were not seeking the abolition of the sacrifices, but only their reformation, so that they should become the expression of a true spirit of worship. That is how later Israelites, and then Christians, did most commonly interpret these words. But it hardly does justice to what the prophets actually said. A century later, Jeremiah, speaking in similar vein, specifically denied that there was any divine warrant at all for the sacrifices. "For in the day that I (YHWH) brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices."

In their scathing denunciation of sacrifices, the prophets sought to see them replaced by a concern for the daily life of man. They believed YHWH, the God of Israel, to be concerned, not with cultic offerings and ritual, but with moral integrity, justice and goodwill. Isaiah concluded his oracle with this plea.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good;

seek justice, correct oppression;

defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.

In the book of Micah the contrast is set out quite clearly.

"With what shall I come before YHWH,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

Will YHWH be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"

He has showed you, O man, what is good;

and what does YHWH require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

As a result of the teaching of the prophets there did take place a religious reformation, in which all the village altars were abolished and their sacrifices suspended. From that time onwards sacrifices were to be offered at one place only, the temple in Jerusalem. Yet even while the reformation was in progress Jeremiah saw that it did not go far enough. It was the reformation of man’s moral and spiritual life that was required, not just a clean-up of ritualistic practices.

The prophetic distrust of religion was not confined to sacrifices. In most mythological cultures religious practices centered upon a holy building, which was either the house of the god, or else the appointed meeting-place between the gods and men. Israel inherited from her ancestors the tradition of a desert tabernacle or ‘tent of meeting’, which served this purpose m the nomadic setting. In the reign of Solomon this dwelling-place of God was given more permanent form in the erection of a relatively large and magnificent temple.

The prophets became as distrustful of the temple as they were of the sacrifices. Micah was the first to prophesy its destruction at the hands of YHWH himself, declaring that Jerusalem would be leveled to the ground, and the very hill on which the temple stood would become a forest slope. The clear implication is that YHWH was not concerned with holy buildings in the same way as were the gods of ancient man. At the very time when the temple was becoming an exclusive focal point of Israel’s religion, Jeremiah saw that it was inducing in men a false sense of security. So he pointed to the well-known ruins of the earlier sanctuary of Shiloh as a sign that the Jerusalem temple too was destined for destruction, for the religious practices in it were leading Israel into a false faith, dishonesty and immorality.

Thus, in the very things most characteristic of the religion of ancient man, namely altars, sacrifices and temples, the prophets of Israel took the first steps in the direction of their abolition, for YHWH, being wholly different from the ancient gods, neither required the old cultic offerings, nor did He dwell in a house made by hands. The prophets turned Israel’s attention away from the sanctuary to the daily life of man in society. Whereas ancient man attempted to bring some influence to bear upon the unseen world by taking his offerings to the holy place where he believed the gods to dwell, the prophets proclaimed that YHWH had come to man where he was. Whereas ancient man yearned for an immortal existence among the gods, the prophets declared that YHWH had chosen to dwell among men. Human affairs assumed a new dignity and eternal significance.

Both the sacrifices and the temple did come to a sudden end when Judah was overwhelmed by the Babylonians and the city of Jerusalem sacked in 586 BC. The proclamation of the prophets was dramatically fulfilled. Even though some seventy years later the temple was rebuilt and sacrifices reinstated, this step proved retrogressive, leading to a period of stagnation. It came to an end when the final destruction of the temple by the Romans in AD. 70 brought to fulfillment those words of an even greater prophet, "There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down".

But in the meantime the non-religious concerns of the earlier prophets had found new forms of expression in the emerging institution of the synagogue, which pioneered quite a new phase m man’s spiritual pilgrimage. Here there was no altar, no sacrifices, no priest, and the building itself was not originally thought of as a holy dwelling-place of God. It took its name not from God, but from the people who gathered in it. (‘Synagogue’ is a Greek word which simply means ‘coming together’.) In those days the synagogue would have appeared to a contemporary outsider, not as a religious place at all, but as a secular building, such as a school or a reading room. Some scholars have described it as a laymen s institute. It was primarily a place for those who had inherited the faith of Israel to gather for the study of the Holy Scripture which enshrined that faith. The written word of YHWH had now replaced the altar as the focal point of the community, and it was natural that their study of the Word should be in a context of the praise of YHWH and prayerful meditation. In our day the Jewish synagogue looks to us much like any other religious building, but in its original setting it must have looked decidedly secular.

It was because of the rise of the institution of the synagogue, that Jewish faith and culture not only survived the final destruction of the temple and the cessation of sacrifices, but even flourished. The Jews lamented the loss of the temple, but found, perhaps to their surprise, that they could get on without it. Yet even before it happened, Judaism gave birth to the new movement of Christianity, which owed more to the synagogue than it did to the temple.

In Jesus of Nazareth we find the true successor to the prophets of Israel, whose concern for the common man, and whose unconcern for the forms of ancient religion, He not only shared, but took to their logical conclusion. He was neither a priest nor a rabbi. He spent most of His life as a village carpenter. His actions and words are mainly recorded as taking shape by the seashore, on the open road, or in a friend’s house.

Although a new religion eventually formed round His person, there is little historical foundation for the assertion that He set out to found such a thing. The impression we receive from the gospels, particularly the earlier ones, is that the practices commonly regarded as religious by the ancient world are never more than incidental to what He had to say. The sayings gathered in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the parables of the Kingdom, show that like the earlier prophets He was chiefly concerned with the quality of a man’s daily life. In contrast with the priest from the temple, and the scribe from the synagogue, Jesus was listened to gladly by the common people, and finally it was not the irreligious, but the religious authorities who had Jesus put to death, for He constituted too severe a threat to the vested interests of religion.

The early Christian movement spread first of all in the synagogue and derived its earliest forms and practices from it before being eventually cast out to live an independent existence. It was thrust more deeply into the common life of man, and further away from commonly accepted forms of religion. It had good news to proclaim about man’s new freedom, and about the new world which would shortly replace the old one. It called men to a life of faith and obedience which transcended the religion of both Jew and Gentile, though it claimed to be the genuine consummation of the heritage of Israel.

For two centuries or more the Christians had no need of special buildings. It was not buildings that mattered but people. Those who professed the new faith became themselves the very dwelling-place of God through the indwelling risen Christ. The early church was the community of the faithful, and Paul transferred the word ‘temple’ to the human body as ‘the temple of the holy spirit’. The Christians had neither sacrifices, nor holy temples nor priests. They gathered in one another’s homes for fellowship meals, for the hearing of the Gospel, for the prayers and joyful songs in which they expressed their praise and gratitude to God for the newly received faith and hope. In contrast with ancient religion, the Christian Way (as it was called) was something new in human history.

It is roughly from the end of the first century, when the earliest Christian proclamations were already requiring some reinterpretation, that some aspects of the ancient character of religion began slowly to return. We see the climax of this process in the Middle Ages by which time Christianity had become a fully-fledged religion in the ancient meaning of the term. It focussed attention on holy places. It had developed a priesthood, and the original fellowship meal had been transformed into a sacrifice on an altar. It had become engrossed with an unseen supernatural world, where, by means of religious exercises, man was encouraged to secure a place for himself. It was a far cry from the concern of the prophets of Israel, of Jesus, and of the early church to see this world transformed by the coming of the new age.

The Renaissance and the Reformation reversed this long process which had led to the resurgence of ancient religion in a Christian dress, and they made way for the emergence of the new world with its renewed emphasis on the human scene. It is unfortunate that both Protestant and Catholic became so obsessed with the matters which divided them, that it was left more and more to laymen, as scientists, philosophers and historians, to take the adventurous steps in developing the new world. Catholic and Protestant ecclesiastics fell more and more into a conservative rear-guard role.

This has given the impression that the emergence of the new world, and the advent of the secular, have been initiated by those who had broken with the Christian tradition, and who have achieved success in the teeth of ecclesiastical opposition. There is some truth in this, but then, to men of their own time, the prophets of Israel and Jesus himself gave a similar impression. As we look back we can see that the Judeo-Christian heritage was making its significant advances through these men of old. We must learn to discern more clearly who the prophets of God really are in the new world. The fact that they may be holding up religion to judgment is no criterion for dismissing them, for at the heart of the biblical heritage we find a consistent movement away from the traditional forms of ancient religion to a concern with the daily life of man.

Much of what has appeared in the new secular world, and much of what has been said by the modern secular prophets finds its roots in the Judeo-Christian heritage. The new way pioneered by Israel and consummated by Jesus of Nazareth was not a new religion. It is essentially a way of faith, by which man, in whatever generation he lives, is summoned by the Word of God to concern himself with the human scene, for this is God’s concern. Here he is called to grow to full manhood and contribute to the full potential of the new society. The Christian way transcends religion and spells the end of religion. It is not for nothing that we have been hearing in our day of religionless Christianity.