The Purpose of Religion
In his book, Lectures on Calvinism, Abraham Kuyper (rhymes with “diaper”) poses the following question: Does religion exist for the sake of God, or for the sake of Man? I contend that this question is one of the weightiest questions that you will ever answer. Before you read on, think about it for a second. Both the theist and atheist alike have an answer to this question. What is your answer?
A slightly different, but related question might be, “What is the purpose of religion?” While talk of spirituality and religion is common today, it is rare that spiritual discussions will be centered around the essential question of the purpose of religion. Instead, we are content talking about the ins and outs of particular religions, whether New Age people are allowed to eat pork on Tuesdays, whether your church baptizes babies, or how happy you are with the recent changes to your worship service.
While religion and spirituality are on the mind of the postmodern individual, how often do we consider the purpose behind it all and make concrete statements about why we are spiritual? With respect to Kuyper’s question above, it seems that the pervading yet tacit assumption is that we are religious because we have certain needs (e.g., the provision of hope or comfort or stability, etc.) that can only be met through religion. If this is true, then most would have to answer Kuyper’s question: religion exists for the sake of Man.
Kuyper says we have an “egoistic religion” with only one god at the center. You guessed it: ourselves! We choose what spiritual activities we will participate in based on how well they address our felt needs. We shop religions like we are buying a new car or digital camera. We present many religious “options” to our kids so that one day they can decide which one will best suit their own needs. We leave churches because we are not “being fed.” Who is being worshiped in all of this? We have put ourselves at the center. We are religious for the sake of Man.
And what I fear the most, is that a vast majority of the “spiritually minded” would agree with the above statements, and really have no problem with it.
After exploring the nature of religions in past societies, Kuyper goes on to say about them:
…in all these different forms it is and remains a religion fostered for man’s sake, aiming at his safety, his liberty, his elevation, and partly also at his triumph over death. And even when a religion of this kind has developed itself into monotheism, the god whom it worships remains invariably a god who exists in order to help man, in order to secure good order and tranquility for the State, to furnish assistance and deliverance in time of need, or to strengthen the nobler and higher impulse of the human heart in its ceaseless struggle with the degrading influences of sin. (p44)
Thank you Cosmic Helper for being there when I need you.
Kuyper goes on to say that “this is the fatal end of egoistic religion;–it becomes superfluous and disappears as soon as the egoistic interests are satisfied.”
Goodbye Superfluous Helper. I’m feeling much better now.
We see the results of this around us. People jumping from one religion to another. People picking and choosing a little of this religion and a little of that one. A rigorous prayer life during times of need. And the goal of it all? Fulfillment? An escape from guilt? Moral guidance? Ultimate happiness?
The perspective of Calvin was a bit different–actually “diametrically opposed” according to Kuyper. Kuyper claims that while religion indeed produces certain fruits for the benefit of man, we have assumed that those fruits are in fact the very essence or purpose of religion. Kuyper states: “Of course, religion, as such, produces also a blessing for man, but it does not exist for the sake of man. It is not God who exists for the sake of His creation;–the creation exists for the sake of God. For, as the Scripture says, He has created all things for Himself.” (p45)
Initially I was put off by saying that we exist for the sake of God, as if the only self-existent and independent Being were somehow dependent on mankind for anything. But, here we do not provide anything to Him that He does not already own. Instead, we worship to fulfill our created purpose–namely, to bring Him glory. Religion truly is for the sake of God. Kuyper goes on:
The starting-point of every motive in religion is God and not Man. Man is the instrument and means, God alone is here the goal, the point of departure and the point of arrival, the fountain, from which the waters flow, and at the same time, the ocean into which they finally return. To be irreligious is to forsake the highest aim of our existence, and on the other hand to covet no other existence than for the sake of God, to long for nothing but for the will of God, and to be wholly absorbed in the glory of the name of the Lord, such is the pith and kernel of all true religion. “Hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy Will be done,” is the threefold petition, which gives utterance to all true religion. Our watchword must be,–”Seek first the kingdom of God,” and after that, think of your own need. First stands the confession of the absolute sovereignty of the Triune God; for of Him, through Him, and unto Him are all things. And therefore our prayer remains the deepest expression of all religious life. This is the fundamental conception of religion as maintained by Calvinism, and hitherto, no one has ever found a higher conception. For no higher conception can be found. The fundamental thought of Calvinism, at the same time the fundamental thought of the Bible, and of Christianity itself, leads, in the domain of religion, to the realization of the highest ideal. Nor has the philosophy of religion in our own century, in its most daring flights, ever attained a higher point of view nor a more ideal conception. (p45-46)
Take a moment and examine your worship; examine your spirituality. Who is at the center? Who is the object of your worship? Do not forsake your highest purpose for the sake of your own comfort. May we be religious for the sake of God, and may our highest and best purpose be the glory of God! Soli Deo Gloria.
Lectures on Calvinism is available in its entirety right here.