We have seen the absolute necessity and the universality of religion, which arises from the sinful, mortal nature of man – the very thing that is the basis of religion. Religion reaches out to the whole human race, because every man is born sinful and mortal, and no one is exempt from this general law, as our conscience and experience testify. After recognizing its necessity and universality, let us now inquire into the nature of religion in general.
We grasp the nature of religion from the nature of religious feeling in ourselves, for without it we cannot perceive and know the nature of religion clearly. Therefore, we must know the nature of religious consciousness present in everyone, since every man is a sinner and as a result of sin, is mortal. What is it that we call religious feeling or consciousness? Because of transgression of the moral law, man realized that he was guilty in the presence of the God who set the moral law in his soul. He knew himself to be a sinner, responsible for his transgression.
This sense of right and wrong, or conscience, would not have been present in the soul, if the soul already had not some knowledge of the existence of the moral law, and of the existence of a promulgator of the moral law, who punishes every transgression of the moral law which was placed in man’s soul as a standard of its function and conduct – or if the soul already had not known that it was free and consequently responsible for its action in defiance of the moral law. These three items of knowledge in the soul help to produce a religious conscience in the soul after the transgression of the moral law, and without them, the dawn of a religious conscience in the soul becomes impossible.
Thus the nature of religious conscience presupposes three elementary principles without which it would be impossible for it to begin to develop in the soul, namely, belief in the existence of:
- A moral law;
- A lawgiver who examines and punishes every transgression of the moral law;
- Freedom of the soul, and responsibility for every act which breaks the moral law and for the conduct of the soul.
Religious conscience bears witness to the transgression of the moral law, condemns the soul for transgression of the moral law, is held accountable and responsible before the promulgator of the moral law, and urges the soul to seek and find the best avenue for making amends for the broken law, for propitiating the promulgator of the moral law, and for escaping the penalties and retribution which transgression of the moral law entails. From this, religious intuition is born in the soul. This intuition is a desire and a longing of the soul for:
- Reconciliation and renewal of friendship with God, who is the promulgator of the moral law;
- Salvation from the penalties and retribution which transgression of the divine law causes;
- Cleansing of the soul and sanctification, bringing forgiveness for transgression of the divine law.
This desire arises in the soul from the conscience which testifies to the transgression of the moral law, and because of its desire for reconciliation, the soul longs to find a way to renewal of friendship with God. Because of the desire for salvation, it seeks to save itself from punishment and destruction. Concomitantly, because of its desire for cleansing and sanctification, the soul longs to find the way to purification from sin, and sanctification.
Therefore, religious consciousness is a wish and a desire for reconciliation and a renewal of friendship with God, for salvation, and for purification from what has been done. This wish is a wish of the soul, and it is based upon consciousness. The nature of religious intuition is comprised of three distinct elements:
- Hunger for reconciliation with God;
- Hunger for salvation from impending punishment and retribution;
- Hunger for cleansing of the soul from sin.
It follows, then, that in order for religion to be true, it must have a nature to parallel our religious feeling, and must possess the characteristics which we have observed in religious consciousness. What is the nature of religion?
The nature of religion matches the nature of religious feeling in the soul because it has the same characteristics possessed by religious perception. The first element of religion is its work of reconciling man with God. The second element is its work of saving the soul. And the third element is its work of sanctifying and purifying the soul from sin – for whatever the soul requires, true religion must provide. Otherwise it is not true religion, but false religion-which cannot satisfy man’s religious needs.
Only true religion is in harmony with the nature of religious consciousness because of its true object which, by its very nature, satisfies the desire for reconciliation with God, for salvation, and for sanctification. Whereas the religious sense from the very beginning was genuine and uncontaminated in its source and in its nature, always and everywhere testifying to the indispensability of religion and of the object which satisfies it, nonetheless, it has not been satisfied because of two serious factors:
- Ignorance of the true God;
- Corruption of the heart by continually committed sin.
These not only have prevented the satisfaction of man’s religious need, but also have become the cause of the plethora of false religious creeds and denominations which corrupt human nature and contribute still further to its deterioration. Ignorance of God is caused by a drifting away from the true God because of sin foolishly committed and constantly practiced.
Gradually this sin, day by day, clouded man’s mentality so that he was unable to distinguish between good and evil, truth and falsehood. It also corrupted the capacity of the soul to feel, by immoral emotions, while it simultaneously subjugated the will and placed it under the yoke of slavery to the passions.
Of the false religions by which man, for centuries, in his estrangement from God has endeavored to satisfy his religious need, some venerate idols and inanimate creatures, or the powers of nature and plants, as their object. Others idolize living creatures or man. Hence the false religious creeds, invented by misguided and foolish men at the instigation of the Destroyer, man’s enemy from the beginning, may be divided into the following kinds:
- Worship of created things (idol worship);
- Worship of living things;
- Worship of human beings.
Later in human history there appeared the all-embracing system of religious pantheism, providing a place for every erroneous creed. Previously, the worship of created things made gods of artifacts and plants, of the sun and stars, and worshiped them as god; the worship of living things made gods of birds and the wild beasts of the earth, and the worship of human beings made man a god and worshipped him in both sexes, male and female. Now religious pantheism failed to distinguish between any of them, but made gods of them all, and worshipped them all.
Whatever the foolish man could not find in separate religious creeds, he believed he could find in all the false creeds joined together. But he failed, for falsehood cannot fill the vacuum which is filled by truth alone. Man was corrupted still more by the false religions and went down toward his ruin and destruction. The history of the ancient world testifies to this, and there is evidence for it among those people who even now do not worship according to the true religion.
False religion can neither reconcile the sinner with God, nor save him, or still less sanctify him, because:
- It does not originate from the omniscient, omnipotent, and all-wise God, from whom true religion springs;
- It does not have the appropriate object by which man’s religious need is satisfied, and which only the true religion of God possesses.
True religion, in sharp contrast:
- Originates from God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and all-wise, and knows man’s nature and needs;
- Has the true object for satisfying man’s religious needs.
The satisfaction of these needs consists of:
- Reconciliation of the sinner with God;
- Salvation of the sinner from eternal punishment;
- Purification and sanctification of man’s soul.
When the sinner obtains these three blessings for which he longs – and the possession of which leads to salvation and holiness, he has satisfied his religious desire; yet he desires a more perfect and complete restoration. He desires perfection through the attainment of the perfect moral attributes of God.
Hence, as is the nature of true religion, so also is its object. For between the nature of religious consciousness, and the nature of religion and the nature of its object, there exist not only harmony and agreement, but also unity as well, for the same three characteristics appear in the nature of the object:
- The reconciling aspect;
- The salvationary aspect;
- The sanctifying aspect.
These characteristic features may be united in one nature, in the nature of true religion, because it is only true religion which possesses these characteristics. Thus, from man’s position, religion may be defined as a desire for reconciliation, salvation, and sanctification. From God’s position – and it originates from Him – it may be defined as a beneficent will, desiring to reconcile, to save, and to sanctify man – that is, to have mercy upon him, and to grant him remission of his sins.
Examined from the position bf its object or center, religion is defined as a knowledge of the religious laws whereby the soul is reconciled with God and gains His friendship, and whereby it is saved and sanctified. The object of true religion is:
It is reconciling because it mediates between God and man, and abrogates the cause of separation and enmity which exists between sinful man and holy God. It is saving because it preserves the sinner from great dangers, for a much higher purpose. It is sanctifying because it imparts holiness and grace to the sinner. Consequently, the object of religion must be:
- A mediator;
- A saviour;
- Above all else, holy and generous in imparting holiness.
As mediator, it must know the will of holy God and sinful man fully. As saviour, it must possess perfect wisdom and power, and a beneficent will for saving those in danger of eternal death. These require that it should:
- Be an omniscient, omnipotent, all-wise, and all-good eternal being;
- Share in human suffering; that is, it should have experience of the tribulations which man undergoes in this earthly life.
As holy, it must be a being without sin and full of sanctity.
Stated differently, the object of religion should be both divine and human, Theanthropos* – as God, equal with God, but as man like the remainder of mankind in everything except sin. Such a being was the Logos in the beginning, possessing His existence in eternity in God the Father. He also dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and reconciled us with God in holiness and peace.
Furthermore, He saved us from the embrace of Satan and from the gates of eternal punishment. He sanctified us and bestowed the Spirit of grace upon us. This Logos is Christ Jesus, the only begotten Son of God.
This is the object we most desire, which should pour healing medicine upon the wounds which sin has dealt us. Here is the object of true religion – defined as the healing knowledge of the soul imparted by Jesus Christ, high priest and mediator, interceding for man before God the Father. As St. Paul witnessed, “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation:” (II Corinthians 5:18).
Hence, through true religion which satisfies our religious need, we are enlightened and come to know the truth, and thence we look for the satisfaction of our religious consciousness where it truly lies, spurning with all our might the many false religions which have corrupted man’s nature, and are corrupting it now more than ever, even assimilating it to the nature of the beast. Worshiping in the true religion of Jesus Christ we become:
- Friends of God, whose enemies we formerly were because of sin;
- Saved, but also saviours of others, guides to faith in Christ;
- Holy, and capable of sharing with others the holiness which we receive from God through our saviour, Jesus Christ, the innocent lamb, sacrificed for us.
From Christ, the high priest, springs a system of laws which is capable of reconciling us with God, a system of laws which may result in our salvation and sanctification. By their divine content we are saved and sanctified and become holy as God, for He is holy, even as the Seraphim praise and adore Him, crying, shouting, and singing the triumphal hymn: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabbaoth, Heaven and earth are full of Thy glory” (Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostomos).
Thus the Orthodox Christian religion is the only true religion, for it alone exhibits the characteristic attributes of true religion. Only in the Orthodox Church of Christ are man’s spiritual and religious needs satisfied and fulfilled, and only therein can he be saved.
Everyone who does not believe in or accept the true religion of Christ not only is unable to satisfy his religious yearning, but also is separated from God, because by his own action he condemns and destines himself to eternal condemnation. In the natural world, the one who misses the way cannot reach his destination. Similarly, in the spiritual world, the one who fails to find and embrace the true religion cannot be saved, but will be damned eternally.
* God-man, from Greek theos (God) and anthropos (man); Jesus Christ is the only God-man, the only saviour of mankind.