Humans: Religious by Nature?

Dick Keyes

We often speak at L’Abri about all people as “religious by nature”. This claim seems ridiculous to many today who have a sense of the modern secular triumph over superstition, mythology and all that is primitive and backward, epitomized by religion. But the religious predisposition of human nature is far deeper than what can be understood by polls about the percentage of people who claim to believe this or that or about their attendance at religious meetings.

It is that there is a profound human need for significance, for meaning of our lives, actions, values, hopes, fears, reaching from beyond our immediate surroundings. Just as the meaning of the things that we create comes from beyond the things themselves (i.e. from the human purposes that inspired and made them), so the meaning of our lives must come from something beyond ourselves, from some higher dimension. Christian people have understood this to be a direct result of who we are -- not just accidents -- but created persons whose meaning and fulfillment is in re-establishing the relationship with their Maker.

The apostle Paul lived with a sense of the profound significance of his life, responding to the call of his Creator and Redeemer. He wrote that his life was like the focused effort of an athlete training to win a competition. He contrasted it to the idea of a “disconnected athlete”, living a life without meaning, “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air” (I Cor. 9:26). These are powerful images of insignificance. It is to run, but in aimless circles for no purpose whatever. It is to shadow-box, hitting the air and creating only air turbulence. It is life disconnected from any purpose beyond itself which could give it meaning – exactly what was not true of him.

We see people here who feel their lives are shadow boxing or running aimlessly in circles and they are understandably discouraged, angry, afraid even despairing. This is because they were created for something far more. This is what it means to be “religious by nature” or actually by creation. If people do not look to the Creator himself, they will look for some sort of significance from hundreds of possible sources within the world that God has made -- to make up for the lost significance. Vast human vitality can then only seek significance from somewhere in creation, hoping to do more than run in circles and beat the air. It may look “religious” or it may not. Two recent examples struck me.

A study was done on the success of some of the radical mosques in North London in recruiting young people willing to be suicide bombers for the Islamist cause. Most of them were second generation South Asians for whom the nominal and secular Islam of their parents was uninspiring, as were any hopes offered by the English economy. Arab teachers in North London offered them a dramatic part in a bigger story, a pan-Islamic plan which alone promised to be able to humble America. In a world where there seems no loyalty beyond the self and where young people are disappointed or bored with the self and its resources, there is something inspiring about suicide for a higher cause. They speak of the “Magnificent 19” of Sept. 11.

The second example is from the US where there has been an extraordinary boom at Las Vegas. Thirty-five million people visited in 2003, spending over 32 billion dollars. The mayor says, “We’re the fastest growing everything”, which has a lot to do with the combination of casinos, ATM machines, bars and strip clubs. There is a special and highly successful effort to bring in young people, whose greater endurance and the availability of Daddy’s money enables them to keep spending until 7:00 AM.

The reason I mention these two very different examples is that they force me to see the challenge before us today. Look at what people are doing in search of meaning in their lives. Look at the spiritual emptiness offered by the secular culture. The vast in-created vitality belonging to anyone made in the image of God gets directed to and spent on anything from organized hatred to the excitement of planned dissipation and waste. My Question is, where is the power of the Gospel of Jesus to offer something more plausible, persuasive and attractive than this spiritual poverty and lostness? The Gospel is here for sure and is wonderfully at work, but I yearn for so much more. I do not see the answer in a new technology, a new gimmick or movement. It can only come when the truth of Christ reaches with far more depth and integrity into the lives of those of us who know him. This is my prayer for L’Abri and for all of God’s people.

Dick Keyes is Director to L'Abri, Southborough, Massachusetts, USA. This article originally was published in a September 2004 L'Abri newsletter. Mr. Keyes has kindly us given permission to reprint it here.
Dick Keyes, 21/11/2006