Man's search for God 

1. Man’s religions manifest his search for God     

One of the great advantages of studying the religions of man is that one comes to an appreciation of how universal in history is man’s natural openness to and search for God. Consider the immense range of religious beliefs of indigenous peoples, the traditional Australian aborigines, the various indigenous peoples of Africa, the peoples of Melanesia. When set against revealed truth, of course, their beliefs present an enormous tangle and darkness of the religious imagination. Nevertheless it does represent primal man with his mind and heart turned towards the powers above and beyond what is tangible and accessible to the senses. In an obscure way, a way to be expected of fallen man who also lacks the benefits of education, the testimony of indigenous peoples bears witness to man’s religious instinct - his instinctive looking to the powers above, however those supernatural powers might be imagined or conceived. In his rituals man looks to powers beyond him  to meet his needs, and in his myths he looks to those powers to answer his basic questions.

  In the more advanced civilizations, again there is a looking to the beyond for answers and for help when in need. We can think of the religions of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome.  Set against the loftiness of the religion revealed by God these religions cannot compare, and their myths and rituals were often debased by immoral notions and low ideas of the human person. From that point of view they bear witness to man’s fallen condition. But they are also part of the universal phenomenon of man looking to the powers above for help in his need and light for his understanding. The rituals and myths of his various religions show forth his conviction that both he and the world in which he lives is dependent on what is above and beyond. His notions of this beyond are varied, they are often contradictory, and there is no consensus. But there is a consensus that there is a greater reality beyond this one of which we are a part.

2. Modern man’s turning from God    

 That is to say, the lesson of history and societies is that man instinctively turns to God, however he might imagine him. Now, while the broad sweep of human history gives testimony to this, there are periods of history - such the last few centuries of Western civilization - which show too that man can turn against and disown the God he naturally desires to know. Karl Marx in the nineteenth century asserted that religion was like opium. It gave feelings that shielded the person from the realities of his existence and kept him in a state of delusion. It impeded him from coming to grips with his true reality. For Marx Religion was the  opium of the people. The fact that it was so general did not, in his eyes, give to it any validity. It was just a universal mistake, a widespread affliction which blinded the peoples and held up proper progress in this world. Therefore religion had to be suppressed.

  In our day, and here in Australia, the phenomenon of man’s desire for God and his beliefs about him are often assumed to be just a sorry blindness. There appeared in The Australian newspaper (p.10) on September 6, 2006, an article reporting the views of a British professor of experimental psychology at Bristol University, a man by the name of Bruce Hood. Humans, he claimed, have evolved over tens of thousands of years to be inclined to supernatural beliefs. So religion is just the product of evolutionary forces. Religion and other forms of magical thinking continue to thrive, he maintained, because people have evolved into having a natural bias towards the supernatural. Religion was of the same order then, as he would regard it, as the evolution of the backbone or shoulders leading a primate to stand erect and move upright like a human. This religious evolution may have occurred in response to certain needs. The butterfly evolves in certain ways in order to gain certain benefits, and so too does the religious instinct. There is nothing objective in religion. It is just a bent which evolving man has come to have.

3. The voice of mankind opposes modern agnosticism and atheism  

  I mention this theory of a British experimental psychologist not to give it any standing but to show that even those who try to explain religion away as a purely subjective predisposition accept its universality as a phenomenon. It is just that he and many others who reject religion assert that  it involves no perception of anything objective. It is just a subjective inclination. Of course, a theory such as this is itself nothing more than an unjustified assumption that religion is just one aspect of man’s evolving make-up. But the voice of mankind denies this assertion. It is convinced that the supernatural is very real and that man must engage with it if he is to survive and flourish. He is in various ways subject to the supernatural. How he imagines and conceives the supernatural is another matter - this is where there is a vast amount of error in human history, and we know there is much error if only because  countless opposite opinions cannot be all be correct. But at least we can say this, that this instinctive human quest is implanted in man because God wants man to seek him and to come to know him.  

4. Our natural desire for God and our ability vaguely to know him   

 How do we come to a natural knowledge of God? Just as we learn the existence of many things by being told about them by trustworthy persons, so too in coming to know God we are profoundly helped by our education. We also and together with this come to an instinctive and natural knowledge of God by observing and reflecting on the visible creation, including ourselves. We test what we have been told and find it true. Various features of the world point to a great Source beyond it, and these features of the world indicate something of what this Source beyond us is like. The world’s lack of stability, its being in a state of constant change, its being subject to constant causation, its being ever transient and in no way necessary, its being ordered and its being a thing of beauty, all this points to an Origin and Cause of the universe which transcends it and which is the End to which it is oriented. The being of our universe and our own being appear to be radically dependent in a variety of ways on another great Agent which must be utterly necessary and independent. When man reflects on himself and especially on his spiritual soul with its longings for truth, for beauty, for moral goodness and for a happiness nothing on this earth seems capable of satisfying, he senses that he comes from and is made for what is beyond this world.  We do not come from ourselves. Our hopes are not satisfied by what we see around us. It all points to there being a Something beyond this scene of things which made us so and which summons us to himself. We come from God and we are meant for God. We yearn for friendship and love, and this yearning can be fully satisfied only by that which transcends us. I would very much recommend that we think about ourselves and our world from the point of view of our origin and purpose. How is it that we are here, and for what purpose? Is it all just a fluke, a chance event with no meaning? The phenomenon of the world is too vast and beautiful for that to be a satisfactory answer. We come from God and we yearn to know him and to be his friend. But how is this to be attained?

5. The obstacles impeding knowledge of God   

 The problem is that there are very many obstacles that can prevent us and much of human society from knowing God despite all the indications of him that creation offers to our reason. God does transcend creation and so there is an inherent difficulty in coming to know him. Moreover, our intellect is marred by the effects of sin, and our desires are also affected by sin, and we can easily turn aside from things we do not really like, and persuade ourselves that claims about God and about what he has revealed are doubtful or false. In real life the average person needs a revelation from God. He needs this Revelation about things that exceed the capacity of his very human mind but also he needs Revelation in order to know whatever is necessary for salvation with ease, with certainty, and without error.

6. God’s response to man’s need: Revelation   

 Fortunately God has intervened and revealed his plan for us. This has made it so much easier.  By an utterly free decision, the Creator and Lord of the universe has revealed himself to man. He has revealed himself and his plan for our benefit by sending both his Son and the Holy Spirit. The Scriptures give the broad outlines of the story of how God revealed himself. We are told in the Scriptures that our first parents were in direct communion with God and after their fall they were promised a future redeemer. Then we are told how at various points in human history God made himself known and he entered into  covenants with man. He selected an obscure man in the Middle East, Abraham by name, and made himself known to him, and in him chose an obscure people. Abraham was promised that through him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Centuries later he raised up Moses to lead this people out of slavery. Through him he gave them his Law and formed them more clearly into a people. Then progressively over hundreds of years both through words uttered to prophets and kings such as David, and through deeds performed in the sight of his chosen people he revealed who he was, what he was like, and what he intended to do to save him from his plight. He did this in order through them to draw all mankind into a share in his own divine life. But the full and final stage of God’s revelation came when he sent his Son, and through his Son the Holy Spirit. In Jesus God became man and dwelt among us. Revelation was now complete. He has no more to tell us. In Jesus we receive every heavenly blessing of truth and grace. The blessing long promised was a share in the life of Christ gives holiness here on earth and happiness in heaven hereafter. What we need do is embrace the truth and grace of Christ more and more completely. This we do in and through his Church of which he is the head.

7.  The gift of faith is a responsibility   

We are the beneficiaries of this tremendous fact, the fact of God revealing himself. So many have lived and do now live without the knowledge of what God has revealed. We so often take it simply for granted. We could have been born into a family without religion, or with a very weak religion, or into a non-Catholic form of Christianity, or into a non-Christian religion such as Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. The majority of the peoples of the earth do not live in the light of revelation. They do not share in the life of God that comes from belief in Christ and baptism. We do. Many do share in it but do little about it. We ought often meditate on the yearning of man to know God which is at the root of the religious quest so widespread in human history, on how man’s fallen heart leads him into religious error and sin, and on how the majority of mankind has always lacked the gift of faith. It is therefore a tremendous responsibility to live according to the light we have been granted and which is the answer to all man’s deepest yearnings. Most of all, it is a responsibility to bring the light of Catholic truth to those who do not have it. God desires that all be saved and come to know the truth of Christ. We have not been given the gift of revealed truth simply for our own benefit, just as the chosen people of Israel were not chosen simply for their own benefit, but so that all the nations would be blessed. Our Lord must be brought to all the nations.

8. The ways Revelation comes to us  

 The message and person of Christ has been transmitted to us from the very beginning of Christianity by means of the Church’s preaching, by the witness and teaching of so many members of the Church right down to our own parents. It has been transmitted down the ages to us through the Church’s institutions, worship and writings, including and especially through the inspired writings of the New Testament. That is to say, God’s Revelation reaches us and nourishes us through Scripture and Tradition. Scripture is God’s revelation in its inspired written form, and Tradition is the living transmission of God’s revelation in the entire life of the Church. Basically what is brought to us in these two fundamental ways is the living person of Christ and his teaching and life. He is the living reality who fills the Church by the power of his Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He entrusted himself and his teaching and all his heavenly blessings to the Apostles and to the infant Church under their guidance, and he continues to entrust himself to the Church and to the Apostles’ successors. The task of interpreting his person and his teaching has been given to the living teaching office of the Church alone, that is to say, to the successor of St Peter, the Pope, and to the bishops in communion with him. So the Catholic and the Catholic people look to the Pope and to the Bishops in union with him with love and veneration, being always ready to be guided by them on their way to heaven.

9. Our response   

The spiritual life of the Catholic is a matter of lovingly embracing all that God has revealed as it is explained and expounded by the Church, and then day by day living according to it and bearing witness to it before those with whom he lives and works. Let us resolve to do this.