What is Religion?

Dr. Warren Gage, The Alexandrian Forum

The word “religion” is derived from Latin and means “to tie or to bind together.”  In popular usage religion means the web of beliefs that inform how a worshiper understands God. Religion “ties together” how we think about God and how we behave as a consequence.

Last month we asked the question, “What is God?”  We asked the most fundamental questions about God.  We asked these questions in a search to identify the most basic theology.  We concluded that the best conjunction of reason and revelation finds expression in the word to Moses on Sinai, “I Am that I Am” (Exodus 3:14).  This word describes God as eternal (“I Am” is a stative verb not bound by time) and divine (“I Am that I Am” is a noun equivalent that is self-determined).  

The eternality and divinity of God is fundamental to the revelation evident to everyone, according to Paul the apostle, “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made”(Romans 1:20). 

Both biblical Testaments agree that reason applied to the creation reveals God’s invisible attributes. But God’s revelation of himself to Moses goes farther.  God tells his prophet, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people…and have heard their cry…I know their sorrows.” Here we learn much more about God. He is aware of human suffering and is compassionate toward the oppressed.  He sees and hears. Then he says to Moses, “I have come down to deliver them… and to bring them… to land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). This reveals a God who knows all things, who is compassionate toward us, who is willing to intervene to save us.

God reveals several amazing attributes to Moses in his love for Israel.  After Israel’s deliverance, “I Am” reveals more of his attributes. Showing his glory to Moses, “I Am” says, “The Lord God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in constant love and faithfulness, keeping covenant love with thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty” (Exodus 6:4). Wow! God is eternal, divine — but he is also merciful, gracious, loving, faithful, kind, forgiving sin, and just.  

How can our  heart not respond to a God like this? Who could imagine (note the word!) a greater God! One who sees and hears us when we cry out to him! One who is moved by his great love for us to intervene to save us! It should be evident that God has made the human heart to respond to him, to want to be like him.  As the Apostle Paul said, “We are his workmanship!” The literal Greek of Ephesians 2:10 reads, “We are his poetry!” We were made to be in his image and likeness (Genesis 1:27).


The Hitchhiker’s Fellow Traveler* Speaks Up

*(fellow traveler: a congenial but sometimes pesky Christian who thinks our destination is heaven [hopefully].)


Last month we began to think about God from what can be known about him by reason.  We imagined that we are all hitchhikers who awoke one day not knowing how we arrived on this rocket ship planet, hoping there is a Driver at the wheel. We examined what we as a human family have learned about God—primarily through reason. Along the way we discovered that there is a Christian passenger among us, whom we kept safely tied up in the back. This Christian can be a be a bit of a know-it-all and we didn’t want to have our conversation hijacked, much less our planetary rocket. But now it is probably safe to let the Christian loose for a bit. Now perhaps we can invite her to join our conversation and tell us how wrong we are and just how far off course we now find ourselves!

 Dare we ask? OK. What would the Christian religion tell us about our musings (note the word!) about God to this point.


  1. What is God? (If God is impersonal).

religionChristian: “So good to be untied! Thank you. And that duct tape! I had so much to say. Glad to be able to speak again. You guys really do need some help!  

“Well, your question is strange enough.  You already recognized that it makes no sense to pray to a God who is a “what”—can’t hear or see. But you didn’t seem to consider that everyone has an instinct to pray during times of trouble. Where do you think that behavior comes from?

Read What is God? to learn more

  1. Who is God? (If He [or She or Both] is personal).

“Moses revealed that God made us in his image (Genesis 1:27). That means God is the first Poet! A poet, like an idol-maker, creates images of God. 

“Moses wrote, ‘So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27). This statement, in Hebrew, is poetry. And this couplet says that it takes both male and female to constitute the image of God. Both are equal and both are necessary to reflect the nature of God.

“The Bible uses masculine pronouns for God, but the Bible also describes God by feminine imagery. Moses depicts God like a woman giving birth to the earth in the creation (Psalm 90:2). Jesus likewise describes himself like a mother hen in his love for Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37).  These ‘images’ powerfully express God’s nature. In fact, when we cry out to God for ‘mercy,’ the very word in Hebrew describing his kind inclination toward us (rachemim) is derived from the word for ‘womb’ (rechem).” 

We have to admit, however haltingly, that Christian has helped us here to understand her religious tradition. What about our next question?


  1. If God is Good, by the same logic, isn’t Evil also a God?

“If Good and Evil are both divine,” says Christian, “there can be no hope. All our aspirations are in vain. We can never prove by reason that Evil is not just as eternal as Good. Yet mankind is instinctively hopeful. Why? 

“The Bible affirms our hope by revealing that evil is not eternal. It had a beginning and will surely have an end. Evil began with a fallen creature (Ezekiel 28:13-15; 1 Timothy 3:6). There is a day when evil will end—being ‘swallowed up’ by good (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).”

This too, is an agreeable answer, we admit.  At least it gives us a reason to hope!


  1. Can God be known?  What are our capacities to know God?

“If God is our Creator and wants us to know him, isn’t it reasonable to assume he would create us with the capacities to understand him?  If we are created in his image, don’t we imagine a God who can hear and see as we do? Didn’t the Lord see the distress of Hagar and Leah and Israel in bondage? (Genesis 16:13, 29:31-33; Exodus 3:7). In every case God intervened to save them. So we can conclude that God both sees our sufferings and responds in kindness when he hears our cries!”  

Not a bad understanding of God, we admit.


  1. Can we know God by reason?  

“We can know some things by reasoning about God’s creation,” adds Christian. ‘We learn about God’s faithfulness when we see the sun every morning, and we live with the assurance that spring always follows winter. We see that God brings light out of darkness every morning, which teaches us to have hope. David saw the stars and understood them to be result of the playfulness of God’s mighty power (Psalm 8:3). He saw the sun bringing life and warmth to the world, and described the sun like an evangelist proclaiming God’s glory, a gospel needing no translation (Psalm 19:1-6).

“God brings bread forth from the earth to nourish us. He brings forth wine to gladden our hearts.  We learn that bread and wine are necessary to life when every supper becomes a Eucharist. God gives us rest in the nighttime to restore our strength. We lie down to sleep and arise with the sun every morning. Every day, it seems, God has us practice resurrection.”


  1. Can we know God by revelation (poetry)? What are its limits?

“God in the Bible always speaks in poetry.  All revelation is poetry—image “making.” We are made in God’s image.  We must know the limits of poetic “likeness” to preserve the truth of our creation. When Satan first tempted Eve in the garden, he promised that she would be “like God.” Satan’s deception was to use a simile of identity—he was offering her a false poetry. Eve was already “like God” in her creation. But she was not divine.  

“Poetic image making is the essence of theology, at the heart of conflicts of faith. Judaism broke from Christianity at the idea that God came in the image of man in Jesus (Hebrews 1:3).  The Roman Empire divided in two over the question of Christ’s divinity. Is Jesus “like” God or is he truly “God.” The Protestant church divided over the nature of the Eucharist. Christ said, “This is my body” (Luke 22:19). Is the bread actually Jesus’ body, or is it like his body? Poetry is clearly fundamental to theology. We need to become better poets!”  


  1. & 8.  Who is God by reason and revelation?

“John tells us that Jesus is both Reason (logos) and Revelation (arche) (John 1:1).  Paul tells us that Jesus is the Mediator between God (transcendent) and man (imminent) (1 Timothy 2:5).   Socrates looked for the Philosopher-King; Jesus comes to us as the Priest-King (Hebrews 4:14-16). 

“We are being conformed by the Spirit of God into the image of Christ who is the image of God (1 Corinthians 15:49).  We are being renewed after the image of the divine ‘I Am’ through him who said, ‘I Am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6). We are led by the one who said, ‘I Am the light of the world’ (John 8:12). We are fed by him who said, ‘I Am the bread of life’ (John 6:35). And we are led safely, even through death, by him who said, “I Am the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25).”


Now perhaps we can rest better, even on our planetary rocket, knowing that Jesus will bring his hitchhikers safely home to heaven, to the land flowing with milk and honey. 


Next month:  Is Jesus God?


Dr. Warren A. Gage, Th.M., J.D., Ph.D. is president of The Alexandrian Forum, which provides life-changing Biblical teaching. To learn more, visit alexandrianforum.org

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