The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Monday, June 16, 2014

Part 8 of Let's Read Herman Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics

Religious Foundations

This could be a very long section, but for the sake of brevity I will largely deal with the summary given at the beginning of this chapter and interact with it. 

    The meaning of the Christian religion cannot be determined from the disputed etymology of the word “religion.” The Bible provides no general idea of religion but covenantally presents God’s revelation as its objective side and the fear of the Lord as the subjective side. God is to be revered and his revelation is to be believed and obeyed. Biblical religion is in the first place a matter of the heart; it is never exhausted by external observance.
    According to Thomas Aquinas, religion is not a matter of theological virtues (faith, hope, love), which have God as their direct object, but of the moral virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance), in which God is the end. The actual object in religion here is the devotion dutifully offered to God. Religion belongs to the virtue of justice, it is the virtue by which human beings offer to God the devotion and worship that is due to him.
    The Reformation theologians distinguish more clearly piety as the principle and worship as the act of religion. Piety is first of all a state of being, a habit and disposition leading human beings to worship God. Schleiermacher even defined religion in terms of piety, as the “absolute feeling of dependence.” While this definition is inadequate, it also contains elements of truth. We human creatures are radically dependent on God. Subjectively this is known as faith, faith that leads to service, acts of obedience, and love. True religion consists of absolute trust in God and a sincere desire to live in obedience to him.
At some places Bavinck seems to say that religion is NOT related to other human beings, but only to God directly. He seems to think of true religion as James would describe it (visiting widows and orphans and the like) as the fruit of religion rather than the essence of religion. Such a hard division I do not find helpful, if that is indeed what Bavinck intends. When one consciously does all (eat, drink, or whatsoever you do, 1 Cor. 10:31) to the glory of God, then everything is in essence an act of worship. And that is what we are called to do. So for the believer who is trying to glorify God in holding the door open for a little old lady, that is righteous and indeed religious. For the unbeliever, or even the believer, who holds the door open for any reason other than glorifying God, the act is unrighteous and not religious. It is sinful.  
    The modern age has given rise to a scientific, historical, or psychological comparative study of all religions. While all religions do have formal similarities (revelation, cult, dogma), no generic religion exists, only concrete ones, all with conflicting claims. Efforts to arrive at the essence of religion in general have led to meager results with vague proposals, and the search must be judged a dead end. There can be no escape from the need to judge the content of specific religions as “true” or “false.” Dogmatic judgments cannot be avoided.
Today we see many either abandoning religion altogether or saying all are equally true. It is irrational, but people say this because they do not actually view religion as an objective reality, but rather as a subjective creation of one's own imagination. Religion for many today is just a construct man creates to help him get through life, and with this comes the notion that man is the measure of all truth. Put those two things together and you can have people saying that all religions are true, even though they contradict one another. That is because truth is now bound up in the individual person, and is not an external, eternal reality that goes beyond the natural world.  
    Anthropologically, what is the place of religion in the human psyche? Is religion primarily knowledge, morality, or feeling? Much modern thought, notably idealism, has an intellectualistic view of religion. For Hegel, the entire world is an unfolding of mind. Religion is a form of knowledge superseded only by philosophy. The Kantian tradition, however, defines religion voluntaristically as moral conduct and locates its seat in the human will. Others, like Schleiermacher, influenced by Romanticism, consider religion as primarily aesthetic and locate it in human feeling. While intellect, morality, and feeling do play significant roles in true religion, it should not be reduced to a single faculty. True religion embraces the whole person in relation to God. Religion is central to all human cultural acts and products: science, morality, and art.
Bavinck does give a primacy to the knowledge of God, and to man's intellect. He rightly says that his knowledge of God moves our emotions and directs our wills. Bavinck here has some very helpful things to say about art. He says that religion is the foundation for the true, the good, and the beautiful. It gives unity, coherence, and life to the world and its history. Bavinck says: 

"Nevertheless, religion is distinguished from all the forces of culture and maintains its independence from them all. Religion is central; science, morality, and art are partial. While religion embraces the whole person, science, morality, and art are respectively rooted in the intellect, the will, and the emotions. Religion aims at nothing less than eternal blessedness in fellowship with God; science, morality, and art are limited to creatures and seek to enrich this life with the true, the good, and the beautiful. Religion, accordingly, cannot be equated with anything else. In the life and history of humankind, it occupies an independent place of its own, playing a unique and all-controlling role. Its indispensability can even be demonstrated from the fact that at the very moment people reject religion as an illusion they again turn some creature into their god, thus seeking to compensate for their religious need in some other way.

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, p. 269). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Bavinck also says of religion and art:  

"But equally dangerous is the confusion of religious and aesthetic feeling, of religion and art. The two are essentially distinct. Religion is life, reality; art is ideal, appearance. Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it. Art does not atone for our guilt, or wipe away our tears, or comfort us in life and death. It never turns the beyond into the here and now. Only religion does. It is and conveys reality. It bestows life and peace. It poses the ideal as the true reality and makes us participants in it. Aesthetic feeling, accordingly, can never take the place of religious feeling, anymore than art can replace religion. Granted, the two are connected. From the very beginning religion and art went hand in hand. The decline of the one brought with it the decay of the other. The ultimate driving force of art was religion. In recent years this fact is being acknowledged by increasing numbers of people who keenly realize the indispensability of religion to art. In religion, specifically in worship, the imagination has its rightful place and value. “Also the imagination, mind you, is involved in the religious process, not as the generative principle, but only as the principle of experience. The power of the imagination can never do more than shape the already available materials and drives; it is powerless to give birth to religion itself.” The stage is by no means cut out to be a moral institution (Schiller). The theater cannot replace the church, nor is Lessing’s Nathan a suitable substitute for the Bible (Strauss). The ideals and creations of imagination cannot compensate for the reality that religion offers. Religious feeling, however intimate and deep it may otherwise be, is pure only when it is evoked by true ideas."
I would argue that true art must reflect reality. By that I do not mean to say that C.S. Lewis's Narnian Chronicles were wrong because they were abstract and had talking animals. In fact I would say that they were right in having talking animals. Animals talk in Scripture. The realm of the ideals is a reality because the ideal is a reality in heaven. Yes, it is a reality in heaven, and it is a reality that the kingdom of God is come, and is coming, to earth. The renewed creation includes the wolf lying down with the lamb, and a child leading them (Isa. 11:6-9). The Bible leads us at times to imagine glory, to imagine a harmonious world, where children play with what were once violent creatures, but now no harm is done on all God's holy mountain, because everyone has knowledge of the Lord. So art can and should portray reality in this sense. Art is now serving God, as it should be. Writing, painting, dancing, films, music, it all should conform to reality, and that reality is to be found in Scripture. But art ripped from the form of Scripture, from redemptive history, will always fall into unreality, to devilish notions, and into man-centeredness. Just look at Hollywood and Facebook, and the incredibly amount of pornography being consumed. Man is at the center of these things, and God is nowhere to be found. An echo chamber of delusions is the fine art of today. Christians need to step into this madness and speak truth with art. In so doing, beauty will return and God will be glorified.   

Bavinck, H., Bolt, J., & Vriend, J. (2003). Reformed dogmatics: Prolegomena (Vol. 1, pp. 267–268). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Bavinck continues: 
    Scientific, historical attempts to explain the origin of religion fail. Neither fear, priestly deception, human weakness, the search for happiness, nor ignorance, is a satisfactory explanation. Attempts to account for religion as a “self-assertion of the life of the Spirit” makes God and religion a human creation, invented to satisfy human need. God is humanity’s servant.
    Finally, the scientific, historical study of religions cannot find the answer to the origin of religion—only revelation can. Religion cannot be understood without God, and to know him he must reveal himself to us. Revelation is religion’s external principle of knowing. Revelation and religion are not alien to human nature, however. Rather, as God’s image bearers, human beings are by nature religious. Hence religion is a universal reality. We are created for God. Religion exists because God is God and wants to be honored. To that end he reveals himself to us and makes us subjectively fit to know him.
I will say that I did not find Bavinck's section on why scientific, historical attempts to explain the origin of religion have always failed wholly convincing. He seemed to revert in some ways to the position that if God is actually to exist, then we cannot say that man, due to some need or desire or confusion, invented Him with their own minds. Who is to say that man couldn't have done this? Just because we do not wish that to be the case doesn't mean that that is not the case. Bavinck does offer valid reasons for why it is absurd to believe that man fabricated God's existence, but I think more could have been said. Many skeptics and atheists today will say that the primitive man conceived of God out of fear of the natural elements, like the sun or fire

Bavinck says religion is universal because we indeed are made in the image of God, to reflect Him, and God has revealed Himself to us. This of course makes the most sense to me, but unbelievers will always try to find a different explanation until or unless God softens their hearts. 

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