What is the “true religion”? And out of humankind’s religious traditions, which religion or religions are “true”? I was recently asked some questions like these. Certainly different people will offer different answers to these questions. Some will say my religion is the only true religion so all other religions are false. Others will say no religion is a true religion because all religions are false. Still others, like myself, will offer another answer. So what I have to share is my perspective on these questions, which may have its controversies. Since we are dealing with very rich subjects, first I will present some relevant definitions and then explore some additional notes and implications on what is the true religion.
Definitions of “religion,” “true,” and “God”
Let’s begin with sorting out some relevant definitions. First of all, what is “religion”? For better or for worse, there is no simple answer to this question. Even religious scholars acknowledge that “religion” is notoriously difficult to comprehensively define. So my definitions here are not intended to be comprehensive. The following is simply intended to provide some modest definition of the nature and purpose of religion.
Bearing that in mind, different people will once again claim religion is different things. Some say religion is about theological doctrines pertaining to God and sin and the afterlife. So a person is religious if he or she accepts a religion’s theology. Others say religion is about doing rituals, prayer, worship, so participating in a religious community’s practices makes someone religious. Others say religion is about having a meaningful spiritual encounter with God, which means a person is religious if he or she has had some kind of mystical experience or awakening. Yet others will say religion is about community, and so a person is religious by belonging to a religious group. And still others will say religion is about being a good person, which means following a religion’s ethics makes an individual religious.
To some degree, all of these understandings can each be partially right. But how can that be? Ninian Smart proposed a useful model of religions as multidimensional cultures. Smart claimed that historic religions tend to have the following interrelated dimensions, which include the 1) mythical, 2) ritual, 3) doctrinal, 4) experiential, 5) ethical/legal, 6) social/institutional, and 7) material. What is relevant to see here is simply the multidimensional complexity of religious traditions. Religions are partly complex cultural traditions. So as much as some may try to reduce religion only to doctrine, or only to ethics, or only to rituals, or only to some other single dimension, it cannot be. Because religion is broadly concerned with a whole way of life that permeates and encompasses the individual and the collective, as well as the public and the private spheres of human activity across time. This always needs to be kept in mind with religion.
In addition to religion being a complex cultural way of life, knowing some of the origins of the word also gives some insight into the purpose of religion. The word partly comes from the ancient Latin word religare, which means “to bind.” What this word implies is a relational bond or between one thing and another, or one person and another. Accordingly, one helpful way of understanding the nature and purpose of “religion” is that religion is concerned with a person’s relationships with self, others, nature, and most importantly God. In human life these relationships exist in an overlapping, interrelated, dynamic equilibrium, each mutually influencing one another.
We often think of religion as a static noun. But in this respect, which is one of the most important respects, I would propose it is more appropriate to understand religion as an active, dynamic verb. So “religion” may be partly defined as an active way of life that is concerned with bettering one’s relationships with self, others, nature, and God. It is this active, instinctive concern that has partly given rise to the many complex religious cultures of humankind, which each in similar yet diverse ways address our intrinsic human desire to know and improve our place in the context of life’s relationships.
Now what does it mean for a religion to be “true”? The concept of what is “true” is likewise surprisingly rich. So here we will only explore some relevant considerations. Certainly what is “true” can be defined as what is “in accordance with fact or reality.” This is generally the understanding modern people assume of what’s true, and this sense certainly has some relevance to the task of determining what is the true religion, since religion’s often make truth-claims about the nature of reality. This definition treats what is “true” as an adjective that can be applied to some noun. But if “religion” is most importantly an active way of life—or again, more of a verb—than what is “true” needs to be understood as more of an adverb as it applies to religion in this sense.
If you look up “true” in dictionaries, you will find a variety of definitions. One online source I looked at had more than 20 definitions listed, which speaks to the richness of the subject. As indicated, understanding what is “true” as an adverb is arguably most important when coming to understand what is the true religion. As an adverb, “true” can mean “straight” or “accurate” or “in alignment” or “without deviation.” For example, in the context of building a house, one could say the frame of the house is true if it is built straight and in proper alignment. Or in the context of shooting an arrow from a bow, one could say the shot is true if it travels straight and accurately towards its intended target without deviation. The same could also be said for shooting a bullet from a gun.
As we would expect based on this understanding, in the Judeo-Christian traditions the ancient word for “sin” was originally an archery term that meant “to miss the mark.” An archer would “sin” if his arrow deviated and hit anything other than its intended target, the bullseye. Sin is therefore understood in terms of an activity in relationship to a targeted goal. And in the context of religion, the ultimate target of our human pursuits is of course God. This understanding of “sin” perfectly fits with the understanding outlined thus far of what it means for a religion to be “true.” Sin is, by definition, both the direction and outcome of any action that is untrue in relation to its proper target. Or put even more simply, sin is what is not true.
Human beings are always instinctively oriented towards actively pursuing some goal or end. We humans are goal-directed creatures by nature. Religion is likewise always concerned with understanding and ordering our proper goals and pursuits. More specifically, a religion may be said to be “true” to the degree that it orients one towards self, others, nature, and God in a way that promote wellbeing and growth in each relationship across time. Accordingly, religion is untrue to the degree it fails to do this or, even worse, actually misdirects and disorients its adherents in ways that create disordered, dysfunctional, “sinful” relationships.
All of this raises the additional question, what is “God”? Out of the areas considered thus far, the notion of God or the Divine is perhaps the richest and hardest to comprehensively define. The Divine is called many different things by many different people and religious traditions, such as God, Yahweh, Christ, Brahman, Allah, Tao, Nirvana, Satcitananda, etc, etc. And then each tradition has its own rich traditions that offer further words and images and ideas for the Divine. Islam has its “99 names of Allah,” just to give one example. These understandings of the Divine certainly are not completely identical, which is to some degree unsurprising and even expected, if they are in fact variously oriented towards a truly transcendent and therefore ultimately unnamable form of truth, goodness, and being. We should therefore expect the see some diversity surrounding the universal unity of humankind’s historic religions if this is the case.
Beginning with a modest definition of God is necessary since many religious and nonreligious people fight and divide over doctrinal minutia without noticing the basic concerns they broadly share in common. We can become so focused on the details that we miss the big picture; so focused on the different details of different leaves of different branches that we miss the forest for the trees. So what I would offer is more of a modest, minimalist (which is still quite significant) definition of “God” for our purposes here. I would propose our understandings of God are roughly aiming towards the same target insofar as they identify the Divine with the highest, most perfect conceivable form of truth, goodness, and being, and therefore the highest end that human beings can possibly imagine and pursue. So for the purpose of understanding what is the true religion, “God” may be modestly defined as the highest possible form of truth, good, and being a person can imagine and pursue. And given that God transcends what we humans can completely understand, and given that we humans are self-transcending creatures that continually extend ourselves beyond what we currently understand, we should expect our understandings of God to evolve as we evolve in our ongoing pursuit of God.
With all of this in mind, I would broadly propose that the “true religion” is any way of life which promotes actively orienting oneself in relationship towards self, others, nature, and God in such a way supports harmony, alignment, and growth in each relationship simultaneously through human life across time. True religion is therefore concerned with dynamically ordering and organizing one’s significant relationships under God for the sake of human flourishing, with God being modestly defined as the highest form of truth, good, and being a person can possibly pursue. This understanding therefore sees the true religion primarily as a dynamic, growth-oriented activity in the context of our multiple, overlapping, interpenetrating, evolving human relationships.
Take a look at this image for a moment. What do you see when you look at this picture?
Giusto de’ Menabuoi, Paradise (dome fresco) c. 1378 Fresco Baptistery, Padua
One thing I see is a bullseye, with everyone standing around side by side, all oriented and directed towards the same unifying end. It is a picture of social relationships in the context of their common relationship to God in Christ, as understood in Christian tradition. It is a picture of some of the ideal relational arrangements that should be shared between people and Christ, the highest known form of truth, good, and being for Christians. Incidentally, Christ is also pictured at the highest point of this domed ceiling. So individuals who stand and look upwards upon this magnificent work of art can be filled with a sense that they too are participating in the living reality of what is being pictured. Indeed, none of the features of this artwork are arbitrary.
Some notes and implications on the “true religion”
Now let’s further explore some notes and implications of this understanding of the true religion, in no particular order. One thing that needs to be noted in relation to all of this is that every person and humanmade tradition is imperfect and therefore imperfectly related to self, others, nature, and God through time. The human desire to know and live in truth, goodness, and fullness of life is a profoundly basic instinct. This basic desire may certainly become obstructed or corrupted by other desires that can misdirect a person towards various ends of misery and ruin. But everyone nevertheless has some intrinsic sense of what is true and good and ultimately desirable, as faint as it may be, which they imperfectly act on. So I am imperfectly oriented towards my relationships with myself, others, nature, and God. You are imperfectly oriented towards your relationships with yourself, others, nature, and God. We all are and so are all our religions.
Second, this definition of the “true religion” transcends typical interreligious and nonreligious dividing lines. This “true religion” cannot be restricted or confined to the boundaries of one particular historic tradition. By this understanding, it would be possible, as far as I can tell, for self-identified Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, etc to be more or less imperectfly oriented towards pursuing the highest possible form of truth, good, and life that continually exceeds their current understandings. And, likewise, it would be possible for self-identified Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, atheists, etc to be oriented towards some lesser, non-transcendent end that may be functionally worshipped in such a way that continually reinforces their current understandings, which will sooner or later end in ruin and extinction if it goes unchanged.
So this understanding of what it means to practice the “true religion” means, ironically enough, that a true religious practitioner cannot be identified simply by the religious or nonreligious label they may outwardly identify with. That’s just too superficial. Notice also this understanding does not require accepting what would typically be thought of as supernatural beliefs or claims. I believe it is possible for a self-described atheist to be more or less as imperfectly oriented towards their relationships with self, others, nature, and the highest form of good they can conceive of as a religious person may be. I’m sure some atheists are doing better in these regards than I am.
Third, this understanding means religion is not simply a matter of accepting a certain set of abstract ideas, despite how much some overly doctrinaire religious people may make it out to be. Religion is, again, a whole way of life in relation to an ultimately desirable end. And the degree to which a religious way of life is “true” is the degree to which it is aiming towards God. Religion is not just about sorting out the right theology in your head.
Fourth, when religions are viewed as entire ways of life directed towards personal, social, natural, and spiritual growth in relation to God, transcendent truth, goodness, and being, the criteria for evaluating what is a “true religion” partly becomes the degree to which a religious way of life supports holy and healthy living in each of these relationships. Likewise, the degree to which any religious way of life fails to do this or does the opposite, it is “untrue” by definition. And since every humanmade religious tradition and movement is imperfect, each contain elements that are true and elements that are untrue, which is one reason why religions, like people, should be subject to continual reform and development as they relate to self, others, nature, and God.
The measure of the true religion is, in the final analysis, more practical over theoretical, more pragmatic than speculative, more outcome-oriented than dogma-oriented. Theory, dogma, ritual, and tradition have their place. But in the true religion, theory always is meant to apply to practice in ways that enhance wellbeing and growth. Otherwise theory is useless, if not damnable. For the religiously doctrinaire person who hates their neighbour is worse than the apparently nonreligious atheist who loves their neighbour. Indeed, the end of theology isn’t more theology, nor ritual more ritual, nor law more law, nor culture more culture. The proper end of all religious activities whether theology, ritual, law, or culture is more truth and goodness that leads to transformed living and human flourishing.
The only place where the word “religion” is used in the New Testament scriptures of the Christian tradition is in the following passage. “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” This speaks to true religion’s concern with bettering one’s social relationship, as well as keeping oneself pure by being well oriented towards self and God.
And fifth, any religion that is ultimately concerned with preserving its own cultural traditions above all else—instead of evolving in pursuit of transcendent truth, goodness, and being—is not a “true religion” in this most important respect. Judeo-Christian tradition would say religion has become an idol in this case. For any way of life that is oriented towards anything less than God is engaged in idolatry. Idolatry involves deifying and worshipfully relating to some non-transcendent object, whether material or mental, as if it were God when it is, in fact, not God.
Any way of life, whether outwardly religious or nonreligious, is ultimately destined for ruin and extinction if it is oriented towards some non-transcendent end, whatever it may be. For idolatry is a way of life that has a limit, a ceiling, a boundary that will sooner or later rigidly restrict it from evolving beyond its set capacity. This is why when religious cultures are treated as ends in themselves, they eventually become rigid, restrictive, regressive, and resistant to change. Only a way of life that is oriented towards a truly transcendent end is ultimately worthy of human devotion and glorifying to God.
This speaks to religion’s need to promote a proper relationship with religion itself, for religion is not religion’s end, but at best religious traditions can be supportive means for pursuing God in the context of human life. Any religion that exists for its own self-preservation, or any religion that restricts the pursuit of God, is not a true religion. Some Buddhists say religion, at its best, is like a finger pointing at the moon. This is exactly right.
One of the most urgent tasks of true religion today is to establish good relationships with people of other religions or no religion. A great deal of interreligious conflict is motivated by forms of tribal arrogance and pride backed by a false sense that one’s own religion is absolutely true to the exclusion of all other religions. Perhaps if we formed better relationships with those outside of our own religion, we could further discover the real meaning of true religion, which transcends and unifies us across lesser tribal differences.