In Our Image and Likeness: How Does Religion Facilitate a Relationship with the Holy?



If religion is to create minimum conditions for a connection with the Deity that is meaningful and somewhat real,[1] religion must necessarily be conceptualized and implemented in particular cultural contexts where such a relationship may be experienced, not in a vacuum; otherwise, its claims to facilitate such a connection would become obscure abstractions, a bunch of weird ideas floating up in the air or crazy aspirations no one would be able to understand or relate to.  Contextualization is the key.  Thus, to be relevant, communicable, and understood, religious faith needs to be mediated.

It is obvious that for this type of contextualization to be viable, religious communities are required to heavily depend on what cultures can offer as “rough materials,” namely, as resources of meaningful interactions, otherwise how would religious ideas be conveyed and understood if this is not done on the basis of what people are familiar with or know? In this process whereby religion assimilates and reformulates the contributions of cultures to mediate the relationship with the Sacred, a concomitant tactic will be the use and appeal to all human senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing, and sight), at the service of a sixth and more important one; namely, the pre-conceived belief in a metaphysical realm and unknown, very powerful forces therein.[2]

Within the bounds of all the above ideas, how does religion initiate,  cultivate and develop a relevant relationship with the Sacred that is contextually-grounded and relevant to the believers and potential converts?

To begin with, with the presupposition that there is superior or more profound reality out there, I believe that religions, in practical, arbitrary and conventional ways,  sacralize social reality in light of what it assumes to be true about God.  Colored by this assumption, certain people, ideas, values, objects, places, times, animals, and symbols are no longer ordinary or secular, but filled with ultimacy and, because of it, set apart or see as holy and mysterious.

More specifically, and through its many cultural manifestations, religions create and resortsto the following general, tangible strategies to create and fortify a bond with the Deity:

1)   A series of special rituals and symbols that serve as vehicles whereby religions      communicate particular ways of looking at the world and the people’s relationship with the Holy, primarily in the context of worship or adoration.

2)   A body of formal, mandatory values and beliefs, usually crafted as creeds, resolutions, and doctrines, to meet the spiritual and intellectual life-and-death needs of the groups.  These are not simple teachings or lessons, but non-negotiable precepts that must be obeyed.

3)   Oral traditions and/or texts that serve as objective foundations of people’s beliefs, values, and expected behaviors, which serve as ideological foundation and equally give to its members a sense of belonging, identity, and purpose.  The creation and use of myths have an important place and role to play in these forms of communication.

4)   A moral system derived from people’s relationship with the Holy, which contains rules and regulations to help people distinguish between right and wrong in order to facilitate their interaction with others and develop their character.

5)   Organized sects (with varying degrees of popularity and following) within the bounds of official institutional structures that provide order and meaning.  Internally speaking, world religions are not uniform. What we find is different, and sometimes conflicting, understandings of what it means to be a faithful believer.  There is no such a thing as a religion out there to be easily identifiable, but different and sometimes conflicting versions of it.

6)   Proselytizing strategies whereby to recruit, keep, and increase the number of followers to give continuity to the faith community.  The initiatives to meet these goals vary considerably from religion to religion.  Without tactics or strategies of growth, religious groups would disappear.

7)   And finally, particular worldviews that embody and justify what the religion is and does, which may be inferred from everything it stands for.  These worldviews influence, legitimate, and strengthen the believers’ ideology, and their place and role in the world.

All the above visible and concrete mediations  are common ground; they define a large number of religions in the world and, therefore, constitute relative criteria we should use in our analysis to better understand them.[3]   But let us not forget that, because every religion is a social construct seeking to facilitate a faith-encounter with a Supreme Reality in context, they will all develop their own unique personality in their understandings the Holy and the applications of such understandings.    This means that we can only understand world religions when we take into account the particular settings, circumstances, and histories where they all emerged from and live their faiths.  It is imperative we are aware of  this crucial issue.  For this very reason, religions must always be studied in terms of similarities and differences.  And this is what the field of Comparative Religions does to our benefit.

[1] For a more formal definition of religion, please see my post “What is Religion? Naming a Faith-Driven Experience,”

[2] One implication of this statement is that we cannot fully understand religion without understanding its culture and vice versa.

[3] This means that all religions may and should be studied focusing on these seven areas.

About amartinez

Dr. Aquiles E. Martinez is Professor of Religion (Biblical Studies) and Coordinator of the Religion and Philosophy Programs at Reinhardt University. Ordained in the United Methodist Church, Dr. Martinez has dedicated a good part of his life to equip pastors and church leaders in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States, with the appropriate skills, knowledge, and experiences so they can serve their communities effectively. In addition to his many books, articles, and essays published in English and Spanish, Dr. Martinez has served several churches and the global community as an effort to help people develop significant relationships with God and their neighbors, especially with marginalized communities.
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