The Life of Virtue – Religion
Religion is not a theological virtue. This is the first and perhaps the most important thing to be said about it. Faith, hope and charity are theological virtues: they put us in direct contact with God and, as supernatural gifts, enable us to live the divine life in ways that befit creatures who have become partakers of the divine nature. ‘No longer do I call you servants’, says Jesus in John 15:15, ‘I call you friends because I have made known to you everything I have learned from my Father’.
Religion is a virtue of the creature and the servant of God, things we remain, of course, as adopted sons and daughters in the family of God. Even as God’s children, sharing the life of Christ and so raised to a certain ‘equality’ with God, we continue to owe God a debt of worship. We must still acknowledge our position as creatures before God and be ready to submit to God in all things (as indeed was Christ). Faith increases our awareness of this duty of justice – to render to God what is due to Him as God – and love urges us to fulfill it even more perfectly. St Augustine says that the acts of faith, hope and charity themselves are a very special part of the debt of homage or worship we must continue to pay to God as His creatures.
Of course we can never repay God for what God has given us so religion is not justice in the strict meaning of the term. It moves us to gratitude and respect towards One to whom we are forever indebted. Its characteristic attitudes are respect and reverence, thanksgiving and devotion, combined with the desire to serve God in whatever ways He asks us to serve Him.
Hans Urs von Balthasar writes that the first presupposition of ancient paganism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity was ‘that man, though he is not God, can nevertheless be defined by his immediate relation to God or the Absolute. The man of Plato, as well as that of the Greek dramatists and the Stoics, is a being who can and must be aware of the Divine. Man experiences himself as a frontier between this world and the world above: as one who cannot feel completely at home in the Cosmos and is haunted by a longing to return to the Absolute’ (The God Question and Modern Man, pp.64-65). The virtue of religion is practised by all who are not numb to this awareness of the Divine, who cultivate this experience of the frontier, and who nurture this longing for the Absolute. Sparks of the Word are found in all cultures and support acts of prayer and sacrifice in all religions. But these sparks are only recognised as such by those who have come to see in Christ ‘the light of the world’ and ‘the plan for the fulness of time’.