Thursday, September 29, 2022

Religions and Religion

This essay is about something we all likely know, or at least should know. The term “religions” refers to various historical movements that captured the religious imagination of believers through human history. The term “religion” refers to these phenomena generically. Religions are only temporary manifestations. They come and go with time and competition. Religion as such, on the other hand, seems to be endemic to the human condition.

I do not know if this is because such a thing as a “God gene” exists,1 or because human beings are simply incurably superstitious.2 The God gene option explains that we are innately predisposed to religion in some form and cannot help ourselves. In other words, religion is a part of the human DNA. The second option explains that human beings cannot rid themselves of a predisposition to superstition. In other words, we seem to be naturally superstitious. Human history is awash with odd beliefs, supernatural beings, and gods that were invented to explain what were found to be unexplainable.3

            Here are two brief scenarios illustrating the rise and fall of two religions. The universal religion of Manichaeism was founded in the third century C.E. by the Iranian prophet Mani. The religion was universal in appeal and moved beyond the Mesopotamian region in which it was born. It was a successful competitor with the indigenous religions it encountered in the regions it entered before it passed from the pages of history. It survived for twelve hundred years and traces of the religion can still be seen datable to the 17th century C.E.4

            Christianity, a religion that emerged in the first century C.E. successfully competed with the indigenous religions of the Roman Empire with the help of the Roman Emperor Constantine. The fortunes of orthodox Christian churches prospered under Constantine. By a decisive victory at the Mulvian Bridge north of Rome Constantine became Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in 317 and in 323 its sole ruler. His victory at the Mulvian Bridge he credited to a vision of a single cross and the words “Be victorious in this.” He sent his soldiers into battle with the sign of a cross painted on their shields. Although outnumbered they won the battle, and Rome and Africa passed under Constantine’s control. Constantine saw the hand of the orthodox Christian God in the victory and to ensure continued support by that God the church was everywhere granted freedom from persecution.  He restored church property that had been confiscated, gave privileges to the clergy, and undertook a building program in the church’s behalf. It appears that Christianity initially received preferred status by the Roman government in the competition between religions.

Christianity was a way for Constantine to unify his empire and in 325 Constantine called and presided over the first Ecumenical Council of orthodox churches at Nicea, where in a climate of theological controversy separating the churches, the Trinitarian Creed was pushed through.5 Constantine further directed that the orthodox Bishop Eusebius procure for the churches, which Constantine intended to build, 50 copies of the Holy Scriptures.6 This action forced Eusebius to decide what books he would include in the New Testament, an issue that was then still in flux, as he reports in his Ecclesiastical History.7

After 440 C.E. no pagan names are listed among the elite at Rome,8 and over time the indigenous Roman religions were driven into the countryside. Today, so far as I know, no one worships Zeus/Jupiter any longer, and the indigenous religions of the Roman empire have effectively disappeared from the historical scene.

The passing away of even one religion raises the question of the permanency of any religion—even Christianity. It causes one to ponder what is meant by the term “true religion.”9

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2See, for example, Hedrick, Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 1-12, 20-22.

3Hedrick, “Forces at Work in the Garden of the Lord,” pp. 20-22 in Unmasking Biblical Faiths.

4Paul Mirecki, “Manichaeans and Manichaeism,” vol. 4:502-511 in The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992).

5R. P. Davis, “Constantine I,” Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed.; 1999), 378-80.


7Ecclesiastical History, III, xxv.

8Charles Hedrick, Jr., History and Silence. Purge and Rehabilitation of Memory in Late Antiquity (University of Texas; 2000), 57.


Wednesday, September 14, 2022

What makes a Successful Life?

This essay is obviously an opinion piece, for success like beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. There is no universal idea for what constitutes a successful life. Judging what is successful depends on the standards one applies to evaluate the journey taken between birth and death and upon who applies the standards. The dictionary definition of success is this: “turning out to be as was hoped for.” Hence, the specifics of what constitutes a successful life change with time, historical context, individual communities holding to a given definition, and individuals whose lives are being evaluated. What follows is my personal view of success in life.

            A successful life will have had some sense of purpose, a conscious sense that living is worth the struggle. In a successful life a person will not just have lived willy-nilly, blown hither and yon, by the winds of time, but his or her life will have had a focused direction and goals, however dimly defined. And one’s life will have accomplished something of what was aimed-at, however insignificant the accomplishments might seem to others. Life would have been characterized for the most part (we are not perfect creatures) by integrity. Integrity is defined as “the quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty, and sincerity.”1 Such a life would have touched others in a positive way and included close friends and family (we are social creatures). Individuals who succeed in life will have learned to live with who they are (self-acceptance) but strived to be self-actualized (aiming to achieve full development of one’s abilities and ambitions). I would like to think that this description could fit either the undereducated farmer or the over-educated college professor.

I personally know of only one description in the Bible of a successful life (it is surely out of date for our times): Prov 31:10-29. In this passage the successful person is extolled as wife, mother, and spousal companion:

Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all (Prov 31:29, RSV).

In Hebrew Bible the successful life was recognized in terms of its longevity (for example Methuselah, Gen 5:27; and Prov 3:1-2; 1 Kgs 3:10-14; Ps 61:6-7; Ps 91:14-16). The writers of the New Testament do not extol successful or prosperous (not necessarily financial) lives lived in the secular world. They only valued success in a life lived from a particular religious or spiritual perspective (3 John 2-4; 1 Cor 16:1-16; 2 Thess 1:3-4; 2 Tim 1:5-9). From the Bible’s perspective only the person who finds favor with God is truly successful in life.

            A successful life should not be judged on the basis of the extraordinary moments it contained but judged on one’s success in ordinary living. Most of us are ordinary folk and live ordinary lives. For example, being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor is an extraordinary accomplishment, but the rest of what the CMH winner does is simply ordinary living. People will choose different paths in life for many reasons and make a success of living (or not) in the different paths they chose.

            When one’s end-time nears, if one can look back over the years and say: “I strived to do the best I could with what I had to work with,” then one can reasonably think of his or her life as successful.2

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The third definition in Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 2002), s.v. integrity.

2In this statement I forgive the intemperance of youth and its wasted opportunity.