Some Ingredients of Religious Faith

“…No one communion possesses the full understanding of the nature of God.  The differences are beneficial for they enlarge our view and give us a richer comprehension of God.”

In this sermon, delivered on January 26, 1969, Rabbi Olan identifies five elements that he sees as common to all religious faiths.  He thinks in terms of a plurality of religions, since “no religious community possesses the whole truth.”  Therefore, he takes the strong position that it is “arrogant and blasphemous” to try to convert someone from one religion to another! 

Rabbi Olan embraces the diversity of religious experience (even as he looks for universals): “We are different one from another in our emotional reactions, in our tendency towards the mystic and the rational, in our experiences and environment.”  He also recognizes that people may strive to live up to a high moral standard without believing in God (he thinks of Buddhism).

His five elements are:

1. Theism.  For Rabbi Olan, to be a religion, a belief system must be a “God faith” (although people’s understanding of God is necessarily incomplete).

2. Moral law.  Rabbi Olan firmly believes in universal principles of good and evil: religion “calls upon [people] in the name of God to do good and not evil that they may live.”  However, just as our understanding of God keeps evolving, so does our understanding of His[1] moral law: “What is right or what is wrong has changed as men experienced more and learned more.  Our understanding of morality, as that of God, will always change.”

3. Free choice.  Rabbi Olan categorically rejects determinism: “In the realm of morality, man is free to choose and he must take the consequences of his choice.”

4. Life has a purpose.  Just as God has imbued His creation with moral law, so He has given life a goal and a purpose.  For Rabbi Olan, because this purpose is God’s purpose, it must be good, which gives him hope: “Religion must be hopeful because it begins with the declaration that God really is.”  A pessimistic religion would be a contradiction in terms.

5. Individual death is not the end.  While each of us will die as individuals, we are all part of God’s eternal universe, so in that sense our deaths are not the end.

Faith in God; recognizing moral law (and attempting to follow it); freedom of choice; seeking to understand a purpose in life; something beyond individual death: Rabbi Olan’s hope is that these five elements of religion have the potential to “bind us in a true brotherhood of believers”.

[1]      Rabbi Olan refers to God as “He” and to people as “men”.  We have retained that usage in order to present his language unchanged.

Follow this link to read the sermon text.
Follow this link to listen to the audio recording.

*Written by Lionel S. Joseph and Frances M. Olan*