Religion–The Experience of Life’s Wholeness

“Men and women today live in an imbalance.  Our emphasis is upon the practical, the rational, the logical.  We are alien to the world which can be known only by experience, by feeling….  There is the experience of love, beauty, tragedy which are an integral part of human existence.”

In this sermon, delivered on October 12, 1969, Rabbi Olan teaches that what religion can restore to our lives is “a balance between reason and feeling”.  He may have surprised some of his listeners when he said, “Religion is not theology or philosophy, it’s not faith or creed.  Religion, in its essence, is the experience of the wholeness of life.”  This statement is all the more remarkable because Rabbi Olan had made a deep study of philosophy and theology, and often emphasized their importance in his preaching.  It is no accident that the 1977 collection of essays honoring him was titled A Rational Faith.

Rabbi Olan is clear that what he is advocating is balance, not a celebration of the irrational, which he associates with Nazism.  However, that balance must include the experience of authentic ecstasy, which he acknowledges many people find frightening.  Writing in 1969 at the height of the drug culture, he states that young people who experiment with marijuana and LSD are yearning for “peak experiences” that are “genuine and unfettered” instead of the conventional experiences that mainstream society offers them.

Rabbi Olan quotes the Hungarian-born artist György Kepes, with whom he worked closely on the design of the new Temple Emanu-El in Dallas: “Instead of using all that we have, eyes, heart, brain… we react with frantic one-sided intensity… [and] lose contact with the energy and richness the emotions may provide.”

Rabbi Olan concludes that “What modern religion desperately needs is the talent to fuse reason and emotion into an experience which will affect the lives of [people] toward good ends.”  As you read this sermon, reflect on what you hope that these good ends could be today.

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*