In a recent sermon ("Religion"), the minister at my Unitarian Universalist Church, after joking that religion is nefariously difficult to define (he told the one about the little girl whose teacher asks, "What are you drawing?" "God," the girl says. "But no one knows what God looks like," the teacher says. "They will in a minute," the girl quips.), offered his own definition of religion:
Religion is an intentional effort to engage with the intrinsic, insolvable, ineffable paradoxes in human experience.
Honestly: are we all, we Americans--not we academics--are we all doing that? Might we? Should we? This criticism isn't aimed, as most of my criticisms are, at academics. However obscure or off-the-mark I think their scholarship is, most academics are engaging the mysteries of experience in an intentional way. But are we calling the rest of America to join us, or are we lowering ourselves to their level?
I have nothing against comedy, especially among those who are little-r "religious," like most all of my academic friends. But America generally, it seems to me, would do well to rediscover its seriousness, and I think academics might be in a position to lead the way.
And the "religious" are not off the hook either, regardless of whether they cherish Melville or the Bible or Levinas or The Upanishads or Emerson or Schopenhauer overmuch. The minister concluded,
Religion's most common error is mistaking the pointer for that which is being pointed to. It's a bit like falling in love with a photograph rather than the one who is pictured. Or a little like going to a museum and paying attention to the frames rather than appreciating the art... so for example when certain religious people forget that their sacred texts are ways of trying to point to a life within, and instead start to think of their texts as what really matters, they are mistaking a pointer for that to which it points--a mere means for the real deal.