What Is Religion? Dig Into the Study of Religion

In his commencement address to the 1980 graduating class of Eastern College, the very talented and renowned actor and writer Alan Alda challenged the graduates to "Dig Into The World." He said that "Life is absurd and meaningless - unless you make something of it... You can use the skills of your profession [to] dig into the world and push it into better shape."

Those words are the essence of what I believe is sound advice for students of religious studies: Dig into the study of religion! Dig beneath the use of terms of the trade such as epistemology, rectification, symbol, ritual, totem, ontology. Delve into the human encounter with ultimate reality that engendered such words as observers attempted to express the inexpressible. Recognize that such encounters have greater significance than subject matter for scholarly writings - they often signal the intersection of two worlds and present a rare occasion for humans to transcend their finite embodied selves. Do not desecrate these epochal events by sacrificing them on the altars of academic achievement. Realize that we live in a religiously diverse world in which all of the religious traditions claim some measure of truth. A few of them go further and claim the full measure of truth. Our task as seekers is to understand those claims without judging for always the fruit of our lives are the best judges of the truth of our convictions.

Dig into the study of religion. Don't study in a vacuum - relate your studies to the world around you. The real stuff of religion are the problems of human existence. Both the Christ and the Buddha had little to say about the world beyond the door we call death. What concerned them was the articulation of principles by which people could discover their authentic selves and live out their lives with meaning and purpose. As you read the texts of those who studied religion and religions of times past and extant, bear in mind that the lessons recounted there are still being learned and lost on the stages of life. Your neighbors, relatives, and friends are busy at work providing the substance of future texts. By taking note of their encounters, you can come to a better understanding of this enterprise we call the study of religion. More importantly, though, you just might help some lost soul escape the dark woods that form the outer limits of enlightenment.

Dig into yourselves and unearth that which is uniquely you. Whoever or whatever is the "author and finisher of our lives," has given us a small speck of creative power that enables us to do extraordinary things with our ordinary lives. You and I and all of us have a purpose for being here. We have come here with a mission that only we can do. Mine within your own heart and reveal your innermost treasures before you dig into the lives of others. When you have discovered who you are, you will discover greater ease in uncovering the true nature of others.

And however you choose to punctuate your life, avoid being a period person. A period person is one who reads or hears an authority and then places a period at the end of the disclosure as if that expression was the final word. Such persons are responsible for the dark ages that too often overshadow us and keep us from reaching our full potential as possessors of creative power. It was period people who beheaded teachers and burned bearers of the light at the stake. Try to be a person of the question mark - always questioning, always striving, always becoming. By raising questions, you will avoid judging. And if you do not judge, you will not condemn.

Therefore, dig into the study of religion and be yourself - whatever you perceive yourself to be becoming. As Alan Alda proclaimed, "Be brave enough to live life creatively. The creative is the place where no one has ever been. You have to leave the city of your comfort, and go into the wilderness of your intuition." Grades, honors, awards, are soon evaporated into the clouds of absurdity by the blazing sun of the universe of human intercourse. The only lasting things are the contributions we make to bringing the kingdom of light to earth and helping people to discover the creative power within themselves that will enable them to make sense out of the vicissitudes of life. Dig into the study of religion and unearth the treasures that lie deep within you. One of those treasures will be the knowledge that when you discover who you truly are, you will make the world a better place.