|Sainte Chapelle, Paris|
As a teenager and young adult, I could never quite understand why so many of my friends at church expressed the desire for sermons that were "relevant" and "practical." That was rather the contrary of what I longed for in religion, and it struck me—for some as yet unarticulated reason—as antithetical to the authentic religious experience.
What I wanted in a religious service was lofty ideas, moving stories, poetic language. I wanted profundity, not practicality—not because I didn't want to live according to the Christian faith, but because I did want to live according to the Christian faith. I instinctively sensed that only inasmuch as my moral and aesthetic sensibilities were kindled and shaped by the literary rhetoric of scripture and the Christian tradition could I come to sense the rightness of the Christian way of life. I don't think I needed help deriving the religious and moral practicalities of everyday life from those higher principles of thought and feeling—rather, I needed those ideas and feelings to stir my soul and elevate my desires.
Religion, like art, most fully serves its purpose when it ennobles us through aesthetic experience. I don't look to religion to give me information about the specifics of what is right and wrong any more than I look to art and literature to do so. What I look to religion, art, and literature to do is to provide the experience of rightness, goodness, holiness itself. Only out of the moral and aesthetic sensibilities elicited this way can meaningful practical actions be chosen, practiced, and sustained.
It's easy enough to tell someone how to lose weight and live a healthy lifestyle—and entirely obvious to the majority of people, most likely even to the overweight person. It's not information that is lacking, and information often has little power to elicit the sustained desire and will to accomplish a way of life. What is lacking is a broader vision, a narrative and language in which the way of living becomes admirable and appears noble and right, thereby not only producing results but confering a sense of purpose and fulfillment throughout the arduous process toward those results.
The purpose of religion, like art, is to ennoble the heart and mind, and in so doing to bring proper and beneficent actions into being—consequently fulfilling not only the moral obligations of religious practice, but also fulfilling the individual's fundamental need for purpose that will sustain that practice.