Saturday, June 2, 2012

Huston Smith's "The Big Picture": Book Review

Starting this audiobook, I heard Professor Smith's slow, hesitant delivery. He's been figuring out approaches to the big picture of how science differs from religion in detailing the big picture, and he tells his story as the preface to this comparison and contrast briefly. His immersion began when philosophy took him only so far, as a young lecturer. He narrates how--like his former student who as a street kid in Manhattan stumbled on a library copy of Plato's "Republic" to find the parable of the cave--he himself found insight in peering beyond limits of his intellectual confines, rationally grounded.

His "Cook's Tour" into Asian religions, for a two-and-a-half hour tape, is very short. Commencing a course to teach in Comparative Religions, I came to this tape curious about Smith's ability to sum up so much in so short a span. For comparisons between religions, he favors the "perennial philosophy" popularized by Aldous Huxley mid-20c, and which as an historian of religion he in turn advanced. For a short tape, I needed more. For instance, he makes the analogy of Confucianism and Daoism being based, as with ideograms of their transmission, on a concrete, ordered, and rational mindset. But surely, the Tao differs from the Analects even if both use that flexible term for the "Way"? Smith moves on, summing up the Abrahamic faiths given more to speculation, as with Hinduism and Buddhism, but again, not much nuance emerges on tape.

He seems more eager to tell of the "entheogens," the Native American peyote and mescaline-fueled excursions into the mystic that inspired his own defense of the constitutional right, as he alludes to, the native ingestion of these substances for religious ritual and spiritual insight. I would have liked to hear more about this, too, but he continues on into an assertion of the benefits for him of such boosts into the realm beyond. The second tape elaborates this as opposed to what he cites well from Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg: the more we understand the universe, the more meaningless it seems. Meaning must come from what we make of religion and the spiritual quest, logically apart from the tangible and the observed.

To counter the limits of rationalism and empiricism, Smith insists along with Aldous Huxley that we are left even with Beethoven and Shakespeare wondering "is that all there is?" He spends the time on this tape telling us his own understanding based on the fact that the universe as we observe it does not mesh, precisely, with the realm inside us and beyond our sensory limits. While I sympathize with Smith, I am left wondering, as skeptics must ask, if the realms entered by "entheogens" themselves do not merely reflect back at us our own imaginary illusions, heightened by sensory alteration by drugs or by, as many adepts traditionally prefer, meditation or physical regimens designed for such an inducement.

For a basic introduction, for a reading group or informal course on world religions, this 2002 tape might be stimulating to spark discussion. I respect Smith for his contributions. Yet, the time is too short to give this topic the justice it demands. (Amazon US, 5-5-12)

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