Sunday, April 27, 2014

Huston Smith's "The World's Religions": Book Review

Whatever your belief system, this rewards your attention. Neither patronizing nor romanticizing, Huston Smith's immersion from his life studying the major faiths and meeting with their practitioners provides readers with a guide that combines the facts of a textbook with the verve of a personal encounter, enriched by his graceful prose, his unhurried pace, and his reflective mind.

Inspired by his television presentation of the basics in the late 1950s, and updated from the 1958 original (less clearly if at all after its 1986 and 1991 copyrights), this "50th Anniversary Edition" appends 1997 and 2002 talks which overlap to convey how Smith's career and interests infused this book and more, such as his commendable campaign on behalf of the Native American Church for legalization of peyote, and his counter-cultural exploration of what he coins "entheogens" or God-generating drugs. He expresses bemusement along with wonder, and his humility and good nature suffuse this genial, thoughtful book.

He notes how television required him to keep the metaphors fresh and the content snappy. This does this without pandering. It's a book anyone can benefit from even if disagreement may often occur. He tends to downplay some unsavory aspects, but in his defense he introduces how he means to fill this book not with a catalogue of failures committed under the guise of faith, but a reasoned survey of its accomplishments. For, he avers, as much bad as good music may have been played, but any music appreciation course would draw our attention to the best composed and performed, not the worst.

He cites William James as he guides us into a book that takes up religion "not as a dull habit but as an acute fever. And when religion jumps to life it displays a startling quality. It takes over. All else, while not silenced, becomes subdued and thrown into a supporting role." (9) He invents accessible, fresh analogies that keep this presentation vibrant, given the daunting attempt to say so much about what can defy compact explanation or evade clear articulation. He starts with the Hindus and India.

He compares "atman" in its various manifestations to chess, for instance, to explain that concept. As a game can be won or lost but not a player, the board is the world, and whether in defeat or victory, the player has improved his or her critical faculties if they have been applied enough. (31) A card game resembles karma for the hand one's dealt can be played for better or worse, even if one has no control over the cards one holds. (65) It's not such a fatalistic situation, after all. Our everyday corporate hierarchy and division of labor we know makes the caste system's perpetuation appear less estranged, and, rather disturbingly for me, more recognizable as we see it mirrored here. (58) The four stages of life are evoked with telling details, and these make what seemed oddities in Hinduism more familiar.

For Buddhism, the founder is credited with "a cool head and a warm heart." (88) I've read many accounts of Theravada and Mahayana, but only with Smith did the full meaning of the Buddhist analogy of crossing the stream by a raft connect so well with the "yana"= raft or ferry, and Smith elaborates this scene splendidly. He builds from basic distinctions of any approach humans take as divided between independent or interdependent, a hostile/ indifferent or a friendly/ helpful way that the universe treats its creatures, and the head or the heart as the best part of the human self (120-1). He looks at Tibetan and Zen forms, with his own insights: "Zen tries to drive the mind to a state of agitation wherein it hurls itself against its logical cage with the desperation of a cornered rat." (134) He creates on pp. 144-7 a section on "The Image of the Crossing" to show the stages of Buddhist perception and how the dharma unfolds in the human terrain until it dissolves into no more opposites.

Smith was born and raised in China, so his fluency and his cultural upbringing enable his Confucian and Taoist chapters to flow smoothly. He focuses on how deliberate tradition replaces spontaneous for Confucius' values to be inculcated so deeply for so long, and how Philosophical, Religious, and Augmented Power versions of Taoism evolved to correspond to the "te" and three ways of its power.

With Islam, some may suspect he's soft on its own power, but he emphasizes a different force: that of social equality and moral transformation. He demonstrates the insistent voice in the Qur'an ('recitation') demanding one's turnaround, and how this emanated so rapidly and so persistently. Judaism gains its "lilt" from its own grounding in society. God saw that creation was "very good," and for Smith, this "very" illustrates the Jewish outlook, rooted in increasing material reward for all. (278) Spiritually, it's bent on encouraging communal effort: the Exodus is seen by the Hebrews as what else but miraculous, so God gets credit, but also the people had to unite to escape their slavery. Out of such contexts, both the Jews and Muslims find language and a text that impels their obedience.
What Smith says for the Jews may work for Muslims too: humans while part of the natural realm are not confined by it. God enters this to lift up the people selected for direct revelation, as partners, and if they join that covenant, and show submission to a divine force, they will find their proper reward.

Christianity finds its origin in a Gospel that combines "gigantesque" rhetoric in the odd metaphors of the Sermon on the Mount--snakes and bread, beams in eyes-- and the vivid invitations Jesus issues in language that compels. While nothing is new that cannot be found in Torah or Talmud, Smith agrees with those who listened and marveled that no scribes had taught the Way to God with such authority.

Indigenous paths as primal faiths--and he reminds us how Hindu, Tao, and Jewish systems originate in this same matrix-- and a consideration of the shortcomings of a totally rational basis for the search for meaning complete this book. He urges us to listen if one way beckons, but to keep an open mind.

Religious relate to each other as does "a stained glass window whose sections divide the light of the sun into different colors." (386) Straining out the wisdom traditions, their conclusions as "winnowed" attest to an ethical basis of humility, charity, and veracity. By "ontological exuberance," they challenge us to see life differently than if we peer at it from a wrong side of a tapestry, where only a few threads fray or distort the meaning visible when viewed properly. Smith, however, needed to push his speculations further, to strengthen his assertions, if he wants religion to get more credit along with science for filling in the gaps, say in cosmology and evolution. He's made the same appeal in his taped series The Big Picture, but without elaborating once again in what's a lively but brief chapter, his argument seems wishful rather than firm, in a secularizing era where science keeps advancing to explain what origin myths and creation stories cannot, or are not, he may agree, meant to account for. (4-6-14 to Amazon US)

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