Tuesday, 22 December 2009
I hereby exhort you to read Huston Smith's The World's Religions, a book I have been spending time with until the day before yesterday. I have two particular reasons for this exhortation, followed by a set of qualifications, which are the short-comings of the book. But to begin I will tell you that The World's Religions is Smith's attempt at explaining the major religions of the world intelligibly, so that you, I, and your average joe can have a well-rounded, amicable, and sympathetic undestanding of the traditions he's detailing. His emphasis is on the "core" of the tradition and less on its ritual, structure, taboos, and other "trappings," unless they pertain directly to that core. Thus he is concerned with history where history is necessary, but avoids it when he finds it unnecessary.
As I said, there are two reasons you should read this book. The first is simple: throughout his assorted chapters, nuggets of wisdom--either from the tradition that section is devoted to or from his commentary on it--glint through the facts and philosophy like the gold it is. For instance, one phrase in particular caught my attention: "We are a blend of dust and divinity." Its poetry, of course, lends it its power, but others are less beautiful-sounding but nonetheless profound, such as the observation that, at root, most if not all lying comes from the realization that something about ourselves is not the way we think others expect it to be. Lying is often a symptom of a flaw in ourselves; if we observe our own lying, we will be better able to correct ourselves. There were many others, and I am reviewing the book in search for them, copying them out as I find them. Of course, when you read the book, you will find different things resonate than I will, I'm sure, but the nature of the book--a compendium and discussion of what Smith terms that world's wisdom traditions--indicates that almost anyone who reads it perceptively will indeed find embers wisdom.
The second reason, however, is vastly more important. Smith's lifetime religion-hopping has allowed him to see from the viewpoint of each tradition he represents. He is in a sense both an insider and an outsider of all religions, confering upon him the anthropological benefits of each position.* What this gives him is the ability to explain each religious tradition is a way that is fair to the others around it but nonetheless preserves the integrity of the religion itself. If you read this book with due attention and openness, you will be able to understand how a person would see from each religion's point of view, even if you still retain that your religion is nonetheless the best or truest one. This ability or attitude that Smith confers upon the reader is one of the book's greatest attributes. In a world in which Protestants and Catholics usually consider each other not truly Christian, it is easy to see how your average person could look at something like Islam or Hinduism and be entirely baffled by its customs and claims. In a world in which the media can often slip into equating Islam with terrorism, a world in which atheist organizations and celebrities portray religion as the prime divider (and if this has only a surface plausibility, is has at least that much plausibility), a world in which people will brazenly deny that Confucianism or Buddhism are religions at all, a world in which Aboriginal beliefs' endangered status goes not unremarked but unnoticed, the ability to see at least partially from another traditions perspective is invaluable. Smith's book is an oasis in our cooperative desert.
And before anyone is fooled one way or the other, I have particular people in mind when writing this, and some are atheists and some are Christians. Everyone needs what this book can confer, and I know far too few who have it. And it's not just the capacity to see from these different points of view, which enough people have; it's the actual details of each tradition that I'm refering to, which virtually no one has. I am, in fact, thinking of you, reader, whoever you happen to be. Read this book.
But not until you read my caveats.
First, Smith is himself biased. I noticed quite a few times when he tried to distinguish between a 'pure' version of the religion and a 'corrupt' version of a religion. I do not disagree with this attempt in and of itself; as a practitioner of a religion, I can tell you from the get-go that there are corrupted versions of religions, and that they ought not to be counted as fully part of the religion they came from. Take, for instance, those people who called themselves Christian who participated in such groups as the Ku Klux Klan. While I cannot speak about the possibility of their salvation, I can tell you that calling them "Christian" renders that word meaningless, as they certainly don't fit under its substantial definition.
However, I do not think that Smith's divisions are fair. He tends to cut away those strands of a tradition which are ritually focused, and instead devote his time to theology, compassion, and more often perspective. For instance, he no more than mentions that there is a difference between Sunni and Shi'i Islam, and instead draws his 'division' in Islam between mainstream and Sufi. This is like drawing your like between the Christian mystics and the Christian non-mystics, rather than between the three major divisions (East Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant). While I'd agree that a Catholic mystic looks more like an East Orthodox mystic than a Catholic non-mystic, I think there are still important differences which cannot be passed over so easily. While the different churches in Christianity are not analogous to the Sunni-Shi'i divide, I still think from my very little knowledge that said divide is worth exploring.
A good example is Smith's discussion of Hinduism. He spends a lot of the book exploring the philosophic and yogic dimensions of India (and it is until recently fair to equate religion in India with Hinduism, since Hinduism at the outset was simply the umbrella term for the religions in India, back when the English colonials believed that nations had single, national religions). In the Buddhism section, he needs to explain what shortcomings Buddha found in the Hinduism that surrounded him because he wants to explain Buddhism as a liberation from that context. Thus he sets up a 'corrupted' version of Hinduism. It is true that in some cases it was corrupted; for instance, by then the sense of hierarchy based on skill-set had transformed into the hereditary caste system. However, he also suggests that the sense of the mysterious had devolved into divination and "miracle-mongering," and that rituals had simply become mechanical petitions. First, it seems unlikely that no one derived meaning from their rituals, since these rituals persisted. Second, why ought we say that a religion interested in divination, miraclework, and petition is corrupted? By that logic, most of Shinto is a corrupted religion, since it is virtually devoid of 'lofty' things like theology or creed and is consistent mainly of ritual and myth. And this is certainly not the only place he betrays this attitude.
Related to this inaccurate definition of a corrupted religion,** he tends to dismiss ritual as secondary. This again devalues those traditions which use ritual and not theology to explore worldview. While he admits that ritual is older than theology and that such ritualistic traditions exist, he tends to gloss over the rituals themselves and tries to dig out those worldviews independently of their medium. I don't think this can be done. Ritual is far too important to too many traditions to put aside as a trapping. He reasons that focusing on the rituals, particularly those we find bizarre, is the worst kind of voyeurism, but to me it seems that trying to understand them and integrate them into the philosophical system he does so lovingly describe is a worthy project.
Another complaint, and this one fairly major, is his weighting. The Hinduism section is more than twice as long as the Taoism section, which is itself longer than the section of "Primal Religions," which includes the traditions of the Australian aboriginals, Native Americans, and non-Abrahamic Africans. He has no sections on Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Mormonism, Scientology, Neo-Paganism, or Baha'i. He mentions some of them in passing, but gives no discuss at all. This I found disappointing. So weight is another issue. (Obviously, if you want more detail on anything, you will need to consult more intensive sources, but this is always the case when you're looking at a survey.)
And my last complaint for the moment is that he has too optimist a view that religions are somehow reconciable. I realize that he was raised in a syncretistic environment (rural China) and I was raised in an environment that emphasized the rule of the excluded middle (educated Canada). I am a staunch monotheist, born into my current religion, and he is a frequent convert, first to a pluralistic Hinduism. For a Christian I have a very welcoming attitude towards other traditions and to syncretistic elements, but I must emphasize the "for a Christian" part: I continue to affirm the Apostle's Creed and you'd have to use Scripture to convince me otherwise. That is, I would call the Dene prophets Christian, but I wouldn't say they're right. Which is to say, I find his pluralism unlikely and excessive, but I realize that there are many who would find my exclusivism the same.***
Now that you are equipped to deal with his biases, I hope you will seriously consider reading this book. Reading this or a similar book (so long as it is reliable) is crucial to human citizenship in the full sense of the word.
*There is an on-going debate within Religious Studies about whether an anthropologist ought to be part of the religion(s) they study or not. Those who say "not" suggest that you'll be wearing fetters of some sort; not only will you be biased, but you'll have no external frame of reference to understand it and explain that understanding to others. Those who say you should be part of the tradition indicate that so much of religion is subjective experience, which means that one must participate and involve oneself in the narrative, symbolic, and interpersonal orders of which the religion is made in order to understand it, and that furthermore everyone is biased and works within their own frames of reference, even those who are agnostic. For the most part both sides acknowledge the other's point, but claim that their own concerns are more important than the other's.
**I would define a corrupt religion as one that veers from its central tenants or perspectives. Thus the KKK is not truly Christian because it does not advocate love, which is Scripturally required. As Protestants, the KKK would be willing to assert that the Bible is central to their faith, but if they do not love or at least attempt to love those around them, they cannot be Christian. Put more forcefully, if they trade in hate, they cannot dwell in Christ.
***I am not, in the scheme of things, wholly exclusivist--God will not damn someone who has never heard of Him, as far as I am concerned--but I recognize that non-Christians will often perceive me as being exclusivist by merit of the fact that I am Christian at all.
Posted by Christian H at 14:48