CURIOSITY: The desire to enlarge oneself is the desire to embrace
Plain Dealer Book Review of
By JON FOBES
Huston Smith is mad at lots of people – even himself.
"I am angry at us — modern Westerners who, forsaking clear thinking, have allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with life’s material underpinnings that we have written science a blank check."
"This is the cause of our spiritual crisis," he writes in Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief.
So he sets out to show us that in spite of all the scientific advances, traditional worldviews remain as viable and important as ever.
Smith believes that people in growing numbers overvalue the claims and accomplishments of science and turn it into an unofficial religion, scientism. In the battle for the modern mind, Smith believes scientism is shoving religion off the page.
Don’t misunderstand. Smith thinks science is wonderful. It saved his life by helping doctors detect and treat his prostate cancer.
But while science saves lives, it can’t tell us how to live our lives. Science got us to the moon, but it won’t necessarily land us on solid ground when we face ethical or moral issues. It can’t tell us what to love or who to love. Science has charted the starry sky, but it can’t explain why it still inspires awe and wonder in the human heart.
In short, science has limits. Religion does too, Smith admits, but it remains a vibrant source of inspiration, meaning and value.
Moreover, "The traditional worldview is preferable to the one that now encloses us because it allows for the fulfillment of the basic longing that lies in the depths of the human heart. ... All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology and religion tries to name and analyze this longing."
And that’s why religion matters.
But who is Huston Smith, and why does he matter?
A long-time professor and dean of America’s religion writers, Smith has more books and TV appearances to his credit than one would care to count. He is the son of missionaries and grew up in China. That nation’s long-lost religious diversity made a lifelong impression. He quotes a "Dear Abby" item to make his point.
I am young, attractive, interested in religion and would like to get married. I belong to First Presbyterian Church, Blessed Angels Catholic Church, B’nai Amona Synagogue, and I attend Christian Science lectures regularly, though I do take aspirin occasionally. Can you tell me how to meet a man who is interested in any or all of these religions?
A stunned Abby replied in part, "I do not see how you can belong to all those churches."
Indeed, few of us can fathom that sort of spiritual flexibility, but Huston Smith delights in it. And that leads us to a somewhat veiled message of Why Religion Matters that may surprise and trouble some readers.
Let’s call it denominationism, the belief that one religion is more sacred, valuable or true than any other.
Smith approaches all religions with amazing respect, valuing the vast array of what he calls, "our wisdom traditions." Any reader seeking a boost for his specific, exclusionary, truth-claiming faith may be disappointed to find Smith quoting Christian writers and Holy Scripture right along with Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim writers and lines from their holy texts.
Readers also will find Smith citing avowed secular thinkers. Insights from brilliant philosophers, psychologists, scientists and sociologists spring from almost every page, making the book a feast of ideas. I don’t know if you normally write in books — I certainly do — but have a pencil handy when you read Why Religion Matters and see how fast the margins fill up with check marks, stars and exclamation points.
And the writing keeps pace with the ideas. Smith is able to translate complicated theories into clear, straight-forward, delightful prose. It would seem all those years of teaching showed him how to get our attention and make his points in a colorful and memorable manner.
Putting aside the aforementioned isms, Why Religion Matters is really about the power of worldviews to shape perception and control thought. We all wear colored glasses and go about proclaiming, in good faith, that the world is red, blue or green.
Smith’s book clears our lenses and pulls us past our tinted views toward the sort of wonder and enthusiasm we find in writers like Plotinus and Rumi, or Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James.
Those writers spring traps that hold hostage the human spirit. Huston Smith follows in that hallowed tradition – and that’s why his book matters.
Fobes is an assistant news editor at The Plain Dealer.
UNCERTAINTY: Living with no supernatural justifications,