Review: Huston Smith’s “The World’s Religions” 

Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions is maddening – not because it is uniformly bad but because it contains a tarnished brilliance that is a clue to an underlying schizophrenia ultimately revealed in its conclusion.  At times you think it may be building into a tour de force, but then you are confronted by a disappointing blemish.   It is written eloquently and awkwardly at the same time:

“Guidelines are weakening even here, but it is still pretty much the case that if a corporation executive were to forget his necktie, he would have trouble getting through the day.” (italics mine)

Who would expect, in a thoughtful book like this one, to find “pretty much” or “corporation executive” instead of “corporate executive?”  Contrast these transgressions to this insight:

“Reality is steeped in ineluctable mystery; we are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.  Here again we must rescue our world from time’s debasement, for “mystery” has come to be associated with murder mysteries, which, because they are solvable are not mysteries at all.  A mystery is that special kind of problem which for the human mind has no solution…” (italics mine)

An excellent way of expressing the religious mystery for sure.  And yet the ear begs for the clumsy transposition of “which” and “for” to be undone.  There are gems to be found in the dirt, but unfortunately there is dirt to be found on most of Huston’s gems.   It’s clear he spent years researching the book, and it’s painful to be so critical.   But passages like this one, found in the conclusion, sum up the central problem underlying his inconsistencies:

“Our realization that science cannot help us reopen the door to looking seriously again at what the wisdom traditions propose.  Not all of their contents are enduringly wise.  Modern science has superseded their cosmologies, and the social mores of their day, which they reflect – gender relations, class structures, and the like – must be reassessed in the light of changing times and the continuing struggle for justice.  But if we pass a strainer through the world’s religions to lift out their conclusions about reality and how life should be lived, those conclusions begin to look like the winnowed wisdom of the human race.”

This is the viewpoint of a person who supports the continued erosion of the world’s religions — the viewpoint of someone who is opaque to his own disrespect of the traditions he seems to endorse.  Is he blind to the living people he has studied, many of whom would take issue with his willingness to “pass a strainer” through their faiths and winnow out what he likes and does not like?  How many of them (myself included) would say that the world’s religions don’t “look like” the wisdom of the human race?

They are.

Huston’s book would have been better if he had embraced the world’s religions to an extent sufficient to make him willing to fight harder for their preservation.

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