I really appreciate Huston Smith. An outstanding scholar of world religions, he taught at several renowned universities and authored fifteen books, including a classic textbook on comparative religions. In a previous post, I wrote a review of his book Why Religion Matters. In it, Smith argues that our materialistic, scientific age has suffocated religion, and he gives a passionate plea for religion to be returned to a place where it is treasured by society. Smith is a universalist, and in that I disagree with him, yet I appreciate his work and approach. Smith is still living, but being born in 1919, he is not so active anymore – thus my referring to him a bit in the past tense.
Recently I read another book by Smith, The Soul of Christianity, Restoring the Great Tradition. While it didn’t “wow” me as much as Why Religion Matters, it was a worthwhile read. The book is divided into 3 sections: 1. the Christian worldview, 2. the Christian story, 3. the 3 main branches of Christianity today (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant). While not ignoring problems, Smith’s book is a positive look at the good things about Christianity and why it needs to be restored and renewed in a secular age.
The first part of the book was challenging, philosophical content. I’ll admit much of it went over my head, although a few points were clear to me. I was relieved to reach the end of this section and read “If you have not been trained in philosophy, this part of the book may have seemed dense and over your head at times, but take heart.” – Phew! I’m not so dumb after all. And, don’t worry, the rest of the book is much more readable.
The second part of the book was the best. It was a clear presentation of the life of Christ and Christian beliefs. Jesus just jumped off the pages! (If that makes sense.) His descriptions of the life and teachings of Christ were so very real – he made Jesus come alive. This section revitalized my amazement of Jesus! It also looked at the apostle Paul’s role in spreading the Christian faith, the development of the church, and core Christian beliefs like the atonement and trinity.
Instead of saying more, below in a few bullet points, I’ll share some things I particularly appreciated or was challenged by in the book:
- He critiques secularism for falsely equating “absence of evidence” with “evidence of absence.” Stop to think about those 2 phrases for a minute, and you’ll realize they are very different. “The fact that science cannot get its hands on anything except nature is no proof that nature (alternatively, matter) is all that exists.”
- While discussing that there are paradoxes or seeming contradictions of belief, he speaks of the need to be on a higher step of the ladder, one that gives a wider view, in order for some things to be resolved. “To cite a simple example, if we see a locomotive going away and some time later returning to us on the same tracks, but facing now in the opposite direction, the matter (if left there) would be illogical. But if we were to climb a hill and see that around the bend there was a turnstile, there would be no problem. Theologically, the situation is the same: only from a higher plane of reality can the paradoxes…be resolved.”
As you probably guessed, those were from the philosophical section. Here are a couple thoughts from the section on Jesus:
- Smith emphasizes the uniqueness of the things Jesus said, and how he said them. Jesus had an “invitational style.”
“Instead of telling people what to do or what to believe, he invited them to see things differently, confident that if they did so their behavior would change.”
- Did you know that all Jesus said as recorded in the New Testament can be spoken in only 2 hours? Yet, those sayings may be the most repeated in all of history! “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemies.” Etc. People were astonished by many things Jesus said, and with reason.
“If we are not, it is because we have heard Jesus’s teachings so often that their edges have been worn smooth, dulling their glaring subversiveness. If we would recover their original impact, we too would be startled.”
As HG Wells pointed out, either there was something mad about Jesus, or our hearts are still too small for his message.
- Well, I’m already over 700 words. In tomorrow’s post, I will excerpt a part on Protestantism from the last section of the book. Ever feel discouraged by the many hundreds of Protestant denominations and the apparent disunity? Well, Smith has a more positive perspective! Hope to “see” you then!