Huston Smith’s tunnel

Despite Huston Smith’s firm reputation in popularizing religion and distinguishing spirituality from its institutional counterparts, Smith’s book Why Religion Matters is disappointing. The book is not really about “the fate of the human spirit in an age of disbelief,” as the subtitle suggests. The book rails against modern and postmodern thinking (in contrast to “traditional” thought) without explaining or examining how things got this way. And lacking this explanation makes too much of what Smith says sound like a reactionary screed.

The configuration of traditional (what used to be called, simplistically, the “age of belief”), modern (Enlightenment to the 20th century, more or less) and postmodern, is generally accepted. While the first two eras are extensivety covered most anywhere else, the three cumulative levels of postmodern are here usefully summarized: 1. minimalist (“we have no maps and don’t know how to make them”), 2. mainline (” … and never again will we have a consensual worldview”) and 3. hardcore (” … and good riddance!”).

But Smith spends most of his time complaining, not explaining. He describes the modern view as tunnel vision, with four sides of the tunnel being scientism, academia, the media, and the legal system. These are conservative themes dangerously bordering on fundamentalist politics and social views, only in part dealing with religion. Yet Smith has never been a reactionary. It is rather his conservative view of religion that seems to pull him into a camp that may include rather secular-minded agendas by people hostile toward his religious agenda but willing to change institutions to fit their own. These are the perils of Smith’s own tunnel vision.

If Smith was confident in the staying power, the perennial nature of the heart of religious thought, he would be confident that it can last or outlast any era of skepticism or estrangement. But his shrill tone in the book of a proponent of reconciling perspectives on culture and ideas lands his thoughts next to unsavory books on the same shelf.

The problem is that Smith does not look at historical factors that would explain the evolution of Western thought. Why did science emerge in the first place, why did reason and philosophy overturn belief, what social and material factors in early modern and modern times overwhelmingly changed society and daily life, how did world wars, genocide, totalitarianism, and atomic bombs conspire to promote postmodernism?

Taking these into account, Smith would understand that religion does not exist in a vacuum, that it is a cultural expression and must be seen in a social, even anthropological, light. Additionally, the fate of a religion (he is thinking almost exclusively of his own Christianity in this book) is bound to the fate of the people who profess it. The character of the West has been progressive revealed or unmasked in the modern and postmodern eras, especially to the rest of the world. Is its religion no more than an appendage of its centuries of conquest and imperialism? Perhaps Smith is bound to be sensitive about this issue, for his parents were missionaries in China. But it is astonishing to read his snide remarks about the gullible Chinese.

From this issue can be extrapolated the obvious details of how modernity has changed the world. The changes to academia or media may bother Smith, but not modernity’s economics, or wars, or technology? What about other institutions: pharmaceuticals, agri-business, chemicals, aeronautics? Traditional beliefs were overthrown by such secular material forces as much as by universities or mass market media, which are merely their echoes.

In the second part of the book, Smith offers another quick generalization: “spiritual personality types.” These categories have their use, but they are not allowed to intersect or overflow, which is exactly what modernity and post-modernity sees, contrary to Smith. His types are 1. the atheist (“there is no god”), 2. the polytheist (“there are many gods”), 3. the monotheist (“there is one God”), and the mystic (“there is only God”). Here Smith is somewhat better grounds, but his relentless samples of proofs are not adequate, representing only anecdotal evidence. Just because someone says something does not make it so.

Another reason to skim (if not skip) the book is Smith’s ubiquitous name-dropping. He is too facile in bringing up conversations with famous people, to quick and frequent in mentioning “when I was at MIT” or Harvard, or Standford, or elsewhere.

Perhaps it is a penchant in old age to ease off the analysis and simply remember that it worked once upon a time. Indeed, Smith was one of fascinating and curious Western eclectics who studied Zen in a Japanese Zen monastery and studied Hinduism with an Indian yogi and threw himself into experimenting with hallucinogens with Timothy Leary in an era when it was still not popular. Of his many hours with Bill Moyers, one best remember the Tibetan Buddhist mandala on the wall of his Berkeley home.

So Smith has done great service in promoting an understanding or appreciation of the many paths of spirituality. That is why Why Religion Matters is either not representative of Smith or not representative of how to address the topic posed by the title.