Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Sharp David Takes on Goliath of a Subject

We are reading "The World's Religions" by Huston Smith.  Lynn reads a portion aloud at breakfast each morning.  It not usual that the introduction to such a topic would produce smiles and outright laughter but this one does.  You shouldn't expect to laugh, unless you are as nerdy as I am.

Smith was born in 1919 in China to American missionaries.  His book, originally called "Religions of Man", was first published in 1958 and is well-known and highly respected.

Somewhat like setting out to discuss gender, exploring the religions of the world is clearly a challenge.  Yet, Smith's explanation of what he aims for in the book is wonderful: civilized, patient, respectful and knowledgeable.  It is not universally loved, as borne out by the Amazon.com comments but what book, especially on such a subject, is?  

I sometimes hear or read of people who want to say or write something but they can't figure out how to do it.  I can imagine such a problem in discussing all the world's relgiions in a useful yet finite way.  Here is Huston Smith's comments on the undertaking:

"2. Even in the realm of meanings the book does not attempt to give a rounded view of the religions considered, for each hosts differences that are too numerous to be delineated in a single chapter. One need only think of Christendom. Eastern Orthodox Christians worship in ornate cathedrals, while Quakers consider even steeples desecrations. There are Christian mystics and Christians who reject mysticism. There are Christian Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Unitarians. How is it possible to say in a manageable chapter what Christianity means to all Christians? The answer, of course, is that it is not possible—selection is unavoidable. The question facing an author is not whether to select among points of view; the questions are how many to present, and which ones. In this book the first question is answered economically; I try to do reasonable justice to several perspectives instead of attempting to catalogue them all. In the case of Islam, this has meant ignoring Sunni/Shi'ite and traditional/modernist divisions, while noting different attitudes toward Sufism. In Buddhism I distinguish its Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions, but the major schools within Mahayana are bypassed. The subdivisions never exceed three lest trees obscure the woods.

"Put the matter this way: If you were trying to describe Christianity to an intelligent and interested but busy Thailander, how many denominations would you include? It would be difficult to ignore the differences between Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant, but you would probably not get into what separates Baptists from Presbyterians. When we turn to which views to present, the guideline has been relevance to the interests of the intended reader. Three considerations have figured in determining this relevance. First, there is the simple matter of numbers. There are some faiths that every citizen should be acquainted with, simply because hundreds of millions of people live by them. The second consideration has been relevance to the modern mind. Because the ultimate benefit that may accrue from a book such as this is help in the ordering of the reader's own life, I have given priority to what (with caution yet a certain confidence) we may regard as these religions' contemporary expressions.
The third consideration is universality. Every religion mixes universal principles with local peculiarities. The former, when lifted out and made clear, speak to what is generically human in us all. The latter, rich compounds of rites and legends, are not easy for outsiders to comprehend. It is one of the illusions of rationalism that the universal principles of religion are more important than the rites and rituals that feed them; to make that claim is like contending that the branches and leaves of a tree are more important than the roots from which they grow. But for this book, principles are more important than contexts, if for no other reason than that they are what the author has spent his years working with."

Smith, Huston (2004-05-10). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) (Kindle Locations 247-248). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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