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Issue Date:  January 14, 2005

Huston Smith decries religious polarization in U.S.

Scholar see opportunities for religion in the collapse of modernity


After the recent presidential election, America seems more divided than ever. Urban versus rural. Blue versus Red. The Bible belt versus the East and West coasts. Pro-life versus pro-choice.

Huston Smith would add religious conservatives and liberals to the list.

“Those of us who are interested in the spiritual life face a real problem,” said Dr. Smith, one of the world’s leading authorities on comparative religions.

“Our culture is polarized religiously between the conservatives and the liberals. … And in a way they cancel each other out and, therefore, leave our culture adrift religiously.”

NCR interviewed Dr. Smith between a series of lectures he gave this fall at Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, Mo.

But most of the speaking Dr. Smith has done in his long and distinguished career has come in classrooms. He’s taught at Washington University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University and the University of California, Berkley. His book, The World’s Religions, and its earlier iteration, The Religions of Man, has been a widely used comparative religion text for decades.

Raised by Methodist missionaries, Dr. Smith lived in China until he was 17 — a springboard to his lifelong study of comparative religions. Smith has made documentaries on Hinduism, Sufism, and Tibetan Buddhism. In 1996, Bill Moyers featured him in a five-part PBS special, “The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.”

With all these accolades, Dr. Smith remains a funny, engaging man with a sense of humor about himself.

Conservative Christians, he says, don’t like him because he won’t rank Christianity over Islam, Hinduism or any other major religions.

And yet liberals don’t know what to make of Huston Smith. He says he alienates liberals because he argues that the texts of “these great religions that have stood the test of time are revealed by the same God. The sacred texts of all these really are revealed” by God.

Both liberals and conservatives have a “blind spot,” he said. “And concomitantly, each has a hold on part of the truth.”

Conservatives, Dr. Smith argues, are too dogmatic, convinced that they alone know the truth. Conservatives also are stuck in what he calls “an unworkable literalism.” They seem to ignore the idea that symbolism, art, music and parables are equally valid ways of talking about God.

But liberals also can be blind. Liberals should realize that they helped spawn the conservative movement by embracing Darwin’s theories of evolution and secular, academic criticism of the Bible, Dr. Smith said.

The tension between these two camps is part of a larger failing of society’s institutions. Dr. Smith sees major flaws in government, art, media, business, technology and science.

“That leaves the center of our culture unoccupied,” Dr. Smith argues.

For 300 years, humans have been living in the age of what Dr. Smith calls “modernity.” With the use of the scientific method, new inventions have followed one after the other, increasing life spans and making it much easier to kill one another. Indeed, Smith argues that it is folly to see the 20th century as anything but barbaric.

But science can only take us so far, Dr. Smith said in his lecture. Science is based on what we can see and measure. But no one has ever seen a thought. No one has ever seen a feeling, he said.

And this emphasis on the empirical has its limits. “Modernity is over. It’s on the ropes. It’s on the way out,” he said.

Science “has no connector for that upper story. We have been trying to live complete, full lives in half a world,” Dr. Smith said. “With the siren of modernity gone, it’s no wonder that our cultural institutions are in shambles.”

Into this rather bleak picture could step religion, a cultural institution with the ability to inspire — that is, if it can ever get past the extremes within it. In his talks in Kansas City, Dr. Smith spent hours fleshing out these and other problems with the modern world, and just a few minutes trying to explain what churches must do to fill this cultural vacuum.

Dr. Smith says he’s working out these ideas in his new book that’s due out in May. The working title is The Soul of Christianity.

“The church’s mission is to alert us that there is another world to which we are called and to which we should give our life — God,” he said.

“For the first time in 300 years, churches have an opportunity they haven’t had,” Dr. Smith said. “Seize the opportunity, and move religion back to the center of our culture as it was in all traditional cultures.”

Bill Bell Jr. is a freelance writer who lives in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2005

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