Can Religion Save Us?


Can Religion Save Us?
Tradition, Transcendence, and Ultimate Reality

An interview with Huston Smith
by Jessica Roemischer

Introduction

Huston Smith, arguably today’s foremost authority on the world’s great religions, has, for over half a century, dedicated himself to transmitting the wisdom of the traditions through books, television, and film and in the classroom.

His best-known volume, The World’s Religions, has been the standard introductory textbook in college religion courses for thirty years and has sold several million copies.

Dr. Smith has produced three PBS television series and was the focus of Bill Moyers’ five-part PBS special, “The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.” His documentaries on Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism have received international acclaim.

Having devoted a lifetime to the study of the august traditions of the world, Huston Smith was our preeminent choice to answer the question: Are the religions equipped to navigate the myriad challenges of the third millennium?

Initially, Huston Smith responded to our interview request with a letter saying, “I am hesitant to take part in your projected article for fear of sounding like a spoilsport. I gather that you want to come down hard on the perils that threaten our planet while giving your readers grounds for hope. My personal judgment is that my perspective differs so markedly from the mind-set of your readers that you would do better to bypass me on this one . . .”

We were hooked. What would the dean of comparative religious scholarship have to say in response to perhaps the most important spiritual question of our time, and why did he feel that our readers would not want to hear it? Could there indeed be no cause for hope?

In his innovative and incisive critique of postmodernity, Why Religion Matters, Smith writes, “The sandwich man between placards announcing that the end is near is telling us something important. . . . He is not just protesting our reigning culture. However falteringly, he is gesturing toward a heavenly city that offers an alternative to this earthly one, which is always deeply flawed.”

Indeed, that man could be Huston Smith himself. And, visiting with this wise and generous octogenarian in his modest Berkeley home, for the interview that he did eventually agree to, we found why he believes that, in the face of apocalyptic times, the traditions may help us hope for a good outcome, but they may not be equipped to actually help us manifest it—at least not here on Earth!

WIE: Our existential circumstances at the outset of the twenty-first century distinguish our era significantly from those in which the world’s great religious traditions first emerged. Do you feel that the religious traditions need to reshape themselves in any way at this juncture in history to respond to unprecedented change and the challenges of our current life conditions?

HUSTON SMITH: They need to reshape themselves in one respect only. All of them come down with one voice on advocating charity and compassion over selfishness and egocentricity. And that’s the right foundation.

But in the times when the great sacred texts were revealed, people were isolated, living by themselves, and they did not realize that institutional structures are man-made.

Their social and institutional structures, like slavery, for example, were the way they conceived of natural law. “We can’t change them. We didn’t make these institutions.”

And, therefore, their love, compassion, and charity had to do with face-to-face relationships— the cup of water given in my name to the thirsty person there. But it never occurred to them that they ought to work on changing institutions, injustices, slavery, and so on.

Now, when the cultures and civilizations began to merge and rub shoulders, producing multiculturalism, then people discovered: “Look! They’ve got different institutions from ours! One allows for multiple wives; another one doesn’t.” And so on.

This occurred emphatically in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and with that came the discovery that social structures are human constructs. So that introduced a change in religion because suddenly we were responsible not just for our neighbor but also for these social and institutional structures.

For example, today, there are economic structures and class structures in which those of us who are more well-off, who have savings and stocks and bonds, can prosper just by doing nothing.

We reap the benefits of our consumerism, while at the same time, no family receiving the minimum wage—the marginal people—can live on what they make. But are we compassionate enough to change that? No.

For me, the most important theological text in twentieth-century Christianity is Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, where he points out that individuals are able to sacrifice themselves, a parent for a child, for example, but collectively, governments and societies are constitutionally incapable of sacrificing themselves.

I mean, what chances would President Bush have for reelection if he said, “We have to lower our standard of living in order to increase foreign aid.” He wouldn’t survive. What faction of society would voluntarily lower its income to raise the income of the destitute?

Now, that bears very practically on the issues we’re considering. So now the religious traditions need to reshape themselves in one respect—to cross over into justice, and then into love.

WIE: That certainly makes sense. The economic injustice you describe and its most extreme expression—rampant worldwide poverty—is just one of the multiple crises we face, which include overwhelming depletion of natural resources, epidemics, and the population explosion. In response to this situation, Father Thomas Berry has written:

The devastation taking place cannot be critiqued effectively from within the traditional religions or humanist ethics. We find ourselves ethically destitute just when, for the first time, we are faced with ultimacy, the irreversible closing down of the earth’s functioning in its major life systems. Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the earth, and geocide, the devastation of the earth itself. . . . The human is at a cultural impasse. . . . Radical new forms are needed.

What do you think of Father Berry’s assertion that, given the scope of our escalating crisis, the traditions are ultimately incapable of addressing the challenges that confront us?

HS: Back when the scriptures were revealed, the biosphere was just assumed, taken for granted, and so human beings did not see themselves as responsible for it. The movement toward justice means that we now have become aware that we affect the biosphere, and therefore the principle of “choose life” must also move over into that.

I agree completely with Father Berry as to the dangerousness of our situation. But I don’t think we need something other than the religious traditions. I don’t see anything better. In the foundation of all the traditions, compassion is the bottom line.

But, as I was saying, we do need for them to move that compassion over into the social and ecological spheres. If they do not make this move from face-to-face charity and compassion to concern for justice—and in that justice I’m talking about social relations, as well as our effect on the biosphere—then I agree with my friend Father Berry (we’ve been friends for almost a lifetime).

If the religious traditions do not respond to what our new situation requires, then they will be inadequate.

WIE: It seems that a significant aspect of the response that is required would have to be the willingness of the religions to cooperate, to come together as never before, across all cultural and ideological divides. What is your perspective on the ability of the religions to collaboratively address the situation?

HS: You would probably like for me to assure your readers that it will be possible to address these unprecedented issues if the religious traditions unite in responding collaboratively to our global crisis.

But I see no likelihood that they will—or perhaps even can—do this, at this stage of history. Yes, there are attempts. The United Religious Initiative, founded and presided over by Bishop Swing in San Francisco, is large and flourishing, meeting, doing practical things. So that’s a wonderful response.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions has had three important meetings and a fourth is already in the works. Those are good. But I’m afraid these are only gestures. They are only a drop in the bucket.

WIE: Are there other reasons that you think there is no likelihood that the religions can come together to address our human predicament? Is there something fundamental that is impeding them?

HS: Yes. Religion, though I believe deeply in its contribution to civilization and the past, as well as its potential for today—and I would identify myself as a religious person—is, nevertheless, obviously a mixed bag.

For example, it lends itself to being co-opted for political ends, and that’s going on all over the world. Politicians use for political ends the fervor that religion can generate.

And of course, every religion, to serve millions of people over centuries and millennia, has had to say many things to many people, and when the sacred texts were written, they were bringing in the circumstances of their time.

What I’m saying is, everybody, including the people who think of themselves as fundamentalists, has to interpret the Bible or the Koran or any of these revealed texts. And if you let me interpret the Bible, I would say that my interpretation is on the right track. But every text and every tradition is multivalent.

We love to quote, “Beat your swords into plows and your spears into plowshares.” But in Joel, a couple of books later, it says exactly the opposite: “Beat your plows into swords.” Now, which one are you going to pick up on?

I think that, on balance, the traditions do come through on the side of charity and peace and goodwill, but both views are expressed there.

Now, there’s another thing: all of the sacred traditions make a strong point of the fact that we are flawed beings. In Christianity, they call it original sin.

In Islam, they call it ghafla, forgetfulness of our real nature. In Asia, they call it avidya. I think they’re right in saying the fault isn’t God. God didn’t make us that way. It’s a mistake that we made somewhere along the line.

And if we get right down to the source, it is that, the basic problem of our egocentricity, which keeps us from doing what desperately needs to be done.

WIE: But in light of the necessity for individuals and institutions to respond to our increasingly dire situation, don’t the religious traditions have a responsibility to try to shift people’s consciousness about this very thing, to take on the “basic problem of our egocentricity?”

HS: Oh, of course. They have a responsibility—but good luck. The New Yorker magazine used to have a little quip in every issue, “Neatest trick of the week.”

Well, if the traditions could succeed, that would be the neatest trick in human history—changing, redeeming human nature—because that’s too tall an order for any institution or combination thereof.

WIE: But if, in fact, the religions are inadequate to “change and redeem human nature,” where does that leave us, given the extent of our increasing global predicament?

HS: That introduces, I think, a point that’s been important to me. I picked it up from Czech president Vaclav Havel. When he was asked, “Are you optimistic?” he said, “No.” But then he added, “I am hopeful.” Now that’s profound.

What’s the difference? Optimism is the belief that the affairs of our society will come out well and we’ve been given ample reasons to doubt that that is going to happen. Hope is quite different.

To hope is to see our efforts expended in the right direction as being meaningful, despite what the outcome will be. Does the care doctors give to patients require that they think that they are thereby ridding the world of disease?

The fulfillment comes through doing what one can, not in wasting time predicting outcomes. So yes, we should do everything we can, but if that fails, that doesn’t close the doors to a meaningful and, in that sense, hopeful existence—the hope, in this case, deriving from the meaning we find in just putting our efforts in the right direction.

WIE: So, will the “happy ending” or final salvation that the traditions prophesy actually manifest? And, if so, do you believe that will eventuate—as the traditions predict, through divine intervention—in the “second coming”?

HS: For my part, I do say unequivocally that one of the strengths of the great religions is that they promise a happy ending that burgeons after horrendous problems are faced and overcome.

But here’s the decisive thing that our culture is not ready to hear: they want to see the second coming as changing human history, the course of human history on this planet, which we may annihilate like a supernova.

Now, there are phrases in the Bible that point toward it manifesting here—”Thy kingdom come on earth.” Or, as in the basic Hindu view, the material world and its history are like an accordion that comes out and it goes back through the four yugas (ages), ending with the Kali Yuga, the worst one, which goes to the dogs completely.

But then a new cycle begins. Whatever the metaphors and the analogies, it’s our obligation to try to see it happen; we should do our very best to see that it happens on our planet.

And, in fact, none of the traditions claim that that happy ending is realizable on our planet; they say that individuals will experience that happy ending in the afterlife, and collectively it will be realized by the coming of the Messiah when time as we know it closes down (the wording differs from religion to religion).

So, if it doesn’t happen here, that doesn’t mean that it’s not going to happen, as the Tibetans would say, on some other bardo or some other plane.

WIE: Another plane? Can you expound on that?

HS: Oh, I would be delighted! Science gives us such a perfect analogy for this. And this is a recent realization for me because, although it can tell us nothing directly about God, science is wonderful for analogies for the Divine.

In the last century, it has brought out three domains: the microworld, the macroworld, and the megaworld. We’re in the macroworld. The microworld is quantum mechanics and the megaworld is relativity theory—and neither of those can be mapped onto our ordinary language because our language has been devised to deal with our macroworld.

Now, if those don’t fit into ordinary language, are we to think that God and transcendence and ultimate reality can be literally described in our mundane, everyday language?

That would be like thinking that a three-dimensional globe could be accurately depicted on the pages of a geography book. It doesn’t work. I mean, just as this planet is scarcely a dot in the mega-universe, so ultimate reality or the transcendent dimension is as much beyond our present human experience as fifteen billion light years of space.

So trying to imagine these mind-boggling metaphysical planes is like trying to imagine with my finite mind what different orders of reality would be like. All I can do is to come back to generalizations. It would be absolutely mind-boggling!

And it would be exciting beyond words. One of the best human attempts to provide a metaphor is the image of Plato’s cave. Imagine if we had been prisoners in a cave and thought the world was black and white and had only two dimensions, like shadows, and then we were suddenly swung around to light and taken out into this technicolor world, vast beyond the confines we were in.

To me, that conveys the spirit. We can’t describe that world outside, but just to know that there is such a world can be very heartening.

WIE: Can you say anything more about what the experience of that “metaphysical plane” would be like?

HS: Eternal bliss. Try to imagine that in any way you wish and as far as your imagination can carry you.

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