Posted November 17, 2005
Book: The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition
Author: Huston Smith
HarperCollins, NY, 2005, pp. 176
An Excerpt from the Jacket:
In his most personal and passionate book on the spiritual life, renowned
author, scholar, and teacher of world religions Huston Smith turns to his
own life-long religion, Christianity. With stories and personal anecdotes,
Smith not only presents the basic beliefs and essential teachings of
Christianity, but argues why religious belief matters in today’s secular
Thought there is a wide variety of contemporary interpretations of
Christianity — some of them conflicting — Smith cuts through these to
describe Christianity’s “Great Tradition,” the common faith of the first
millennium of believers, which is the trunk of the tree from which
Christianity’s many branches, twigs, and leaves have grown. This is not the
exclusivist Christianity of strict fundamentalists, nor the liberal,
watered-down Christianity practiced by many contemporary churchgoers. In
exposing biblical literalism as unworkable as well as enumerating the
mistakes of modern secularists, Smith presents the very soul of a real and
substantive faith, one still relevant and worth believing in.
Smith rails against the hijacked Christianity of politicians who exploit it
for their own deeds. He decries the exercise of business that widens the
gap between the rich and poor, and fears education has lost its sense of
direction. For Smith, the media has becme a business that sensationalizes
news rather than broadening our understanding, and art and music have become
commercial and shocking rather than enlightening. Smith reserves his
harshest condemnation, however, for secular modernity, which has stemmed
from the misreading of science — the mistake of assuming that “absence of
evidence” of a scientific nature is “evidence of absense.” These mistakes
have all but banished faith in transcendence and the Divine from mainstream
culture and pushed it to the margin.
Though the situation is grave, these modern misapprehensions can be
corrected, says Smith, by reexamining the great tradition of Christianity’s
first millennium and reaping the lessons it holds for us today. This fresh
examination of the Christian worldview, its history, and its major branches
provide the deepest, most authentic vision of Christianity — one that is
both tolerant and substantial, traditional and relevant.
An Excerpt from the Book:
The Christian story is the story of how “God became man so man might become
God” [Irenaeus]. This “becoming God” happens individually, communally, and
cosmically. The first two divinizations are directions rather than
destinations — sanctity in the case of individuals, and in the case of the
church the degree to which, congregation by congregraton, it brings the
Mystical Body of Christ to life in its midst.
Cosmically, though, the divinization is categorical and assured from the
start, for we belong to God and nothing can overpower the Almighty to which
we belong. If we try to mastermind specifics we are out of our depth from
the start, but the consensus of centuries of theological ponderings seems to
be that it will occur at the end of history when time closes down and God
draws his creation back into himself. He will not withdraw it into his
singularity. Rather, its manifold nature will be retained with its dross
transmuted into gold.
There remains the question of whether ths final redemption of history is
prefigured within history, and the answer is yes. An analogy and a
recollection are helpful here.
The analogy is the sky. Whether it is decked out in cloud-scapes, strewn
with stars, or tinted a pure empyrean blue, the sky is invariably peaceful
and beautiful; it can be hid by leaden rain clouds, but these do not affect
the sky itself. And it is always with us. Even when it is obscured, we know
that it is there.
The temporal counterpart of the sky is eternity. It too is peaceful and
beautiful, whereas history is anything but. And just as the sky enfolds the
earth, eternity enfolds history. Both eternity and sky can take the
initiative in calling themselves to our attention. Even when our minds are
on other things, the sky can suffuse our experiences with sunlight or rain,
and likewise eternity can break into the moments of our experience with
lightning flashes of illumination.
It does this most noticeably by saying no to history’s moments. We are so
caught up in history that we forget that, taken as freestanding, history is
unredeemable. To say that hope and history are always light-years apart is
an understatement — they are incommensurate, for between finitude and the
infinite there is no common measure. Periodically, eternity breaks into
history to remind us that history cannot stand on its own feet. First
eternity pronounces its “no” on free-standing history, and then it draws
history to its bosom and enfolds it with its “yes” — smothers it in its
peace and beauty.
Eternity can also break into our moments of daily preoccupation like flashes
of lightning on a dark night. [“Something broke and something opened./ I
filled up like a new wineskin,” said writer Anne Dillard.] A friend of ours
who is a therapist told us recently of how she had witnessed such an opening
in her office the day before:
A client had come for her weekly appointment more than usually depressed. It
had been the week of her birthday and she had not heard from any of the
family she had grown up in. They had become fundamentalists and thought she
was damned. “My mother died last year and now I’ve lost the rest of them. It
makes me sick,” she said, too tight with pain to cry.
Then, after an unusually long silence, she murmured quietly as if to
herself, “Something is happening to me.” Her hands, which had been clenched
in angry fists, now lay open on her lap and tears were streaming down her
cheeks. Then, “I’m feeling something wonderful. Something wonderful has
entered the room. It just came, didn’t it?” She found herself laughing,
though she tried to suppress it because it seemed inappropriate.
“I’m going to take the initiative and write to them,” she said. “Shoot
affectionate greetings to them like paper airplanes.”
Sometimes intimations of eternity seem simply to drop from heaven into our
laps, as Czeslaw Milosz registers in his poem “Gift.”
A day so happy
Fog lifted early. I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over the honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw blue sea and sails.
And from an anonymous poet:
I am so filled with ghosts of loveliness
That I could furbish out and populate a distant star,
So the gods could congregate to gaze, and
memorize, and duplicate.
Table of Contents:
1. The Christian worldview
2. The Christian story
3. The three main branches of Christianity today