Monday, December 10, 2007

Huston Smith - Why Religion Matters (1)

I have the good fortune of not having to work tomorrow, so as an antidote to all the new atheist stuff I have been reading and blogging about of late, I have started Huston Smith's Why Religion Matters.

Smith is essentially looking at worldviews, and the three he identifies are the traditional, the modern, and the postmodern. But he adds to these three other concerns:

Wherever people live, whenever they live, they find themselves faced with three inescapable problems: how to win food and shelter from their natural environment (the problem nature poses), how to get along with one another (the social problem), and how to relate themselves to the total scheme of things (the religious problem). [Pg. 11]

He goes on:

The three problems are obvious, but they become interesting when we align them with the major periods in human history: the traditional period (which extended from human beginnings up to the rise of modern science), the modern period (which took over from there and continued through the first half of the twentieth century), the post-modern period (which Nietzsche anticipated, but which waited for the second half of the twentieth century to take hold). [Pg. 11]

From this beginning, one might be expecting an somewhat integral look at religion. However, Smith seems to favor the traditional period and completely reject the postmodern. He argues that anything postmodern science has come up has had very little impact on people's lives when compared to the discoveries of modernist science. But he doesn't look at any other areas of postmodern inquiry. His one real concession is that post-modernism "tackles social injustices more resolutely than people previously did."

More to the point, I am not sure that Smith regards these three periods as developmental stages -- which he calls worldviews -- that build and expand upon each other in a hierarchical manner. That he conflates four stages into one (the traditional) is also mild cause for alarm. There is a great deal of difference between the archaic, the magical, the egoic, and the mythic stages of development, distinctions that are lost in his conflation.

Another of his arguments against post-modernism reads as follows:

As for postmodernity, it sets itself against the very idea of such a thing as the Big Picture. It got off on the right foot by critiquing the truncated worldview of the Enlightenment, but from that reasonable beginning it plunged on to argue unreasonably that worldviews (often derisively referred to as grand narratives) are misguided in principle. [Pg. 20]

This is a valid criticism, and one of the fatal flaws of postmodernism -- everything is not relative. However, it is not valid to revert to traditionalism to counteract that dismissal on the part of postmodernism. Rather than looking backward, we should be looking to the next stage, one which transcends and includes postmodernism.

This being said, I think his motivation is in the right place:

I am convinced that whatever transpires in other domains of life -- politics, living standards, environmental conditions, interpersonal relationships, the arts -- we will be better off if we extricate ourselves from the worldview we have unwittingly slipped into and replace it with a more generous and accurate one. [Pg. 24]

A more generous and accurate worldview than any of the three would be the emerging integral viewpoint, but he doesn't see that option. So, in arguing in favor of the traditional worldview, which would seem to be synonymous with religion, Smith states:

The traditional worldview is preferable to the one that now encloses us because it allows for the fulfillment of the basic longing that lies in the depths of the human heart. ...

There is within us -- even in the blithest, most lighthearted among us -- a fundamental dis-ease. It acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. [Pg. 28]

His basic argument here is that we have an innate craving for a meaningful world, a world that we feel connected with and a part of. Modernism and postmodernism deny (or destroy) that connection. The problem is that these worldviews have removed the meaningful foundations of reality -- the flatland scientism that Ken Wilber often laments. According to Smith, only the traditional worldview can satisfy that craving for a meaningful world.

Traditional peoples do not think of the world as freestanding. It derives from a divine source, called the Great Spirit, God, the One, the Infinite, whatever. This source is not separate from the world -- separation is the only thing it is separate from. It is, however, exempt from the world's limitations: time with it perpetual perishings, space with its separations, and finitude with its oppressive restrictions. [Pg. 30]

This sounds more post-rational than traditional. I think he is trying to stuff it into a traditional worldview here, one that is often elevated to post-rational because it is not rational. In a sense, this is true but partial. What he missing is that truly traditional peoples believe that this viewpoint in a mythic sense, not in a post-rational sense, so it seems Smith has fallen into the pre/post fallacy.

I suspect Smith has a lot more to offer, so as I get deeper into the book, I'll be posting more of what he has to say, and reframing it in an integral perspective as much as possible.


~C4Chaos said...


excellent review. i haven't read the book but based on the quotes you commented on, i think your analysis is spot on.

having said that, i think Michael Dowd's approach is more "integral" even if he focuses on the Christian tradition (as opposed to secularism). i haven't read Dowd's book yet but i've read his interviews and his Evolutionary Christianity essay. check out his blog post:

so that's where i'm basing my initial opinion :)


william harryman said...

Thanks ~C,

I'll read Dowd's post, and I've added his book to my wish list.

One of Smith's earlier books, The Forgotten Truth, took a Great Chain of Being approach to religions, and even Wilber referenced him at times. So I had higher hopes for this one.

I'm sure I'll have thoughts to add as I go along -- but my sense is that this book is aimed at those not familiar with comparative religions.


~C4Chaos said...

good point. i think Huston Smith is coming from a top-down integration approach (i.e. comparative religion) while Dowd is coming from a bottom-up integration approach by providing a healthier translation (e.g. evolutionary theology) for Christians.

both have their value.

personally, i prefer the comparative religion and a more secular integral philosophy approach. however, as far as getting people to buy into evolutionary spirituality, imho, i think Dowd's approach is more promising than Smith's because Dowd meets people where they're at. Dowd's style is going to be more effective on places like the Bible belt, because he speaks in Christian tongue.