Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Huston Smith: The Soul of Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco 2005.

Huston Smith, son of Methodist missionaries in China, friend of Thomas Merton and Joseph Campbell, teacher and friend of Marcus Borg, wrote this book in 2004, and says it was 'the most exciting year of my writing'.

His parents' first child, whom he never knew, died in his father's arms one Christmas Eve. Other insights into his spiritual formation are interesting: 'One night, [my father] was visiting a village thirty miles away and he went by boat, but the lake froze over in the three days he was there... [so] he walked thirty miles home over ice. So it was that intensity, sincerity, devotion that I assimilated from my parents that was most important.' 'In our missionary home in traditional China, breakfast was followed by morning prayers, which included our servants' family. As we sat in a circle, our mother would lead us in singing a stanza of a hymn, in Chinese, of course. Then adults would take turns reading verses from the Bible... Then we would stand, about face, get down on our knees, and bury our faces in our hands on the seats of our chairs as my father led us in a prayer that closed with all of us saying the Lord's Prayer...'

Huston Smith has generally succeeded in his aim of writing a book about Christianity 'that carries the assent of all Christians', a book which is not combative, respecting various interpretations of Christianity without arguing with them. My view would be that only a liberal thinker like Huston Smith could do this. How liberal is he? Study this: 'I'm a universalist. I refuse to prioritize any one of the eight great religious traditions over the others.'

He ranges over the whole spectrum of Christianity (though hardly mentions Pentecostalism, if at all), citing liberal authors (eg. Marcus Borg) and conservative ones (like N T Wright and John Polkinghorne). He is critical of conservative Christians for their literalism and dogmatism and tendency to slip into 'disastrous political agendas' which are 'untrue to Jesus'. But Liberal churches 'are digging their own graves, for without a robust, emphatically theistic world-view to work within, they have nothing to offer their members except rallying cries to be good. We have it from Peter Berger that "if anything characterizes modernity it is the loss of the sense of transcendence".'

Huston Smith has more of a gift of wisdom/knowledge of comparative religions than accuracy. It wasn't Timothy who said 'Without doubt the mystery of our religion is great' (p. 32) but the writer of 1 Timothy (maybe Paul). It wasn't Jesus who talked about 'rejoicing with those who rejoice, and weeping with those who weep' (p. 63), it was Paul in Romans 12:15 - unless Smith has some evidence that Paul quotes Jesus at this point, evidence no one else has! For mispellings of Annie Dillard ('Anne Dillard' p. 125 etc.) we can forgive an old man - but not his editor/s. And his use of the Authorized Version of the Bible here and there (some quotes with sexist language) is unusual for a Christian scholar.

A couple of statements are in the category 'But that I can't believe', like

* 'If Jesus had not been followed by Paul, the Sermon on the Mount would have evaporated in a generation or two' (p. 89).

* 'The Christian worldview compressed into a sentence: the world is perfect, and the human opportunity is to see that and conform to that fact' (p. 33).

However, all that said, I marked the following for more reflection:

* God is *defined* by Jesus, but he is not *confined* to Jesus

* The Infinite is that out of which you cannot fall

* If it is not paradoxical, it isn't true (Shunryu Suzuki)

* A NT scholar went to heaven and asked Paul if he wrote the Letter to the Ephesians. Paul thought for a moment, stroked his beard, and said 'Yes, I think I did' which is as much as to say 'Who cares?'

* The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is its faithful servant

* 'I pray God [the God above all distinctions] that he may quit me of [the personal] God' (Meister Eckhart)

* [The people who first heard Jesus' teaching] were astonished, and with reason. If we are not, it is because we have heard Jesus's teachings so often that their edges have been worn smooth, dulling their glaring subversiveness

* 'O God whose boundless love and joy / are present everywhere, / He cannot come to visit you / unless you are not there' (17th century German mystical poet Angelus Silesius)

* Hell is popularly depicted as a fiery furnace whose flames do not consume bodies but torture them forever. But this is only a metaphor; it cannot be literally true, for resurrected bodies are incorporeal and do not have flesh that could be burned. (Remember that resurrection is not resuscitation). The theological definition of hell is total aloneness... Will anyone burn in hell forever? The answer is no, for nothing can deprive us of the imago Dei that is the foundation of our humanity

* 'There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess/ I knew no one worth my envying him' (Czeslaw Milosz)

* Though divine in origin, the Church is made up of humans, of sinners, and so in an act unique for any institution, at the end of the second millennium the Pope publicly apologized and did penance in the name of the Church for the sins of individual Christians throughout the ages

* 'The Protestant Principle', stated philosophically, warns against absolutizing the relative. Stated theologically, it warns against idolatry. (But the chief Protestant idolatry has been bibliolatry)

* Protestant diversity is not as great as its hundreds of denominations (most of them more adequately termed sects) suggest... Actually, 85% of all Protestants belong to 12 denominations.

It's a challenging book.

Shalom! Rowland Croucher

March 2007


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