The Soul of Christianity:
Restoring the Great Tradition
by Huston Smith
review by John Koize
Renowned world religions scholar Huston Smith opens his latest book, The Soul of Christianity, with a familiar premise: that the world is in bad shape, and desperately in need of help. That help is available, he suggests, in global renewal of the core creeds and spirituality that characterize “the Great Tradition,” or Christianity in its first thousand years.
Smith lays the groundwork for his exploration of the Christian story in a pointed and concise discussion of the Christian worldview in Part One. This section may pose something of a challenge for readers who either have no background in philosophy, or for whom encounters with epistemology and causation are vague memories of long-past academic pursuits. Smith acknowledges this potential stumbling block and does his best to keep the discussion as lively and timely as possible, working in references to quantum physics and frontier science, and illustrations from contemporary and classical art and literature.
What emerges is a picture of the world that, in many ways, we have all seen before, but somehow is engaging and intriguing enough to be considered revolutionary, or at least new. “The foundational feature of the universe is not matter but information,” Smith writes. “This changes science from assuming its job is to identify underlying structures that have to obey certain equations no matter what.” The great failure of the modern mind, and, according to Smith, the tug behind the widespread unraveling of our social, economic and political systems, is the view that things are limited to the ways in which we can observe and describe them.
Smith presents a summary of salvation history, the Gospels, and the birth and development of the early church in Part Two, “The Christian Story.” At times poetic, at times marked by lucidity and careful reasoning, Smith’s summary of the foundational beliefs of the early church is eloquent, relevant and engaging. For example, he applies the meaning of the crucifixion to modern readers, by writing: “Every time we abuse the poor, every time we pollute our God-given planet, indeed, every time we act selfishly, God dies naked on the cross of our ego.”
Smith concludes with a compare-and-contrast exploration of the three main branches of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Protestantism. The tone is reverent and respectful without eroding into the “everything goes” sort of approach that is a potential pitfall of these kinds of discussions.
The eminent scholar writes in a narrative style and draws on a wide variety of sources, without burdening the reader with extensive references, footnotes and the structure more typical of scholarly works. Throughout the text Smith’s stated purpose is to express Christianity’s central and universal beliefs. Arguing that the main body of his work is intended as a summation of the beliefs that all Christians can accept in substance, he perhaps comes as close as any to pulling it off.
This, I suppose, is the fundamental premise that kept me reading as much as anything else. Through this lens, I found myself challenged and extolled, exonerated and exhilarated. Nonetheless, there are believers at Christianity’s ideological poles who will be unable to reconcile some of the more challenging assertions, and will likely dismiss the work without careful thought.
Hell, for instance, is presented as a possibility, but it is not some cosmic, scorching torture chamber, and it is certainly not forever: “…For nothing can deprive us of the imago dei that is the foundation of our humanity and it will keep sending us signals. We can let our willfulness suppress them or push them aside, but only for so long.” Neither does membership in some other non-Christian religion guarantee eternal torment: “Revelations are for the civilizations they create,” Smith writes, “and within each the truths revealed are absolute and can brook no rivals.”
It would be helpful to see (perhaps in another volume) fuller elucidation of the opening “world-is-in-bad-shape” premise, and how precisely foundational Christian beliefs may serve as a remedy for the decay induced by the scientistic worldview. The topic “business,” for example, merits only two sentences on problems of considerable heft: globalization, the stark and universal criterion of the “bottom line” in decision making, and the growing gap between the rich and the poor. But these are minor criticisms. Smith’s latest work is an altogether captivating, provocative and articulate read.
Copyright ©2005 John P. Koize
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