The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief
Huston Smith
HarperSanFrancisco, 304 pages, $25

For nearly two generations now, Huston Smith has been a sort of official greeter for American college students and other readers entering any study of comparative religion. The World's Religions has been the most widely used text in the field, and is still going strong, as sales close in on the 3 million mark.

From his 1997 teaming with Bill Moyers for the Emmy-nominated PBS series, The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith, to a collection of academic perches from MIT to Berkeley, to the 11 honorary degrees he has accumulated along the way, the path through the religious life for this child of American missionaries to China has been both rich and rewarding.

So it is perhaps unsurprising that, now in his 80s, Smith defends religious faith against an arrogant "scientism," doing so with the zeal of a protective parent shielding his child from the schoolyard bully. His efforts are noble and his insights vast, if only partly satisfying.

The presiding metaphor of Smith's book is drawn from William Gass's 1995 nihilistic novel, The Tunnel. Smith holds that the stunning scientific and technological successes of the 19th and 20th centuries led to a failure of nerve among philosophers, who, despite warnings from sages like Jacques Maritain, unwisely ceded all questions of ultimate reality to their naturalistic scientific brethren. This, followed by postmodernists' declaration that worldviews ("metanarratives" in their jargon) are necessarily oppressive, has ushered contemporary consciousness into a suffocating tunnel, in which the innate human drive for meaning cannot be realized, and traditional religious practice can never be regarded as more than a pragmatic diversion from the actual, utterly material character of human existence and the universe it occupies.

Sounding at points like a religious conservative rather than the liberal icon he is, Smith says the two sides and ceiling of this constricting tunnel are the rationalistic liberalism of academe; the aggressively secular culture of American law, which trivializes religious belief at every turn; and the anti-religious biases of American media on top, ever misrepresenting the religious character of the American public.

Using Peter Berger's famous formula to contrast the religiosity of most Americans with the secularity of their elite, political class, Smith calls the United States "a nation of Indians governed by Swedes."

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But the tunnel's foundation, and its real pervading essence, is scientism. Scientism, Smith is careful to point out, is emphatically unscientific. It is an unsubstantiated worldview that makes the logical error of mistaking cosmology for metaphysics. Adding to legitimate scientific method the pure assumptions that the scientific method itself is the only reliable way of reaching truth about any topic, and that the subjects of science—material things—are the most fundamental parts of reality, it disqualifies as real a great deal of what is best and beautiful about life: moral values, aesthetic qualities, human intuition, deep human sentiment, religious experience, and even God himself.

A Map without Churches

The untempered enthroning of science has altered our understanding of life today, especially in elite culture. Smith tells of author E.F. Schumacher's experience during a sightseeing trip to Moscow in the Stalinist era. Puzzling over a map and obviously lost, Schumacher was approached by a government tour guide. The guide showed Schumacher where he was on his map.

"But these large churches around us," Schumacher objected to the guide, "they're not on the map."

The communist functionary replied tersely, "We don't show churches on our maps."

"But that can't be," Schumacher insisted to him, "the church on that corner is on the map."

"Oh, that," the man replied, "that used to be a church. Now it's a museum."

Similarly, the official story of scientism does not usually allow for the traditional, immaterial worldview, and when it does, the recognition is one of amusement, as an adult might chuckle at childhood playthings. The inflation of science into the religion of scientism has effectively erased transcendence from our cultural reality map, Smith says. But this dehumanizing conclusion of scientism is painfully shortsighted.

Indeed, the profound depth of personal satisfaction and intensity of meaning that scientists themselves experience from significant discovery should suggest to them that the stunted physicalist view of the person is too thin a twig to support an accurate understanding of human reality. Smith relates that while at MIT he heard the story of researcher Edward Land's discovery of the process that led to the invention of the Polaroid camera. Land and his partner were working around the clock, occasionally napping on lab tables when they simply had to sleep. At one point Land's partner announced he needed an extended break from their work, to which Land replied, "Good, we can get our Christmas shopping out of the way." "Ed," the associate snapped, "Ed! It's January 3rd."

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Smith illustrates the basic irrationality of the scientistic mentality by saying that just as people floating through space in a huge balloon could not use the same flashlight that illumines the inside of the balloon to see where the balloon is situated in external space, so science has nothing to say to us about what may be outside our physical universe.

Where to turn, then, for knowledge of the metaphysical? True to the perennial tradition of philosophy and religion he has championed throughout his career, Smith simply says "everywhere."

"Things are neither as science says they are nor as religion says they are," he avers. "They are as science, and religion, and philosophy, and art, and common sense, and our deepest intuitions, and our practiced imaginations say they are."

And it is this collection of wisdom to which he calls for a cultural re-recognition, and an acknowledgment from the high priests of science that alas the story told by humankind's religious voice is more than a fairy tale, and that human experience in its fullest sense has ears to hear it and learn of reality from it.

'God by Whatsoever Name'

But while Smith's critique of scientism and its assorted intellectual manifestations is vigorous and convincing, one wonders if the victory he wins can support a full-blooded religious commitment. He beats back the serpent of scientism by showing that it cannot prove the impersonality of the universe or meaningfully answer to the spiritual dimensions of human experience, but his own syncretistic religious worldview has only what he calls "God by whatsoever name" to offer us as we enter the castle of ultimate reality. A transcendental agnosticism this sweeping is a bit disappointing, after having been assured that the metaphysical realm is full of nourishment for the soul way beyond scientism's spiritually empty bowl.

Smith, like all pluralists, finds it is hard to do apologetics without defending any specific truth content. "God by whatsoever name," which is no more than homogenized universalism, is not much to hang your hat on, let alone your life. And the logician, scientistic or not, is justified in putting some immediate questions to Smith: What's the difference between an ultimate reality we know nothing about and no ultimate reality at all? Since the various doctrines of the world's religions are mutually exclusive at various points, isn't it more reasonable to believe they're all false rather than all true, or that only one of them is true and the others are false? Do occasional common forms of religious expression and some similar themes necessarily mean that the different traditions are all pointing to the same final truth?

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But the deeper problem here is that the universalism of Smith and the rise of scientism have a common parent: the modern mind's scandalization at Christian particularity, the belief that human salvation is through explicit faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone. It is telling that Smith ends this panoramic study with the sentimental declaration that hell is a "monstrous doctrine" he "could not" accept. The development of contemporary secularism and its idolatry of science is also decisively marked by this deep protest over the moral legitimacy of damnation in the traditional, orthodox Christian sense.

Like some kind of philosophical tragedy, the idea Smith has slain is his estranged brother, an identity hidden from him by his refusal to accept their common sire. Why Religion Matters cannot be seen as a Christian apologetic (though Smith is cautiously sympathetic to Philip Johnson's critiques of Darwinism as well as to the Intelligent Design Movement). Still, the book—its first half, anyway—is an ally in the evangelical critique of contemporary secular liberalism and the scientistic materialism undergirding it. It is, as well, a critically important index to what American students and the searching public are reading on the matter of religion.

Brad Stetson is an associate professor in history and political science at Azusa Pacific University in California.

Related Elsewhere:

Huston Smith's Why Religion Matters is available at Christianbook.com.

Smith's The World's Religions, The Illustrated World's Religions, and Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions can also be ordered from Christianbook.com.

Media interviews and profiles of Huston Smith include:

The World of Religion According to Huston SmithMother Jones

Huston Smith on the Santification of Science and the Dethroning of GodWhat is Enlightenment?

Spirituality Is Not Enough: Huston Smith on Why the World Needs ReligionNew Times

See the transcript of a "Thinking Allowed" interview with Smith.

Last year, Brad Stetson also reviewed Bioethics, A Christian Approach in a Pluralistic Age for Christianity Today.

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