Huston, We Have a Problem

Neither science nor syncretism feeds the soul
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WHY RELIGION MATTERS:
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 ...

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