25 May 2017

The World’s Religions, by Huston Smith

Posted by Callan Bentley

I’ve just finished an excellent book about religion. It’s a survey of major world religions by Huston Smith, titled straightforwardly The World’s Religions. I find religion to be fascinating. It’s a distinct human phenomenon that provides structure and meaning to so many people’s lives, and yet seems entirely superfluous to my own life. That discrepancy is so strange – it motivates me to understand it better. I found this survey to be an ideal entry point to better grasping the distinct aspects of different “wisdom traditions” (Smith’s phrase) because it’s written with the best of intentions. Smith isn’t a critic of religion, nor a credulous believer with a particular ideological axe to grind. He’s a scholar, and an exceptionally articulate author. His approach is to set aside a lot of what we find spurious or objectionable or lurid about the world’s religions, and examine each in its best manifestation, its highest aspirations. Smith has a charitable perspective, and asks “what drives people to keep practicing such a belief system over time? What motivates the adherents of a particular religion? What do its practitioners get out of it?” A modicum of historical background is presented for each, but the “backstory” is weighted just right – not overwhelming or indulgent. Then he proceeds to examine key aspects of each faith, their particular emphases and varieties. These aspects and characteristics don’t necessarily line up from one tradition to the next, so this isn’t really a comparative religion exercise wherein each faith is examined in the context of a checklist of features, the sort of thing that could be organized in a table. Instead, it’s very cleanly organized into hierarchies of ideas (in easily comprehended clusters of three or four), a unique structure for each unique religion. The focus is on understanding that religion within its own context; how it sees itself, where it places its own emphasis. Reading it, I could tell Smith had a lot of experience teaching, because the book feels like a sequence of the best lectures you ever heard from a religious studies professor, ready-made for the keen college student to translate into systematic notes. The analogies used were evocative and insightful, and I found Smith’s style of posing the faith’s answers to a hypothetical question to be illuminating. Overall, I found its unassuming style to be clean, frank, and obliging. I learned a lot, but upon finishing it, I felt sad it had concluded: I felt like there was more to be understood. I may just have to read it again. Recommended.