I am one of many students who can say that Huston Smith had a profound effect on my life.
Reading April Thompson’s interview “Water from a Deeper Well” [October 2002], I was struck again by Smith’s belief, exemplified in his life and study, that there are many paths to God and that we can respect them all while remaining loyal to one. At the same time, Smith’s emphasis on the importance of organized religion and concentrated study in spirituality leads us to understand that there is no quick and easy path to salvation. The wonder is that, through grace, we are able to experience moments of enlightenment in our lives.
While I respect theologian Huston Smith, his criticisms of “cafeteria-style” spirituality are puzzling. His own approach to Christianity seems cafeteria-style. If he’s not a fundamentalist who takes the Bible literally, then he’s picking and choosing what to believe according to his own tastes. When he alludes to the genius of the Sermon on the Mount, I doubt he’s referring to “whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” I think he probably just means the good parts, like “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
And I have no problem with that. I just don’t see how Smith can then turn around and denounce the liberal churches for embracing a diverse spectrum of religious expression. If we are going to pick and choose which passages of Scripture to believe, why not pick and choose from a variety of scriptures?
It’s true, as Smith says, that we don’t fault all doctors for the mistakes of the American Medical Association, but we do shop around for different doctors. And sometimes, when the doctors’ treatments aren’t working so well, we look to alternative practitioners like acupuncturists and herbalists. It’s only natural, when alternatives are available, for people to check them out. I’m glad we live in an era of multiple spiritual alternatives as well.
To Huston Smith, I offer these quotes from two respected Vedic teachers: “I pray that sects may multiply until at last there will be as many sects as human beings” (Swami Vivekananda). “I maintain that truth is a pathless land and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect” (Jiddu Krishnamurti).
I represent at least one person who has suffered serious psychological damage at the hand of religion. Religion can offer solace and strength, but not the truth that distinguishes between “I believe” and “I know.” Although I sit at the Zen center and take much Buddhist teaching to heart, I am not ready by a long shot to swallow everything it says. I do believe some of it, but I do not “know,” and therefore do not broadcast it as Truth.
Perhaps there is no test for absolute truth, beyond plumbing our own depths in an honest and open way. But we are not likely to find anything universal or immutable there unless, by great effort or miracle, we can transcend the barriers of culture, language, and ego.
Huston Smith has done much to promote understanding between the faiths, but his experience studying under enlightened roshis and broad-minded theologians is definitely not that of the lay people in the trenches, who have suffered through religion as it is too often practiced. My sister, while dying of cancer, had to listen to her former church friends admonish her to return to the faith. My niece sat through her pastor uncle’s two-hour harangue about hell and damnation because she no longer attended service. I once had friends who would unblinkingly and smugly tell me that they were saved — implying that the rest of us weren’t.
Such personal experiences can’t be brushed aside in favor of the greater good of what religion can do. Religion is personal, and organized religion is not the only serious way to approach God. It certainly has its place, and for the right people it can bring transcendence, but when our thinking outgrows it, then it’s time to wander the pathless land that Jiddu Krishnamurti advocated.
In “Water from a Deeper Well,” Huston Smith once again threw a rock through the window of my religious complacency. I am one of those educated people who call themselves “spiritual” instead of “religious.” I do this because I do not want to be perceived as a fundamentalist, judgmental, and lacking in zest for life. The paradox is that I crave religious experiences like the ones I had while sitting in the Baptist and Lutheran churches of my childhood.
I continue to search for a church where I, a thirty-year-old lesbian schoolteacher and pacifist, can belong. I have tried Quaker meetings, Church of Religious Science, and friends’ churches. I’ve also tried wilderness and yoga. Each one has a piece of the spiritual puzzle, but something is missing. So I keep seeking.
The Dalai Lama once suggested that Americans should study the world’s religions, but practice within our own traditions. But Lutherans and Baptists both denounce my life. I won’t find community there. Yes, I want a church with a moral backbone, but one that worships life. Does anyone know of one?
I was disappointed that Huston Smith used poor Monica Lewinsky to support his view that spirituality without religion is narcissistic. When Barbara Walters asked Lewinsky if she considered herself a sinner, Lewinsky replied, “Well, you know, I’m not very religious. I’m more spiritual.”
Smith’s condemnation of her statement shows the dark side of organized religion — its judgmental nature. Lewinsky knows all too well how hurtful judgment can be. I can understand why she didn’t want to respond directly to Walters’ loaded question on national television.
One thing I have come to appreciate in Eastern spirituality, Sufism in particular, is its ideal of nonjudgment.
In response to April Thompson’s interview of Huston Smith, I have to voice what millions of people quietly know about religion, but cannot put into words:
Religion — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in particular — is just a cultural form of sadomasochism based on the worship of a sadistic tormentor. People get a kinky thrill from being trapped in an inescapable cycle of domination, submission, and fear. They tingle at the idea of some celestial leather daddy or dominatrix to whom they have to pay quivering homage.
If you read Smith’s books carefully, you will see that what turns him on about religion is all the bondage and groveling and lying prostrate on the ground.
Huston Smith says, “Science . . . cannot address anything other than the material world, whereas religion deals with the whole of things.”
The material world predates humankind by millions of years. The evolution of this world and of the human animal, with its remarkable brain, is explained in elaborate detail by the sciences of physics, astronomy, anthropology, geology, and biology. All religions were created out of the fertile imagination of human beings in very recent time.
Is it religion, then, or science that deals with “the whole of things”? Humanity could relieve a great deal of confusion, conflict, and suffering if it would accept the fact that science has all the answers.
I am uncomfortable with Huston Smith’s characterization of the Jewish people’s Shabbat as one in which they “speak of themselves as ‘the chosen people.’ ” The Jewish communities in which I am involved (admittedly, progressive ones) challenge the notion of superiority which that concept suggests, a notion that has often led to antisemitism.
I read the Eckhart Tolle interview [“Beyond Happiness and Unhappiness,” by Steve Donoso, July 2002], and unlike Sparrow [Correspondence, October 2002], I was impressed by the clarity of Tolle’s thinking and his ability to convey the rationale for remaining focused on the present moment.
In his letter, Sparrow refers to being in the eternal now as “the path of crappy misery.” Many people are miserable, but this is usually not because of what is happening in the present moment. Most are miserable because they are too busy thinking about what happened yesterday or what needs to happen tomorrow. I realize there are people living such harsh existences that, when they focus on the moment, they can experience heightened misery, but I don’t think this is the case for Sparrow or most readers of The Sun.
I recently vacationed with my wife on an island in South Carolina, and I couldn’t help thinking again about Sparrow’s letter. At first, I was angered, because I truly disagreed with his thoughts. Then I was jealous because his ideas were printed, and mine weren’t. Then it occurred to me: I don’t know Sparrow or anything about him. What he’d written and what I had read were no longer what was happening in the present. So why was I feeling uncomfortable?
I looked around and saw the beauty of the island; heard the music of the birds; thought about the hunt of the hawk, and the fear of the squirrel. I was uncomfortable because I was not moving from one moment to the next. The “crappy misery” I was beginning to feel was a result of not being present.