I didn’t buy this book. My wife bought this book. She doesn’t generally buy books like this, tending more to ‘bubble-gum’ books (her words), stuff like murder mysteries and chick lit. This isn’t that. It is possibly the most profound book I have ever read.
The wife bought the book because she was tired of the people in our Sunday school class (a Southern Baptist congregation) talking the ordinary white Protestant smack about Islam—that it’s a religion of jihad, that Mohammed was more a soldier than a prophet, that its adherents believe all infidels must die, etc.—and wanted to find out something of what Islam was really about. So, she just read the initial chapter and then the part about Islam. She thought of the book as something of a condensed encyclopedia of religions (about 400 pages), turning straight to the religion she was interested in.
I told the wife when she bought the book that I’d want to read it when she was done. One day I saw it lying on the side table, again, where we don’t leave our books anymore because I built a gargantuan built-in bookshelf in which to put them, an agreed-upon edict that the wife routinely ignores. The day was slow. I think a weekend. I flipped the book open when I picked it up to put it in the bookshelf and read a sentence in the section on Buddhism. Then another. And another. I was mesmerized. It wasn’t just what Smith was saying, but how he was saying it. I expected a dry, academic delivery—what one might expect of an encyclopedia-like book—but instead got a voice with a clarity, verve, cadence and compassion that I’d only ever seen in a writer occasionally, and never with non-fiction writers. I knew at once that Smith was a master storyteller. And I knew enough of Buddhism to know, in just those first few sentences, that he knew the heroes of his story intimately.
I wouldn’t use the book like an encyclopedia. It was a work of literature and had to be properly read, start to finish. Like the songs on record albums used to be arranged in a certain manner to elicit the feeling the artist aimed to induce, Smith no doubt had a reason for the order in which he presented each religion. I wanted the full experience. I flipped to the beginning and started reading anew.
There is such sweet sorrow in finding a great book. Following the initial euphoria upon reading a few pages comes the dreadful knowledge that like a blossoming rose, the beauty can’t last. Each turning page is a petal browning and dropping from the flower. I would never say of a great book that “I couldn’t put it down”. Because with great books, I put them down incessantly, taking them in as small a dose as I can manage, to put off the parting for so long as I can. This is a great book. I read it slowly and haltingly, savoring each page.
Smith writes of each religion as if he were a believer, a proselyte even, accentuating the positive, life-affirming aspects of each faith, while only acknowledging the negative aspects. He spends very little time discussing anything of the particular (and often peculiar) beliefs and practices of today that arose from each tradition, instead focusing on the central message of the founder. He doesn’t, for example, explain much of what Buddhists do and believe today, but focuses on what Buddha did and believed in his lifetime, and how the religion arose from that. Same for Christ, Mohammed, Confucius, Lao Tzu, et cetera. As the founders were remarkable people who lived extraordinary lives, placing the emphasis on them necessarily accentuates the positive. Christ was a brilliant and profound Jewish prophet, if nothing else, who lived what could only be characterized as an exemplary life, who would likely have been canonized by the Jews as a major prophet (as he was by Islam) had his teachings not begun a radical new sect of Judaism that spread like wildfire.
Because every religion that survives must necessarily be founded on the highest ideals–on the most sacrosanct idea of what is good and how to live a good life–by the time I finished each section, I was ready to convert. Or, almost. I already fancied myself something of a Buddhist Christian, if the supernatural stuff of Christ is disregarded (no, I don’t pipe up and say as much in my Sunday school class—I prefer peace, at home and socially, over piety), so, no conversion was necessary for either of those, but I will say that I’ve never seen either faith so eloquently and lovingly described.
Of the remaining faiths, I already knew a little, mainly as tangential to extensive studies in philosophy the last decade or so, but learned a lot. Of all that I learned, I liked best the idea in Hinduism that there are many ways to God. I may well adopt that as part of my catechism. How could it be otherwise that there are many ways to God? I get that even asking the question is sideways criticism of Christianity and Islam at least, perhaps others. But how can either faith, or any faith, claim it is the only way to God? What did the world do before Mohammed? Or Christ? What of all the people who even today haven’t learned of Mohammed or Christ? Are they all condemned to eternal damnation for having committed the mortal sin of living in relative isolation and obscurity, or in places where the religion hasn’t spread?
In my Christian upbringing, there was no question that the only way to God was through Christ. It didn’t make sense for me then and doesn’t make sense now. Christ, who didn’t exist before 2000 years ago, can’t be the only way. It was one of the reasons I rejected Christianity. But mostly, I rejected Christianity, as it was practiced, not generally as Jesus taught, because the dogma was intellectually suffocating. No matter the question, the answer was always Christ. Going to church meant leaving the intellect at home. Or, maybe in the car in the church parking lot. Notwithstanding I still attend church,I gave up on organized religion, or perhaps I should say, organized Christianity, as a place to go for answers long ago.
But I have a quite well-developed personal catechism of beliefs. There’s the Buddhist Christian thing, plus Spinozism, which is perhaps redundant to Buddhism, plus Stoicism/Epicureanism/Cynicism, and now a dash of Hinduism for its ecumenical bent. No, I’m not trying to hedge my bets in case one or the other traditions proves to have an exclusive claim to spiritual truth. I’m just trying to make sense of it all. Smith’s book helped marvelously.
St. Augustine admonished potential adherents (to Christianity) that to understand, you must first believe, something which Smith seems to have taken to heart, and for more than just Christianity. His biographical sketch revealed something of the reason he understood the world’s religions so well. Except for Judaism, Smith, at various turns in his life, had believed them all. He was raised Christian, the son of Christian missionaries in China (and considering Christianity’s Jewish roots, I’d give him that one, too, though he doesn’t claim it). Shortly after leaving his peasant village in China to arrive in the United States for college, he began exploring other religious faiths, both through his formal studies at school, and informally, through something of what appeared to be a life-long quest to embrace and experience each major faith tradition. At least part of why he can so capably explain the values of each religion as if they were his own, is because, well, they have been his own.
Smith celebrates mankind’s god-seeking nature as universal and universally capable of distilling truth and wisdom. He is profoundly sanguine, a bit smug even, that this god-seeking is mankind’s fullest expression of the unique attributes that have elevated him from the simple, material, instinctive existence of the animals. He apparently assumes without question that mankind has the capacity to exist on a higher spiritual plane than all other creatures. I rather prefer to think of mankind as an animal foremost, but one whose uniquely capable mental capacity has allowed him to imagine the heavens and the cosmos and what his place might be in it, all while remaining firmly rooted in the soil of the earth and the biological impulses that animate all of life. In fact, I believe mankind’s incessant god-seeking arises from his biological impulses, not in contravention of them.
But who can argue with Smith’s celebration of mankind’s god-seeking ways? From either perspective, there can be no doubt that man is a god-seeking creature. I celebrate the god-seeking as a means, unique to mankind so far as we know, of achieving the ends–survival and propagation–for which all creatures exist. Smith celebrates the god-seeking as evidence that we are something more than flesh and bones, that we have been imbued with spirit, with an essence that exists with and apart from our material being.
A theme repeated throughout the book is the idea, promulgated by various religious traditions, that the universe exists to serve, protect, nurture, etc., mankind. By my reckoning, through years of both indifferent and impassioned observation, this view requires belief surpassing all understanding. Instead, I believe the universe, and God, which to my particular theology are the same, is quite indifferent to mankind, except as mankind is an affectation of God. That little part of the universe that is me is not indifferent to me, but the rest of it pretty much is, except perhaps for some of the people, and they aren’t caring in the way that is imagined a transcendent God might be caring. Some of my fellow affectations of God are helpful, some are harmful and some are a little of both. The trick is figuring out which ones are which.
Though I quibble with some of what I could glean of Smith’s personal views and values, let me reiterate, this is a great book. It is a humbling marvel of erudition, eloquence and encyclopedic knowledge to behold. I really haven’t any business reviewing it. My reviewing Smith’s book is like a murder mystery hack reviewing Shakespeare. Instead, allow me to leave you with a snippet of Smith’s writing, here in closing, as to what religious (wisdom) traditions have done for us:
Things are more integrated than they seem, they are better than they seem, and they are more mysterious than they seem; something like this emerges as the highest common denominator of the wisdom tradition’s reports. When we add to this the baseline they establish for ethical behavior and their account of human virtues, one wonders if a wiser platform for life has been conceived. At the center of the religious life is a particular kind of joy, the prospect of a happy ending that blossoms from necessarily painful beginnings, the promise of human difficulties embraced and overcome. We have only hints of this joy in our daily life. When it arrives we do not know whether our happiness is the rarest or the commonest thing on earth; for in all earthly things we find it, give it, and receive it, but cannot hold on to it. When those intimations are ours it seems in no way strange to be so happy, but in retrospect we wonder how such gold of Eden could have been ours. The human opportunity, the religions tell us, is to transform our flashes of insight into abiding light.
Get the book. Read the book, but slowly. Read a chapter a week to become, at turns, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a follower of Confucius, a Taoist, an Islamist, a Jew, a Christian, and finally, a Native American. There is a certain awe that arises in taking in the grand sweep of mankind’s faith tradition to see the impressive truth, insights and wisdom gleaned from the harvest of sentient existence. Smith describes the view we ordinarily get of life as from the back of a tapestry, “…a maze of knots and threads, which for the most part appear chaotic.” It is through religion, through god-seeking, that we try “…to infer from the maze on this side of the tapestry the pattern which, on its right side, gives meaning to the whole.” For the reader of The World’s Religions seeking to better understand what man has been able to infer, Smith reveals the pattern the maze of knots and threads create on the right side of the tapestry. And it is a majestic, breathtaking sight to behold; in no small measure, because of the literary talents and intellect of the one doing the revealing.