By Huston Smith

The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, IL.
Third edition, 2003. xiii+295 pp., $11.73 (Amazon)

Review by Swami Yogeshananda

Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions (formerly titled The Religions of Man) is familiar to at least a generation of college students. It is surely a classic, in view of its widespread fame and its use as a textbook in universities around the world. It also addressed Smith’s own spiritual journey in part.

This book, published 7 years ago, but much less familiar to the public, elaborates Huston Smith’s personal story.

In this book, published seven years ago, but much less familiar to the public, the Huston Smith story is elaborated. That, however, is but a small portion of a work designed for philosophers and would-be philosophers. As a member of the latter group, I can only say that I found Beyond the Postmodern Mind a totally absorbing read.

The style and vocabulary of the older book were not overly demanding, as I recall. It was a surprise, then, to discover here that Huston Smith, before he ventured into world religions, was professor of philosophy and religion at Syracuse University, then Washington University in St. Louis and finally at M.I.T. This book reveals the deep scholarship of those many years.

The author first divides the history of Western religion into three periods: Graeco-Roman or Classical up to 400 C.E.; the Christian, up to 17th Century; Science and “the Modern Mind” ending in the 20th Century.

The question for the Post-modern mind has been, ”Can man’s mind really make sense of nature?”

If we are not quite sure what is meant by the Modern Mind, he spells it out: Nature is orderly and intelligible, God is marginalized almost to Deism, or absent, final cause is rejected out of hand and something can come from nothing, The question for the Postmodern mind has been, ”Can man’s mind really make sense of nature?”

Here Smith is most concerned about the tenets of the Postmodern mind and our need to go beyond it. The reader may be, like me, unaware of all the assumptions we have been living by, throughout this period of several generations. Metaphysics has collapsed. “There is no Big Picture.” Objectivity is not only impossible for us – it is contrary to human nature. If God exists, he must be wholly “other.” Existentialism? Yes, Smith delineates in detail the role its several forms have played in Western history: it arose precisely to recall us to ourselves, to counter the mechanistic image of humanity science had produced and to remind us of our individuality and “freedom.” It lingers still.

Come to morals. No act is right or wrong in itself. The question, Did the doer choose to act freely, or by imitating others? demonstrates the relativism of our period.

The Deconstructionists, Kant, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Derrida – have opined that metaphysics is no longer possible and the motives that engender it are suspect. Huston Smith will not have that: “What is more futile,” he asks, “than trying to use the mind to limit the mind?” He knifes the age of “science is all” by exposing what it has not told us. Values, purposes, ultimate and existential meanings, quality itself — all these it has not been able to close in on. Thus does the author summarize the Postmodern mind.

What will take us beyond this? Transcendence; lack of faith in transcendence characterizes the mindset we must relinquish.

What, then, is his pitch? What will take us beyond this? It is Transcendence. The lack of faith in transcendence characterizes the mindset we must relinquish. To begin with, he offers us the Primordial Tradition, that is, folk and tribal religion, theism and mysticism. He finds its best voice in Frithjof Schuon and Ananda Coomaraswamy.

The reason we do not see the limitations of science is largely because we do not want to. We so much appreciate the physical and material advantages science has brought us, through its insatiable greed for control – that we deny the philosophy it imposes upon us. But science always deals with the part, never the whole, of reality. (Smith is careful to acknowledge the validity of the evolutionary mechanism; it is the interpretation and extrapolation into evolution theory that he punctures.)

We are the only people who think themselves ascended from savages; the rest believe they are descended from gods.

I was jolted to have Smith remind us, quoting one of his sources, “We (modern Western society) are the only people who think themselves ascended from savages; all the rest believe they are descended from gods.”

At the time of the book’s publication, attacks on evolutionary theory, Darwinism, strict causality etc. were already widely entertained; since then many more world thinkers have climbed onto the generous raft of the Postmodern mind. Nevertheless Smith takes them on with a series of percipient, biting criticisms. For example:

  • Total relativity says it is absolutely true that only relative truth exists. This contradicts itself.
  • Relativity theory in physics requires continuity, strict causality and locality, whereas quantum theory demands the opposite: noncontinuity, noncausality and nonlocality.
  • Darwin himself admitted that geology has not revealed the finely graded organic changes expected by his theory.
  • Domestic breeding, once thought to support evolution, actually denies it.
  • That module in the brain that governs speech has no counterpart among the animals; it appeared suddenly in man in its present form.

In addition to these sections on the Postmodern mind there are ones equally incisive which sum up the preceding Modern Western Mindset, as he calls it, where history was assumed controllable and truth was “what works.”

Now the question is, where do we go from here?

To see oneself as descended from noble stock assumes one is made of noble stuff. This disposes one to behave nobly.

First we must realize that causation is downward — from superior to inferior, from what is more to what is less. “To see oneself as descended from noble stock is to assume that one is made of noble stuff. This in turn disposes one to behave nobly.” We must engender a coherent theory of human nature, for at present we have no consensus. The author makes no apologies for being an out-and-out idealist. We must neither deny nor shirk exploration of the transcendent. In a special section he offers his principal suggestions to the educators of our day, one of the best of which, to my mind, is revisiting the mystics, to discover what they can tell us.

But let us leave some things for the reader to discover for him/herself.

Finally, let us turn to the East and ask where the book’s vision stands in a Vedantic purview. Our spiritual journey, we know, must eventually bring transcendence and immanence together as non-different, must end in their identity. Swami Prabhavananda used to say he loved the idealists: they were attractive. He didn’t say he agreed with them. Smith uses language which Vedanta would not, e.g., “the growth of the soul.” Swami Vivekananda cautions us, “Take all idea of growth off from your mind. The soul does not grow.” The Atman is discovered in all its fullness the moment the veil of ignorance is withdrawn. “Causation is downward,” says our author, “always from the higher to the lower.” Very good, this is Samkhya and Vedanta of course, but the idea of causation itself must ultimately come apart.

It may indeed be that Transcendence is the wave of the future, but idealism must not become blind optimism. “The Vedantic position,” Swamiji clearly declares, “is neither pessimism nor optimism. It is realism.” In Vivekananda’s discussion of materialism he makes this most remarkable observation: “In a sense I agree with the materialist, only what he calls matter I call spirit.” This is a non-dualism, no doubt, but one which is as far removed from the non-dualism of the materialistic behaviorist as a Buddha is from a robot.

There is some repetition in the book, as the author has compiled several of his presentations on different occasions. The Epilogue — Huston Smith’s own spiritual quest — is perhaps the most beguiling section. It starts with his mainline Christian upbringing in China, then the “stripping away” of that, which came through studying science in college. An “awakening” book by Gerald Heard is followed by Smith’s introduction to Vedanta: a meeting in St. Louis with Swami Satprakashananda. then on to learning by teaching, and to the many frontiers in world religions which he has crossed to make him the outstanding figure he is today.

SWAMI YOGESHANANDA has been an American monk of the Ramakrishna Order for over 60 years. He lived in monasteries in the US, India, and England, before moving to Atlanta in 1992 to reestablish a Vedanta Center there. He is now at the Trabuco Monastery in Southern California.

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