Friday, January 21, 2011

The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition

By Huston Smith

Harper San Francisco, 2005

176 p. Spiritual

Huston Smith is an historian of religion that I first met when I read the Harvard Psychedelic Club (reviewed in November, 2010). He was in his late 80s when he wrote The Soul of Christianity and has just this year published his memoirs, “Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine.” Time magazine has called him a "spiritual surfer." "Christianity has always been my religious meal," Smith has said. "But I'm a great believer in vitamin supplements." You may know him from a 5-part PBS series Bill Moyers produced in 1996 called, The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.

This book, The Soul of Christianity, is his apology—his defense of Christianity. Although in his career he has written and taught world religions, he is a Christian to his very core. He says: “One of life’s quiet excitements is to stand somewhat to one side and watch yourself softly become the author of something beautiful. I experienced that excitement often in writing this book.”

Smith divides the book into three parts: The Christian Worldview, The Christian Story, and The Three Main Branches of Christianity Today. The first section, The Christian Worldview, is the most philosophical and the most difficult to digest, although I felt that his defense of a worldview that includes God was very articulate and understandable. He numbers each of his points, and then elucidates them, so it is easy to go back to think through a particular point in a clearer fashion.

Here are some points that I particularly liked:

1) Science’s technical language is mathematics; religion’s technical language is symbolism.

2) “God’s pervasiveness needs to be experienced and not just affirmed.”

3) “We miss the truth if we content ourselves with fragments.”

4) In trying to prove the existence of God, we must “distinguish the absence of evidence from the evidence of absence.”

5) “A bridge must touch both banks, and Christ was the bridge that joined humanity to God.”

6) “Every time we abuse the poor, every time we pollute our God-given planet, indeed, every time we act selfishly, God dies naked on the cross of our ego.”

Of course several reviewers take exception to Smith’s theology and his “worldview” of Christianity, but I found his explanation of the Christian story to be the orthodox, century’s old story, very consistently told, and traditional in tone. I also thought that his brief explanations of the three major Christian divisions—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism to be very concise. A novice Christian would learn a lot about the Christian religion from both sections of the book.

The impression I retained from reading this book is that Huston Smith was writing from his heart as well as from a career of teaching religion. I envisioned him, an old man, sitting at his desk, pondering the pearls of wisdom he could relate to a secular world. He mentions that this book might be his last book on religion; what could he say that would have meaning? What he is saying is that even after a lifetime of studying the religions of the world, he still chooses Christianity for himself and believes that Christianity is where his soul lies. That I was able to agree with him so completely probably means that this is where my soul lies as well.

Reviews of this book are all over the place depending on how fundamentalist or liberal the reviewer is. Several reviewers noted that although they took exception to some of Smith’s theology, they believe that Smith gave a concise, readable overview of Christianity.

A review that was in full accord with Smith’s theology:
A review that liked the book but objected to some of the theology:
A review that hated the book:
An interview about this book on
Huston Smith’s website:

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