Why Religion Matters' author speaks at Kansas City church
By Rich Heffern
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY -"The human soul is emerging from a dark tunnel. Religion matters now more than ever," said Huston Smith in a series of three lectures given on Oct. 1 and 2 at Country Club Christian Church.
Rich Heffern/Key photo
Huston Smith delivers the first of three lectures in a series titled "Why Religion Matters More Than Ever Today" at Country Club Christian Church on Oct. 1.
Huston Smith is author of the most widely used college textbook on comparative religion, "The World's Religions" and author of the recent best-seller, "Why Religion Matters." Smith has taught at Syracuse University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California. In 1996, Bill Moyers created a five-part PBS series around Smith's life and work titled "The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith." Smith's film documentaries on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism have all won international awards.
"There is an unquenchable fire within us that renders us incapable of ever coming to full peace," Smith told the audience of about 150 the first evening.
"In the marrow of our bones, in the deepest recesses of our souls, there's a longing that the modern world, with distractions and addictions of every sort, tries to prevent us from satisfying, but that longing is a jack-in-the-box that presses to be freed. It's a desire for release from our mundane existence with its confining walls of finitude and mortality." Religion matters, Smith said, because it says that this longing can be fulfilled.
Immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, Smith recounted that he looked at the title of his best-selling book and winced. "Yes, religion matters, I thought. It stirs up conflicts and antagonisms and eventually can set the world in flames. But the world's wisdom traditions are also the single best force to help us behave decently toward one another. Religion matters for both good and bad."
Most importantly, he said, "Religion delivers to us the news of eternity, which is always good. The news of the day is almost invariably bad."
Smith said that the world's major religions all share the same message. The heart of Christianity, he said, is Jesus' teachings about peace, justice and reconciliation, about loving our enemies. Drawing on his lifetime study of world religions, he told the audience that in the Koran the impetus is the same. "The standard greeting in the Muslim world is 'Peace be upon you.' And the response is 'Also upon you.'"
Smith pointed out that the Islamic tradition holds that when the soul goes to paradise it will be overwhelmed by the peace there. "For four days 'peace' is the only word uttered."
The Islamic concept of "holy war" or "jihad" is the warfare against the evil in each and every one of us, Smith said.
In his second talk on Saturday morning, Smith focused on the current polarized state of religion in the United States, "hamstrung on the division between liberal and conservative."
"To the mainstream secular world these opposing points of view seem to cancel each other out, and, as a result, we're written off. The truth is that both sides have problems while both also have a handle on the truth."
Conservatives need to critically examine their dogmatism, which can only breed trouble in a pluralistic world, he said. "The fundamentalists need to tone it down in the interest of bridge building, to draw circles that let people in rather than keep them out. Theirs is an unworkable literalism, one that fails to see that the language of religion is symbol, allegory, parable, poetry, music."
The fundamentalists also need to steer away from disastrous politics, according to Smith. "The religious right drowns out every other voice, including that of prophetic Christianity."
On the other hand Smith believes it's incumbent upon liberals in the churches to understand the real threats to religion that come from Darwinism and academic criticisms of the Bible, threats that have indeed created fundamentalism. What's more, "liberals need to recognize there are two fundamentalisms at work in the world today. We liberals cede too much to the ethos of modernity, which is equally dogmatic and literal. We've produced for the first time in history a completely secular culture, and it remains to be seen if it really works. Materialism and consumerism dominate our world at the expense of deep values."
In his final lecture Smith outlined "the remarkable opportunity for churches that now exists."
A major dividing line in world history occurred 300 years ago with the discovery of the scientific method, according to Smith, "a building block for knowledge that allowed the construction of a whole edifice of proven knowledge. This discovery divided history between traditional societies and modernity, the marriage of science with technology, that has led to the world we know today."
The price exacted was a costly one, though. "Traditional societies assumed we lived in a two-tiered world - heaven and earth - and that the upper story was vastly more important than the lower. Now we live in a one-story universe. We can't see the glorious heights of the Himalayas now, only the foothills."
Churches have had to deal with an enormous adversary in modern culture, he said. The church's mission is to alert us to that other world, and its voice is stifled by other attractions. Smith quoted Mother Teresa who lamented the "desperate material poverty in India, desperate spiritual poverty in the West."
But modernity is on the ropes, Smith said. "It's on the way out, and as a result the center of our culture is unoccupied. The dream of progress science and technology promised has turned out to be a cruel joke. The 20th century was the most barbaric in human history and all our institutions - education, business, government, art - are now in total disarray.
"Our highest authority now is just to maximize profits, to do just what we want to do. But religions recognize God's will as the center for our values, as the bottom line. Religion helps us deal with what is most important to the human spirit: values, meaning, purpose, and quality.
"Seize this opportunity," Smith advised. "Restore the role of religion as the primary humanizing influence at the center of our culture."