Opiate of the People or Food for the Soul?
“Imagine yourself in a bungalow in North India,” writes one of the world's most respected authorities on religion, Huston Smith. “You are standing before a picture window that commands a breathtaking view of the Himalayan Mountains. What modernity has done, in effect, is to lower the shade of that window to within two inches of its sill. With our eyes angled downward, all that we can see now of the outdoors is the ground on which the bungalow stands. In this analogy, the ground represents the material world — and to give credit where credit is richly due, science has shown that world to be awesome beyond belief. Still, it is not Mount Everest.”
In this image-laden, mind-stretching, crisply presented and lucidly argued book, Smith brings a lifetime of experience and reflection to bear on an assessment of religion's recent history, current state and why it will matter in the future. “Two worldviews, the traditional and the scientific, compete for the mind of the third millennium,” he writes. “We have dropped transcendence, not because we have discovered something better that proves it nonexistent. We have merely lowered our gaze.”
Scientism, the belief in science as an all-encompassing worldview, claims to be the most reliable method to get at the truth or the most fundamental reality that exists. But science provides only the perspective of the lowest “two inches” of the picture window. The material world does not give us the full view which only a traditional religious worldview can.
Science and religion are separate but interrelated domains. Both parties must respect the other's sphere of competence. Science is based ultimately on reason; religion, on faith. Both faith and reason are important. The problem is, science has erased the traditional transcendent perspective from our reality map and claims exclusive rights. Science must not assume the role of religion and neither should religion attempt ultimately to establish and validate itself on a scientific base.
Modernity precipitated the loss of religious certainties. Now, meanings inherent to a strictly science-focused, progress-oriented worldview are ebbing in the era of post-modernism. We are globally enveloped in a spiritual crisis not unlike what occurred with the fall of materialistic Soviet communism a decade ago.
We have lost our story and modern stories have not replaced it. The traditional worldview speaks to the human heart's quest for meaning — a desire for oneness with creation and for happy endings. We live in the ambivalence of having abandoned traditional sources of knowledge, yet we cling to that same tradition to justify its values. We must recover a worldview to connect us to the final nature of things.
To trace the account of loss, uncertainty and quest to redis-cover what is needed, Smith refers to ‘flagship books’ which help him describe what is taking place. Readers will be led into the thought of T.S. Eliot, Bryan Appleyard, George Marsden, Edward Larson, Stephen Carter and others. Investigations into these literary tributaries feeding the mainstream of Smith's argument become interesting excursions in themselves.
When Barbara Walters interviewed Monica Lewinsky about the scandal that almost destroyed the Clinton presidency, she asked the former intern if she had sinned. Lewinsky appeared taken aback.
She hesitated and then answered, “I'm not very religious. I'm more spiritual.” This sentiment is a mantra common to our time. It reflects an attempt to justify concern for the larger questions without committing to any answers.
In the end, Smith's book is a plea to defend institutional expressions of faith as much as it is to affirm traditional religious values.
Without the strong presence of institutional religion in a world of ever-expanding secular institutions, it will be difficult to envision a healthy future for the traditional meaning systems espoused and promoted here.
This book will occupy the thoughts of readers long after its contents are digested.
Wayne A. Holst is a professor at the University of Calgary.
- March 11-17,2001