Book Review: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith
This is one of those awkward moments where I’m reading a book that I’m going to be posting on my “secret” blog (this one) as well as my public blog. On my public blog I get to talk about the book in a scholarly if not vaguely God-seeking manner. On this one I get to talk about it as it affected me as a pagan.
Huston Smith discusses the world’s prominent religions in this book, in this order: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and lastly the “Primal” religions, here discussing earth-based spirituality that has gone mostly unchanged in certain circumstances. He does not discuss polytheism or paganism, which is probably good because he seems to not really get the point as far as those things go. However, for his focus on the others, he does an excellent job capturing the spirit of the religion while also giving the reader a basic understanding of the terms, beliefs, histories, and key religious figures.
Here is my Goodreads review for my general thoughts on the book:
I can’t speak to the accuracy of the book because I am only very slightly familiar with the religions presented, but I really liked the presentation of the book. The author was good about letting the reader know when he was going on a bit of a tangent or leaving out a lot of information for the sake of simplicity. While leaving out information can be problematic, in a book that is trying to have such a large scope while still being accessible to the common reader, I felt he made good decisions. He also managed to capture the spirit of each religion without getting caught up in the politics associated with each, yet included enough of the history to orient the reader to how it developed.
Smith also managed to keep the book from being solely comparative. In fact, he avoided that for the most part, at most just showing how religions interacted or grew out of each other. The most that is continually compared is Christianity, but that’s because he is, as he states in the introduction, writing this for the Western reader who most likely has grown up if not Christian, then at least in a heavily Christian-influenced society.
I strongly recommend this book as an opening look to world religions, knowing that you will probably also need to do further research if you want in-depth knowledge of any.
Five stars is a high rating from me. It’s strange because I actually had a few issues with how he presented some information, especially when he would occasionally mention polytheism almost as a negative, but at the same time it didn’t bother me because, if I were in his shoes, I wouldn’t understand it either. You can tell by his words how much these religions capture the “godstuff” in him, and without in-depth knowledge of polytheism and how it has survived (and drastically changed) into today, it would seem to the outsider like mere assignment of unknowns to a name and a person.
I think what touched me most is how certain parts rang with me as a seeker on my own path. Because I haven’t found my solid ground yet in paganism, I’m not even sure often wether I should really even use that label. Why I choose to continue to use it is its seeking, moveable nature. It was comforting to read similar feelings in other people for other religious paths.
My favorite quote from the book uses a term that I am adopting for myself, “God-seeker.” It rings with that shimmery feeling that I’ve sensed repeatedly but never been able to name, so much so that I’ve stopped trying to name it.
“What a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land, lifting their voices in the most disparate ways imaginable to the God of all life. How does it sound from above? Like bedlam, or do the strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony? Does one faith carry the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony where not in full-throated chorus?
We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine.”
When words fail (as they so often do), music fills in the gap where otherwise silence might lay flat when it is unable to shine or draw into itself. Aside from the title, comparing the efforts of humanity in reaching the divine to an outpouring of music created a beautiful image to me.
I don’t consider myself a gifted writer. Yes, I can organize information, and I can write correctly. I’m actually a very good editor when I care to put my attention to it. But I have not tasted the Mead of Poetry, and my writing at best comes off as simple and succinct. And so my spiritual leanings so often come off as a jumble of indescribable feeling, and to try and write them out here only proves to cheapen the experience. It’s okay, though, because there is significance in music and silence as well.