Thoughts on The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

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.

Desperation

“Reaching Out” by Eric1990 on DeviantArt

The Pagan Blog Project: D is for Desperation

People turn to religion, spirituality, deities, etc. for many reasons, but I feel as if “desperation” sums up the main reason we do.

Whether you are desperate for love and acceptance, for knowledge, for fulfillment, for answers and aid in a crisis, for healing, for meaning, or simply for a trusted friend to have by your side as you walk down your small portion of the road of ages, desperation fuels our initial reaching out towards whatever it is we see as deity.  Certainly, some people may begin a religious path through their birth tradition, and still others from curiosity, but to stick with it and have the fires of passion for what you do burning inside you, at some point you have likely experienced that desperate moment when your gods were all that were there for you.

I think it’s important to question ourselves often.  There is power in routine, yes, but when routine is simply thoughtless action, its meaning becomes vague or lost.  Often I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?”  Or, more to the point, “What is it that I am desperate for?”

A feeling of desperation is a tense, anxious feeling.  Sometimes you feel it and can’t identify the cause.  This happens to me often, which leads to my constant questioning of myself.  What am I desperate for?  This changes, obviously, and perhaps it has remained a constant stress because I have not yet anchored somewhere in confidence.

My initial reaching out was brought on by a long-lasting sense of apathy and loathing.  I didn’t understand why my emotions towards the outside world (and even to myself) were only on a scale of not caring to hatred.  Years before, I had realized that I was not Christian, that I would never be Christian, and, not really considering other options, let spirituality fall completely out of my life.  Some people can do this and be happy.  I can’t.  My spirit shrank and shriveled, grew spiky and defensive.  The outward tasks of my every day life, as a result, had no meaning to me, and gradually I realized life had no meaning to me.  This wasn’t a suicidal thought, just another apathetic observation along with countless others.

I chose paganism for two reasons.  First, the options were so limitless that I was certain I could find a home in it somewhere, no matter how I changed throughout the years. Second, the concept of magic suited me.  It wasn’t that I felt I was particularly talented in this field (I’m still not), but it agreed with my own belief that human beings are capable of changing their own destinies and able to manipulate the universe around them, even if it is just ever so subtly.

Having sampled some paths in the first couple of years, the sense of desperation only dulled until it came back full-force and resulted in a very difficult depression.  This obviously intensified the desperation.  I was desperate to be happy again, desperate to find fulfillment and significance.

I wish this story ended with some deity sweeping in and showing me how to fix all my problems, thereby creating one of those beautiful relationships you are likely to read about in ten minutes on online pagan communities.  It doesn’t.  My relationship with deities has never been that complete or trusting.  It exists, but always as temporary partnerships with very clearly outlined boundaries on both sides.  I say both sides because I can feel when I’ve hit the line, even though I am by no means talented at literally hearing deities.  But sometimes, even these temporary bonds would give me a foothold so that, through my own power, I could get myself through.

The problem is that the ground remains uneven.  I think the path is gradually going up, but there are a lot of haggard gaps in it, and I often get stuck in them.  It also is going in a circle, not a straight line.  It’s slow, which probably means I’m slow.  In any case, each relationship I create always ends up pointing back to me.  Whether it’s because I’m broken in some way and need to fix myself first, or just that I’m not going the right way, I don’t know.  I listen to it when it happens, and it has absolutely rewarded me.  I can for some time put my spiritual search on a backburner and do other things to honor my own energy, but at some point I get restless to start searching again.

I have found allies on this search, deities I return to regularly.  These are the ones most likely to help me right now when I am desperate, and of course my family and friends as well.  To me these human allies are equally important if not moreso, and have much of the divine stuff in them.  Their efforts are usually more effective, too, because we are, at least to some degree, made the same and in the same place.  I think that if I learn nothing else from deities in this lifetime, I have at least learned that these very real connections with other human beings can be trusted and provide fulfillment, and they can ignite that spiritual energy just as well as any prayer.

So basically, in my desperate search for happiness and significance, I find myself chasing my tail, but somehow making progress.  Maybe some day I will find the right answer for me.

What is it that you are desperate for?

Dry

The Pagan Blog Project: D is for Dry

Do you ever feel like you are a well and, no matter how deeply you reach, you can’t seem to find anymore water?

I have hit dry spells more often than I would like to admit.  They usually happen when my resources are stretched thin to begin with, which is obviously when I most need to not be completely drained.  Even right now as I write this, I’m recovering from being very sick all week.  I had big plans to do some spellwork this evening.  After all, a full moon on Valentine’s Day on a Friday?  How could you resist if you were at all needing some kind of love in your life?  But the very thought of putting forth the kind of energy needed for for that, let alone the simpler aspects of planning and setting up, makes me feel sick all over again.

From my very little experience, I’ve seen various things that can cause dry spells.  Stress in all of its levels and forms is prominent among them.  Whether we’re talking stress that’s physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or anything-else-al, all these stress factors, large and small, pull from your personal energy sources.  But even things you may not even consider stressful contribute.  Maybe you love going for a hike in the mountains.  Maybe that’s how you replenish certain energy stores.  But even so, after you are done with the hike, you are still tired and drained physically, even if spiritually you feel rejuvenated.

So what do you do?

First, it’s okay to take a break.  Especially in cases of illness, when your body is telling you that you have to slow down, it’s okay.  And even when the dry spell is brought on by sheer burn-out and apathy, it’s okay.  No matter how hard you search for water in a dry well, there isn’t going to be anymore until there is rain and the source replenishes.  You are your main source, and while there are certain things you can do to aid you in replenishing your energy and health, the first step is to let yourself take a break and rest or heal.

Once you feel like you are past doing nothing, then start small.  Make compromises if you have to.  In my case, while I don’t have the energy for full spellwork, I did have enough energy with the help of my partner to at least redo our home altar.  We worked together to make it a center for love and understanding in our household.  It took much less work, and because I wasn’t afraid to ask for help in this situation, I didn’t have to carry the project through on my own.  And, funny enough, it seemed to work out better this way than how I had originally imagined it.  Don’t you love how that works out sometimes?

Lastly, and the thing that’s sometimes hardest to forget, is not to give up.  It’s sometimes impossible to see how you will ever feel up to par again, especially if you’re in a particularly long low.  Like when you’ve been sick for so long that it’s hard to remember what it was like to be healthy.  Take it slow, be patient, and as much as possible look towards the change you wish to see.  In the case of a dry spell, gradually you will begin to feel energized again.

(Please note, while I compared often to physical and mental illness in this post, I am not suggesting that the same method will work to get you through illness.  If you are sick, see a doctor.)

Cycles

This illustration is from “Animals Under Our Feet” published by Treasure Bay.

The Pagan Blog Project: C is for Cycles

Last week, Tanisha over at The Lure of Beauty wrote this post clarifying her spiritual beliefs.  I thought it was such a great idea for those of us who follow a somewhat more scattered path, who don’t find a solid identity in the most commonly (and even less commonly) used labels within the pagan community.  It made me start thinking… What exactly is it that stands out to me as significant?  What could I really base my own practices and beliefs around when I don’t identify with a clear-cut path?

The answer was immediately obvious to me.  Cycles have been a large part of my life ever since I was a child.  Whether we’re talking about the cycles of the seasons, the months, life and death, or even the day-to-day routines we make for ourselves, cycles are all around us.  We come to recognize them and rely on them.  If something doesn’t go as expected, we feel it, but the cycle continues on anyway.

Many people keep memorabilia from moments in our lives, often those that signify a rite of passage or a step into a different part of the cycle of our lives.  One of mine is a silver seasons ring by James Avery that my mom bought for me when I went into high school.  My dad and I later pooled our money to get her a gold one.  Every time I see it, I don’t just think about the movement of the year but also my mother, and it is very precious to me.  I also collect insect exoskeletons, and you can guess what one of my favorites to find is!  Many insects have a fascinating metamorphosis, but that of the cicada is extremely cyclic.  I have a jar of their husks I use regularly for spells, and a collection of adult exoskeletons just because I find them very beautiful.

This was all important to me before I considered myself pagan in any way.  In fact, while a lot of “general” pagan concepts heavily incorporate cycles, I have a difficult time with them because they do not relate to me.  For example, when I first started, like so many I had quite a few Llewellyn books of a Neo-Wiccan flavoring.  Early on, I was drawn to the Maiden-Mother-Crone cycle.  But there was one major problem.  I am not and will never be a mother.  Being in a same-sex relationship, that is biologically impossible without looking for other means, and neither of us want children in the first place.  So immediately I was stuck trying to fit myself into a cycle that just, well, didn’t fit.  Sure, I could understand it on a metaphorical scale, but not personally.  This then extended into the descriptions of major pagan (and Neo-Wiccan) holidays.  So many revolve around the god and goddess, around male/female sex, then pregnancy, then birth.  Any sort of holiday ritual my partner and I did, as a result, felt so scripted and false that I scrapped the whole thing for awhile and started over.  When I tried to get into more hard polytheistic tracks, it didn’t improve the situation much.

What I learned about myself is that it’s difficult for me to get involved with something I can’t directly relate to.  Some people are better at grasping more abstract concepts and making them personal, even spiritual.  I’m not.  I found this a fault for a long time.  Why can everyone else find a path that speaks to them strongly but I can’t?  Obviously something is wrong with me.

I don’t believe that it’s a fault now, or if it is it’s one I’m going to have to live with if I’m going to grow.  So instead of spending so much energy trying to fit myself into something that doesn’t really do it, it’s time to stop and find what speaks to me.

The cycles I see and can actually be a part of make sense to me.  The rituals of my daily life, while mundane at best, are crucial to my well-being.  And, really, I think there is a cycle in belief and disbelief as well.  Sometimes a cycle is more like a spiral.  It goes around and around, but gradually gets bigger or smaller with each loop, sometimes higher or lower.  It’s not as fast a change as a straight line, but it’s movement nonetheless.  These are things I have to remember as I continue to find ways to grow.

Correctness

The Pagan Blog Project: C is for Correctness

The word “correctness” can cause a vast array of reactions.  While one person cheers on correctness the same way they might cheer on formality and tradition, another person is rolling their eyes or trying to run.

Correctness is also why many people who come to paganism from outside instead of having grown up in it often get stuck on the doorstep.  They may really want to try out a path or reach out to a deity, but get so caught up in the correct way of doing it that they never actually go through the motions.

I’ll use myself as an example.  Heathenry was the first major pagan path I tried, and that was largely due to the fact that I wanted to learn the runes.  Not only did I want to learn the runes, but I wanted to learn them correctly.  If I’m going to do it, by gods, I’m going to do it right!  I had a similar attitude any time I wanted to make an offering to a deity, or celebrate some form of a holiday.

What was the result?  I would often read so much about it, get so many different ideas and beliefs on the “right” way to do something, that I would eventually panic and throw out the whole thing.  Even with my rune study, which I did in fact see through to the end, I found myself being extremely stressed somewhere in the third Aett because I once again got caught up in whether or not I was doing things the way I should be doing them.  And when I would follow something through, I would be more caught up in script than the actual spiritual connection.

This is not to say that correctness is bad.  In fact, it’s absolutely necessary depending on the path you are following.  If you are strict recon, then yes, you should be paying close attention to the traditional way of doing something.  If you are more recon-derived, well, there’s a little more room for change but you still need to be knowledgeable, and if you base your practice completely off your own gnosis, then the options are limitless (or not, depending on your own beliefs of course).

Having moved from recon-derived to whatever-I-am-now, I’ve found a couple of things that help me keep correctness on the radar without completely letting it rule my life.

  1. Be respectful.  If you are reaching out towards a specific deity, whether you are following traditional means or your own derivation, be respectful.  If you are trying out a different path, same story.  And please always be considerate of closed cultures.  By being respectful you will likely keep yourself in better standing as you fumble your way through, but you will also find yourself more capable of hearing and feeling what’s going on around you.  Respecting someone or something requires attention.
  2. Be realistic.  Know what your limits are, and be ready to balance tradition with practicality.  Sure, maybe you’re supposed to offer the god of 3rd street a human heart every Thursday at 2 pm, but unless you have something worked out with a coroner and a pretty open work schedule, that’s just not going to be a happening thing.  Heimdall might really like a cut of lamb, but if you can barely feed yourself Ramen, there’s probably other ways you can show your devotion to Heimdall.
  3. Be aware.  Listen for cues.  My biggest one was an abyss of depression telling me that by the book correctness wasn’t the way for me to go.  As I branch out, I have to be even more aware of myself and what’s going on around me.  Cues can come from within and without.  Listen.
  4. Keep learning.  If you are following a more formal traditional path, you have a lifetime of study ahead of you.  But so too do those who are making up their own, albeit a different kind.  No matter the case, keep reading, keep communicating, keep working.  You will never have all the answers, but you will have a lifetime of growth.
  5. Leave room for surprises.  You don’t want to be that person whose entire religious practice hinges on one interpretation of some symbol, only to find out through some new discovery that that symbol wasn’t at all what you thought it was.  That’s just one example, of course.  This happens with various traditions and pantheons as well.  Think you’re 100% loyal to the Norse pantheon, then suddenly BOOM, hi Bast.  Or Hades.  Or Lugh.  You get the idea.  Always be willing to be surprised.  That doesn’t mean that you have to make drastic changes with every surprise presented to you, but at least be ready to face them.

Most of all, don’t get so swamped in correctness that you cease to live your life, either spiritually or otherwise.  Correctness is great because it goes right in with powerful words like tradition and stability, but just as any earthy individual will tell you, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.  Ground too much and it’s suddenly extremely hard to move again.