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Traditionally, When People Wanted Answers to life's ultimate questions -- Where are we? Why are we here? What does it all mean? What, if anything, are we supposed to do? -- they looked to their revealed texts; or to their ancestral myths if they were oral peoples (it comes to the same thing). Since the rise of modern science, however, they have turned increasingly to it for answers. This is understandable, for controlled experiments enable science to prove its theses; and with those theses it has remade the world. It is a signal feature of our century's close that we recognize that this turn to science was mistaken. Not entirely mistaken, for science (and its spin-off, technology) have their place. What was mistaken was to expect science to answer ultimate questions, for its method doesn't connect with them. Recognizing this clears the way for looking seriously again at the enterprise that does connect with them: religion.
Such serious looking and listening defines the object of this book. It may be wondered if this aim is not too broad. The religions we propose to consider belt the world. They stretch back thousands of years and are motivating more people today than ever before. Is it possible to listen seriously to them within the compass of a single book?The answer is that it is possible, because we shall be listening for well-defined themes. These must be listed at the outset or the reader will be misled.
A balanced view of religion would include witch hunts and inquisitions, pogroms and persecution, the Christian Crusades and holy wars of Islam. The catalogue would have no end.
Why then do I only mention these things? My answer is so simple that it may sound ingenuous. This is a book about values. Probably as much bad art as good has been chiseled and painted, but no one would expect it to appear in these pages. Others will be interested in weighing the virtues of religion against its atrocities. That has not been my concern.
Having targeted my subject as the enduring religions at their best, let me say what I take that best to be. Their theological and metaphysical truths are, I am prepared to argue, inspired. Institutions -- religious institutions included -- are another story. Constituted as they are of uneven people (partly good, partly bad), institutions are built of vices as well as virtues, which has led one wag to suggest that the biggest mistake religion made was to get mixed up with people. This book skims the cream from religion's churning history by confining itself to its theological claims. When we limit ourselves to these, a cleaner side of the religions emerges. They begin to look like the world's wisdom traditions. ("Where is the knowledge that is lost in information? "Where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?" -- T.S. Eliot.) They look like data banks that house the winnowed wisdom of the human race.
In our century this global outreach is important, for lands around the planet have become our neighbors -- China across the street, the Middle East at our back door. The change this new situation requires of us all -- we who have been suddenly catapulted from town and country onto a world stage -- is staggering. Twenty-five hundred years ago it took an exceptional individual like Diogenes to exclaim, "I am not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world." Today we must all be struggling to make those words our own. Anyone who is only Japanese or American, only Oriental or Occidental, is but half human. The other half that beats with the pulse of all humanity has yet to be awakened.
World understanding brings many rewards: it enables corporations to do business abroad, and diplomats to stumble less frequently. But its greatest gains need no tally. To glimpse what belonging means to the people of India; to sense with a Burmese grandmother what passes in life and what endures; to understand how Hindus can regard their personalities as masks that overlay the God within -- to swing such things into view is to add dimensions to the glance of spirit. It is to have a larger world to live in.The Illustrated World's Religions. Copyright © by Huston Smith. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted June 18, 2009
This book is a must for anyone interested in religious philosophy or the state of the human mind. Huston Smith has a way of gently uniting the entire world by comparing the various religions and showing us the beauty in variety that is finally based on the beauty of similarity. The book gives a reverent description with almost childlike enthusiasm for the philosophy and spirit of each varied religion and how they all finally try to encourage the spiritual advancement of a human being. He conveys the enchantment of each religious teaching with the respect of a practitioner and in doing so, culls out the common thread from each. Most interestingly, he never touches the question of the existence of god but he conveys the importance of religion (any religion) to man. Also, as mentioned in the introduction, the author does not explain these religions merely as a list of historic anecdotes and customs. The history and customs are presented only in order to help the reader better understand the circumstances of the development of each religion and religious philosophy. He does not dwell for too long on each religion and his descriptions are succinct enough that the reader can grasp the crux without burning out. I would personally recommend this book for bedside reading, a chapter a night helps me feel like all is well with this world and everything makes sense and there is some hope for man-kind that has lost it's way in the senseless cycle of religious persecution and wars. In short, I sleep better.
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Posted July 26, 2001
Huston Smith knew exactly what he wanted to portray when he began this book. It is a completely unbiased, clear view of the largest religions of the world today.
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Posted November 11, 2010
It's a truly beautiful introduction to the religions of man. For my introductory World Religions class, thsi was supposed to be my textbook, but our professor changed it at the last minute. I liked it so well, I kept it in addition to the new textbook. It is truly a must-have for anyone interested in the great religious traditions of the world!
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Posted May 30, 2010
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Posted February 22, 2011
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