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Though there is a wide variety of contemporary interpretations of Christianity-some of them conflicting-Smith ...
Though there is a wide variety of contemporary interpretations of Christianity-some of them conflicting-Smith cuts through these to describe Christianity's "Great Tradition," the common faith of the first millennium of believers, which is the trunk of the tree from which Christianity's many branches, twigs, and leaves have grown. This is not the exclusivist Christianity of strict fundamentalists, nor the liberal, watered-down Christianity practiced by many contemporary churchgoers. In exposing biblical literalism as unworkable as well as enumerating the mistakes of modern secularists, Smith presents the very soul of a real and substantive faith, one still relevant and worth believing in.
Smith rails against the hijacked Christianity of politicians who exploit it for their own needs. He decries the exercise of business that widens the gap between rich and poor, and fears education has lost its sense of direction. For Smith, the media has become a business that sensationalizes news rather than broadening our understanding, and art and music have become commercial and shocking rather than enlightening. Smith reserves his harshest condemnation, however, for secular modernity, which has stemmed from the misreading of science-the mistake of assuming that "absence of evidence" of a scientific nature is "evidence of absence." These mistakes have all but banished faith in transcendence and the Divine from mainstream culture and pushed it to the margins.
Though the situation is grave, these modern misapprehensions can be corrected, says Smith, by reexamining the great tradition of Christianity's first millennium and reaping the lessons it holds for us today. This fresh examination of the Christian worldview, its history, and its major branches provides the deepest, most authentic vision of Christianity-one that is both tolerant and substantial, traditional and relevant.
The paradoxes of this world, ranging all the way from our daily life to the paradoxes of quantum mechanics and relativity theory, are life and nature's way of repulsing a false philosophy, naturalism.
The background of the Christian story is its two-tiered world, which the Prologue to this book introduced by way of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. In that allegory the dim outlines in the cave contrast sharply with the lighted "outside world," which serves as a metaphor for the "upper story" ("transcendence" was Peter Berger's word for it) that all religious worldviews affirm. In East Asia Confucius made this point with definitive succinctness: "Heaven and earth; only Heaven is Great." In South Asia samsarais inferior to Nirvana, and in the Abrahamic family of religions Yahweh/God/Allah created the universe. Without an upper story, the ultimacy of an Infinite God-by-whatsoever-name makes no sense, any more than do Jesus's true nature, the redemption of a fallen humanity, prayer, salvaton, etc. And come to think of it, science doesn't make sense either. Frontier scientists are always working on the rim of the infinite, for beyond the edge of today's universe lies the infinite unknown we will step into tomorrow. And the same holds when we peer into the seemingly infinite depths of the atom. This part of the book--Part One--blueprints the world's upper story by way of pinpointing its fixed points, numbered in the text below, in the conviction that if they are kept clearly in mind the Christian story will come through to us more sharply.
Before beginning to list the points, we should take note of the background within which they are positioned. The Christian world is objective, in the sense that it was here before we were and that it is our business to understand it. "Honor the object, not the subject," Czeslaw Milosz admonished, and Christianity does that.
This was taken for granted until modern philosophy introduced idealism as the opposite of realism. Science remains realistic because it can demonstrate what the world is like without us, but for the rest, modernity assumes that we must begin with how the world appears to us and extrapolate from there. William Blake was quick to notice the mistake here: once you begin with a self/world divide (as animals and traditional peoples do not), there is no way Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again. As he wrote,
The dim window of our soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And leads us to believe the lie
That we see with, not thro', the eye.
That said, we can proceed to enumerate the fixed points of the Christian world--or rather, the Christian worldview, for it includes smaller worlds that nest within it like Chinese boxes, as the closing stanza of the hymn "Rock of Ages" attests:
While I breathe this fleeting breath,1. The Christian world is Infinite, for if you stop with finitude you face a door with only one side, an absurdity. The Infinite has doorways, but not doors.
When I close my eyes at death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
and behold thee on thy throne;
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.
2. The Infinite includes the finite or we would be left with infinite-plus-finite and the Infinite would not be what it claims to be. The natural image to depict the Infinite's inclusiveness is a circle, an all-including circle that encompasses our finite universe and out of which it is impossible to fall. "In Him we live and move and have our being," Paul tells us, and Augustine added, "God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere."
The point here is God's pervasiveness, and it needs to be experienced, not just affirmed. Jonathan Edwards described how God's pervasiveness was brought home to him in the course of a long, contemplative walk in his father's pasture, and how that walk showed him that God's pervasiveness required that God's majesty include, not exclude, meekness as well. It is an important point, so I will quote him in full:
My sense of Divine things gradually increased and became more and more lively and had more sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be as it were a calm, sweet cast or appearance of Divine Glory in almost everything. God's excellence, His wisdom, His purity and love, seemed to appear in everything: in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water and all nature, which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time, and so in the day time spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky to behold the sweet glory of God in these things, in the meantime singing forth with a low voice my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. And scarce anything among all the works of nature were so sweet to me as thunder and lightning: formerly nothing had been so terrible to me. I used to be a person uncommonly terrified with thunder, and it used to strike me with terror when I saw a thunderstorm rising. But now on the contrary it rejoiced me. I felt God at the first appearance of a thunderstorm and used to take the opportunity at such times to fix myself to view the clouds and see the lightning's play and hear the majesty and awful voice of God's thunder, which led me to sweet contemplations of my great and glorious God; and while I viewed I used to spend my time singing or chanting for my meditations, speaking my thoughts in soliloquies--speaking with a singing voice.
3. The contents of the finite world are hierarchically ordered. Arthur Lovejoy titled his important study in the history of philosophy The Great Chain of Being and argued that its underlying idea had been accepted by most...
Excerpted from The Soul of Christianity by Huston Smith Copyright © 2005 by Huston Smith.
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|Part 1||The Christian Worldview||1|
|Part 2||The Christian Story||37|
|Part 3||The Three Main Branches of Christianity Today||129|