Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition


"I have tried to describe a Christianity which is fully compatible with everything we now know, and to indicate why Christians feel privileged to give their lives to it."
—Huston Smith

In his most personal and passionate book on the spiritual life, renowned author, scholar, and teacher of world religions Huston Smith turns to his own life-long religion, Christianity. With stories and personal anecdotes, Smith not only presents the basic beliefs and essential teachings of Christianity, but argues why religious ...

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The Soul of Christianity

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"I have tried to describe a Christianity which is fully compatible with everything we now know, and to indicate why Christians feel privileged to give their lives to it."
—Huston Smith

In his most personal and passionate book on the spiritual life, renowned author, scholar, and teacher of world religions Huston Smith turns to his own life-long religion, Christianity. With stories and personal anecdotes, Smith not only presents the basic beliefs and essential teachings of Christianity, but argues why religious belief matters in today's secular world.

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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In his most personal and warmhearted book yet, famed religious writer Huston Smith distills decades of research and ruminations on Christian thought to present his own interpretation of its doctrines. The author of The World's Religions recounts his childhood as the son of Christian missionaries in China and discusses how the beliefs instilled in him then have resonated throughout his life. The Soul of Christianity combines elements of memoir, early church history, and cultural critique. A passionate book from a beloved scholar.
John Polkinghorne
‘It is fascinating to read a great scholar of world religions expressing clearly and directly his own Christian faith.”
Anne Lamott
“Huston Smith is the wisest, sanest religious scholar of them all, and so wonderfully readable.”
Associated Press
“What [Smith] advocates is essentially a modernized and tolerant interpretation of the shared faith of Christianity’s first thousand years...”
Los Angeles Times
If one is looking for a short, friendly introduction to what makes Christianity what it is, this is it.
Dallas Morning News
“A bracingly clear overview of Christianity...”
Associated Press Staff
“What [Smith] advocates is essentially a modernized and tolerant interpretation of the shared faith of Christianity’s first thousand years...”
Dallas Morning News
“A bracingly clear overview of Christianity...”
Publishers Weekly
An intriguing combination of apologia, early church history and cultural critique, this deeply personal book attempts to convey the foundations of Christian thought in a way that appeals to modern readers seeking authentic faith in a secular culture. The devotional tone is a distinct departure for Smith, a philosopher and prominent scholar of world religions. This may account for the erudite and occasionally rambling quality of the book's first section, where Smith delineates the "fixed points" of a Christian worldview; he uses science, psychology, the arts, Platonic philosophy and medieval theology to meditate on the nature of reality and the order of the universe. As Smith takes on the "shaky foundation" of modern culture, one of his central tenets is that modern culture has not been able to "distinguish absence-of-evidence from evidence-of-absence." The book's longest section is Smith's summary of the life and significance of Jesus, the history of the early church and various theological matters such as the Trinity and the nature of heaven and hell. While parts are relatively straightforward, Smith's use of anecdotes and willingness to make his own idiosyncratic interpretations of major doctrines of the Christian faith mean that this section cannot be read as a simple digest of previous scholarship. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Noted religion scholar Smith (The World's Religions) sets out to present the core of Christianity to the modern reader, dividing his book into three parts. Part 1, "The Christian Worldview," takes issue with modern materialist philosophy and argues for a transcendent world view in which the finite is contained in the infinite. Part 2, "The Christian Story," tells the history of Christianity during its first millennium. Smith maintains that this phase deserves to be considered classical Christianity, since it represents not only the time of Christ himself but also the formation of the basic traditions, creeds, and doctrines of an institutionally united church. Part 3, "The Three Main Branches of Christianity Today," briefly explains the differences among Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism and their unique contributions to the Christian story. Though he favors unity of purpose, Smith does not insist on uniformity. His special gift as a religious writer has always been his ability to be at once profound and approachable. Though many will not agree with all his points, few will read this book without gaining new insights into the Christian tradition. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/05.]-C. Robert Nixon, M.L.S., Lafayette, IN Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060858353
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/5/2006
  • Series: Plus Series
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 634,361
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Huston Smith is internationally known and revered as the premier teacher of world religions. He is the focus of a five-part PBS television series with Bill Moyers and has taught at Washington University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and the University of California at Berkeley. The recipient of twelve honorary degrees, Smith's fifteen books include his bestselling The World's Religions, Why Religion Matters, and his autobiography, Tales of Wonder.

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Read an Excerpt

The Soul of Christianity

Restoring the Great Tradition
By Huston Smith

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Huston Smith
All right reserved.

ISBN: 006079478X

Chapter One

The Christian Worldview

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,
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.
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.

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.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface vii
Prologue xi
Introduction xv
Part 1 The Christian Worldview 1
Part 2 The Christian Story 37
Part 3 The Three Main Branches of Christianity Today 129
Coda 163
Acknowledgments 167
Index 169
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  • Posted July 11, 2009

    one of the best.great book. loved it.

    great book. loved it.

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    Posted December 29, 2009

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