- The Washington Times - Friday, September 23, 2005

NEW YORK — At age 86, Huston Smith is returning home again — to Christianity.

Mr. Smith is the dean of American scholars on world religions and his best-selling textbook about them is known to legions of college students. Personally, he has explored many faiths — though he’s also a minister in the United Methodist Church, the denomination in which he was raised in China as the son of missionaries.

Now, in the new “The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition” (HarperSanFrancisco), he ruminates about the beliefs, contributions and prospects of the world’s largest faith.

In the end, what he advocates is essentially a modernized and tolerant interpretation of the shared faith of Christianity’s first thousand years, before it broke into Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant branches.

But that’s the end point. The start lies elsewhere, with Mr. Smith’s premise that the future of Christianity and the other great faiths hinges on keeping proper limits on science — meaning religious people should not concede that scientific knowledge is the only kind.

The outspoken senior statesman acknowledged in an interview with the Associated Press that he’s no expert, but said notable scientists who are friends of long standing have taught him about the oft-baffling aspects of nature and our limited knowledge of the physical universe.

Over the past several centuries, empirical observation and laboratory experiments have produced huge benefits for health and removal of drudgery, Mr. Smith said. The problem is, as a result “we gave science a blank check, by which I mean we turned all truth over to them.”

“Science is not omnicompetent,” he insisted. “Our physical senses are not the only senses we have.”

As his book puts it: “No one has ever seen a thought. No one has ever seen a feeling. Yet our thoughts and feelings are where we primarily live our lives.”

His book says “discounting invisible realities” is the “modern mistake” promoted by an intolerant secularism that says only empirical, scientific knowledge is valid.

Mr. Smith believes the religious worldview is gaining momentum. “Secularism is on the defensive. It’s being moved to the periphery,” he said. “The center is empty and the situation is ripe for the spirit to move to that center.” He predicts that someday people will “look back on secularism as an episode in human history.”

“The university today is uncompromisingly secular,” he lamented, noting his own half-century as a professor, most recently with the University of California at Berkeley. In American society, “religion is everywhere, except in the intelligentsia, the people who rule our country, and in the media,” he said.

The academic situation, he continued, explains “the continuing, disastrous decline” of memberships in the relatively liberal U.S. mainline Protestant denominations, including his own. These churches require clergy to earn theology degrees “but the seminaries of mainline churches all ring the university and the utter secularism of the university rubs off on them, especially since the university has more prestige.”

The result: “The mainline churches have surrendered too much to modern secularism. The language, they preserve — but the fire isn’t in their souls.”

Mr. Smith’s new book argues that liberal Christianity has turned religion into mere morality, leaving churches with “nothing to offer their members except rallying cries to be good. … The authority of religion has waned along with the mystery of the sacred.”

Meanwhile, conservative evangelical churches continue to grow. Mr. Smith is an ardent foe of their literal interpretations of the Bible as well as the recent activity of some by which, he said, “politics hijacked religion.” Yet he sees promise, for instance, in the emphasis on small fellowship groups and concern for the needy at the Southern Baptist megachurch led by Californian Rick Warren.

As someone who has occasionally practiced other faiths, Mr. Smith naturally opposes any evangelical claims that non-Christians are lost or hell bound. But the book embraces what he calls a “relative absolute” in religion.

That means “revelations are for the civilizations they create, and within each, the truths revealed are absolute and can brook no rivals.” For Christians, he said, “God is defined by Jesus; he is not confined to Jesus.”

Mr. Smith combines liberal views about the Bible and other religions with a reverence for Jesus Christ and a fairly orthodox belief in the Christian claim that he was “both fully God and fully man.”

From early days, he said, Christians radiated a belief that they were “totally loved … by one who united all power and all goodness.” Having experienced this, they became convinced that Jesus was God incarnate.

Christianity swept the Roman Empire, he believes, because it “suddenly and dramatically” lifted “three intolerable burdens” from humanity: guilt, fear — including the fear of death — and narrow concentration on one’s own ego.

Those early contributions to human betterment, he suggests, have survived intact into the modern age — and they are the areas in which the faith must concentrate in the future if it is to thrive.

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