Thinking Allowed:Houston Smith



About Houston Smith

Huston Smith (born May 31, 1919) is a religious studies scholar in the United States. His book The Religions of Man (later revised and retitled The World’s Religions), remains a popular introduction to comparative religion.

In 1996, Bill Moyers devoted a 5-part PBS special to Smith’s life and work, “The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.”  Smith has produced three series for public television: “The Religions of Man,” “The Search for America,” and  (with Arthur Compton) “Science and Human Responsibility.” His films on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism have all won awards at international film festivals.

Houston Smith….Excerpted from Thinking Allowed Interview with Jeffrey Mishlove

 M: …… that the gods really do exist within us? I think what he was saying in effect is that the pantheons of gods from the ancient pantheistic religions are real active forces, even of a paranormal variety, within our own minds, even if we’re Jews or Christians.

S: Yes. Well, that’s another very interesting development in our time — that in the religions of the West, up to this point divine forces have been imaged externally from the self. But when one comes to think of it, when one talks about things of the spirit geography falls away, because the spirit is not bound by space and time, and therefore the distinction between out there and in here, which in our everyday life is very important — once one modulates to matters of the spirit this whole framework of space and time and matter sort of drops away. What we are now coming to see is that this talk about out there has a certain naturalness, but also certain limitation. One can just as easily turn the tables and talk about the divine within. If I can put it one other way: when one looks out upon the world, value terms — that is, what is good, are imaged as up there. The gods —

S: Heaven; and the gods are on the mountaintops, and angels always sing on high. They don’t sing out of the depths, the bowels of the earth. But when we introspect — and by the way that imagery is natural, because sun and rain come from on high too — but when we turn our attention inward and introspect, then we reach for the other kind of imagery, of depth. You know, we talk about profound and deep thought. All this is leading up to the fact that in point of fact this distinction between out there and in here is artificial and only metaphorical when we’re talking about things of the spirit. And now I think in our time — this is one of the changes — having worked in imagery of the divine being out there, now there is a move towards realizing or exploring ways in which the same reality can be discovered within oneself.

M: Another related notion, I think, is the one originally developed by Durkheim, the French sociologist, in which he suggests that religions are really representations of the group mind of a society, and that the god of each culture is an embodiment of what he called the group mind. He almost described that in ways that seemed quite paranormal to me, when you begin talking about group mind — something like a Jungian collective unconscious.

……… For one thing, we are too much given to the notion that the mind is simply attached to the brain, and therefore because the brain has a given geographical locus, then the mind must too. But I remember in a weekend conference down in Tucson a few years ago with Gregory Bateson, he posed to the psychologists Rollo May, Carl Rogers — all those people were there — he said, “Where is your mind?” And it sort of took everybody aback.  But what he was leading up to is it’s quite wrong to think of the mind as lodged inside this skin-encapsulated ego, as Alan Watts used to call it — that the mind reaches out as far as one’s environment extends, in Bateson’s notion.

M: And of course we can always go back to the argument of Bishop Berkeley that the entire physical universe, that everything we experience — your TV sets, for example — exist only in your mind.

 S: And we talk about ecology of nature now, but the ecology of mind, we’re just beginning to get used to that idea. And yet it’s an experience. One can walk into the room, and in current terminology, feel vibrations. You can sometimes feel like a wall of anger or hostility, but one can also sense an ambiance of peace, and now the physicists are realizing that physical phenomena really float on networks and webs of relationship. So we’re only now coming to see that our minds too derive, they sort of factor out and congeal out of a psychic medium that Durkheim, I think, was quite right in identifying.

M: You know, I notice though in contemporary religions, particularly amongst the evangelistic Christians who are experiencing such a revival, they’re very concerned about certain errors that people fall into — you know, the notion that one might identify oneself with God in an egotistical way. How do you feel about that?
S: Well, I think they’ve got a point. I mean, if someone comes along and says, “I am God,” it’s perfectly reasonable to ask, “Well, your behavior doesn’t exactly exemplify that fact.” God by definition is perfect, and what human being can make that claim? So I think the ministers that you refer to have a good point, but it doesn’t annul the concept of the divine within, which remains valid. The distinction can come, even if we think of the divine within, as Hinduism puts it, and they have been perhaps the most explicit of all the great traditions in saying that ultimately, in the final analysis, in their terminology, Atman is Brahman. Atman is the God within, and Brahman is the God without. But then they deal with the point you’re raising by saying, well, a lantern may have a functioning light within it, but it may be coated not only with dust and soot, but in egregious cases with mud, to the point where that light does not shine through at all. So both things are true, but both need to be said in the same breath. Namely, I believe that it is true that in the final analysis we are divine and are God, but we should immediately acknowledge how caked and coated we are with dross that conceals that divinity, and it’s, one’s tempted to say, an endless quest to clean the surface, to let the light shine through….
S:  That’s right. Their theory was, insofar as they had a theory, the presumption was that these are normal human powers, but like any power it can atrophy if unused, and also can be short-circuited if our conceptual mind doubts that it is real….

S:  Powers, yes. As powers become available to you, people’s heads get turned, and they become egotistic in their abilities. And so in that way it can be counter-productive to the spiritual quest. So the greatest teachers are quite unanimous in saying they come, but pay no attention to them….

S:  That’s right, that’s right. Most shamans are very much linked with the people, in helping them with practical problems of life. But the aspect of religion that has to do with virtues and compassion and loving-kindness, now, this kind of thing is when I speak of profundity, getting into those waters. The shamans, that’s not their forte. They have a different role.


Realize Christ  Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
Excerpted from sermon 2/605

“To be a Christian, therefore, is fundamentally to realize Christ.  It is to fashion out of the stubborn and rebellious elements in our natural endowment the pure and spotless features of the divine life”  Dr. Friedrich Doyle Kirshner

Houston Smith, the author of the book on world religions, says:  “authentic religion is the clearest opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos enter human life”.  The inexhaustible energies of the cosmos – you see, cannot be contained by any physical reality.  They go far beyond the physical world.  And to tap into such energy is to touch the spiritual world.  Or better, to be touched by the spiritual world.  And this, says Smith, is the one common element that all religions share — an abiding belief in the experience of the spiritual world which is not something apart from the physical but rather is embedded in it and encompasses all that we can see and touch and smell and feel and hear. 

Think of the physical world as giant circle, make it as big as you like, include the entire cosmos in that circle.  And then draw a larger circle around it – that is the spiritual world that encompasses all else.  Where science concerns everything within that smaller circle, faith includes everything in the larger circle.  The transfiguration story speaks not of the reality of the smaller circle, and therefore cannot be confined to the limits of history and the laws of science.  Nor is it something you can catch on film or record on tape for it is part of that divine mystery which is beyond the physical and yet is ever as real as anything we can see or touch today. 

And that is precisely why the author of 2 Peter, writing perhaps 80-100 years later, can say in all truthfulness and honesty, we were eyewitnesses.  We heard the voice from heaven because we were with him on the mountain.  In other words, participation in the divine mystery on that mountaintop with Jesus did not die with Peter, James, and John, but continues to live on in the witness of those who, as Kirshner said, realized Christ.

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