A spirited explorer of religion's role


For 2,000 years, Christians have been arguing over how the meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus applies to the world he left behind. The time was when the rivers of Europe ran red as Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox believers battled for the political primacy of their versions of the true faith.

That debate didn't just push America's first settlers to these shores - it followed them here. In Massachusetts, the Pilgrims established a rigid theocracy, throwing dissenters such as Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, out into the wilderness.

In the Middle Colonies of Pennsylvania and Maryland, core values of tolerance and even respect among differing belief systems - Protestant, Catholic and others - began to emerge. It helped that the United States was a frontier nation. Those who disagreed, such as the Mormons, simply hit the road.

Still, political conflict among the branches and sects of Christianity endures. Whether the issue is evolution or the war in Iraq, abortion or the death penalty, the church at which an individual worships increasingly is seen as an indicator of his or her opinions.

Witness the recent White House attempt to reassure President Bush's religious base about Harriet Miers' anti-abortion credentials by spreading word of her membership in an evangelical church.

Such circumstances, Huston Smith says, make for bad politics - and bad religion.

The dean of America's religion historians laments the state of religion in America today.

"Three things," says the author of the classic Religions of Man, rasping out a kind of shorthand over the telephone from his home in Berkeley, Calif. "Polarized between liberals and conservatives. Hijacked by politicians. Beleaguered by secularism."

It is the last in his list that seems most to exercise Smith. An admirer of scientific achievement, he has little patience for the scriptural literalists who argue, for example, that the world was created in six days. Yet he is at least as frustrated with the broad authority that he says the West has ceded to science as the sole arbiter of truth.

"History was sliced in two by the discovery in the 16th- and 17th-century North Atlantic countries of the scientific method," Smith says. "And the benefits of modern science were quick to show themselves, three in number: Goods could be multiplied. Drudgery could be reduced. And health could be extended.

"Now, those are very great goods. However, something went unnoticed - namely, that scientific truths spin off our physical senses. Our physical senses are not the only senses that we have. Nobody has ever seen a thought. Nobody has ever seen a feeling. And yet the world of our thoughts and feelings is the primary world that we live in.

"That oversight led us to give a blank check to science. Not just for truth about the physical universe, which would have been quite all right, correct, but all truths.

"That was a mistake. All traditional societies - that is, ones before science - have a two-story universe: this world, and another world that is greater and more important than this. Call it God, or the sacred. With the blank check for all truths that we issued to science, it has no way of getting its hands on transcendence."

Christianity, Smith says, has problems of its own.

"Conservative Christians," he writes in his new book, The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition, "commonly tagged as fundamentalists, incline toward a biblical literalism that is unworkable because it ignores the contexts that give words their meaning - different contexts, different meanings - and they are in constant danger of slipping into disastrous political agendas.

Worse yet, they are untrue to Jesus. Jesus was invariably generous, whereas fundamentalists tend to be narrowly dogmatic and chauvinistic.

"Liberal churches, for their part, are digging their own graves, for without a robust, emphatically theistic worldview to work within, they have nothing to offer their members except rallying cries to be good."

His solution is a re-examination of the life and language of Jesus, returned to first-century Palestine, where those he encountered would have found both to be utterly alarming.

"They were astonished, and with reason," Smith writes. "If we are not, it is because we have heard Jesus' teachings so often that their edges have been worn smooth, dulling their glaring subversiveness. If we could recover their original impact, we too would be startled."

He summarizes: "We are told that we are not to resist evil but to turn the other cheek. We are told to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. We are told that outcasts and harlots enter the kingdom of God before many who are perfunctorily righteous. We are told that the happy people are those who are meek, who weep, who are merciful and pure in heart.

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