The Soul of Christianity – Huston Smith

Posted on May 6, 2008


Smith, Huston. The Soul of Christianity: Restoring the Great Tradition. HarperSanFrancisco, 2005. (176 pages)

I found writing this book exhilarating, for it enabled me to see more clearly than before the intellectual and spiritual gold of Christianity, its intellectual expanse, the vastness of its atmosphere, and its genius for cutting through to the quick of life. (ix)

From Why Religion Matters:

There is within us — in even the blithest, most light-hearted among us — a fundamental dis-ease. it acts like an unquenchable fire that renders the vast majority of us incapable in this life of ever coming to full peace. This desire lies in the marrow of our bones and deep in the regions of our soul. All great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion tries to name and analyze this longing. We are seldom in direct touch with it, and indeed the modern world seems set on preventing us from getting in touch with it by covering it with an unending phantasmagoria of entertainments, obsessions, and distractions of every sort. But the longing is there, built into us like a jack-in-the-box that presses for release. Two great painters suggest this longing in their titles — Gauguin’s Why Are We Here? Where Did We Come From? Where Are We Going? and de Chirico’s Nostalgia for the Infinite — but I must work with words. Whether we realize it or not, simply to be human is to long for release from mundane existence with its confining walls of finitude and mortality.

“The Good News of authentic religion — in this book, Christianity — is that that longing can be fulfilled.” (xiii)


Though the scientific era has ushered in an era of secularism, the second revolution is bringing God back into the picture. Secularism went wrong…

…by equating two things, “absence-of-evidence and evidence-of-absence, which, once one stops to think about it are very different. The fact that science cannot get its hands on anything except nature is no proof that nature (alternatively, matter) is all that exists. … vision can’t take in everything.” (xvi)

…every improvement increases the sum of fear and hatred and escalates hysteria. … The multiplication of possessable objects; the invention of new instruments of stimulation; the dissemination of new wants through propaganda aimed at equating possession with well-being and incessant stimulation with happiness…from without is a source of bondage. (xvii)

…a world ends when its metaphor dies and modernity’s metaphor — endless progress through science-powered technology — is dead. (xviii)

… if anything characterizes modernity it is the loss of the sense of transcendence — of a reality that exceeds and encompasses our everyday affairs. – Peter Berger (xxi)

Smith then looks at the major institutions of Science, Technology, Business, Education, Religion, Media, Art, and Government, adding one more component, Individualism. He writes, “The time has come to recognize that it was not something modernity discovered that set us on an unworkable course, but a mistake it made. Fortunately, mistakes can be corrected, and this second turning point in the history of spirit is witnessing that correction. This book tries to contribute to that correction.” (xxiv)

Suggesting that we are now living in the second of two great human revolutions, Smith follows the “best defense is a good offense” strategy stating,

“[This book] champions Christianity by telling the Christian story in a way that is more persuasive than secularism’s attacks on it,” (p.xxv).

Smith is well known for his work and teaching on The World’s Religions (1991). This work is placed in a symbolic three parts, 1) The Christian Worldview, 2) The Christian Story, and 3) The Three Main Branches of Christianity Today.


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. (1)

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. (2)

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 … “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”

3. The contents of the finite world are hierarchically ordered. “All things started from one beginning.” – Origen.

4. Causation is from the top down, from the Infinite down through the descending degrees of reality. … “emergence is a descriptive, not an explanatory, concept. … All this is leading scientists to think that the foundational feature of the universe is not matter but information.” (6)

5. In descending to finitude, the singularity of the Infinite splays into multiplicity — the One becomes the many.

6. As we look upward from our position on the causal chain, we find that as the virtues ascend the causal ladder, they expand in the way one’s chest does when one takes a deep breath and inhales air, which in this example stands for God. As virtues expand they begin to overlap; their distinctions fade and they begin to merge.

In Part 1, he posits 15 principles of which he sums at the end of the section in this paragraph:

The world is objectively there and intelligible. It is infinite and includes the finite with its value-laden degrees, hierarchically ordered. As virtues ascend in the hierarchy, they meld into one another until their differences disappear in the Simple One. Evil features in finitude but not in the Absolute, and because the Absolute is all-powerful, in the end absolute perfection reigns. Human begins intersect the degrees of reality, but in them they appear inverted, as if seen on the surface of a glassy lake. We cannot comprehend the fullness of Reality on our own, but its outlines are revealed to us. The key to unlocking the truths of Revelation is symbolism. Knowing is both rational and intuitive, both concrete and abstract. After we have done our best to understand the world, it remains mysterious, but through the shrouds of mystery, we can dimly discern that it is perfect. (p.33)

In Part 2, he quickly covers the main points of the Christian story, starting, of course, with Jesus, His life, death, burial, and resurrection, Saul of Tarsus, a few doctrines, and Revelation (the Apocalypse).

In part 3, he does a synopsis of the three main branches of Christianity: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestantism.

I found much of this book having quite a bit in common with the tensions that contemporarily lie in the discussion of the Emerging Church (a discussion that is primarily Protestant). His way of communicating esoteric concepts for a more popular audience is refreshing, but in addition, he shares a “convincing argument for a vital alternative that is a deeper more authentic faith, a faith that guided the Church for its first thousand years,” (back cover, emphasis mine).

An ‘easy’ read, but not a ‘quick’ one; a concise work with sentences and ideas that require mental and spiritual marinating.

more to come…

Posted in: Reviews, Theology