Patrick's Reviews > The World's Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions

The World's Religions by Huston Smith
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's review
Sep 19, 2011

it was amazing
Read from September 19 to October 09, 2011

** spoiler alert ** I love this book b/c it shows religious tradition at its essence.

Judaism - The first revolutionary monotheistic religion that centers on one monotheistic God in which the whole life of a people as well as of an individual focuses on that God. I like how morality is seen as away to keep social cohesion. There are a lot of modern building blocks of society that springs from its creation:

1)Guilt - If the world created by God is good and everything in it is good, then the bad is purely a human creation.

2)individual self-empowerment = if things are bad b/c of human deeds, then man can change his work so things can be good for himself and his people

3)Private property and Capitalism = if God created things that are good and charged men as having dominion over it, then it is only natural that man would want the good stuff that God created

4)Individual choice in creation of ones life - man is a demigod

5)social justice and the rule of law = prophets were ordinary men who told the kings that they were not being loyal to YHWH and thus would be punished; thereby giving credence that no one was above God's law. Also, because Jews can change their circumstances then they have the responsibility to make society better.

6)YHWH was the first God who cares for his people and since it is one God, their loyalties are not divided

7)Moses/Exodus/10 commandments is important to the Jewish faith because it is when God gave laws to the Jewish people and its creation as a state of Israel. The is the reason it is so hard for orthodox Jews to give up the idea of Israel because the founding of its state in exile was also the founding of its people as well as its religion. Apparently before this point, there was no Israel. Jewish people believed that God's grace was shown to them by "giving" them the land of Israel and thus are God's chosen people. But in order for them to keep God's grace, they have to remain faithful to God's commandments\

8)Incidentally, the fact that Jews were not allowed to own land combined with the study and debate of Rabbinic tradition made the Jews uniquely situated through 2000 years of natural selection to take advantage of today's knowledge economy. Also, the idea of the Kibbutzim in which people toil with their hands is a direct response to Jews being forbid to own lands in Europe as well as the utopian ideal of socialism in which everyone is one in the community.

9) Another reason that it is hard for orthodox Jewish settlers to sacrifice all of Israel is the idea that the Messiah coming that will not only restore the state of Israel in its entirety but also will bring law and order to the whole world through a unified Israel. Thus, Zionism is the outgrowth of belief in the Messianic age in which the political and the spiritual mold together in creating the perfect Israel.

10) Ritual: Catholics get this from the Jews are idea the ritual is important in our religious ceremonies. Ritual molds the profane with the mundane together that is the spirit of God is suffused in our daily lives. Unlike Catholicism, Judaism's rituals the suffuses itself in holiness in their daily lives is so linked to their history thus making historical Israel basically indistinguishable from the holiness of Israel as a people. Further making it difficult for orthodox settlers to give up the land that God has given them by Divine right.

Islam - all fundamentalist from every religion should convert to Islam if they want to live according to the literal word of God. Islam itself means one's life surrender to God. Muslim believe that the Koran is the direct word of God just as Christian's believe that Jesus is God's word made flesh. Thus, fundamentalist's usually do not have room for any interpretation because the Koran is very doctrinary to enforce how Muslim should behave toward God and historical context is only incidental to the main purpose of the Koran which is to organize Muslims toward God. In the context of a chaotic world in which there was no morality and no laws, one understands how Muhammed was able to convince Arabian people that the Koran which organized the world around God's supreme word. Also Islamic fundamentalist also have a hard time separating church from state because their prophet brought order politically in a time of chaos by marrying the church with the state in Medina. What was once a strength of Islam its immutability during a time of chaos is now its greatest weakness b/c it cannot adapt to a world that is constantly changing. Apparently, the Koran is meant to be spoken in Arabic because in its spoken form it is so melodious that is it though the greatest poet have come down to speak it. It is like my preference for melody over the lyrical importance of a song.

Knowing this, how does one ask Muslim to focus on the Koranic introspective version (Sufism) instead of its socio-political bent. Obviously, there are countries (Turkey and perhaps Indonesia) that has married modernity and Islam. Perhaps this is because they are not Arab. I think this is the reason m.c. democracy in the middle east is a top priority b/c it is only through this means that we can see of our civilizations can coexist.

Muhammed to me seems to be an enlightened ruler who was needed during an age of lawlessness but that age is not this age. Also, Muhammed seems to be a person who goes into trances like other mystics of the middle age. The problem with Muhammad and Islam is not what Muhammad did during his age but the persistent belief of what his social prescription for his age works today. In fact, I think Muhammad was an enlightened ruler for his age, but does the way he did things which was enlightened by 7th century standards the way Muslim should do things now a 1,500 years later?

The good thing about Islam is that they are concerned with social justice issues too, just like Christians. But like Judaism, I am afraid their social justice issues are highly tribal and linked to their own respective religions.

Basic beliefs of Muslims:

God is not a God of love but a God of fear in his awesome being. Since Muslims are continuously conscious of the Judgement Day, they have to act righteously continuously in accordance to the Koran. There way of thinking goes like this the Fear in God leads one to surrender to his will and thus do the right thing constantly which leads to peace in oneself by knowing you are doing God's will which leads to joy. Thus, I believe Islam is the institutionalization of Christian fundamentalist conversion experience via explicit laws laid out in the Koran.

The one thing that I agree and I like about Islamic religion is its total surrender to God and the fact that it challenges its adherents towards charity. The main thing that I disagree with Islam is the seeming compulsion of these acts in the form of Islamic law.

Islamic law

1) Economics - it does not forbid capitalism but it states that people with money should give to people who do not have anything thereby having a redistribution of wealth

2)Issue of women - In Islam, marriage is the most sacred thing and philanderers are to be stoned. I guess for the time, the innovative thing is men had to take care of the women they slept with and raise their children

3)Islam is adamant on its desire for racial equality as seen in its enforcement of Mecca in which social status disappears in the eyes of God and people from all over the world commune together in Mecca regardless of nationality

4)Use of Force - jihad (the lesser) is only to be used in self-defense or to right a wrong. The problem of course is since there is a loop-hole in the Koran for war, people with political motives have used a Koranic defensive posture for terrorist bombings. This inicidentally goes against the Islamic notion that God created human beings an He sees them as good.

5) Muhammad promoted religious tolerance in his kingdom so Islamic countries should likewise respect other religions.

In the study of Islam vs. Judaism one sees why there is such a battle for Israel. Whereas Islam marries religion and the state and sees itself as God's word that should be followed on earth and thus supreme to other religions, Judaism sees Israel as part of historical Israel which was promised by God through eternity to his chosen people, the Jews. Religion should really be left out of politics when one deals with the middle east because faith in any religion is uncompromising. The reason why Islam has a hard time adapting to the world is that the Koran is an all encompassing book that institutionalize how people should behave and have faith.

I am convinced if we could get most Muslim to practice Sufism, there would be know Islam/Christian aggression. This is why the Sufi mosque close to 9/11 is a welcome one being that it is the unifying force of Islam. But seeing that Sufism seeks to unify with God and thus is esoteric and take the laws in the Koran as allegorical whereas most Muslims believe that what the Koran writes is the law that God wants Muslims to follow, I do not see mass conversion to Sufism. Maybe a better strategy is west to play up the focus of Islam to the Greater Jihad in each individual as oppose to enforcing it to general society.


Like Judaism, the historical Jesus seems insignificant. After all, he came from a Jewish tribe which is one of thousands other principalities under Rome and his ministry itself only lasted 1 to 3 years. How did one man from a boonies tribe with a short ministry so effect the world that a third of the worlds population worships him now. The answer of course is that he was a social prophet who was sent to heal humanity.

Apparently Jesus and the Pharisees were closest to one another in terms of how they saw God with the difference being that Jesus emphasized total compassion toward other people whereas the Pharisees emphasized following the letter of the law above all else. Whereas Orthodox Jews and Islam emphasize written laws as a path to God, Jesus emphasized principles that can be expressed in many different ways.

I think the main reason that the Western world took to democracy and individual liberty as well as it has is because of its Christian outlook. Jesus himself questioned the utility of following the Mosiac laws and the prevailing social convention of his day when it did not impact people and make them closer to God. From his example, we get the fact that men through grass roots democracy can change his social order as well as critical thinking skills that question systems that may have worked ones but no longer work now. Unlike Islam in which its adherent has to conform to it, Christianity does mold into peoples lives because it seeks to change a person from the inside out and leaves his cultural outlook in tact.

The reason Christians think Jesus is God b/c:
1) He did good work without seeking fame for them or monetary compensation

2)His wisdom through what he says is legendary and by speaking in parables he used metaphor and peoples imagination to convey his message with central theme being God loves us unconditionally and that love in turn will naturally be shared to all. The use of engaging in imagination favors innovators and creative types which is in stark contrast to main stream Islam and Orthodox Jews with their countless laws they have to adhere to.

3)He lived with total integrity and thus hated hypocrisy as the chief sin

Gospel: What separates Christianity from other religions is the fact that its members experience the fire of the Holy Spirit that brought with it Christian Love that God gives to us and the fact that we want to share this Love with others. It was this value of feeling God's presence in our lives through his Divine Love that displaced the feelings of fear, guilt for not living up to ones potential, and disregard for the self in favor for the all-encompassing Love that made mass conversion possible and attracted people to the early church. Through the principle of Christian Love, a feeling of common discipleship that disregard status and feeling of inner peace that found expression in exuberant joy.

Also unlike Islam, the conversion experience is highly individualized instead of institutionalized. Thus, this individualization and the sense of the mystical body of Christ that needs to be expressed differently in order to come into the same goal is in direct contradiction of the Islamic way of top-down submission to the will of Allah via the Islamic law explicitly stated in the Koran.

Christian theology sprung from from religious experience and tried to explain the what people were experiencing. The three cornerstones of this theology is: 1) Incarnation - Jesus is a full man and full God 2) Atonement - Jesus died for our sins (separation away from God) so that we can be reconciled with him 3) Trinity - God's love extends to three beings and by extension us the mystical body of God. So what this all means is that God is a continuum that can extend to us if we fervently have faith in him and do his will on earth

Christian Denomination

1) Roman Catholicism - teaches that the Church concentrated on the Pope is the final authority in matters of faith and morality and that the sacraments are the way for us to live the Christian life by infusing the Divines presence in our daily lives. The most pressing of this example is the Mass and the communing of God's presence on earth in the form of the Holy Eucharist

2) Eastern Orthodox - is similar to Catholicism in its sacrament but teaches that corporate body of the Church is the final authority of faith and morality as present in the ecclesiastical councils of Bishops. It teaches that all its members has direct responsibility to the Church which includes electing its clergy and thus everyone needs to keep the other in line. Thus, unlike Catholicism, everyone is responsible for the Churches well-being and unlike Protestantism everyone is solidly behind the Orthodox faith. Also, the orthodox church encourages everyone to be a mystic in that they want their congregation to be united with Christ

3) Protestantism
a) Justification by Faith - The starting point for all Christians is faith to Jesus Christ and Christian Love and through this faith meaning is infused into the Sacraments, Creeds, and good works. Without this faith and belief the sacraments, creeds, and good works are meaningless.

b)Protestant principle- against idolatry that is nothing on earth is infallible since it is touched by human hands thus people should always question earthly power ---> gives rise to critical thinking skills---> diversity of thought---> diversity of action---> societal checks and balances via rejection of absolutes ---> rise of Western Power

i) protestant can succumb to biblotry - they think that the Bible is the unerring Word of God when it is supposed to be only His medium in communicating his will on Earth----so the Bible is should not be seen as Dogmatic rather it should be used as a medium.... Incidentally, I think it is protestantism insistence on reading the Bible for oneself that gave rise to global literacy

ii) inerrant works of the Holy Spirit through man


I see the Buddhist philosophy as pre-christian addendum to Christianity. I think the Buddha himself was the first famous pre-Christian mystic saint in that he preached and practice Christian Love.
The reason I think Buddhist philosophy is compatible with Christianity is the way the Buddha lived out his life with Christian Love and total integrity just like Jesus. Imagine trying to explain Christian Love suffused with the power of the Holy Spirit 500 years before Christ using language of the pervading concept of religion (Hinduism) so people who want to follow enlightenment can understand what you are teaching. I think this is the reason he was so circumvect in his teaching because He was trying to explain an phenomenon in which the words have not been created yet. To Buddha, Nirvana is dissolving of self into the Oneness of the Divine (Christian concept of heaven on earth) and thus cease to exist as an individual but instead he started to do God's will and thus became an extension of God himself (Pauline Christian mystical body of God).

Like Jesus, Buddha hated social conventions that separated people from each other and he rejected religious authorities of his day for preaching spirituality that is devoid of meaning. After leading a life of pleasure in the world, the Buddha sought to experience enlightenment apart from the world. Buddhism rose as a rejection of the meaningless religion of his day and preached the enlightenment (Christian Love) can be attained by anyone who seeks it without any preconditions. Like him, enlightenment must be experienced by the seeker.

1) Once a person focuses solely on material things of this world outside his basic comforts (middle way or Christian simplicity), he is doomed to disappointment and suffering

2) Suffering is caused by selfish desire that attaches us to the material world

3) The only way out of this suffering is to focus on being selfless and to think of how our actions will effect the universe

4) The way out of selfishness into universal thinking is through the 8th fold path which is to live with total integrity to being good in ones mind, heart, soul, and actions.
a)One needs to know why one is seeking enlightenment
b)One needs to know that he wants to seek enlightenment in his heart---> so one can have persistence towards it
c) right speech - since speech shows one's character so one has to be aware of what one is speaking and gradually focus on saying the right thing
d) right conduct - one's actions need to be good and pure
e) right livelihood - one needs to do something that is consistent with one's good character
f) right effort - one has to have the will to live the Buddhist way
g) right mindfulness - self-awareness in what one is thinking good and bad and gradually change it to focus on the good
h) right concentration - meditation toward enlightenment is the only way to bring it

Buddhist sects: Theravada vs Mahayana

Theravada rightly believes that Buddha was a saint who taught how one can achieve enlightenment (heaven on earth) and only those who become compenlative monks can achieve similar enlightenment

Mahayana sect focus on Buddha's being not his teaching in that Buddhist should be compassionate since the Buddha himself was compassionate. Since this sect is awed by the Buddha's compassion (Christian Love) they mistakenly assume that he was the messiah.

Mahayana sect:
1) Pure Land sect believes that only through faith alone of the Divine does one reach Nirvana

2) Zen Buddhism - the use of words that expresses scripture or creeds are imperfect so they prefer to silently meditate, answer difficult illogical questions in order to banish the logical mind and thus achieve Satori. One they achieve Satori they must live their lives as though the infinite has come down to the finite plain. A person is said to achieve Satori when he sees that absolute beauty of life, have a dispassionate view of the world so compassion flows out from his very being b/c everything and himself are unified, and they do everything with meaning as though the infinite is present in every mundane task (Therese of Lisieux).

Tibetan Buddhism focuses on Tantra interconnectedness through movt via Mantras(words), Mudras(movt.), Mandalas(symbolism) in order to attain Nirvana now. Dalai Lama is the bodhavista is the being that shows it is possible to attain enlightenment now.
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message 1: by Patrick (last edited Oct 07, 2011 09:15AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Patrick Hinduism: it is a religion that allows one to progress through ones life through what is appropriate for their age. That is, it holds up a mirror to the person and reflects back what he is; not what he should be like other religions. Since the Path to the Divine is so individualized, it comes to know surprise to me that India has taken to democracy like a fish takes to water. The reason why India did not discover democracy and capitalism is that their view of religion is cyclical and thus our society as a whole cannot change. Since the society cannot change, then it is pointless to think of a governing body that sole purpose is to give voice to voiceless.

The first half of life is the Path of Desire which consists of seeking of pleasure (Kama Sutra) and worldly success ( power, wealth, and fame). Eventually, people outgrow this stage and look for something more meaningful which leads to.....

The second half of life which is the Path of Renunciation noting that earthly things are not fulfilling and thus one becomes dutiful in order to serve ones community but eventually people discover that is not fulfilling either so look for spirituality that confers infinite being, knowledge, and bliss. In Hinduism, one already has this capablility in oneself because of the Atman-Brahman connection. A being can be seen with the Atman-Brahman connection when one has detached from oneself so selfish expectation cease to exists, transcendental wisdom and being is present.

One gets the Atman-Brahman connection to shine through via YOGA which is the integration to the Divine. YOGA itself has 4 ways in which one can experience it and thus the path to the Divine is individualized.

1) Jnana Yoga - intuitive discernment that transforms the Yogi into what he knows. He does this through listening to other learned Yogis, thinking about and reflecting on his Atman, and finally detaching himself from himself as a person so the Atman can shine through.

2) Bhakti Yoga - The focus is to devote oneself to an external God. All the myths, fables, idols, and multitude of gods in bhakti yoga is there to try to bring the devotee to God. The reason bhakti yogi's have multiple gods is that God is infinite while we are finite so the multiple gods are man's attempt to concretize the infinite. Although there are multiple gods that the devotee can worship, the bhakti yogi encourages the devotee to worship his personal ishta so he can focus on that particular facet of God. Bhakti yogi's would acknowledge that Christ as an avatar of God.

3) Kama Yoga - finding God while you work. For the Bhakti Yogi, their work is a form of Christian understanding of God's will be done on earth. He transform his work as a form of devotion. Jnana yogi would just perform his work while in flow and not get attach to the result of this work thus allowing the Atman to flow naturally out of him

4)Raja Yogi - stereotypical meditative yogi's that attain Moksha through meditation.

Hindu caste system: While Hindu's are correct in thinking that certain individuals are better suited for certain jobs, their error is creating a rigid caste system based hereditary. I do like their whole notion of Karma that is whatever ones actions are those actions have consequences for later on in life. So one's life is just a series consequences from previous actions. Their idea of Karma goes well with the western idea of individual responsibility for individual action. The highest form of what a soul can achieve is finding His Atman.

I generally agree with Hinduism that God cannot be comprehended by human intellect. Since God is an infinite being, consciousness, and bliss, one cannot hope to capture God's being through our finite intellect. While I totally agree with Eastern religion's point on the omnipotent God that one cannot explain, I do like the focus that Western religion has on GOD. That is why I like and prefer Christianity b/c it is the perfect blend of both. While its essence (incarnation, trinity )is truly Eastern, it stand solidly on monotheism with a unified individual God. The way I think about God is He is like the sun that shines brightly. One can say that the sun like God is a fixed point (Western monotheism) but when one goes closer and closer to the Sun one realizes that it is not matter after all but pure energy (Eastern thought) that radiates its light in the sea of darkness. After all, the heat we feel from the sun is just the extension of the sun's energy which comes from the sun itself.

SIKHISM: It is a religion that is a compromise between Hinduism and Islam in the Indian subcontinent. Like Hinduism, the Sikhs believe in a God without form and reincarnation; but like Islam, they do not believe in avatars in God, idolatry, caste distinction, and the Vedic texts.

message 2: by Patrick (last edited Oct 08, 2011 10:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars


Confucius was the original think tank bureaucrat who sought government posts in order to see whether his theory of how government should act is accurate. Although he wanted to be a bureaucrat, he is more known as the editor of Chinese traditional culture and its greatest teacher.

The main thesis of Confucius teaching is that social cohesion is paramount via customs and tradition. Since chaos reigned during Confucius times, he sought to check extreme individualism via tradition and social norms and customs in order to organize society instead of external mandates of laws. People who embody this tradition and customs become the tradition enforcer of that specific culture.

Confucianism shaping of Chinese culture:

1)Communism would be naturally adaptive to this culture since like Confucianism, Communism is mainly concerned with society. But instead of tradition, Communism prefers to enforce Confucianism via oppressive laws.

2)Chinese government is more efficient in executing what it wants b/c government represents societal wishes and thus has an easier time with implementing its policies

3) The family is the heart of whatever the family does and the elderly in that family is revered not disdained

4) The highest status an individual can get is the scholar-bureaucrat who thinks original thoughts and executes it via government position. Again, this fits nicely with communism in which the state is the most honored position in the community.

5) Chinese as country through Confucianism has existed for 2000+ years giving it the empire with amazing stability as a state.

Patrick TAOISM: Whereas Confucianism concerned itself with Chinese external behavior, Taoism concerns itself with Chinese internal life. Taoism presents itself in 3 distinct but interconnected ways:

1) Philosophical Taoism seeks to minimize intrapsychic and interpersonal conflict as a way to maximize its effectiveness via wu wei which it equates to water flowing by not trying. It would be a kin to Christian concept of surrender to the Divine and let him work his magic in your life or what modern psychologist would term The Flow in which ones work becomes so engrossing that it becomes effortless. Since its point is to harmonize, Taoist reject self-assertion and competitiveness in favor of humility. That is, to do ones best, one just needs to be. Taoist do not care about social appearance and they tend to thing that everything is relative and prefer to think of thing in order for balance.

2) Energizing Taoism concerns itself with increasing chi via:
a) matter via nutrition and herbal remedies
b) movement via tai chi and accupuncture
c) mental via meditation in order to increase chi in oneself in order for social good to be maximize

3) Religious Taoism - institutionalizing superstitious magic makes cosmic power available to everyone

Patrick Primal Religions: They tend to be extremely parochial b/c it is rooted to their place of origin. But within its place, they tend to make no distinction between the sacred and the profane. That is, they see all of nature as imperfect representation of the Divine thus they respect nature and live in harmony with their surroundings. Also they see their lives as extension of this Divine force so all their lives is basically a religious ritual.

Patrick Commonalities between the different religions:

To Smith, differing religions is like a stained glass that refracts light due to its differing colors but still comes from the same light source.

All the great religions subscribe to ethics that are to be practiced by the faithful not to lie, steal, kill, and commit adultery

They also extol the virtue of humility, charity, and veracity.

They teach us that we do not see the big picture and the big picture is better than our sensibilities can perceive. Religion is mysterious and in the end it makes us happy.

Smith also asks us to listen to our own tradition as well as others in order to to understand others and thus have compassion for other faiths and peoples.

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