“THE GREATEST OF ALL THE ACCOMPLISHMENTS OF 20TH-CENTURY SCIENCE has been the discovery of human ignorance.” Lewis Thomas, Lives of a Cell. “OUR IGNORANCE, OF COURSE, HAS ALWAYS BEEN WITH US, AND ALWAYS WILL BE. What is new is our awareness of it, our awakening to its fathomless dimensions, and it is this, more than anything else, that marks the coming of age of our species.” Timothy Ferris, Coming of Age in the Milky Way.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Huston Smith's "Universal Grammar of Religions"


“By knowing clay, all things made of clay are known, the difference being only in name and arising from speech, and the truth being that all are clay—exactly so is that knowledge, by knowing which we know all.” Chandogya Upanishad

“A gold dealer, whether he sees a gold earring, gold necklace, gold bracelet, or gold anklet, sees only gold.”


Huston Smith, the renowned scholar of the world's religions, has analyzed the universality of the world’s religious views into 14 elements:

  1. Reality is Infinite. Infinity is an inescapable idea.

  1. The Infinite includes the finite. An archetypal image to suggest all-inclusiveness is a circle. St. Augustine: “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

  1. The contents of the finite are hierarchically ordered. The idea of The Great Chain of Being was abandoned in the 18th century. The Great Chain of Being is the idea of a universe composed of an infinite number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the most meager kind of existence through every possible grade up to infinite being. The ascent forms a continuum which is often broken into categories, or stages, like the steps on a ladder. Aristotle’s categories: mineral, vegetable, animal and rational are a good stop, but it stops too soon, because rational mind is only partway up the hierarchy.

  1. Causation is from the top down, or from the Infinite down through the descending degrees of reality, or from the whole to its parts.

  1. In descending to the finite, the singularity of the Infinite splays out into multiplicity: The One becomes the many. The parts of the many are virtues, for they retain in lesser degree the signature of the Infinite—of the perfection of the One at the top. The foundational virtue is existence. Hinduism gives the attributes of Reality as Being, Consciousness and Bliss. Plato gives us the Good, the True, the Beautiful. Buddhism stresses compassion, Christianity stresses love, and Islam gives us the Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah.

  1. Ascending the causal chain, distinctions fade. “All that rises must converge.” (Teilhard de Chardin) Ultimately all difference disappears in the divine simplicity. “Simplicity” as used by mystics is a technical term—meaning the same as the “Naked Singularity” of the quantum physics—an unimaginable unity without dimension.

  1. The most staggering claim is that at the top of the Great Chain of Being, Perfection reigns (in the Eye of the Hurricane, all is calm).


  1. The Great Chain of Being, with its links that increase in worth as they ascend, is qualified by the Hermetic Principle: “As Above, So Below.” Everything that is outside us is also inside us. The conventional special imagery is that “higher” is more valuable, but when we look inward, the imagery flips and “deeper” carries more value. Mind is greater than body, soul more important than mind, and Spirit (which is absolute Identity) the supreme value. We intersect, we inhabit, all the echelons of being.

  1. Human beings cannot fully know the infinite. Intimations of it seep into us occasionally, but more than this we cannot manage on our own, because the unspeakable Godhead at the top of the chain is trans-personal and trans-finite. “The Infinite discloses itself, as much of itself as our finite minds can comprehend, by building the universal grammars of language and religion into our brains. We did not create those grammars; they were bequeathed to us.”

  1. When articulated, as in the Bible, the Quran, the Upanishads, and the dialogues of Plato, the universal grammars have to be interpreted. Hence the theologians whose job it is to unpack the meaning. These interpretations progress through four stages of ascending importance:
    1. The literal (What does the text say? That the Buddha was enlightened under the Bo tree, etc.)
    2. The ethical (What does the text explicitly instruct us to do? eg., the Ten Commandments).
    3. The allegorical (stories that illustrate truths)
    4. The anagogic (what is the text’s capacity to inspire us?)
    5. All the above interpretations were taken for granted until the rise of 20th century fundamentalism with its obsession with the literal. What is the mistake of fundamentalism?

  1. Symbolism—including poetry, music, dance, and art—is the method of understanding the relations between the multiple levels of reality. Physics has shown that there are three great domains of size:
                                          i.    The microworld of quantum mechanics, measured in picometers
                                        ii.    The macroworld in which we live, measured in inches, feet, yards and miles
                                       iii.    The megaworld of the galaxies, with distances measured in light years.
                                       iv.    The domains that flank ours—the microworld and macroworld—cannot be described in everyday language; physicists must use the technical language of mathematics. Just so, the only way to talk about the upper reaches of being that open into the Infinite is by using the technical language of religion: symbolism.


  1. There are two distinct and complimentary ways of knowing: the rational and the intuitive. All religions carefully indicate the difference between these twin paths of knowledge: immediate insight, or “knowing about.” In the West, intuitive understanding (gnosis) is not rational knowing (ratio); in Sanskrit awakened mind (bodhicitta) is not verbal mind (manes); in Islam, the heart’s intelligence (ma’rifah) is not informational intelligence (aql); in Zen, the moment of direct illumination (satori) is not discursive thought.

  1. Walnuts have shells that house kernels and religions likewise have outsides and insides. The outer, exoteric forms house (and, too often, obscure) the inner, esoteric cores. The outer shells of religions usually depict the divine in concrete, personal, anthropomorphic terms. The inner core (visited only by mystics) sees beyond a humanoid God to trans-personal principles. This outer-and-inner model of religious understanding holds true even of the world’s most anthropomorphic religion, Christianity. For example the 12th century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, describes reality in terms that can be easily translated into the language of a non-theistic school, such as Buddhism.

  1. Finally, all that we know is ringed about by darkness. It is a numinous darkness; a radiant mystery lures us, but can never be grasped. We are born in mystery, we live in mystery, and we die in mystery.


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