A senior scholar of religion offers a cautiously optimistic look at the prospects for the spirit at the turn of the millennium.
Many Americans owe their first exposure to the study of comparative religion to Smith; his The World’s Religions (originally The Religions of Man, 1958) is still among the most popular surveys in its field. Smith has had a long and distinguished career, and of late he has joined Joseph Campbell and Mortimer Adler in Bill Moyers’s PBS stable of wise and telegenic oldsters. This present work, written in a relaxed, almost garrulous style, explores what Smith sees as the root of our spiritual crisis: the traditional, spiritual view of humanity and the cosmos has suffered a loss of plausibility under the assaults of modernity (with its scientific cosmology) and a loss of moral authority under the assault of postmodernity’s “fairness revolution.” But modernity and postmodernity have their own problems—they are incapable of satisfying the hunger for meaning that is the strength of the traditional view, nor can they accommodate the spiritual experiences that people will always insist on having. Smith sees our modern/postmodern work as a tunnel, with scientism as its floor, higher education and the law as its walls, and the media as its roof. He finds signs of light at the end of the tunnel, though, in science (which is beginning to sense its limits), in the optimism of the New Age movement (despite its sometimes indiscriminate enthusiasms), and in an increasing skepticism about such icons of modernity as Freud, Marx, Darwin, and Nietzsche. Finally, he explores ways of looking at reality that locate the world explored by science within the spiritual world of tradition—wider than science’s cosmos, and far richer in meaning.
Although there is something here that will interest almost any reader concerned about present-day religion, there’s little to satisfy the hearty appetite. Smith’s science is superficial, his social analysis journalistic at best. In the end, you’ll come away without an answer to the question Smith poses in his title.