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Is There a Universal Grammar of Religion? (Master Hsüan Hua Memorial Lecture)

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
September 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Henry Rosemont Jr.
Huston Smith
Total Pages: 
Open Court

Henry Rosemont Jr. and Huston Smith spent some years at MIT with Noam Chomsky, whose work led to his Universal Grammar for languages. Smith applies it to religions; so he says yes. He and Rosemont discussed this question in a public lecture that led to this book. (For Smith's books I've read, click on his name.)

The Amazon website for the paperback edition is

[None of the ISBN-10, ISBN-13, or ASIN numbers on Amazon’s websites for the three editions (Kindle, hardcover, or paperback) are recognized by Amazon, thus the ‘no image Circle' appears. I think this new change by Amazon is not good. However, you can see the images of this books' covers at the website above.]

The home page has a brief summary (click on ‘Read more'). The Master Hsüan Hua Memorial Lecture by Rosemont and Smith was the fifth in this lecture series. Henry Rosemont edited the recording to include questions asked of Smith and Smith’s replies during the lecture. Huston Smith approved this editing. Use Amazon’s option to ‘Look inside’ and scroll down to the Contents. The first three of the four numbered chapters were the public parts. The fourth part – The Summation by Henry Rosemont are his later reflections he felt were an important addition to the lecture. Note in the Contents the five extra parts added to the book.

The Glossary for the diagram refer to the words in a comparative-religion diagram that Huston Smith used in his book Why Religion Matters (book No.1 in my website!). In this book (No. 722) the diagram is on page 13 of Smith’s 18-pp Lecture. It includes six religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese Religious Complex, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For each of these six and at four levels, the top half of the diagram gives words for the outward levels (the exoteric) and the bottom half of the diagram gives words for the inward levels (the esoteric). As an example, for Christianity from the top down the four levels are Godhead, God, angels or demons, and nature. For Christianity from the bottom up the four levels are body, psyche, soul, and spirit. Because of his early years spent living each of these six religions, Houston Smith (son of Christian missionaries in China) found great similarities for the five other religions in the circular diagram.

To return to the question – the title of this book – Houston Smith’s Lecture gives 14 concepts of Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar and he discusses each concept, sometimes briefly, other times at length. Scrolling down the paperback gives some of them. Here I simply give them by their number (which I assume are Chomsky’s numbers):

  • 1. Reality is infinite.
  • 2. The Infinite includes the finite.
  • 3. The contents of finitude are hierarchically ordered.
  • 4. Causation is from the top down.
  • 5. The One becomes the many.
  • 6. As virtues ascend the causal ladder, their distinctions fade and they begin to merge.
  • 7. At the top of the pyramid, absolute perfection reigns.
  • 8. As above, so below. (This ‘Hermetic Principle’ is used for insights of the diagram on page 13.)
  • 9. Human beings cannot fully know the Infinite.
  • 10. Revelations have to be interpreted.
  • 11. All these factors were once taken for granted.
  • 12. There are two ways of knowing: the rational and the intuitive.
  • 13. Religions have outsides and insides.
  • 14. What we know is ringed about with darkness. (He poetically uses darkness for the unknown.)

I believe that our surviving religions, like our surviving languages, were formed well before humanity made use of the number 'zero.' The concept of infinity came many centuries later (unless one considers 'eternity' as infinity of time). But Smith (and Chomsky?) today find them useful concepts in today's world (as we all should), even if not essential to formation of religions or languages. I had already fully accepted the concepts of Huston Smith's numbers 3-14. As for Chomsky's Universal Grammar, that will be a future read for me (once I figure out, or am told, which of his many books to read).

The 32-pp Response is by Henry Rosemont, Jr. He chose not to discuss one at a time each of the above 14 ideas or concepts, but speaks as a philosopher (often one who doesn’t like numbered order). He first points out that “Professor Smith’s revised lecture does not dwell at length on the concept of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, but it does make the claim of the usefulness of Chomsky’s ideas for the study of religion. My response to the lecture took up that theme (the response followed Smith’s lecture in Religions East & West, Issue 5, October 2005).” Further down his first page he states “Despite these many changes, I have attempted to retain the spirit and the style of the work as a response to the lecture.” In short, in Rosemont’s Response the first ten pages describe Chomsky’s ideas and give examples that are not related to Smith’s ideas in the Lecture. When Rosemont’s Response turns to Smith’s Lecture he makes it difficult to be sure which concepts of the Lecture Rosemont agrees with or fails to either agree or disagree.

So I found that the premise of Lecture and relevant Response is a false premise. Nevertheless, Rosemont did inform me of some of Chomsky’s ideas of grammar, mostly practical, like stuff I learned in Junior High School through High School and which were further refined in college. But universality for all languages was absent since nearly all I was taught were in English (except for German in college and some French in grad school). What I was looking for – a relevant response – had to be inferred from Rosemont’s Response and a bit deeper in his Summation, which I found to be in part an improved Response as well as other aspects that were worth reading. Mainly, because of what Smith says, I rate this book at four stars.