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Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World’s Religions

Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
November 2017
Fred's Rating: 
Huston Smith
Total Pages: 

Huston Smith (1919-2016), born in China to Methodist missionaries, has meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men, whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes, and celebrated the Jewish Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism. His world-wide fame was for his classic The World’s Religions (Book 17). (For his books I’ve read, click on his name.)

The Amazon website for this paperback book (the only edition available on Amazon) 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.]

This book is more philosophical than The World’s Religions. Amazon’s home page does not have its usual summary. But this is no loss. I strongly recommend scrolling down to read the first of Amazon’s Top Customer Reviews, entitled “What You see is NOT all there is” and click on ‘Read more.’ It gives the background behind the modern world’s false conviction that ‘scientism’ (aka materialism) is the only way to ‘truth,’ assuming that the only truths are that which can be verified by scientific methods. With Huston Smith’s multi-religious background and his ability to learn of the many important things these religions have in common, he has been one of the most energetic and knowledgeable persons to fight back against the loud voices arguing for scientism. Huston Smith, along with many younger but also knowledgeable voices, has often declared that he also doesn’t believe in the simple-minded fundamentalism that these voices of scientism claim ‘represents’ religion. All these atheists with very limited ‘understanding’ of any of the world’s religions, haven’t grasped the reality that ‘What You See is NOT all there is.’

Assuming you have read the first Top Customer Review, the next step is to use Amazon’s 'Look inside’ option and scroll down past the Contents to Smith’s 6-pp Preface. Amazon’s preview has the first five pages but lacks the final page. It is quite brief, so I give it here: “them. Not, though, from indifference, but out of the conviction that on their own plane [the self-limited plane of scientism] social problems are unsolvable. The causes of social disease, like organic disease, lie deep. Ultimately [they lie] as deep as the view of our human place in the total scheme of things which this book addresses.” (“Huston Smith, Berkeley, California, June, 1992.”)

The Amazon preview also includes the first six pages of the 18-pp Ch. 1 – The Way Things Are. These six pages not only show you his writing style but include two simple figures – take them as good examples of his use of simple figures that reconfigure his words in meaningful ways. The Preview also contains 15 pages of the 20-pp Appendix – The Psychedelic Evidence. I suggest you read at least the first page if it.

With his Preface, the top customer review, and the sample of Ch. 1, I next select some quotes to give you some examples from Forgotten Truths that Huston Smith presents in this somewhat dated but still very valuable book.

Here is his conclusion, after much discussion, in Ch. 1:”Within its domain, science looks especially for precise – which in the end means mathematically expressible - knowledge that is predictive and augments control. What lies outside this pale [or domain]?: (1) Values in their final and proper sense; (2) Purposes; (3) Life meanings; (4) Quality.” [These four lie outside the domain of science. The ignorance of scientism about them is readily apparent.]

In Ch. 3 – The Levels of Reality – he simplifies things to three levels (or planes): From bottom up, they are Terrestrial, Intermediate, and Celestial. The boundaries are not sharp – terrestrial and intermediate can overlap, as can intermediate and celestial. We humans know least about the celestial. Smith says “About theism in its eminently personal mode three points must be made: (1) The view is natural. But is God personal only in the way he appears to us, or is he personal in himself, in his own right and nature? This introduces the second point. (2) Theism is true. It is not the final truth; God’s personal mode is not his final mode; it is not the final reality. Even so, it is vastly more real than are the creatures who encounter him in this mode.” (3) Theism is not the final truth. Its vision of God is modeled after capacities that are distinctly human.” …”It is not enough to say that God’s attributes exceed ours inexhaustibly; the attributes themselves must be transcended, for in the last analysis they derive, all but infinity, from limitation, which finally is what religion works to transcend. The difference in degree must phase into a difference in kind.” [Thus, in short, there is an ineffable Godhead that lies above the cloud of unknowing and we humans lie below this cloud. If you want to see online Huston Smith’s 1-p figure for the ‘cloud of unknowing’ and the ‘ineffable Godhead’, go to my Book 1 – Why Religion Matters – by Huston Smith. Then follow the simple instructions I added on 11/10/17 to my Book 1 review. What this figure tells us is essential to Huston Smith, Marcus J. Borg, and many others who hold such progressive worldviews.]

In Ch. 4 – The Levels of Selfhood – Smith now discusses a fourth level, the Infinite, which lies above the Terrestrial. Intermediate, and Celestial levels. In terms of humanity he parallels these four levels of reality with the four levels of selfhood – Body, Mind, Soul, and Spirit (from the bottom up, of course). After body and mind, he gives us a few paragraphs that are intended to convince us that he understands deeply the levels of selfhood. I think of these paragraphs as a gift to be reread and deeply pondered.

“If it is impossible for man to manage the whole of his terrestrial life by means of language, it goes without saying that trans-verbal faculties must enter even more if he is to traffic with supra-terrestrial planes, which differ in kind from the plane that language is primarily designed to cope with and mirror. Without empowerment by the psychic order, man cannot live: we see experimental evidence of this in the laboratory discovery that experimental subjects who are allowed to sleep but not to dream go mad; metaphysically it follows from the double fact that (a) the lesser is ordered and empowered by the greater, and (b) the psychic plane is greater than the corporeal. The psychic cannot, however, be fitted into corporeal categories which are also, in the main, the categories of language. Speaking in the manner of a Platonic myth, we might say that the mind, contemplating its descent into matter, foresaw that it would have to school itself in its ways. It did so by pouring its direct and luminous intellection into molds – concepts, words, language – that splintered it, for the ‘rational’ and ‘ratiocination’ presuppose what the words suggest: a process in which we ‘ration’ or divide up reality into separate things to facilitate discussion. In ‘the wildest possible signification of the notion of sin, namely that of centrifugal movement’ (F. Schuon), the mind consented to ‘take on the sins of the world’ – the categories of matter and the language that in part reflects, in part creates, these categories. But if mind were to save the world – redeem it from total opacity and lifelessness – part of its nature had to remain outside those categories, for reason, being founded in distinctions, can at best only grope toward wholeness; indirectly through inference, and sequentially through time. The parallel with the two natures of Christ is exact: The mind assumes the conditions of the fall with his left (distinctively human) hemisphere while keeping its right hemisphere transcendent. That both hemispheres are requisite for man’s full functioning is but one more evidence of his amphibious nature. He lives in the world while not being of it.

“At the beginning of this section we said that there are three lines of argument that point toward the conclusion that mind exceeds the terrestrial plane. Neurophysiology we have noted; of the other two, one is theoretical and the other empirical.

“The theoretical argument asks if matter can ever account for sentience, or mind in the widest sense of the word. This is a time-worn issue, of course, one of the thorniest in the entire history of philosophy. What can we say briefly is that no convincing materialistic explanation of mind has been forthcoming.” [I stop my review of this here, for the empirical things he speaks at some length about are the possibility that the psychedelic evidence is not convincing either way, for no convincing or reproducible evidence is yet available.]

Near the end of his Epilogue is the following assessment: “Toward the middle of this book we said that at heart what sets us against modernity is its determination, scientistically derived, to reverse tradition’s premise and explain the more in terms of the less. Even there we noted the inevitable though subtle consequence of this reversal: the more becomes lessened by the etiology. Now, at the book’s close, we focus on this consequence itself and say that what sets us against modernity is the demeaning of the human potential. The primordial tradition holds that man – not man is some hypothetically envisioned future, but man as he is constituted today and has always been constituted – is heir to Sat, Chit, and Ananda: Infinite Being, Infinite Awareness, Infinite Bliss. It is impossible in principle for any alternative, ancient or modern, to match that claim, for if it did, in essence it would be the primordial philosophy, however different in its details, In Dante’s Inferno souls have what they choose. The fate of those he classifies as ‘virtuous pagans’ derives from nothing more than their failure to imagine better.”

The next two paragraphs close this book with a positive worldview: “The traditions are realistic. Buddha saw the waters of the seas as but a drop compared to the tears men have shed since they reached the earth. ‘I teach ill,’ he said. But we know that his assertion did not end there; ‘I teach ill and the ending of ill,’ it continued. Our world is by definition a grimy, flawed, and broken place; it is subject to decay and riddled with death. If it were otherwise, it would be indistinguishable from the timeless perfection of Paradise and would forfeit its separate existence. Yet with all its deformities it can be discerned behind its shapes and patterns; it can also be loved in a way that turns its flaws themselves into objects of redeeming compassion. This is the spiritual counterpart of the fact that with all its smog and pollution, our planet rides in an ocean of sunlight through the innermost recesses of the solar system. Being is woven of beatitude; there is a Buddha in every grain of sand.”

‘The world,’ said St. Augustine,‘is a smiling place.’ As is the Celestial City to which it is an antechamber. ‘Brethren, when I speak of that City . . . I just cannot bring myself to stop . . .’ “The only way to stop is to modulate discernment to heights where words, having reached their timberline, can go no further.” [Spoken as a true and wise teacher of the major world religions within which Huston Smith had lived in order to learn their various truths and wisdom – available within each religion for a dedicated student of these religions and their philosophies to be discovered and compared, as he did.]

As a philosophical companion to his best-selling The World’s Religions (Book 1) and although sometimes difficult to understand, I give this deeply thought-provoking book a rating of five stars.