I think I have a different window onto the world, one that enables me to see things that others do not. I was born into a loving family whose parents committed their lives to the highest calling they could conceive--that of being missionaries to China. Sacrifices were to be expected, and (in the disease-ridden China of that time) they arrived on schedule; their firstborn died in their arms on his second Christmas Eve.

More Huston Smith
  • Profile: At 81, Smith continues exploring all the world's religions.
  • Eavesdrop on a Beliefnet dialogue group discussing Smith's "Why Religion Matters." My parents did good things. In the town they chose for their lifework there was no education for girls, so their first act was to start a girls' school. Now coeducational, it has become the most important primary school in the town.
  • The most important thing I inherited from my parents was faith. Its substance made me, on average, a trusting person, and its content can be stated equally simply: We are in good hands, and in gratitude for that fact, we do well to bear one another's burdens.

    On coming to America for college, I brought that faith with me, and the rest of my life has been a struggle to keep it intact in the face of modern winds of doctrine that assail it. If those winds were powered by truth, I would bow to them, but as I have not found them to be so, I must point that out.

    The crisis that the world finds itself in as it swings on the hinge of a new millennium is located in something deeper than particular ways of organizing political systems and economies. In different ways, the East and the West are going through a single common crisis whose cause is the spiritual condition of the modern world. That condition is characterized by loss--the loss of religious certainties and of transcendence, with its larger horizons.

    The nature of that loss is strange but ultimately quite logical. When, with the inauguration of the scientific worldview, human beings started considering themselves the bearers of the highest meaning in the world and the measure of everything, meaning began to ebb and the stature of humanity to diminish. The world lost its human dimension, and we began to lose control of it.

    The beginning of a new millennium presents itself as a fitting occasion to ponder this situation. The movements that precede millennial shifts have come and gone for this round, but before they get shelved for another thousand years, they merit a moment's reflection. The anthropologist Victor Turner suggested that these movements are to cultures what rites of passage are to individuals. They signal moments of change and transition, calling individuals and societies to connect with the symbolic roots in their past in order to prepare themselves to take the next--often frightening--step into the future.

    More Huston Smith
  • Profile: At 81, Smith continues exploring all the world's religions.
  • Eavesdrop on a Beliefnet dialogue group discussing Smith's "Why Religion Matters."
  • To grasp this point, we need not take the rhetoric of such movements literally. The sandwich man between placards announcing that the end is near is telling us something important, even though the end is not what he thinks it is. He is not just protesting our reigning culture. However falteringly, he is gesturing toward a heavenly city that offers an alternative to this earthly one, which is always deeply flawed.

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