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I. Point of Departure
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
 

I write these opening lines on a day widely celebrated throughout Christendom as World-Wide Communion Sunday. The sermon in the service I attended this morning dwelt on Christianity as a world phenomenon. From mud huts in Africa to the Canadian tundra, Christians are kneeling today to receive the elements of the Holy Eucharist. It is an impressive picture.

Still, as I listened with half my mind, the other half wandered to the wider company of God-seekers. I thought of the Yemenite Jews I watched six months ago in their synagogue in Jerusalem: dark-skinned men sitting shoeless and cross-legged on the floor, wrapped in the prayer shawls their ancestors wore in the desert. They are there today, at least a quorum of ten, morning and evening, swaying backwards and forwards like camel riders as they recite their Torah, following a form they inherit unconsciously from the centuries when their fathers were forbidden to ride the desert horse and developed this pretense in compensation. Yalcin, the Muslim architect who guided me through the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, has completed his month’s Ramadan fast, which was beginning while we were together; but he too is praying today, five times as he prostrates himself toward Mecca. Swami Ramakrishna, in his tiny house by the Ganges at the foot of the Himalayas, will not speak today. He will continue the devotional silence that, with the exception of three days each year, he has kept for five years. By this hour U Nu is probably facing the delegations, crises, and cabinet meetings that are the lot of a prime minister, but from four to six this morning, before the world broke over him, he too was alone with the eternal in the privacy of the Buddhist shrine that adjoins his home in Rangoon. Dai Jo and Lai San, Zen monks in Kyoto, were ahead of him by an hour. They have been up since three this morning, and until eleven tonight will spend most of the day sitting immovable in the lotus position as they seek with intense absorption to plumb the Buddha-nature that lies at the center of their being.
All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine. Such listening defines the purpose of this book. It may be wondered if the purpose is not too broad. The religions we propose to consider belt the world. Their histories stretch back thousands of years, and they are motivating more people today than ever before. Is it possible to listen seriously to them within the compass of a single book?
1. This is not a textbook in the history of religions. This explains the scarcity of names, dates, and social influences in what follows. Historical facts are limited here to the minimum that is needed to locate in space and time the ideas the book focuses on.

2. Even in the realm of meanings the book does not attempt to give a rounded view of the religions considered, for each hosts differences that are too numerous to be delineated in a single chapter.

3. This book is not a balanced account of its subject. The warning is important.  A balanced view of religion would include human sacrifice and scapegoating, fanaticism and persecution, the Christian Crusades and the holy wars of Islam. It would include witch hunts in Massachusetts, monkey trials in Tennessee, and snake worship in the Ozarks. The list would have no end.

4. Finally, this is not a book on comparative religions in the sense of seeking to compare their worth. Comparisons always tend to be odious, those among religions the most odious of all. So there is no assumption here that one religion is, or for that matter is not, superior to others . “There is no one alive today,” Arnold Toynbee observed, “who knows enough to say with confidence whether one religion has been greater than all others.”

In saying what this book is not, I have already started to say what it is, but let me be explicit.

1. It is a book that seeks to embrace the world. The book is incorrigibly Western in being targeted for the contemporary Western mind. Twenty-five hundred years ago it took an exceptional man like Diogenes to exclaim, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek but a citizen of the world.” Today we must all be struggling to make those words our own.

2. It is a book that takes religion seriously. It is not a tourist guide. There will be no pandering to curiosity seekers, no riffling through peoples’ faiths to light on what has shock value; no ascetics on beds of nails, no crucifixions among Penitentes in Mexico, no Parsi Towers of Silence that expose the dead for vultures’ consumption, no erotic sculpture or excursions into Tantric sex . The great religions house such material, but to focus on it is the crudest kind of vulgarization.
Science makes major contributions to minor needs, Justice Holmes was fond of saying, adding that religion, however small its successes, is at least at work on the things that matter most.
“Who are …the greatest benefactors of the living generation of mankind?” Toynbee asked . “I should say: ‘Confucius and Laotze, the Buddha, the Prophets of Israel and Judah, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammed and Socrates."'

3. Finally, this book makes a real effort to communicate. I think of it as a work of translation, one that tries not only to penetrate the worlds of the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, but to throw bridges from those worlds to the reader’s world.
We are about to begin a voyage in space and time and eternity. The places will often be distant, the times remote, the themes beyond space and time altogether. We shall have to use words that are foreign— Sanskrit, Chinese, and Arabic. We shall try to describe states of consciousness that words can only hint at. We shall use logic to try to corner insights that laugh at our attempt. And ultimately, we shall fail; being ourselves of a different cast of mind, we shall never quite understand the religions that are not our own. But if we take those religions seriously, we need not fail miserably.