X. A Final Examination
Smith, Huston (2009-03-17). The World's Religions, Revised and Updated (Plus) HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The most obvious question that suggests itself at the close of this inquiry is: What have we gotten out of it? Has it done any good?

It would be surprising if we had not picked up some facts along the way: what the yogas are, Buddha’s analysis of the cause of life’s dislocation, Confucius’ ideal of the true gentleman, what the yin/ yang symbol signifies, the literal meaning of “Islam,” what the Exodus means to the Jews, what was the “good news” that excited the early Christians, and so on. Such facts are not to be belittled; a well-stocked mind adds interest to the world that comes its way. But is this all?

The Relation between Religions

To the question of how to pattern these religions, three answers suggest themselves.

The first holds that one of the world’s religions is superior to the others . Now that the peoples of the world are getting to know one another better, we hear this answer less often than we used to; but even so it should not be dismissed out of hand. The opening chapter of this book quoted Arnold Toynbee as saying that no one alive knows enough to say with confidence whether or not one religion is superior to the others —the question remains an open one.

A second position lies at the opposite end of the spectrum: It holds that the religions are all basically alike. Differences are acknowledged but, according to this second view, they are incidental in comparison to the great enduring truths on which the religions unite. ..the religions differ in what they consider essential and what negotiable. Hinduism and Buddhism split over this issue, as did Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

A third conception of the way the religions are related likens them to a stained glass window whose sections divide the light of the sun into different colors. This analogy allows for significant differences between the religions without pronouncing on their relative worth.

The Wisdom Traditions

If we pass a strainer through the world’s religions to lift out their conclusions about reality and how life should be lived, those conclusions begin to look like the winnowed wisdom of the human race.

Though the word virtue now carries a heavy moralistic ring, the wisdom traditions emphasize the root meaning of the word, which inclines toward power; philosophical Taoism has remained particularly alert to this original meaning.

The religions begin by assuring us that if we could see the full picture we would find it more integrated than we normally suppose . Life gives us no view of the whole. We see only snatches here and there, and self-interest skews our perspective grotesquely. Things that are close to us assume exaggerated importance, while the rest we view with cold dispassion. It is as if life were a great tapestry, which we face from its wrong side. This gives it the appearance of a maze of knots and threads, which for the most part appear chaotic.

A mystery is that special kind of problem which for the human mind has no solution; the more we understand it, the more we become aware of additional factors relating to it that we do not understand. In mysteries what we know, and our realization of what we do not know, proceed together; the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder. It is like the quantum world, where the more we understand its formalism, the stranger that world becomes.

Things are more integrated than they seem, they are better than they seem, and they are more mysterious than they seem; something like this emerges as the highest common denominator of the wisdom traditions’ reports.


If one of the wisdom traditions claims us, we begin by listening to it.

Said Jesus, blessed be his name,
“Do unto others as you would they should do unto you.”

Said Buddha, blessed be his name as well,
“He who would, may reach the utmost height— but he must be eager to learn.”

If we do not quote the other religions on these points,
it is because their words would be redundant.