Douglas Gillies
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an interview with

Huston Smith

author of

The World's Religions and The Soul of Christianity

Huston Smith was interviewed by Douglas Gillies at the State of the World Forum, hosted by former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and produced by the Gorbachev Foundation/USA in San Francisco.

Douglas Gillies: Perhaps you could put this State of the World forum in perspective by starting 5,000 years ago and moving forward to the present in powers of ten. So 5,000 years ago, followed by 500 years ago, then 50 years ago, then 5 years ago, and finally 5 days ago, my question is: Where are we now?

Huston Smith: Well, I like that approach. Five thousand years ago, the great Aryan migration out of the eastern part of the Soviet Union was underway. Due to climatic conditions, the grazing lands became desiccated so a migration exploded from that area. People fanned out all the way to India and then Greece, Italy, the Celtic areas of Europe, and finally into Ireland. That migration covered an enormous expanse, and we know about it because the linguists traced the languages from Sanskrit to Greek, Latin, Germanic, and Celtic. Another word for Ireland is Ire, which is the same as Ayervedic in India.

The spiritual element of the human race at that stage did not include much in the way of ethics because people were living in small pockets. The tribes were like extended families and ethics wasn't a great deal because they felt bonded to one another. Spiritual outreach made itself known on the matter of time—the perpetual perishing of existence. Children die, not only parents but children die, and everything we experience has its termination. Snow falls upon the river, white for moment then gone forever. Kronos, the God of Time, devours his own children. That is what concerned them.

The aborigines of Australia are still in that mentality because they didn’t go through the Neolithic. Religion to them is a matter of what the anthropologists call the dreaming, a different order of existence and far more important to them, populated by the great ancestral heroes who first invented hunting, weaving, and gathering. They get into a trance and they become those heroes and then they are truly real. Time doesn’t erode them; they’re like archetypes. When the individual identifies with them, they become real and that part of them is eternal. That’s where all of humanity was in its spirituality 5,000 years ago.

The key turning point in terms of the human spirit was the Axial Age, around 500 BC, when an extraordinary phenomena occurred. We find prophets and seers popping up all across the civilized world. In a couple of centuries, we get the great prophets of Israel and the great philosophers of Greece—Plato and Aristotle. We get Zoroaster in Iran; in India we have the authors of the Upanishad; in China we have Confucius. Independently and in a very short period of time, the spiritual geniuses come out. Why? Because a new element enters into the human spirit, namely the need for ethics. These people teach love of neighbor and justice. People are living in cities where they are not dealing with only their immediate face-to-face primary group. They’re dealing with outsiders. If you’re with you own people, it’s easier to be good towards them. To empathize with strangers and work towards justice and goodwill and love and compassion, we have to be infused with the importance of that. The prophets introduced ethics into the spiritual horizon and underscored the importance of it.

The third stage comes in 17th and 18th century, when a new element enters into the spiritual endeavor. In 500 BC there was ethics but it was on a face-to-face basis--you’re kind to the people you’re actually in touch with. It wasn’t until the French Revolution when the differences between civilizations and cultures became apparent. For the first time people realized that social structures are not God-given like the laws of nature. Up until then, nobody really criticized the social order because it was the natural order and nothing could be done about it. But when people saw how different cultures were, they realized that social institutions are humanly created. Well, big consequence. We are responsible not just for being good in face-to-face relations, but we’re responsible for the structures of our society. And so, a third component comes into the spiritual picture: social ethics. Institutions are devised in order to ensure justice and equity, or are they devised to favor the privileged and grind down the other people.

So, I’m so happy that you began with this kind of historical perspective because I think we can distinguish three distinct stages in the evolution of the human spirit, beginning with the issue of time, moving into personal ethics, and then, in the modern world, a concern for justice. By the way, these earlier ones don’t drop out of the picture. It’s like a snowball; they add. Concern in the human spirit for justice had its concrete expression in the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago, 1993, where the central thrust of that gathering was all the major faiths putting their shoulders to the wheel towards a global ethic. It’s a pretty long answer to your question, but you set me off on what I think is not only an interesting thing but gives a certain perspective in terms of the odyssey of the human spirit.

Douglas Gillies: Now 500 years ago, we had Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Descartes. What happened then?

Huston Smith: Something happened that was profoundly ambiguous. The Western world stumbled on a new way of knowing. We call it the scientific method. Before then, when people wanted to know what the big picture was, what things were really like, the nature of ultimate reality, they would turn to their sacred texts for revelations. Before writing, they would turn to the great myths that had been handed down from their ancestors and that would give them the big picture.

With the rise of the scientific method, people started turning away from their sacred texts and looking to what science was discovering about the nature of the world. They did that because of the power that this new method, the scientific method, released upon the world. Within decades it was beginning to change the world radically and it has gone on exponentially. It would have been inconceivable to our grandparents what the world is like today and our world view is changing also. Vast contributions from that method: goods could be multiplied, drudgery could be reduced, health could be improved. These are major contributions, but this was an ambiguous note entered into human history because the scientific worldview, with all its power to understand the natural and the physical world, is not an omni-competent instrument for understanding everything.

The spirit is invisible and intangible and does not register in the cloud chambers or show up as blips on computer screens. Spirit is not detectable by the scientific method. The scientific method turns on the controlled experiment and we can control only what is inferior to us. That means that if we look through that viewfinder we’ll get a marvelous picture of things that are inferior to us, matter and so on. But that window sort of has a cut off point just below our eyes.

Let me just spell this out. To mount a controlled experiment one has to know what all the variables are that impinge on what you’re trying to find out. Karl Pribram, one of the foremost brain scientists, who introduced the hologram into our popular understanding, tells me it takes about 7 years to mount an important experiment on the brain. One has to figure out the all of the variables that will impinge and impact particular points. But are there things that are greater than we are? I don’t mean just bigger or more physical force, I mean really superior, let’s just say with more intelligence than we are.

We’re dog lovers and I don’t want to belittle dogs or the other species but I think we have to say that we can understand things like mathematics that the dog cannot. Now suppose that there is an intelligence as much greater than us as we are to the dog. Well, there’s no way we’re going to fit that intelligence into our laboratory experiment because we don’t know how it operates and it sort of dances circles around us. And not we, it. So for us to try to devise an experiment which would prove whether there is a mind greater than ours would be a little bit like the dogs getting together and saying, “We hear that there is this thing about mathematics. Let’s just put it to the test.” Their leading way of knowing is smell, so, “Does mathematics exist? We will submit it to the sniff test!”

Well, of course, the mathematics is not going to turn up and it would be the same kind of thing to think that laboratory experiments could show us whether there are greater things than we are, beings greater than we are.

—from the documentary "On the Edge--a wake-up call."

Now the fact that science cannot show us things greater, superior to ourselves is no proof in itself that there are such beings but if such greater realities exist they’re not going to turn up in the methods of laboratory science. Now, I hope this is making clear how the the rise in modern science has been profoundly ambiguous. It has helped us in enormous ways and caused a lot of dangers, too. I am hopeful that we can steer clear of those shoals. But at the same time it has lowered the shade on the window through which we look for the big picture. It’s as though we were standing before a picture window with a marvelous view of the Himalayans but the shades were pulled down just below the human eye, so we can only see the inferior things.

For 300 years the human spirit has been embattled. It has been embattled because the scientific view of reality does not show the human spirit, much less higher beings if those exist, and I do believe the wisdom traditions and their belief that they do exist.

Huston Smith: We have become in the modern world like split personalities. Five days a week we’re taught in our schools that we’re the more that have derived from the less, through amebas and intermediate forms of life, and we are at the top of the heap. The remaining two days of the week, we are told by our churches and our synagogues that we are created with souls and therefore we are the less that have derived from the more. These two images have left us very confused. There is no coherent view of human nature in the modern world. We have a lot of notions, but they don’t come together in any coherent whole.

The exciting thing is that after 300 years we are beginning to see what has happened and there have been momentous shifts in human thought and society. But we’re in a position now where we are realizing what science is and how it can see and what it can do, while leaving room for the wisdom of the human race, what I like to call the world’s wisdom traditions. I conceive of them as data banks for human wisdom. Not everything in them is wise. Modern science has retired their cosmology and on social relationships, master/slave, gender relationships they pretty much picked up the morays of their time. But when it comes to the big picture, the higher reaches of existence, there is nothing in the last 500 years that has come into the picture that rivals that. So my hope is that we winnow and factor out the various components of human history and find where each is good and where each needs to be supplemented by the other.

Douglas Gillies: Fifty years ago in this building people gathered from all over the world and drafted the United Nations charter.

Huston Smith: I was here! I wasn’t part of the drafting, but I was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of California and I got up early that morning and so I was actually present at the celebration of that historic event.

Douglas Gillies: What happened then in the march towards the present?

Huston Smith: The first concerted effort of nations to work cooperatively on the world’s problems. A momentous step in the world’s idealism and in its resolution, one might even say its courage. Now, of course we know that dreams are not always fulfilled and we realize that many of the hopes that we held out for that endeavor have not materialized.

Douglas Gillies: Can you tell me what your experience was being here?

Huston Smith: Oh it was thrilling! Edward Stettinius was Secretary of State and so he represented the United States. He was not one of our more distinguished Secretaries, in fact his term of office was very short. He was something of a dandy. He always entered any event that he presided over 30 seconds before the announced time and with a red carnation in his lapel. All of this is trivia, and you wanted momentous things. It was truly thrilling and I think that Yhudi Menuhin played the violin and he happens to be my exact age. I felt a great affinity with him because I tried to play the violin too and was a washout. It was a heartening day. There was no BART then, so I took the bus back, but with a really feeling good about humanity.

Douglas Gillies: Stepping forward to try to get a perspective on this meeting, five years ago Mikhail Gorbachev was the President of the Soviet Union. What was going on in the world then?

Huston Smith: We didn’t realize it, but we were right at the end of what had been the most important social problem of our century. Let me back up. In the 19th century the greatest social danger to the human venture was nationalism. Wars, nations pitted against nations, arming, more arming and so on. When we turned from the 19th century to the 20th century, nationalism ceased to be the most important problem. The greatest danger was replaced by ideology as the nations lined up on both sides of the cold war and that dominated the 20th century. Five years ago, Gorbachev almost single-handedly ended the ideological confrontation and and thereby retired the greatest danger of the 20th century—ideology. Now, alas, things move on. Ethnic conflict looks like it’s going to be the major danger of the 21st century.

Douglas Gillies: Five days ago, people were arriving at the Fairmont Hotel and now we’ve had a five-day meeting. What’s been happening here?

Huston Smith: Oh, wouldn’t we all like to know? It’s impossible, I think for two reasons. There have been five major groups going on concomitantly and nobody here has been to all, so they don’t have the data for any summation. But there’s another problem: people are not very good at understanding themselves at the time. They need a little perspective, a little distance. That’s true with human vision to. If you move too close to the mirror you don’t get a very good sense of yourself. So I don’t think we’ll know the full consequences of this meeting for a little while and it may be quite a while. But I think there’s some very encouraging indices. The organizers did well drawing upon people with both vision and experience. Another good thing is the diversity—people from Africa, Eastern Europe and so on, so it was a world forum in that sense. To a very genuine degree it is a world forum. Then, to cut it another way. we have industry, economics, global communication, Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, and President Bush.

I’ll be very personal. This whole State of the World Forum—I laughed as I went back to Berkeley yesterday—I think the whole purpose of it was to bring me into face-to-face confrontation with Carl Sagan because in terms of the science-spirituality complex we picked up that stick by different ends. You might say you could search this planet for people who are more at opposite ends off the spectrum than us and yet there we were in the same room and it was wonderful. Of course, we disagreed and we hurled haughty compliments, like knights jousting, but to provide a context where real differences, and believe me there were real differences between Carl Sagan and myself on these issues, but to be in the same room in an effort to understand one another, I hold that up as a symbol of the kind of thing that I sense was going on throughout the five days here. So, now to wrap it up, you asked what has happened here. It’s going to take a little time for anybody to have a mature judgment on that, but the indices, I think, are good.

Douglas Gillies: I have one more question. In the book that was sent to us with Mr. Gorbachev’s invitation, there was one phrase that stuck in my mind when Mr. Gorbachev wrote that we now need a philosophy of synthesis. Can you give us any elements of that philosophy?

Huston Smith: One the dangers of our time is that we are inundated with information. We’re aware of a lot more things but it also has a danger. The danger I think comes out clearly in T.S. Elliot’s couplet where he wrote, “Where is the knowledge that is lost in information, where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge?” That says so much. Fragmentation of information. We’re in danger of being swamped, deluged by information, but how does it fit together? Synthesis, that’s the question. Rebecca West, the greatest reporter of the 20th century, was asked in her last television interview, “What do you sense as the dominant mood of our time?” She became reflective for a moment and then answered, “A desperate search for a pattern.”

That search is still in place because the fragmentation and the deluge of information and the sound bites get shorter and shorter so they to get more into the hour and the photo bites get shorter and shorter until it becomes a kind of chaos. So the need for synthesis, or a pattern, in Rebecca West’s words, is the dominant issue of our time.

Douglas Gillies: In closing, it strikes me there is a marvelous symmetry to the story you’ve just told us. It began with our ancestors coming the area of the Soviet Union and it ends with Mr. Gorbachev coming to San Francisco. History repeats itself.

Huston Smith: Oh, that is very true and very significant how that Aryan migration in its Westward movement went to the very tip of the European land mass in Ireland and then the Western world jumped an ocean into the new world. You’re quite right, the circle is closed because Gorbachev came to the West from exactly where this Aryan migration began around 4,000 BC. That’s beautiful. That’s very nice.

Douglas Gillies: We should end where we might have begun, by introducing ourselves on camera. I’m Douglas Gillies.

Huston Smith: And I’m Houston Smith.

Douglas Gillies: And what do you do?

Huston Smith: What do I do? Well, I don’t know that I’ve ever put it to myself. I try to live. As far as the daily rounds go I’ve been a professor my entire career. I’ve retired twice, but both times why I’ve been called back into harness and I’m currently teaching at the University of California in Berkeley. In addition to that I’m a writer, I’m addicted to it and mainly because I find it is the best way to get my ideas clear to myself. If I just speak them, I can get away with a lot, but if I put them down in print where I am accountable then the flaws turn up. So I would say that insofar as I understand myself, and we all do that imperfectly, from the beginning of the age of expression I’ve been always been obsessed with the ultimate question: What is the nature of reality and how can human beings best realize their human potential within that context.

Douglas Gillies: Thank you for taking the time for this conversation.

Huston Smith: Great pleasure, thanks.

Interview with Huston Smith © Concensus Designs, Inc. For permission to reprint portions of this interview, please contact East Beach® Productions.

© 2016 Douglas Gillies. | All Rights Reserved