Things Are Not As They Seem

by Scott London

Huston SmithHuston Smith, the great philosopher of religion, passed away last week. I had the good fortune to work with him some years ago. Over a period of two months, we met for a series of interviews covering fascinating subjects like the troubled relationship between science and spirituality, the rise of fundamentalism, the common threads at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions, and some of the surprising insights about human consciousness coming out of psychedelic research. The interviews aired on public radio stations across the country.

Huston Smith has had a profound influence on me. He introduced me to the idea that there is an identifiable transcendent unity at the core of the enduring wisdom traditions — a common vision as to the nature of ultimate reality, knowledge, ethics, and spiritual life — despite the great surface variety of doctrines, practices, and cultures. He referred to it as the “primordial tradition” or “perennial philosophy.”

I had encountered the idea of the perennial philosophy from Aldous Huxley (his book by that name is one I keep at my bedside), but I never realized the extent to which people of various mystical traditions shared a common vision. I found that deeply thought-provoking, and more than a little inspiring.

According to Smith, this outlook is common to people everywhere and at all times, with a single notable exception: the modern West. Our contemporary Western worldview differs from what might otherwise be called “the human unanimity,” as he called it, because of an unfortunate “misreading” of science.

In several of his books, he showed how science presumes to be the authoritative way of establishing truth, yet ultimately reveals only partial truths. Strictly speaking, Smith said, a scientific worldview is a contradiction in terms since the world science deals with is one limited to space, time, matter/energy, and mathematics. “Values, life meanings, purposes, and qualities slip through science like sea slips through the nets of fishermen.”

The triumphs of modern science have blinded us to the fact that it is an inherently restricted form of knowing, that what can be measured empirically is not exhaustive of reality, that there are other higher domains that can be apprehended only through contemplation, intuition, and inner experience.

According to Smith, this latter idea stands at the center of all the great wisdom traditions, from Taoism to Vedanta, Zen to Sufism, Neoplatonism to Confucianism. The primordial tradition views reality as hierarchically ordered, consisting of at least three realms: earth, human, and celestial, correlated with body, mind, and spirit.

This suggests, in effect, that 1) things are not as they seem, 2) that the other-than-the-seeing represents infinitely “more,” 3) that this more cannot be known in ordinary ways, 4) that it can, however, be known in ways appropriate to it, 5) that these appropriate ways require cultivation, and 6) that they require tools or practices. (For more on this last point, please see my post on Spiritual Practice.)

Smith has helped me recognize that the best hope for Western culture is not to go back to some idealized past, but to retrieve a more expanded and timeless view of reality, to recover a lost dimension of human understanding. In his words, we need “to reknit the rich coherence of a fully human consciousness which the cramped and aggressive rationality of modernity has bruised so badly.”

For more on Huston Smith, please see my review of his book Beyond the Postmodern Mind