In 1996 Bill Moyers devoted a five-part PBS special to the work of now-Syracuse professor Huston Smith, the child of missionaries, author of THE WORLD'S RELIGIONS, and a PBS television producer and filmmaker. In THE SOUL OF CHRISTIANITY: Restoring the Great Tradition, Smith turns his pen to a defense of the essentials of the Christian faith.
Weaving together thoughtful deductions, history, personal anecdotes, insights from others, poetry and pertinent hymn lyrics, Smith looks at the Christian worldview, the foundational points of Christian theology, and the three branches of the church today. In writing, he says he rarely had to reach for his Bible to check its quotations, for they were "in my head and in my life."
This is accessible --- but by no means light --- reading. In Part One, Smith enumerates the fixed points of the Christian world, including its infiniteness (which includes the finite) and its order. There are two distinct ways of knowing, according to the Christian worldview: the rational and the intuitive. "After we have done our best to understand the world, it remains mysterious but through the shrouds of mystery, we can dimly discern that it is perfect."
In Part Two, Smith engagingly recaps the foundational points of Christian theology: the incarnation, the atonement, the trinity, eternal life, bodily resurrection, hell and the virgin birth. On the incarnation, "Christ was the bridge that joined humanity to God." He offers a beautiful interpretation of the atonement ("the most powerful demonstration of the sender's love is to let its receiver know that the sender suffers the pain the recipient suffers") and a moving look at the symbolism of the cross.
His thoughts about the trinity are compelling. On Christians believing in the trinity and yet being monotheistic, he reminds us, "H20 can be ice, water, or steam without losing its chemical identity." He later adds, "If then, love is not just one of God's attributes, but his very essence --- and it may be Christianity's distinctive mission in history to claim just that --- at no point could God have been truly God without being involved in relationship."
In Part Three, Smith examines three divisions of Christianity today: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism (over 900 denominations in the United States). He briefly illumines each. In Catholicism, he touches on the roles of Mary and the Pope, the Church's defense of human life, and the importance of the sacraments. Smith shows how the Eastern Orthodox Church differs from the Catholic Church in both the extent of its authority and the means by which it reaches its dogma. Smith looks at two aspects of the Protestant Church: justification by faith (faith as a response of the entire self) and the Protestant Principle (warning against idolatry, or "absolutizing the relative").
Smith admits, "Christianity is such a complex phenomenon that it is difficult to say anything significant about it that will carry the assent of all Christians." Some Christian readers will disagree with Smith's points, especially on the exclusivity of Christianity and inerrancy of scripture. "There's a new mood in Christendom," he writes, "a more conscious, general recognition that though for Christians God is defined by Jesus, he is not confined by Jesus." Smith also asserts, "Only a minority of Christians…now claim that all non-Christians will go to hell." His take on biblical inerrancy ("The chief Protestant idolatry has been bibliolatry") will also be open to debate among more conservative believers.
Writer and philosopher Dallas Willard calls THE SOUL OF CHRISTIANITY "a unique achievement for our times" with good reason. Christians and non-Christians looking for an accessible yet scholarly overview and defense of the Christian faith will find this a thought-provoking and discussable book.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on September 6, 2005