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Huston Smith

English: Huston Smith at home in Berkeley.

Huston Smith at home in Berkeley. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Huston Smith (1919 –  ) is a widely respected educator and media figure in the area of comparative religion. In his compact classic, The World’s Religions (1991, formerly The Religions of Man, 1958), Smith reveals many of the insights and problems inherent to a comparative study of religion.

Choosing to place more emphasis on religious experience as something integral to personal transformation, and less on historical data, Smith hopes to rekindle debate around several age old questions:

Why are we here? What gives meaning to life? Does something exist beyond the world of the senses? Is there an afterlife?

Not strictly opposed to organized religions, Smith says their group aspect makes them a “mixed bag.”

Like any term religion can be defined as one wishes, and if one links it to institutions, I think religious institutions are indispensable, but they’re clearly a mixed bag, and we’ve had the wars of religions; but I tend to think this is the nature of institutions and people in the aggregate. What government has a clean or perfect record, you know?¹

Smith is reminiscent of to another leading interpreter of religion, Joseph Campbell, whose somewhat Jungian approach to the spirit has sparked worldwide interest and debate. However, Smith, as we see in the quote immediately below, doesn’t seem to entirely equate Christianity with non-Christian world religions.²

Hans Makart 006

Japanese kimono by Hans Makart (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some interesting Huston Smith quotes via Wikipedia:³

  • Smith is a practicing Christian who credits his faith to his missionary parents who had “instilled in me a Christianity that was able to withstand the dominating secular culture of modernity.”
  • “Institutions are not pretty. Show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful, but universities? The same is true for religion… religion is institutionalized spirituality.”
  • “The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits.”

Related » Aton, Illness

¹ Huston Smith, “The Psychology of Religious Experience” in Jeffrey Mishlove, Thinking Allowed video series:

² I remember seeing an early b&w Huston Smith film in an Oriental Phil. course at Trent University in the mid-1980s. Smith was quite young in the film, wearing a conventional Western suit with short cut hair. The class members laughed out loud at the seeming contradiction. Here was this uber straight looking Western guy doing a film on esoteric world religions. Our professor replied something like – “That’s what things were like back then.” And in retrospect, there was really nothing to laugh about. Smith was a pioneer, actively exploring areas that most others wouldn’t even imagine questioning beyond the prevailing Hollywood and music industry stereotypes. (As much as I admire Frank Sinatra, for instance, I smirk when I hear him sing about “far Bombay” in “Come Fly with Me“). Not to say that Sinatra necessarily believed in these clichés. I have no idea. But they certainly resonated with the pop culture that he thrived in. Another musical example would be Nat King Cole’s Hajji Baba (Persian Lament). For more, see E. Said, Orientalism.


On the Web:

  • “‘RUMI: Poet of the Heart,’ an award-winning 60 minute film produced and directed by Haydn Reiss, featuring Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Deepak Chopra, storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade, and religious historian Huston Smith.”



Sufi Festival: Haseeb ANSAR

Sufi Festival: Haseeb ANSAR via Flickr

The term sufi (Arabic: mystic) is likely based on the root suf (wool), recalling the simple woolen garments worn by ascetics. Sufism is often seen as an unorthodox type of Islamic mysticism.

Some might idealize Sufis as itinerant holy men wandering through remote deserts, in actual fact Sufism became an organized movement around the 7th and 8th centuries. Their organization was mostly a reaction to the Middle-Eastern Umayyad dynasty, known for its worldliness.

The well-known Dervish orders arose in India around the 12th and 13th centuries. These emphasized ecstatic states and remained influential until recently.

The prominent Sufi Al-Hallaj (CE 858-922) advocated a mystical union of the individual soul with God. Like many who threaten the worldly minded, he was branded a heretic, imprisoned and later executed.

The essence of Sufism might best be expressed by the 13th-century and still popular poet Jala ud-Din Rumi. Rumi’s verse can be found in New Age bookstores and his message prefigures Joseph Campbell‘s dictum of follow your bliss.

Related Posts » Islam, Prayer, Sikhism


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Yoda’s tear (Photo: Niall Kennedy via Flickr)

Yoda is a wise spiritual teacher of Luke Skywalker and other Jedi knights in the Star Wars films of George Lucas.

As the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, his power extends to being able to mediate and control “The Force,” which in the greater Star Wars cosmology is a spiritual life force pervading the universe.

Yoda’s species and last name remain unknown, although Lucas originally planned to call him Yoda Minch.

Yoda essentially is an American fictional variant of the Indian guru and, to some extent, the Siberian shaman. Links to these actual religious beliefs and practices shouldn’t be surprising, considering Lucas was friends and consulted with the renowned scholar of religion and mythology, Joseph Campbell.

Master Yoda

Master Yoda (Photo: Alex Abian via Flickr)

The fact that the Yoda character has become enshrined in popular culture can hardly be disputed. People even makes jokes about others being “like Yoda” if they’re wise and, perhaps, a bit eccentric.

This attests to the genius of American culture, in particular that of Hollywood. Unlike people in countries clinging to a glorious national past, mythological and otherwise, Americans are creating meaningful myth and culture today.

Related Posts » Obi Wan Kenobi, Odysseus


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Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen - Istoriato scho...

Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen – Istoriato schotel: de maaltijd der Goden op de Olympus (Istoriato dish: the food of the gods on Olympus – Photo credit: MicheleLovesArt)

Ambrosia (from Greek ambrotos = immortal) is the otherworldly food or drink of the Ancient Greek Olympians, sometimes given to mortal heroes and mankind as a salve but usually reserved for the gods. Said to confer the boon of immortality, mortals were punished if they took it uninvited.

Some scholars believe that ambrosia prefigures the Christian Eucharist. It remains unclear as to whether ambrosia has an earthly parallel (i.e. an actual substance found in nature), as does the Soma of the Hindu Vedic pantheon. Some say it’s based on the alleged healing powers of honey, others suggest it may be traced to the hallucinogenic mushroom.

Mythographer Joseph Campbell puts forward an interesting view:

…the drink of the gods, and the distillate of love are the same, in various strengths, to wit, ambrosia (Sanskrit amrta, “immortality”), the potion of deathless life experienced here and now. It is milk, it is wine, it is tea, it is coffee, it is anything you like, when drunk with a certain insight-life itself, when experienced from a certain depth and height.”¹

The Greek epic poet Homer made a clear distinction between ambrosia (food) and nectar (drink). But usually it’s not clear if ambrosia is food or drink. In ancient art it is usually administered by a nymph called Ambrosia.

¹ Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Creative Mythology. New York: Penguin Books, 1962: The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, 1976, p. 80.

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Martin Buber

Martin Buber (1878-1965)

Martin Buber (1878-1965) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a Viennese-born Israeli-Jewish theologian, best known for his 1922 classic, Ich und Du (I and Thou).

Buber has been described as a modern representative of a heterodox form of Jewish mysticism called Hasidism. His work is often mentioned in university philosophy and religion courses, mostly for his description of relating to others and to God in terms of an “I – Thou” (Ich‑Du) relationship. This, for Buber, is the only authentic way to relate.

Ich‑Du (“I‑Thou” or “I‑You”) is a relationship that stresses the mutual, holistic existence of two beings. It is a concrete encounter, because these beings meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another. Even imagination and ideas do not play a role in this relation.†

Buber contrasts the “I – Thou” relationship to an “I – It” (Ich-Es) relationship. “I – It” relationships involve the intellect, concepts, projections, etc of another person instead of their authentic source.

The Ich-Es (“I‑It”) relationship is nearly the opposite of Ich‑Du.[25] Whereas in Ich‑Du the two beings encounter one another, in an Ich‑Es relationship the beings do not actually meet. Instead, the “I” confronts and qualifies an idea, or conceptualization, of the being in its presence and treats that being as an object. All such objects are considered merely mental representations, created and sustained by the individual mind.†

100th day of birth of Martin Buber (1878—1965)...

100th day of birth of Martin Buber (1878—1965) :*Graphic designer: Gerd Aretz :*Ausgabepreis: 50 Pfennig :*First Day of Issue / Erstausgabetag: 16. Februar 1978 :*Michel-Katalog-Nr: 962 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Buber believes that “I – Thou” relationships are quite rare. In reality most of us oscillate between seeing others in “I – Thou” and “I – it” terms.

When applying the “I – Thou” model to the way we relate to God, this stance may be contrasted to religious systems that advocate the ego becoming lost, engulfed or absorbed in God. Buber never eradicates the individual. It’s always about relationship, either respectful, loving and reverent (authentic) or cold, distant and opportunistic (inauthentic).

Unlike some so-called intellectuals who don’t practice what they preach, Buber resigned from his teaching post in Frankfurt when Adolf Hitler came to power. He left Germany in 1938 to settle in Jerusalem, where he continued to try to put his philosophical ideals into practice.

† For these quotes and their relation to other philosophers like Immanuel Kant, see

Related Posts » Joseph Campbell, Inflation, Mythic Dissociation, Mythic Eternalization, Mythic Identification, Mythic Inflation, Mythic Subordination, Projection


Joseph Campbell

English: Joseph Campbell, late 1970

Joseph Campbell, late 1970 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was an influential American scholar and educator in world religions and mythology.

Campbell’s books and PBS videos (hosted by Bill Moyers) have enjoyed worldwide acclaim. With other innovators like Mircea Eliade, Otto Rank, and Carl Jung, Campbell championed the syncretic study of psychology, myth and spirituality.

Campbell was ahead of many of his peers by seeing the film Star Wars as a contemporary variant, par excellence, of the age-old hero myth.¹ Campbell’s interest in the hero archetype can be traced to the works of Rank and Jung.

Campbell learned several original languages, and had an impressive knowledge of textual data from a wide variety of interconnected fields.

Pedantic and dogmatic critics, however, still entirely dismiss his pioneering attempts. His critics that say his opinions are simplistic. But it’s possible that he’s dumbing things down for a general audience not familiar with the specifics of world myth and religion.

A more serious charge could be that, and contrary to Campbell’s dictum of “follow your bliss,” every once in a while he seems a bit autocratic, particularly in reference to his beliefs about orthodox Catholicism. This isn’t just a problem with Campbell. Many Gnostic,  Fundamentalist, Protestant, New Age, Humanistic, scientific and even environmental thinkers arguably lump “The Church” into one big personal projection of The Big Bad Wolf (as if the Catholic Church is supposed to be perfect here on Earth, which is entirely unreasonable).

ep_greek_man_clr.gifCampbell, himself, was a fallen away Catholic, which may have had some bearing on his somewhat negative treatment of Catholicism. He does seem to highlight the Catholic Church’s past mistakes without fully appreciating its positive aspects—e.g. how the Eucharist enriches the lives of present-day believers.²

Another difficulty in Campbells’ analyses of world religions echoes difficulties found in Jung’s work. At times Campbell seems to say that the various paths in world mysticism evoke identical mystical experiences and lead to the same afterlife abode.

This may be a politically correct view and, for all we know, could be true. But ultimate claims about the afterlife cannot be made with any certainty (unless you believe you have a pipeline to God, as so many zealots do).

These shortcomings aside, Campbell’s contribution to the study of myth, religion and culture is noteworthy (some might say remarkable). His popular PBS lectures, taped just months before his unfortunate death due to cancer, reveal that, in his own dignified way he was just as heroic as a Heracles or Luke Skywalker.

It’s not surprising that his name has become almost archetypal among students of world myth and religion.

Related Posts » Mythic Dissociation, Mythic Eternalization, Mythic Identification, Mythic Inflation, Mythic Subordination

¹ Star Wars creator George Lucas says Campbell’s work was influential for the mythic structure of the film. Lucas had the insight to realize that his sci-fi story would work better if it had an authentic mythic feel. By adapting Campbell’s ideas, Lucas hoped that the Star Wars epic would resonate with the masses, which, of course, it did.

² Creative thinkers like Campbell are rarely one-dimensional, however. He also says that one of his peak experiences came when entering Chartres Cathedral in France.

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Death and Resurrection

The Earliest fresco of the Virgin Mary, in the...

The Earliest fresco of the Virgin Mary, in the Catacomb of Priscilla from the middle of the 2nd century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Countless scholars, depth psychologists and writers point out that the motif of death and resurrection is found throughout world religion, mythology, literature and the arts.

The death may be symbolic, involving a hero who undergoes a psychological or societal ‘death’ by leaving everyday life for the underworld. He or she typically encounters unusual friends, foes, adventures and battles, only to return utterly transformed.

This kind of symbolic death and resurrection is championed by the depth psychiatrist C. G. Jung and also by the mythographer Joseph Campbell. But it need not be a single, big event. As a friend of mine said quite a few years ago, she’s been through several symbolic deaths and resurrections.

At the time I thought my friend just didn’t get it because I’d been through a pretty big change, which my ego told me was way more significant than what she was talking about. But I came to see that she was right. At least, she was right in that we can all go through many symbolic deaths and resurrections according to who we are and what we need so as to grow in life.

As Sonia Neale beautifully puts it from a Buddhist perspective, and in the context of leaving her therapist:

It is normal to grieve and mourn. This non-attachment is difficult because every breath of warm wind, every flower and tree, in fact almost everything reminds me of someone I love dearly and have to let go.  Even being alive reminds me of what I have lost.  But I now believe that when you lose something, it is replaced with something of equal value or better.¹

The mythic theme of death and resurrection also takes the form of an actual death, as we find in sacred accounts of the Hindu Siva and Kali, the Egyptian Isis and Osiris, the Greek Persephone and Demeter, as well as in the story of Jesus and The Virgin Mary.

We also find many accounts where archaic societies sacrificed human beings to appease their gods or spirits. And it was generally believed that the sacrificial victims were generously rewarded in the afterlife. Such practices were found in Greece, Rome, India, China, Celtic and Viking Europe as well as Mesoamerica.

¹ Neale, S. (2011). Death and Resurrection Through Therapy. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 28, 2012, from


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