Dr. Dana Sawyer’s career studying religion and transcendence made him the perfect biographer of Huston Smith.
photo by: Skeptiko
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Dr. Dana Sawyer to Skeptiko. Dana is a professor of religion and philosophy at the Maine College of Art and the author of Huston Smith: Wisdomkeeper: Living the World’s Religions: The Authorized Biography of a 21st Century Spiritual Giant.
Dana, it’s great to have you here. Thanks so much for joining me on Skeptiko.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Thanks for inviting. Great to be here.
Alex Tsakiris: So on the back of this book cover, people are going to find a blurb of the Dalai Lama. First of all, I don’t imagine that the Dalai Lama gives out a lot of book blurbs, but he did for this one, and what he wrote is really, I think, interesting. He said, “Huston Smith is an outstanding authority on the world’s religions because he has put so many of them into practice and discovered their real taste.”
Who is Huston Smith?
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Well, one time the Christian Science Monitor referred to him as religion’s rock star, and he was certainly that. For more than 50 years, Huston Smith was the most renowned scholar of the world’s religions in the world. He had written a book in 1958 called the Religions of Man, that’s now called the World’s Religions, to correct that mistake of non-inclusive language, but that book has never been out of print since 1958. The vast majority of college students or people who went to college and have ever taken a course on world religions read that book; that was the textbook.
That was a breakthrough kind of book for Huston, but it was also a breakthrough book in the academic study of religion because prior to that book, most people felt like the job of an academic was to deconstruct religion, and explain to us in modernist terms why religion was over with and why we are better off without all that silly superstition. Huston started in a very different place, which was rather than judging the religions, he simply wanted to be a good academic and describe them and that’s what he did. In that book, each chapter is written in such a way that a believer of that particular tradition would be nodding their head yes like […] Hinduism he is describing currently. This is what I feel.” And then in the next chapter he does that for Buddhism, et cetera, so that’s one of the answers you can give…
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Alex Tsakiris: Before you give another one because the whole book that you’ve done here is really a broader look at all the answers to that question — which I think is wonderful — tell folks a little bit about how you came to write this biography.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Well, maybe about 14 years ago, I wrote a biography of Aldous Huxley.
Alex Tsakiris: A very critically, well received biography of Aldous Huxley, we should say, but go ahead.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: That’s right. That’s right. In fact, his wife, Laura Huxley, told me that of all the books that had been written on Aldous, and you can imagine there were a lot written about Huxley, that that was the only book that he would have liked and agreed with, and you could have knocked me over with a feather; I mean, that was pretty amazing praise.
But anyway, I wrote that book and then I was in Berkeley on the book tour and I asked Huston if I could come and visit him because he had endorsed that book. When we met, he asked me what I was going to write next and I said, “How about your biography?” He didn’t realize he had been a great hero of mine for a long time. He was surprised and he said, “Oh, I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy,” and I talked him into it. It took a while, but I talked him into it.
Alex Tsakiris: You mentioned that he was somewhat of a hero of yours. Throughout this book and knowing a little bit of your background, I do see that kindred spirit kind of thing going on, even in, I think, some of the adventures and battles that you both have undergone in academia, there is that sense. Tell people a little bit more about that kindred spirit nature of it in your background.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: I felt like I had been studying at his feet invisibly, for about 40 years, going all the way back to undergraduate school. I did my first Master’s Degree at the University of Hawaii, and Huston came out there to give a talk, and it must have been ’76 or ’77. I went up to talk to him afterwards and I was like a 14-year-old girl faced with Justin Bieber or something. I couldn’t even talk. I don’t even remember what I said to him. I was probably at a cold sweat. When you meet your great heroes, it has a real effect on you. And part of the reason for that was not only that Huston had described the religions accurately, and I’m not particularly a religious person at all – I don’t belong formally to a religion – but I really admired how Huston had gone toe-to-toe with secular materialists.
I’m sure you’ve talked about this before on your program, Alex, there’s a word “scientism”, which is when you’re raising scientific knowledge to the status of the only truth. Huston, who did his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Chicago, he could really fight our colleagues and academia to a standstill. He could get them to the place where they had to wonder again. They had to see that they, themselves, were perhaps being too dogmatic in their own assumptions; guilty of what they were accusing religionists of being, and I really admired that about Huston.
Alex Tsakiris: You say that Huston Smith reclaimed the significance of metaphysics in the study of philosophy; please expound on that.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: First of all, he made very strong arguments in books like Beyond the Post Modern Mind, Forgotten Truth, Why Religion Matters. For the limits of science, science is a wonderful thing and it can answer many questions, but people who embrace it as the only truth are jumping to conclusions. For example, Bertrand Russell once said, “What science can’t prove, mankind can’t know.” That’s a statement where you are saying whatever can’t be quantified must be false, must be a sophistry of some kind that should be dismissed. But, if we start at the place of saying — and I know this will come out awkwardly, I’ll do my best — if we start at an axiomatic assumption that only those truths that can be scientifically proven to be true are true, good luck trying to scientifically prove that axiom.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. It’s a premise, not a conclusion.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Exactly. Exactly. It’s a presumptuous presumption.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. You touched on this before and you just touched on it again, the postmodern nature of academia, particularly at the time that Huston Smith entered the Academy. But, I don’t think, and this is the great thing about history and this book is a slice of history, I don’t think people can have a real sense of what that was really about. I scribbled down a couple of notes, “infantile projection” and “opiate of the masses”. Can you maybe expound a little bit more on the climate that existed [among] all the really smart guys when Huston entered the field of religious studies?
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Yes. When he was coming along in the ‘40s and ‘50s, began his teaching career in 1947, then modernism still had a very strong hold on the Academy. I mean, I would argue today, and my colleague, Jeff Kripal, down at Rice University would also argue it continues to have a hold on the Academy, but the view was Freud had it right, that we, as babies, realize there are limits to our own abilities, but there are these giants called mom and dad that come and take care of us. They have much more unlimited abilities — and so Freud says — eventually we’ll realize even our parents are limited beings. And so out of an infantile longing for safety, we’ll project upon a benign universe, a cosmic mom and dad to take care of us.
So Freud is saying, basically, instead of going to church, why don’t you pay me or some other therapist to do some psychological work with you and get you over this hang-up. And then Karl Marx and other modernists had argued that religion is the opiate of the masses, that it’s a drug fed to us by our handlers that the aristocracy, whether it’s the capitalist aristocracy or the futile state of medieval Europe is in collusion with the church to placate us. To tell us pretty stories in our suffering so that we don’t launch anything like a political revolution to demand a better way of life.
These kinds of theories were very much in vogue in the Academy in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and so when Huston was first teaching word religions, there was a book by a fellow named Noss, N-o-s-s. Basically, it was chapter after chapter of judgment and damnation against the religion, claiming that Hinduism and Buddhism were religions of escape. That it’s the religion of people who hate life and want to reach moksha liberation from it. And so when Huston read these books, he felt like these judgments were, to a large extent, unfair and wanted to at least describe them accurately.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s just such a radical position for someone to take at the time.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: […]
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, your biography does a fabulous job of sketching that out, but you see what a salmon swimming upstream kind of undertaking he’s engaged in.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Yeah. It’s funny because he was making no friends in academia at the beginning of it, but the book became so wildly popular, and all over the world. When I interviewed Deepak Chopra for the book, he said he remembered reading it when he was 14, growing up in Delhi, and shared it with his father. They were both amazed like, “Wow. This is the first time we’ve ever seen a westerner correctly describe our religion.” Neither denigrating nor endorsing, simply accurately describing, so that was a huge step.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s talk a little bit about that slice of life there when this book explodes and he does become this media celebrity. We have some great black and white photos in the book. One of the ones I really like is the photo of Huston sitting cross-legged on a desk titled, Huston on Television in St. Louis, 1955. Explain that, because I think it really relates to the story in a couple of different ways.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Well, that’s why Huston claims the book has always been in print and it’s still paying his rent at 97-years-old, is that the book started as a TV show, not as a book. He had a young director named Mayo Simon, and every week Mayo would say, “Okay, Huston, what have you got for me?” Huston would describe what the content of the program was going to be and Mayo would say, “Doesn’t sound too red hot to me, Huston.” And then Huston would go back and jazz it up a little bit and cut to the chase; do something that’s hard for academics, cut to the chase.
So, the program became very, very popular on educational TV and it got picked up all over the country, and then they said, “Wow. Let’s make a book out of this.” That’s how the whole thing happened.
Part of the story, Alex, and it relates to why when Huston acquiesced and said, “Yes, Dana, I would love to have you write my biography,” he said. “I want the same treatment you gave Aldous Huxley,” who was a great hero and friend of Huston’s. What they shared in common was the Perennial philosophy, Huxley’s view of the Perennial philosophy, and that’s a big piece of the Huston Smith success story.
Alex Tsakiris: Share with folks the Perennial philosophy, briefly.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: In a nutshell, it boils down to what Aldous called the minimum working hypothesis. First of all, it’s a hypothesis, and I love that […].
Alex Tsakiris: Right.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Saying here is a theory that we need to explore. It started as dogma to take with some Kool-Aid. The first premises that there is not only the imminent world of things, objects, and people, but there is a transcendent aspect to reality. So, there’s the world of time and space, but there’s an aspect of reality that transcends time and space; that’s premise one.
Premise two is that transcendent aspect has no firewall between it and the world in time and space. In fact, the world of time and space, in this theory, is reality is a oneness. So, the world of time and space is almost like the outer skin or the manifestation of the transcendent aspect of life. Reality is transcendent to the world of time and space and imminent as the world of time and space.
Then the third premise is that we are capable of experiencing that transcendent aspect of reality.
And then the fourth of these premises is that that’s what we’re here to do.
So, if we look at the mystical literature of the religions of the world and mystical literature outside of the religions of the world, then we tend to find these same four points being made over and over and over, and because they do arise perennially. Aldous Huxley called that the Perennial philosophy.
Huston embraced the Perennial philosophy, and that adds a very interesting aspect to his importance. And, if you don’t mind me going on for just a minute, I think I can make a really important point about his career.
Alex Tsakiris: Sure.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: In the world of academia, you had modernists arguing that all religion is to be thrown away and discarded as old news. In the world of religion, there tended then — and there tend to be now — two basic camps. One is what I would call inclusivists, and the other is what we can call exclusivists.
Exclusivists are saying, “My religion is the correct one and everybody else’s religion is stupidity and ignorance, and so they should convert to my religion,” whatever that religion might be, whether it’s some very dogmatic form of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or whatever. And then inclusivists are people who tend to say, and I’ve got to tell you my students are often guilty of this, “All the religions are really just saying the same thing.”
What Huston felt very uncomfortable with the first choice, exclusivist, only one religion is right, he also felt uncomfortable with inclusivism because he felt like, “Well, Buddhism says there is no creator God, in fact, there is no ultimate God at all.” How can that be the same thing as a Jew or a Christian, a creator God? So he didn’t feel comfortable with either of those camps and what the Perennial philosophy did was create an opportunity to say maybe there’s a transcendent unity of religion.
Maybe on a mystical level — what Huston called the esoteric level of religion — we find mystics in the various traditions breaking through to the same kind of insight that is summarized in those minimum working hypotheses I laid out. And that, yet again though, there is this exoteric level of religion, which is what we deal with when we deal with ritual, what most people think of as religious behavior on a daily basis, religious architecture, sacred space, morality, and you see what I mean?
Alex Tsakiris: Yes. And maybe you want to expound on this a little bit more, but this is where Huston really, I don’t want to say is at odds with Huxley — because they seem to have this wonderful mutual respect for each other — but that he is taking things in a different direction. This exoteric, as you call it, view of religion is really something that is kind of trying to weave through these different camps in a way that no one has really done before. Even religious folks haven’t done it. He’s very, very progressive. The extreme progressive Christians, I think, have gotten there now. McLaren has said, “Hey, we have to accept all religions equally and fully embrace them if we are to understand our tradition at all.” I see that thread emerging just recently, but at the time, I think it was again, quite a radical shift and he’s kind of out alone on this branch, isn’t he?
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Huston was, but it’s funny, Huxley was an anti-religion kind of guy. He felt like people that were involved with exoteric religion like church hierarchies, priest and swamis, that too often, the old saying that power attracts the worst of us and corrupts the best, that people get attracted to church hierarchies, and so they can very often do more to prevent this mystical insight. From Huxley’s viewpoint, the mystics broke through into cosmic consciousness or enlightenment, […]. In spite of exoteric religion, not because of exoteric religion, that exoteric religion tended to throw up roadblocks, but Huston said, “No. No. No. The traditional religions of the tried and true pathways up the mountain of spiritual growth, no need to go bushwhacking of the mountain.” So Huston was much more embracive of the traditional perspectives.
One thing that’s happened over time is that more and more you see books coming out where people are embracing Huston’s viewpoint and saying, “You know what? Inside of my tradition, x, y, z, we do have this Perennial philosophy element, whether we’re talking about Kabbalah, Judaism or Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, The Wisdom Jesus. Increasingly, we’re seeing an embrace of this mystical side of religion and spirituality.
My students, they describe themselves as spiritual and not religious, so when you dig down into what they mean, it has this experiential element for them. They don’t want to be told what to think in a dogmatic way; they want it to be experiential self-discovery.
Alex Tsakiris: I think we’re also seeing an embrace of some of the practical aspects of religion that got thrown away in the baby bathwater kind of thing. Do we need community? I don’t know how and why, but we do kind of have a sense for a need for community. Do we need ritual? Do we need a variety of elders who have walked the path maybe and gone different ways, but they’re there as a resource? Do we need a record of the Wisdom Tradition in writings and stuff like that?
Speak to, maybe, the deeper insight that Huston Smith, I think, saw ahead of his time. Again, of what was really being dispelled that is useful and is necessary, as problematic as it is.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Well, that’s a great question, Alex. A great prompt.
From Huston’s perspective, this esoteric aspect is what he was very, very interested in; but over and over again, for instance, in his book Why Religion Matters, he argues about how important religion is for finding identity. A lot of people today might think I’m going to find my identity, in spite of my religion or community, instead of through my religion and community. Huston, he felt more like if we look at the payoff of religion, traditionally all over the planet, where people were born into a community, they were born into a wisdom group that already had answers to life’s question.
The French philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty once said, “Because we’re present to a world, we’re condemned to meaning.” Well, what he meant by that was once I realized I’m in relationship to others, and others, including other species, other genders, other people, other planets, then what is my relationship to those others? I start to wonder what are my responsibilities to the planet? Do I have any? So as […] poses these questions, these wisdom groups give you answers, and those answers give you identity, and being part of the wisdom group gives you community.
When I interviewed Phil Cusano, who was one of Joe Campbell’s biographers, we were sitting in some café near City Lights, I remember in San Francisco, and he was talking about how important community was and how well Huston understood that, because they’re also friends. I said, “What do you mean? Can you put that in a nutshell for me?” And he said, “Well, I remember hearing an interview with Janis Joplin and Janis Joplin said ‘I’m so sad. Every night I make love to 2,000 people and then I have to go home alone.’”
Phil was pointing out maybe somebody like Aldous Huxley, with an IQ somewhere north of 200 and a lot of maturity could function without a community, but most of us like a shoulder to cry on or like to be a shoulder to cry on. Yes, community is very important and maybe Janis would have lived longer if she had had the right community.
Alex Tsakiris: When we talk about this life, Huston Smith, it’s easy to make it sound like a charmed life, and in some ways, I guess it was. He lives a wonderful life. He is living a wonderful life, he is still alive, but it isn’t exactly a charmed life. Maybe speak a little bit to his very early childhood, which is quite unusual and is not, I guess, the [background] one would expect for what he does.
Also, the second point I hope you can maybe highlight is how poor he was. I don’t think people nowadays can relate to it. You think of the starving student today, but this is at a whole different level.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: It was, in a lot of ways. He was born in China, raised in China as the son of Christian missionaries, Methodists. The vow of chastity, there is no monastic branch of Methodism and they don’t need one because [aestheticism] was part of the religion. So I think he really grew up being proud of how humbly his family lived in China.
His mother was born and raised in China and spoke fluent Mandarin and so at a very early age, she impressed on Huston and his two brothers that they would never look down on the Chinese. That they had a rich and beautiful culture and they weren’t there to judge, they were there to help. His father built a hospital and a school before he ever built the church that he preached in. Christian charity was the religion that Huston grew up in.
At 17, when he came to the United States to start college, he was shocked by young Christians who felt like all that had come across to them was judgment or hell, fire and damnation. To Huston, Christian charity and the love of Christ, that was the message that he had absorbed, so he felt no reason to rebel against that at all. And because his mother’s arms opened so wide to embrace other cultures, Huston was very willing to do that.
Alex Tsakiris: And speak a little bit to what I was talking about him being poor. I just think it just struck me that here he is, he’s a professor, then he’s actually on a tenure track and still, he can’t even buy a used car and he’s hitchhiking around the country. I just think people can’t really relate to how poor people were, especially academics.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Well, part of it was his choice. I have a picture of Huston from about 45 years ago, when he was teaching at Syracuse. He taught at MIT for 15 years, and then he joined the faculty at Syracuse University and eventually ended up at Berkeley, but he wore the same winter coat that whole time. I saw him in a picture from about three or four years ago, and he still had on that same winter coat, so his attention is on wealth defined in a very different way than material objects, so there’s one thing.
But exactly as you say, Alex, when he and his wife, Kendra, first started a family, they were living in a trailer in Denver, Colorado. He was teaching at the University of Colorado and he wanted to meet Aldous Huxley and a fellow named Gerald [Heard], and the only way he had to go visit them since he couldn’t even afford a bus ticket was, in 1947, to hitchhike to California from Colorado — pretty amazing.
Alex Tsakiris: One other thing that I just kind of scribbled on here that I thought you might want to speak to is state versus traits.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: I think that’s a really good topic to talk about relative to Huston.
A good place to begin with that is in some ways, Huston discovered the Dalai Lama. In 1964, Huston was in Dalhousie, India studying Tibetan Buddhism and they said, “Well, you should meet the Dalai Lama.” Huston thought that was a good idea, so he put in a request to meet. The Dalai Lama was in his 20s at the time. One of the things that Huston was impressed with by the Dalai Lama was that the Dalai Lama would always say, as he still does, “My religion is compassion.”
And so what really had been impressed on Huston from his father’s Christian charity that came through in the Dalai Lama’s Buddhism was that religion and spirituality, even some profound experience of oneness with all reality, nondual consciousness, has no real value unless it stands up on legs, moves around in the world, and makes real change. To have a religious experience that doesn’t result in some kind of activism— environmental, social — is just a groovy experience. Huston had that impressed on him in the ‘60s while at MIT because he was part of the Harvard Psychedelic Project. Timothy Leary, who was a close friend of his at that time, when he turned a corner and said, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” Huston felt that was very, very irresponsible that he might be pulling the youth of America in deep water.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, let’s be clear. Huston was right there with him and Ram Dass, and they had these minor differences about where to take this stuff and then eventually goes in different ways, but Huston seems to have been very much in favor of the basic idea and the basic research behind is this really getting people to this transcendent state kind of thing? I found that very interesting. We can’t just go by the way it plays out at the end. At the beginning, they were all thinking that this has great promise for being part of this transformation on a mass scale.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Absolutely. Huston always points out that when he was involved in the Harvard Psychedelic Project, none of the psychedelics they were working with, primarily psilocybin and LSD, were illegal; he always points that out. He can be very conservative in certain kinds of ways, though philosophically, way outside the box. But Huston never reneged on that viewpoint, quite frankly. In 2000, he published a collection of essays that he had written about the spiritual value of psychedelic experience, so he never went back on that. In fact, his article, I’m paraphrasing, but it is Psychedelic Experience of Religious Import was published in the Journal of Philosophy, and to this day, it’s the most reprinted article in the history of the Journal of Philosophy.
So Huston never let go of that, but what he kept coming back to over and over and over again with every audience he spoke with, was traits matter more than states. That yes, these substances might give genuine mystical experience, a higher state of consciousness, but then they must result in improved traits of behavior. And so if they don’t change our traits of behavior in a positive direction that those around us can recognize, then the jury has to stay out on their ultimate significance; that’s kind of his final assessment.
Alex Tsakiris: I have a quote from the book that I thought reinforces that in a different way. On the paranormal he says, “No interest in telepathy, Astro Travel, precognition or spirit possession. I couldn’t see where they had any real value or offered any real meaning. Human nature, being what it is, people would still manage to be unhappy and selfish.”
Dr. Dana Sawyer: There you go. Well, I asked Huston one time, we’ve both spent a lot of time in Asia and India and I said, “Huston, while you were there, did you ever at any point see something that you would think of as miraculous? Somebody floating in the air or some absolute miracle?” And he thought very pensively for a moment and he said, “No, can’t say I did.” But then he said, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute.” And then what he basically said was that in his lifelong friendship with the Dalai Lama, he said, “Now there was a man who from early childhood was trained to believe that he was an incarnation of a cosmic Buddha, and he doesn’t have any trace of ego, I would call that a miracle.” So that’s the kind of miracle that Huston is interested in.
I remember growing up reading Spiderman comic books, even Spiderman would get acne and he would get depressed about his love life. There’s a message in there and the message is even if we could perform miraculous deeds like fly, disappear and read minds, until we get straight on increasing our humility, increasing our compassion, then what does it really matter? It’s just something else for the ego to metastasize to.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah, maybe, but you’ve kind of thrown a different curve ball into that mix that I didn’t see before. When you tell that little anecdote about Huston saying he’s never experienced or seen that, that’s kind of interesting too, because I think some people have the paranormal thrust upon them in ways that they can’t get around. If that’s your experience, I wonder if you feel the same way, but I’m going to leave that one as a hanging question because we’re moving along here in tome.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Okay.
Alex Tsakiris: Where I want to go, as we wrap this thing up, is return to the topic of religion. We talked about the exoteric versus esoteric and I really, really appreciate where Huston Smith, and to a certain extent, you are coming from on that. I think it’s beautiful and important and at the same time, I’m challenged by that things aren’t always what they seem mean as well. How does Huston navigate, for example, the Catholic Church’s complicity in the rape of little children? How do you deal with that?
Similarly, how do you talk about cults? David Koresh found this tidbit. He was extraordinarily good at quoting the Bible, could do it from memory, could quote it backwards and forward and that was part of his appeal, or Jim Jones. We have this vulnerability to cults. We have this tendency to create evil, even in the most good things. How do we keep that out of this exoteric thing that is religion?
Dr. Dana Sawyer: That’s a very good question. Huston would always point out that when he was teaching religion, he was teaching the ideals of the various religions, and not necessarily the realities because yes, there’s the love of Christ, but then there’s also the crusades. When he pointed it out and the reason that he felt comfortable just teaching ideals is he said, “A music professor doesn’t have to teach all the bad music too, he just teaches the good music.” There’s something to that. I think that’s fair. If you’re doing a history of the world, then the mistakes that religions make do come up.
Huston used to quote Rama Krishna who once said that, “Religion is like a cow, it kicks, but it does give milk.” Huston wouldn’t want to go to the place of denying that. There have been reprehensible characters who have been in control of religions over the years.
What you are touching on is really why Huxley was anti-religion, right? From Huxley’s perspective, the greatest invention of the Scientific Revolution wasn’t the steam engine, optics or something like that, but the concept of a working hypothesis. Whenever something becomes entrenched dogma, that is dangerous for humanity.
People would challenge Huston and they’d challenge me and they’d say religion is a problem in the world. Look at ISIS and look at Evangelical Christianity and whatever they want to pick on, Zionism. And then what I always come back to is something that I learned from Huston, which is that if you look at most dangerous ideologies of the 20th Century, they would be Mao’s Communism, they would be Hitler’s Nazism, they would be Stalin’s Communism where all three of those ideologies are secularist ideologies. So the problem isn’t religion, per se, it’s fanatical ideology, that’s the problem.
Alex Tsakiris: But how do we navigate? What is Huston giving us tools and ideas to navigate that course? That’s the part that always seems lacking in that hey, Mao was just a horrible, horrible figure, no doubt about it, but what do we do?
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Well, I think Meister Eckhart once said, “What’s taken in, in contemplation, must be given out in love.” So, where’s the love? Where is the compassion?
When we look at the behavior of people in a religion, then we should see that they’re trying to build bridges of love, understanding and compassion between people, and if they’re not, whatever they’re doing shouldn’t be claimed as the work of God; that’s the way that I would see it. I think this is why people are in wonder and awe about Pope Francis right now, and I think the reason that they are is because you can see so much love coming out of this person. They’re trying to be more embracive, they’re trying to be more open-minded, and that is the direction of God, broadly defined. I guess I’m saying there’s no easy answer.
There’s an old Sufi story about God and Satan walking down the road and God picked something out of the ditch and Satan says, “What was that?” And God says, “That was the truth.” And Satan says, “Okay. Give it to me. I’ll organize it for you.” When human beings organize their truths into a dogma, then that creates structure and structure creates opportunities for power to be collected.
I think what we’re seeing with religions today, and maybe this is the answer on some level, is if you think about religion in the United States and Europe today, there is a premium put on the democratization process, that people want more say in the direction of their community. They want to be led less and they want it to be sitting in a circle rather than the “sage on a stage”. And then I think another corrective might be the premium that we put on the sovereignty of personal choice. If you want to participate willingly in this community, that’s fine, but there’s not going to be community coercion to demand your participation. I think those created [a] more postmodern leveling structure for religion.
Alex Tsakiris: Awesome. How do we balance that with the shedding away of some of the things that we talked about? The shedding away of the traditions, the rituals, some of the holy books, and even some of the elders? How do we navigate that balancing act? Do you or Huston have any advice?
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Very difficult. Very difficult. First of all, there’s something wonderful about ritual, families around holidays. Even deep secularists tend to have family rituals, things that they do when they celebrate a birthday. Humans like those markers of the passing of the days of our lives, so I don’t know if we want to get rid of ritual.
Huston always talks about religion as a means to a goal and the goal is that the individuals become everything that they can be so that they can feed those gifts into a community and so that the community can be everything that it can be. As the individual trees get greener, the forest gets greener, that kind of an idea. What […] do we create that create the liberation and the self-actualization of the individual? There’s the real goal.
Alex Tsakiris: Awesome. Well, Dana, it’s a terrific book. Again, the book we’ve been talking about is Huston Smith: Wisdomkeeper: Living the World’s Religions: The Authorized Biography of a 21st Century Spiritual Giant.
Our guest has been Dr. Dana Sawyer.
Dana, before we let you go, tell people other stuff that you’re working on maybe, or how they can learn more about your other work. We mentioned that you did an excellent biography of Aldous Huxley, as well. How can they find out more about you?
Dr. Dana Sawyer: I have a website, “dana-sawyer.com”. They’ll see me on YouTube and Wikipedia and places like that. The books are for sale on Amazon. I’m pretty easy to find.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. You are and they should definitely find you and check you out.
It’s been awesome having you on the show and again, thank you so much for this wonderful book. I’ve been a fan of Huston Smith for a long, long time and had the wonderful opportunity to actually see him speak before I even knew I was a spiritual seeker, which is always kind of an interesting twist on things.
Dr. Dana Sawyer: Yeah. Well, it’s been great talking with you, Alex. I really appreciate the invitation.
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