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TV & Film: The dilution delusion

Television | Moyers "faith" series is ever seeking, never understanding

Issue: "Caveman with convictions," April 20, 1996

A few years ago, Bill Moyers, a one-time Southern Baptist seminarian who converted to the more journalistically correct canons of liberal theology, began to publicize his spiritual quest by means of PBS documentaries.

His 10-hour series of interviews with Joseph Campbell, literary psychoanalyst, helped popularize the notion that religion, history, and psychological growth are different manifestations of myth. Mr. Campbell's neo-pagan mythological revival has had a particularly strong impact among certain influential writers, directors, and producers in the filmmaking community. Joseph Campbell died a few years ago, and I wonder if Mr. Moyers has been looking for someone to replace him. With his predictable sensitivity to the prevailing winds of intellectual fashion, Mr. Moyers has a new guru who preaches another gospel of inclusive religiosity.

His new series, The Wisdom of Faith, features Huston Smith, professor of religion and philosophy, currently teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. Mr. Moyers and Professor Smith propose to expose and explore within five hours the essence of the world's "religious traditions."

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Each episode opens with Mr. Smith's quote, "If we take the world's enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race," but this is not an objective overview of religious traditions. Mr. Smith likes to say that he has studied religion "from the inside." While outlining the various belief systems, he sprinkles

in amusing anecdotes concerning one ritual or another that he tried out as he was auditioning each religion in its native form, even demonstrating for viewers the lotus position and teaching Mr. Moyers how to meditate.

The discussions that follow are packed with metaphysics. Mr. Smith rightly labels himself "a seeker," and he seems content to stay that way. He talks around and around seven major world religions without taking any one seriously enough either to commit to its teachings or to consider its exclusive truth claims. Instead, he blithely explains that his goal in life has been to explore the religious experience without lingering in "the dark shadows" of any one religion in particular. He tries "to let the best shine through." From a smorgasbord of rituals, he has chosen personal favorites from Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam to devise a religion of his own.

Huston Smith is Bill Moyers's soulmate. They are both exploring the joys of Eastern mysticism, and they both offer words of admiration for the "semitic tradition" (Judaism and Islam). For all of their claims of inclusiveness, Christianity receives short shrift in their hands. For Mr. Moyers, Christianity is the epitome of cruelty and phoniness. For Mr. Smith, its only valuable message is its emphasis on love.

In the second hour of the series, in which the professor discusses Confucianism, Taoism, and Yoga, he reveals his background. He was born in 1919 in Soochow, China, to Methodist missionaries. His experience with Christianity was entirely within the Methodist denomination, including college and seminary. During his early university years, he became enamored of Hinduism and sought to combine it with Christianity. While teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, he was simultaneously listed as an associate minister at the Methodist church and President of the Vendanta Society, where Hindu Swami Satprakashananda tutored him in Eastern mysticism.

In recalling a spiritually profound moment in his life, Mr. Smith ironically indicts the spiritual emptiness of mainstream liberal theology. After attending Christmas Eve services at the Methodist church, where he listened to a message about "the magic of Christmas and being together with our children," he slipped off to the Vendanta Society where the Swami spoke on "Jesus Christ, the Light of the World." Mr. Smith tells audiences, "What the Swami said about the Incarnation fed my soul more than any Christmas sermon in the Methodist church. The reason? The Swami literally believed in the incarnation-"that God had metaphysically become a human being.... I have drawn spiritual succor from an alien tradition which was true to the metaphysical teachings of original Christianity-more than my church which had been diluted by modernism."

If his Methodist seminary training had taught him what the Incarnation really meant-that God physically (not metaphysically) became a human being-and opened up to him the treasures of Christian spirituality, perhaps Mr. Smith would not have gone to the Hindus. At any rate, for a scholar and a seminarian, he exhibits an astonishingly poor understanding of Christianity, the Bible, and the person of Christ. When, in the third hour of the series, Mr. Smith and Mr. Moyers deal directly with Christianity, they treat Jesus as a man who "had the spiritual eye" but no understanding of himself. Jesus Christ's role as the Son of God "may have been a mystery to him all the way through." If anything, according to this analysis, Christ's appearances after the first Easter represented a spiritual breakthrough proving that man can elevate himself to new levels of existence.

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