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TV & Film: The dilution delusion

Moyers "faith" series is ever seeking, never understanding

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."

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.

And this is precisely what Mr. Smith toils to do. Even while insisting that "the experience of religion" is not a legalistic routine, he practices yoga, follows Islamic rules of prayer (5 times each day), sweats through marathon meditation sessions, twirls with Sufis, and still attends the Methodist church regularly. Such religious syncretism, of course, is what the children of Israel tried when they wanted to worship both the God of Abraham and the pagan idols of their neighbors. The real God did not approve.

The one sobering experience that might have given others reason to reconsider such religious broadmindedness was his daughter's marriage and conversion to orthodox Judaism. She died only last year, and Mr. Smith reports that he drew great comfort from sitting Shiva for seven days. Nonetheless, he refuses to draw a conclusion about death except to say that there is a life hereafter. It could be in reincarnation or it could be heaven, but hell is a part of the picture he refuses to consider (even though most of the religious traditions he claims to follow do speak of a hell). As for his daughter's understanding of God, he preferred to recall a childhood conversation in which one of his girls declared that "God is everything-everywhere. God is in me."

Even though Huston Smith claims to have experienced religion "from the inside," he embraces nothing more than an external etiquette of spirituality, observations of exotic ceremonies and the practice of a self-imposed morality. His phrase, "religious traditions," is code for walking by ritual, not by faith.

Such religious syncretism could be very appealing to a post-Christian America. Even the "do your own thing" generation is forced to admit that the selfishness of the '60s has borne rotten fruit. Postmodernists would like "values," "virtues," and "meaning to life" without having to bother with truth. They want a religion that makes them happy, but that makes no demands. The answer is to make up one's own theology, picking brightly colored packages from the supermarket of the world's religions.

"Religious traditions" may well provide a convenient counterfeit in place of Christ's call for a personal relationship with God. If recent history repeats itself, audiences can watch for films and television programs that extol the merits of generic religious practice, while conveniently avoiding the dilemma of confronting the truth. After all, Huston Smith seems too busy "seeking" to be engaged in actually meeting God.