Huston Smith/Henry Rosemont Jr.
A Response by Henry Rosemont Jr.:
his is the third time I have had the privilege of being invited by the Institute for World Religions, whose work I applaud, to come to this most beautiful and most peaceful room to good friends on the left coast, where audiences have been friendly and compassionate while still being critical. To a certain extent I look forward to most of my invited lectures, but I truly enjoy being here. I want to thank everybody for inviting me, and of course the frosting on the cake is to share the podium, in unequal measure I am happy to say, with my old and dear friend Huston Smith. In his lecture Huston has given us, as he always does, much to reflect upon. I believe it is fair to say there are “intimations of the Infinite” in his paper, and I am therefore going to follow him on his tenth point, where he says that intimations of the Infinite and Revelation as well have to be interpreted, hence the science of exegesis. The major claim I wish to put forward is that Huston’s talk should be interpreted not as a series of purportedly factual statements about the physical universe, at some abstract level, as if he were siding with those astrophysicists who theorize that the universe must be infinite as opposed to those who claim it is not. Such an interpretation would then tempt us to ask whether his statements were factually true about the universe, which in my view would be, to quote a famous sermon of the Buddha, “A question not tending toward edification.” Huston himself hints that this question is not to be focused on in his ninth point, where he says explicitly that “human beings cannot fully know the Infinite,” from which it must follow that human beings cannot fully know whether statements about the Infinite are factually true or not. A more fruitful approach to Huston’s lecture is, I believe, to approach it as saying something to, for, and about human beings; to listen to it as an interpretive schema of a religious dimension of all human life, a way of responding to the world both in its parts and as a totality. In this reading the question to be asked is not whether his remarks are true of the physical universe, but whether they are a faithful expression of a spiritual impulse as experienced by human beings as they confront their physical universe and are reflected in the sacred texts of their several religions. This question I answer affirmatively. Let me begin with Huston’s beginning. It may strike some of you as odd, or at least whimsical, that Huston entitled his lecture by reference to the theoretical work of Noam Chomsky, and then began it with a reference to the Chandogya Upaniṣad. The juxtaposition is in my opinion, however,
Religion East & West
The Universal Grammar of Religion
altogether apt, for just as the latter claims one lump of clay can suffice for knowing the essentials of clay, so too has Chomsky always insisted that many of the rules, or principles, of universal grammar could be discovered by examining a single language, preferably the linguist’s own. Chomsky’s reasoning is simple and straightforward: if there are principles which speakers of a language or dialect demonstrably follow from childhood on, but which could not have been learned on the basis of linguistic experience or tutoring, then those principles must be a part of the cognitive endowment that all human beings bring to bear in acquiring their native tongue. Thus, while Chomsky calls his abstract syntactic schema “universal grammar,” the name can be misleading at first blush, especially if it is taken to mean “grammatical rules or principles which hold throughout the universe,” for that is not what he means. What he has devoted his linguistic life to studying are the specific mental structures by means of which all normal human beings come to be competent speakers of their native dialect fairly independently of intelligence or motivation, with minimal and often degenerate empirical inputs, and with virtually no instruction. Chomsky seeks, in other words, not principles which hold “throughout the universe,” but what I have called “homoversal” principles, meaning “for all human beings, mentally and physiologically constituted as they are.” And thus as I would modify Chomsky’s claim a little bit, so I would modify Huston’s and call it a “homoversal grammar of religion.” In addition to a language-capacity mental structure, e.g., his “universal grammar,” Chomsky has postulated similar specific mental structures embodying principles in such areas as music, personality discrimination, mathematics, facial recognition, and other areas where human beings seem to behave quite skillfully and similarly in areas where there has been a paucity of empirical data that could account for how the skill was acquired and uniformly exhibited in virtually the same way by everyone across time, space, and culture. It is important to emphasize this point, for Chomsky has often pointed out a number of features of universal grammar that do not seem to have any communicative function, being either redundant, reduplicative, overly abstract, and/or not utilizable by human beings because of interference from other cognitive capacities. That is to say, several specific human abilities, capacities, and ways of interacting with the world appear to have features that do not have any selectional advantage in the evolution of the species; we simply have those abilities and capacities. The principles of universal grammar, or homoversal grammar, as I would call it, describe a certain feature of human beings: Issue 10, October 2010
Huston Smith/Henry Rosemont Jr.
they are not at all to be seen as universal, in the philosophical sense of the term. In other writings I have extended the Chomskian model to the fields of ethics and aesthetics, claiming that here, too, we can find evidence of homoversal principles, or values, holding “for all human beings, mentally and physiologically constituted as they are.” And I believe that is exactly what Huston is doing for the field of religion. Against this background I can begin to frame some questions for you, Huston, the first of which must be on the minds of everyone here tonight who knows you and your life and work at all well: how much of the magnificent vision you have given us in outline this evening is based on your experience as a practitioner of a multiplicity of spiritual disciplines in a variety of faiths, and how much is based on your life as a philosopher/scholar of religions and their sacred texts? I suspect strongly that the answer is not “either/or” but “both/ and.” To the extent your spiritual principles are derived from a religious experience, or set thereof—even if derived from spiritual practice within a single faith—your principles might well be construed at least partially as absolutely general and not uniquely Christian, nor merely autobiographical, merely telling us something about Huston Smith and his faith tradition, any more than Chomsky’s universal grammar tells us only about Chomsky, or only about English. If, moreover, you have had a multiplicity of religious experiences resulting from deeply immersing yourself in a multiplicity of spiritual disciplines in a variety of faith traditions, as I know you have done, then your lecture begins to illuminate even less the personal odyssey of Huston Smith, and rather casts a new light on what we might call, analogous to our Chomskian “linguistic capacity,” a “spiritual capacity,” open to all human beings, mentally and physiologically constituted as they are. This possibility becomes all the more intriguing to contemplate when we turn to the philosopher/scholar Huston Smith, who has taught the sacred texts of the world’s religions to generations of students, and whose book on the subject has sold over a million copies worldwide and has done much, I believe, to cut down on the amount of religious violence in the world, even though there is too much of it now. Those million copies of the book were sold largely because its author asked a rather simple question of each faith’s sacred writings: How could an intelligent, decent human being believe the things said in those texts? And he gave decent, intelligent answers for every one of the world’s traditions. If he had done nothing else, the world would still be deeply indebted to Huston Smith. Again, I believe Huston has used both the Chomsky and the Chandogya Upaniṣad well together, for he will surely affirm that the fourteen
Religion East & West
The Universal Grammar of Religion
points of his ontological vision can be derived by a careful study of the sacred texts of a single faith tradition. My own acquaintance with the many and varied sacred texts of the world’s faiths is decidedly inferior to Huston’s, but none with which I am at all familiar are incompatible with the ontological thrust of the lecture we have just heard. To be sure, the cosmologies of the world’s religions are wildly inconsistent with each other, having in common only the fact that none of them can be made to square with the findings of modern science. But the differing religious cosmologies no more vitiate Huston’s claim for a universal or homoversal grammar of religion than radically different languages like English, Japanese, There are many names Hungarian, and Hopi in any way challenge Chomsky’s concept of a universal grammar of human languages. for the referent of our Religious cosmologies are here metaphysical, there anologic; here clearly influenced by geographic and spiritual sense. climatological features, there clearly by factors of language and accidents of history. It is physical geography that explains why African sculptors worked in wood while their Italian Renaissance counterparts chiseled marble. And at the same time we need culture and history to explain why, although marble is found in China as well as Italy, Chinese sculptors carved Bodhisattvas and not pietàs. But to my mind the African, Italian, and Chinese carver/sculptors are all simply expressing, in a concrete physical medium, their stance toward the universe qua universe, a stance clearly spiritual, and their works can be better understood by appeal to the principles of religious grammar that Huston’s lecture explicates as definitive, again, of all human beings, physiologically and mentally constituted as they are. For myself, however few or many religious experiences Huston may have had, I admire altogether the scholarly analytical skills and keen sensitivity he has combined to see beyond the specific and cultural features deeply embedded in each religion’s sacred texts, rituals, symbols, liturgies, myths, and legends, in order to describe in more general terms a decidedly human orientation toward the world. Huston has, throughout his life, described this orientation in all of his writings, in Beyond the PostModern Mind and Forgotten Truth no less than in his World’s Religions. As he said in the lecture, “God is the conventional English word for the Infinite, but Good, True, Almighty, One, and so on are all equally appropriate.” And of course there are many other names in many other languages for the referent of our spiritual sense, which is called by many in the West the Infinite, owing to the peculiar development of mathematics in the Issue 10, October 2010
Huston Smith/Henry Rosemont Jr.
Western intellectual world from Pythagoras onward. Huston also knows well the various appellations given to this referent in other traditions, from Nirguna Brahman to sunyata to Dao, and for him to reaffirm these traditions no less than his own for as long and as resolutely as he has done, suggests a sense of our co-humanity across time, space, language, geography, and culture, a sense of our co-humanity on a par with our sense of awe, as he hints, in our confrontation with the universe. Now if my interpretation of what Huston has said and done in his lecture, and in much of his other work, is at all warranted, it follows that the significance of what he has said and done will be obscured if we insist on asking whether his ontological pronouncements—for so they seem—are literally true of the physical universe. But I also wish to bracket questions of literal truth for deeper reasons. The color spectrum infrared to ultraviolet is not in any sense true of the way of the universe; rather statements about the spectrum are, I would suggest, faithful to the powers and limitations of the human visual sensory organ to see colors within it, beyond which boundaries all is black for us. The same may be said for what is audible with our aural sensory organ. Further, the way nouns, verbs, and modifiers can and cannot interact are not in any sense true of the universe, but the principles of universal grammar can be faithful to the way human beings communicate their visual, auditory, and other sensations to one another, physiologically and mentally constituted as they are. Put another way, there may be a true theory of the universe, but it is the height of hubris to believe that human beings could ascertain what that theory was, given their particular organs for sensing an external world and ways of communicating their experiences of it. Perhaps intelligent life forms very, very different from us could correctly perceive the way the universe “really is” and describe it in language—but that language would be altogether unintelligible to us. In just the same way, I want to suggest that the best way to construe Huston’s grammar of religion is to see it as endeavoring to be faithful to the distinctively human stance in reaction to and relation to and cognizant of, what I join him in referring to as the Infinite, as he sees that stance reflected in the spiritual disciplines he has practiced, and the sacred texts he has studied, over the course of an exceptionally long and rich intellectual and spiritual journey.
Religion East & West