Intimations of the Word
Is There a Universal Grammar of Religion?
reviewed by Addison H. Hart
In his Retractions (I.13.3), St. Augustine wrote: “That which today is called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and has never ceased to exist from the origin of the human race, until the time when Christ himself came, and men began to call ‘Christian’ the true religion which already existed beforehand.”
This daring statement was not really quite so daring when Augustine wrote it as perhaps it might appear to some Christians today. After all, his was an intellectual position vis-à-vis other philosophies and religions with which many—though not all—of the Fathers of the Church would have agreed without qualms. It was commonplace both to adhere to the definitive realization of truth in the gospel of Jesus Christ and, at the same time, to maintain that the formerly “hidden” truth had been glimpsed, however dimly or clearly, in the spiritual aspirations and traditions of mankind.
Obviously, for Augustine and other Fathers of similar opinion, what was primarily in mind regarding this dimmer and more general realization of truth was the Greek and Roman philosophical heritage, but most likely it included some limited knowledge of Persian, Egyptian, and Indian traditions as well.
The point is that Augustine and other great Christian intellects would have had no difficulty with the notion of a “perennial philosophy” or a “perennial wisdom” or even a “perennial religion” (the latter two designations being advanced decades ago by Frithjof Schuon). Or, to use the terminology of the interesting book here reviewed, Augustine could well have affirmed the idea of a “universal grammar of religion.”
Friends & Influences
This slim volume, based on a series of exchanges between the eminent scholar of world religions, Huston Smith, and the philosopher Henry Rosemont, Jr. (himself an atheist—in the most respectable sense of that term—and an authority on Confucianism), is also indebted to the linguistic studies of Noam Chomsky. All three—Smith, Rosemont, and Chomsky—were in fact formerly colleagues at M.I.T., and so there is in these pages both a warm exchange between two old friends, and the “invisible presence,” so to speak, of a third party, whose insights permeate the discussion throughout.
If one reads closely, it’s also possible to detect quite frequently in the background the spectre of William James, that seminal influence on all subsequent religious studies (especially in the positions taken by Rosemont, but also in Smith’s), as well as such “perennial philosophy” thinkers as Aldous Huxley and the aforementioned Frithjof Schuon (all three names show up explicitly in the text).
Put simply, Noam Chomsky proposed that human beings learn their native languages and dialects to a great extent independently of their intelligence or motivation and without formal instruction. This fact, gained by intensive research in linguistics, indicates that
In other words, one can discover the universal elements of grammar, which are innate to the human mind, by studying any particular language. Along with all that, as Chomsky found, it doesn’t appear to be the case that environmental stimuli shape “our responses in areas for which we have an innate mental capacity,” such as language, but rather that they “trigger the responses.”
So it was that, in the nineteenth century, when the first study was conducted on a feral child, the so-called “wild boy of Aveyon,” it was not the case that—like Mowgli or Tarzan—he had learned an “animal language” in the wild (although he could imitate their sounds); rather, he had learned no language at all, nothing in his environment ever having triggered his innate human capacity for linguistics.
Innate Religious Grammar
What Huston Smith proposes is that the religious impulse in man is likewise a “universal grammar” (and religion and linguistics are not the only innate capacities in the human mind). With the inclusion of a very useful circular diagram, as well as a helpful glossary at the end of the book, Smith provides a remarkably fine comparison of the world’s six major religious traditions, showing how they correspond both exoterically (outwardly, in an ascending hierarchy towards the transcendent, ultimate reality) and esoterically (inwardly, in a descending hierarchy from the body to the deepest point of the spirit or consciousness).
As with any such necessary simplification of what is highly complex, there is room for disagreement and drawing out fuller explanation, both of which Rosemont does ably in discussion with Smith. But, overall, Smith has made his point, and it stands as plausible and credible.
The question that seems most pressing for Rosemont, in response, is simply whether or not man’s innate religious “grammar,” seen in the parity of the world’s various faiths, corresponds to an ontological reality. Smith would say it does (as might Augustine), but Rosemont remains unconvinced.
Each particular religion reveals the same universal perspective of the nature of reality, both “inner” and “outer,” “upward” and “downward.” On this, both Smith and Rosemont agree. The innate capacity for religion is triggered by the practices and scriptures of the world’s particular faith traditions, at their best leading practitioners both towards the ultimate (or, as Smith is not afraid to say, God) and deeper, past the ego, into one’s truest and most compassionate self.
Both Smith and Rosemont acknowledge the many evils perpetrated in the name of religion; but, in direct opposition to such pop-atheists as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the like, they maintain both that religion has been a force for good in the world and that there is no serious possibility of its disappearing, any more than there is likely to be a cessation of language.
Rosemont reaches a straightforwardly pragmatic conclusion regarding the value of any religious tradition, one that goes right back to Judaism (I see it, for example, reflected in all the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) and of course to Jesus Christ (“by their fruits you will know them”), and that also echoes the modern voice of William James: “[W]e should check the temptation to begin with ‘What do [religions] believe?’ and instead ask ‘What do they do?’”
Helpful for Apologetics
I recommend this book as worthwhile, especially now that “apologetics” must primarily deal with the validity of simply being religious at all in the contemporary Western world, dominated as it is by purblind scientism. Doubtless, some Christian readers will be put off by the tendency of both authors to equate all religions, and they might want more of what is uniquely Christian expressed. However, that is to ask more of this book than its purpose or perspective allows.
For those who find such a viewpoint troubling, a good twofold rule of thumb is this: (1) When reading anything, follow the advice of the Episcopal bishop who ordained me years ago, Christopher FitzSimons Allison: “Eat the fish and spit out the bones.” And (2) if you’re doing apologetics, remember that one size doesn’t fit all. I think St. Augustine would agree. •
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.
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“Intimations of the Word” first appeared in the June 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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