Huston Smith: “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions”

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Huston Smith (1919 – 2016) is one of the world’s foremost scholars on world religions and his book The World’s Religions is the best-selling book in its field, having sold over 2 million copies! He has served on the faculties of Washington University in St. Louis, MIT, Syracuse, and the University of California-Berkeley.

In his article, “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions,” (2000) Smith specifically addresses the question of how the generic religious standpoint supplies an answer to the question of meaning. He begins by asserting: “That life is meaningful is religion’s basic posit, and the claim can be elucidated both subjectively and objectively, the difference being whether we are thinking primarily of life’s meaning for us or, alternatively, trying to determine its meaning in the total scheme of things.”[i] Human life is objectively meaningful because it expresses god’s infinity; that is, without us god would not be god.

Smith explains this cryptic notion by saying that we are part of a great chain of being which extends down from the heavenly world to the physical world. The distinction between these two worlds is an essential element of the world’s religions. We encounter the physical world with our senses aided by our technological instruments while we encounter the heavenly world with our intuition, thoughts, and feelings. We begin with our human traits and elevate and extend them far enough and we encounter gods. This archetype of human beings is more real than actual humans, ultimately being transpersonal and ineffable. Our purpose from God’s perspective is to complete God’s infinity by including us, creatures who can flesh out that infinity. And what could be more meaningful than making god, god? And if such an answer is too esoteric, one can meditate or serve god to experience meaning.

Smith asks whether the basic posit of religion is true, but he grants that there is no way to decisively know. Life and the world come to us ambiguously, so we have no conclusive ground on which to assert its meaning. Nonetheless, there are some considerations that weigh in favor of religions’ basic posit. They are that the phenomena of life typically present themselves as problems in hope of solutions which call for human effort and the support of others. Religion corresponds well to this with the concepts of suffering, hope, effort, and grace. Thus, while the religious view cannot be shown to be true, its vision describes the phenomena of life quite well. It maps categories of reality that appear embedded in our experience of that reality.

Summary – Religion posits that there is a meaning to life and there are good reasons to think that the religious posit is true.


[i] Huston Smith, “The Meaning of Life in the World’s Religions,” in The Meaning of Life in the World Religions, eds. Joseph Runzo and Nancy Martin (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000), 255.

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