May 07, 2021wyenotgo rated this title 5 out of 5 stars
Referring to Huxley as a "bold thinker" would be a gross understatement. While ostensibly just a survey of the world’s great religious movements and the writings of a wide selection of mystics, Huxley takes his argument a great deal further, proceeding to proclaim that a unifying “perennial” truth lies at the heart of all “higher” religions. In so doing, he endeavors to define the very nature and purpose of existence; one could scarcely address any topic more fundamental than that!
I am, of course not at all the sort of reader this book is aimed at; as an avowed agnostic, I’m about as mystical as yesterday’s laundry. So this was a very steep hill for me to climb; I struggled with not only the basic premise of his argument but also the syntax and vocabulary employed express it. The fact that I stuck with it to the end (often shaking my head in bemusement) says much about the quality of Huxley’s work.
Fortunately, Huxley was considerate enough to have offered an introduction to soften the blow, so to speak. Nevertheless, the subtitle to Chapter1 “That art thou” let me know from the outset that I was in for a major challenge; and it doesn’t get any easier. I often found myself re-reading a paragraph half a dozen times, breaking off to look up references, leafing back to previous sections — and at times simply putting the book aside to think through what it was that I thought I had just read.
Does he succeed in convincing me of his general premise? In some small degree, yes. He has a valid point, that all religions boil down to a basic search for the devine. Which would imply that all those thinkers, agreeing on one basic idea, cannot all be completely wrong. But that thesis breaks down the moment one attempts to assign any particularity to that most fundamental notion: the differences among beliefs are so vast that one is inclined to conclude that in fact NONE of them are correct. Dogma, structure and practice get in the way of common sense. In the end, every religion on earth defies logic and demands that its teachings be accepted on faith, or not at all.
And even though I find myself in sharp disagreement with much of what Huxley has to say about religious belief, I wanted to stand up and cheer when I came to the chapter titled “Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum” (To such heights of evil has religion been able to drive men) concluding with a devastating condemnation of the travesty of religious infighting that Sebastiano Castellio addressed to the Duke of Wurtemburg at the height of the Reformation. Including that chapter was indeed a courageous decision, boldly putting his entire thesis at risk by exposing religion’s dirty linen. Huxley was no piker, he chose to face the issues head on.
Huxley was one very smart dude, perhaps one of the most brilliant thinkers of the 20th century. I therefore recommend the book to anyone seeking an intellectual (and perhaps spiritual) challenge. I’m likely to revisit this book many time in the future. So, despite my refusal to accept Huxley’s views, five stars for presenting a powerful, thought-provoking thesis.