Review, Wolfgang Smith, Vedanta in the Light of Christian Wisdom

Review, Wolfgang Smith, Vedanta in the Light of Christian Wisdom, Philos-Sophia Initiative Foundation, 2022, 100 pages plus postscript, glossary, and index

There are some extraordinary insights in this book. The cost of postage meant that it was not an inexpensive pleasure, but it is good to have it, because Smith tackles some fundamental questions. I cannot pretend that I understand everything he writes, so those who are well-versed in Smith’s thought, or are simply brighter than I, may find this short review disappointing. So be it. Smith has something of a tendency to make an abstract statement and assume that we all comprehend what it would mean as a practical matter.

At the outset, the fundamental insight for me, is that the Christian narrative of creation, the end of the world, and judgment, is fundamental and unique in Christianity: “the cosmos has a temporal ending because it has a teleological End: a purpose … if the cosmos has no [purpose] why then is it there?” [84] Indeed, why is it here? Profoundly, Smith points to the great gap between Vedantic notions of nirvana or being “snuffed out,” and the Christian goal of salvation, reaching immortality through Christ [16]. He realised what I had never articulated, that it was Jesus who introduced the Trinitarian conception of God [62], and the Christian teaching of salvation. The first was no part of the Judaic heritage, and however they understood salvation, it was transformed by Jesus.

The title may be an inversion of Guénon’s “Man and his Becoming according to the Vedanta,” because one of the ideas which comes clearly through this book is that, unlike Guénon and Schuon, he saw the historical truth of Christianity as fundamental, and as the reality from which all other religions or “perspectives”, including Vedanta, are to be judged. Indeed, he is not at all certain that Schuon understood Vedanta as well as he had thought he did (let alone Christianity). Concisely, I have never liked Guénon, Schuon, and the traditionalists: to my mind, they are unnecessary prolix and pompous in their self-appointed task of interpreting all faiths as versions of Vedanta. I suspect that Vedanta has the central position for them because of (a) its generality, and (b) its lack of historical tent-pegs. It is the second matter which disqualifies Judaism, Christianity, and Islam for them: their claims are too specific and particular to serve.

Smith also discusses Henri Le Saux, a Benedictine monk who became “Swami Abhishiktananda,” in which discussion Smith (not Le Saux) concludes that “Vedanta and Christianity are in truth as different as day and night” [51]. This leads him to the traditionalist Harry Oldmeadow, and his attempt to place Le Saux in the context of a salutary reaction against “a religious historicism which identified the historical Jesus and his Church as the only means through which man might find salvation” [55]. As Smith rightly says, this very claim is a central one in Christianity [56]. Any reaction against this is therefore inimical to Christianity.

Smith by no means discounts the spiritual achievements of the Vedantic sadhus. In the postscript, he associates them with a Christian saint of the calibre of St Pio of Pietrelcina. He esteems the spiritual practice of stopping thought, expressed to him by a sadhu as “striving to enter the abode of death” [10, 101-103]. He is able to relate this to Parmenides, whom he relates to a yogic tradition said to be disseminated by Phoenicians and continued in hesychasm [10-11]. The sources Smith refers to, Science & Myth and Reality by Kingsley are too expensive for my purse, and are not in the libraries, but I cannot see how there can be evidence for Phoenicians receiving Indian wisdom and being able to transmit it.

But while this interests me, what made an impact was his insight that, on one reading, Exodus 3:14 “I am who I am” can be taken as one aspect of an insight that God alone is the true reality [14, and throughout]. This is one dimension of ancient Semitic typology: that creation is the production of antetypes from divine archetypes which ramify, and express His One Will. I relate this to his citation of Hugh of St Victor that “Each created being is a symbol instituted, not by the arbitrariness of men, but by the divine will, to render visible the invisible wisdom of God” [91 and 95-97]. Neither had I realised the significance of Aquinas’ statement that errors concerning creation always induce false ideas of God [65-66], although I think I had read this.

What he has to say about perception without a medium, and Christian gnosis and “esoterism” strikes me as plausible [36-38, 86] in so far as I understand it, but then, I do not understand it very far. His insight that a child loves its mother despite being unable “to know who in truth she is” [40] hit me. I need time to ponder it. I was also impressed by his saying that: “physical science deals actually – not indeed with what is – but precisely with what proves, in some sense, to be measurable …” [92].

Finally, Smith’s thesis, in so far as the book has one, is that Christianity needs, and is probably heading towards what he calls a “bona fide esoterism,” so that together with Peter the Rock, Christianity is inspired by John the Beloved Disciple [86]. I think that the entirety of this book can be seen as a disquisition on true and false esoterism, with Ss John the Apostle, and Pio as the parade ground examples of the genuine article. Christians need not be timid before these questions for, as he eloquently writes:

There has been … in modern times an over-emphasis upon the moral teaching of Christ, to the neglect of the metaphysical. It is almost as if the proponents of Christianity were hesitant to confess the ontological content of their beliefs for fear of ridicule from the scientific sector … (but) no one in truth knows more about “what is” than He who created all things … [92-93].

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