Huston Smith, one of the most renowned scholars of religion of the 20th and 21st centuries, died on December 30 at his home in Berkeley, California. He was 97.
The Christian Science Monitor once called Huston Smith “religion’s rock star.” The Dalai Lama, who met Smith in 1964, wrote that Smith knew the “real taste” of religion. Ken Wilber, Deepak Chopra, and Karen Armstrong have cited him as a major inspiration on their work. Bill Moyers, who produced a five-part PBS series featuring Smith in 1996, said that he had not only studied the world’s religions but “practiced what he had learned.” And Michael Murphy, co-founder of the Esalen Institute, has commented that of the many presenters the they’ve hosted over the last 50 years, “only a handful ‘glowed in the dark,’ and Smith was one of them.”
Smith was born in Soochow, China, on May 31, 1919. The second of three sons in a missionary family, he spent his first 17 years in Changshu, a small village near Shanghai. His father, Wesley, was originally from Missouri, and married Smith’s mother, Alice, who was born and raised in China, in 1910. From his mother, Smith learned open-mindedness, faith in the value of life, and music, since she played the piano for her sons every day as part of their home-schooling. Years later, Smith realized how much of his disposition had been shaped by his mother’s personality, including his belief that in gratitude for the gifts life has presented to us, “it would be good if we bore one another’s burdens.”
Smith’s entire life was devoted to service, whether he was championing the cause of Tibetan freedom, as he did in his award winning film, “Requiem for a Faith”; testifying for Native American rights before the U.S. Congress, and in his book, A Seat at the Table; or protesting for civil rights with Martin Luther King Jr., which he did in St. Louis in 1957.
Smith came to the United States in 1936 to study theology at his father’s alma mater, Central College in Fayette, Missouri. He was preparing to become a missionary, but was inspired by a philosophy professor to change his major to the philosophy of religion. Smith went on to finish his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago under philosopher and theologian Henry Nelson Wieman. He married Wieman’s daughter, Kendra, in 1943. During an interview about his advisor, Smith once remarked, “I couldn’t believe anything on earth could have topped Wieman’s philosophy, but then I discovered his daughter and realized I was mistaken.” Kendra Smith, an intellectual in her own right, helped Smith write all his important books, and together they had three daughters, Karen, Gael, and Kim.
Between 1947 and 2002, Smith taught at three major universities: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University, and University of California, Berkeley. During that time he wrote 12 major books, including his breakthrough volume, The Religions of Man, which was published in 1958 and later renamed The World’s Religions. The book has sold more than two million copies and has never gone out of print. It’s easy to understand why the book is the most read—and most commonly assigned—text on religion ever written.
Smith changed the modern mind’s view that religion was a waste of time. No small task, especially given that he did it in the at the height of McCarthyism in the 1950s. Freud had said that “religion is a delusion we create to comfort ourselves in an uncertain world,” and argued that humans project a cosmic father or mother onto an indifferent universe in order to have someone to plead with for help. Marx, to cite another modernist who denigrated religion, argued that “religion is the opiate of the masses”—a drug fed to us by our oppressors to placate us in our misery. At the time, the job of every professor of religion was to explain religion as something quaint and outdated, something that we would be better off without. It was the fifties, after all, and some people thought it was high time we outgrew our irrational ways of making sense of the world.
But Smith changed all that. He saw religion as a set of traditional paths of meaning that still had significance and did not necessarily contradict science. While modernists and existentialists were telling us that the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth, Smith urged us to keep an open mind and to not throw out our traditional platforms of meaning just because some philosophical theories found religion suspect. Perhaps the problem was not so much with religion as with the theories about it. New theories, he contended, could yield other possibilities.
Not only did Smith take religion seriously, but in The World’s Religions (and later in Beyond the Post-Modern Mind and Why Religion Matters), he also gave us good reason to agree with him. He argued that religion can be useful in times of sorrow, inspire moral actions, and give viable reasons to believe life is more than a set of Darwinian events. In his comparative work, he showed us how each religion contains a message that, when looked at open-mindedly, can have appeal. One can even say Smith made the study of religion possible, because he showed us why other individuals and societies believe what they do, paving the way for interfaith understanding and tolerance.
Throughout his career, Smith worked with some of the major religious and philosophical figures of our time, including the Dalai Lama, Paul Tillich, Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, Stanislav Grof, D.T. Suzuki, Joseph Campbell, and Ram Dass. But nobody had a larger influence on Smith’s viewpoint than his friend and mentor, author Aldous Huxley, whom he first met in 1947. Huxley had theorized that there is a core religious experience at the heart of all religion and spirituality—a “perennial philosophy”—that rises in the human psyche for the simple reason that it is endemic to existence itself. Mystics of all religions—and those with mystical inclinations outside of religion—speak of what Huxley termed a “unitive knowledge.” This is a profound experience of absolute connection with all reality based on the cognition of what Meister Eckhart called the “Divine Ground of Being.” When Smith became aware of Huxley’s viewpoint, he embraced it immediately, seeking not only to articulate it philosophically (which he did brilliantly in Forgotten Truth), but also to cultivate it experientially. This led him to study Zen meditation in Japan, participate in sweat lodge rituals with Native Americans, meditate with Hindu swamis, and even work on the Harvard Psychedelic Project with Timothy Leary.
In discussions of religion today, there tend to be two significant groups of believers. Exclusivists maintain that their religion is best and that all other religions are bogus; inclusivists believe all religions are really saying the same thing. Smith, based on ideas he learned from Huxley, offered the world a third option, maintaining that religions say quite different things on the level of their teachings, values, and rituals (and these differences should be respected), but on the esoteric level of mystical realization they contain a surprising degree of overlap. For the mystics of all traditions, the most compelling insight is born of direct apprehension of the sacred, and this experience is the heart of all spiritual truth. Today, this third choice is primary for people who identify as “spiritual, not religious,” and has also become common among progressives inside the religions themselves. Furthermore, when we read the works of Deepak Chopra, Ken Wilber, Mirabai Starr, Andrew Harvey, Ram Dass, and many others, we find the stamp of Smith’s influence. In this regard, Chopra once wrote, “Smith has shaped my thinking and my lifelong quest, and guided me to where I am today.”
Like Joseph Campbell and Carl Sagan, Smith was one of the great explainers of our time. Marshalling an incredible ability to elucidate complex concepts in simple terms, Smith argued for a reembracing of metaphysical content in philosophy, partially to counteract the cynicism he saw growing in our society as the result of dogmatic materialism. Where science coaches us to look outside ourselves for meaning, Smith argued that we must look inside ourselves as well, and he made his case for that in brilliant language that anyone could understand. Today, academic conferences on religion are more nuanced and open-minded about the value of religion and spirituality than they were even 10 years ago, and we have Smith to thank for that.