Spry at 81, though increasingly hard of hearing, Smith hasn't lost his passion for exploring the world's religions by experiencing them firsthand. Though he is retired from teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, he is still seeking a deeper understanding of faith traditions far removed from his own Methodism.
Most recently, his explorations into Native American spirituality have expanded his understanding of his link to the Earth and his role in the environment. Smith defends the ritual use of mind-altering drugs,which he says under controlled circumstances may provide an experience of transcendence.
"I have an experiential bent," he said. "I want to learn not only thefacts about the religions, I want to dunk myself into them as far as I could go."
During lectures, Smith tries, in his terms, "to pass a strainer" through the collected wisdom of the Earth's faiths, highlighting mostly what they have in common--proscriptions against killing, stealing, lying and a common set of virtues that include humility, charity, and veracity.
Mystic that he is, Smith stressed that each faith counters the mundane reality of everyday life by pointing to another, truer, world, which grows richer and more mysterious the more one learns. With religion, Smith said, "the larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of mystery."
The son of Methodist missionaries, Smith grew up in China, where he was first exposed to Eastern faiths. He returned to the United States at 17, and for a while thought he, too, would be a missionary. But after spending two years as a church pastor, he moved on to pursue a doctorate in the philosophy of religion from the University of Chicago.
The success of the series led to the book "The Religions of Man." Several years later when women complained that it needed to be more gender inclusive, Smith changed not only the title--the book is known today as "The World's Religions"--but also the content, making it more sensitive and relevant to the times. It has sold 2.5 million copies and is still used as a primary textbook in many college classrooms.