Smith, author of "The World's Religions," a best-seller still used in many college classrooms, has taken an experiential approach to studying world religions, training in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, studying with a Sufi mystic in Iran, and spending a sabbatical in Tibet. He dug deeply into Judaism when his daughter married a Jew and converted. Time magazine has called him a "spiritual surfer." "Christianity has always been my religious meal," Smith has said. "But I'm a great believer in vitamin supplements." His latest book, "The Soul of Christianity," brings him home to his lifelong faith.
What is your favorite prayer?
Well, it shifts in different stages. But in the last two years I do have a favorite and it is the Jesus prayer. It is the one in "The Way of a Pilgrim." You know the book? And it is in J.D. Salinger's book.
Yes, Franny and Zooey.
The short version which I use is, "Oh Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me." And that's become a kind of a mantra to me. And especially during times of--ordeal would be too strong--but special. I'll just say special. This trip is a good example of that--it's like a mantra that I've been saying over and over again. We are in good hands. And in gratitude for that fact we should bear one another's burden.
How do you think religions differ, and what do they have in common?
Walnuts have a shell, and they have a kernel. Religions are the same. They have an essence, but then they have a protective coating. This is not the only way to put it. But it's my way. So the kernels are the same. However, the shells are different. Necessarily so, because I believe that all of the eight historically important and enduring religions are divinely revealed. But we have a diverse world and different civilizations. God has to speak to each person in their own language, in their own idioms. Take Spanish, Chinese. You can express the same thought, but to different people you have to use a different language. It's the same in religion.
Depending on the context, the time in history?
Well, let me come back to civilization. It is commonly said and known that each civilization has its own religion. Now my claim is that if we look deeper, the different civilizations were brought into being by the different revelations. I really believe that.
For example the revelation to Buddha.
And to the Hindus, and to the Jews, and to the Christians, and Native Americans. I mean we have to fiddle a little with words because they wouldn't call themselves civilization, but, say, a world or something.
So the eight that you're speaking of are .
The ones in my book ["The World's Religions"]--Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and the Native American. Now there's one thing that's misleading, and that is to separate Confucianism and Daoism. Right now I'm working on a project which would speak of the East Asian religious complex. There's one religion that has three strands--Confucianism, Daoism, and East Asian Buddhism. And so if I had it to do over again, I would not have separate chapters on Confucianism and Daoism.
Who do you think Jesus was? Was he another charismatic Jewish healer? Who are these people to whom religion, to whom God is revealed?
He was God incarnate. He was Christ. He was God in human form. That would be my succinct answer.
How does he compare with Buddha or other religious figures who receive revelation?
These religions--though essentially the kernel is the same--the shell is not the same. They're not carbon copies of each other. So Buddha did not claim that he was divine. But he serves the same role in Buddhism as Christ does in Christianity, and as the Qur'an does in Islam.
Not Muhammad, but the book?
There is a saying in religious scholarship if Christ was God made flesh--in Islam, the Qur'an is Allah made book.
Do you think it matters what religion we practice?
Matters in what sense? I think it matters almost infinitely that we practice one of the authentic religions. But if you mean does it make any difference which. The answer is no, as long as each is followed with equal intensity, sincerity, dedication.