2016-06-30
RALEIGH, N.C.--Huston Smith, the nation's preeminent authority on world religions, has added a new spiritual practice to his daily regimen. In addition to yoga, Scripture study, meditation, and prayer, he now goes out to the yard after his afternoon nap and spends 15 minutes composting.

More Huston Smith
  • Read an excerpt from Smith's latest book, "Why Religion Matters."
  • Eavesdrop on a Beliefnet dialogue group discussing "Why Religion Matters." "I'm a philosopher and a theologian," said Smith. "I go around with my head in the clouds. It means a great deal to me to, in a participatory way, recognize my grounding in and dependence on my physical environment."
  • 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 the facts 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.

    When he started teaching at Washington University in St. Louis in the early 1950s, his classes were so popular that the city's new public television station asked him to narrate a television show on religions. Smith said he learned how to bring alive his subject matter from the producer of the show who often carped, "It doesn't sound too red-hot to me," and prodded him to animate each segment with poetry, pictures, and other illustrations.

    More Huston Smith
  • Read an excerpt from Smith's latest book, "Why Religion Matters."
  • Eavesdrop on a Beliefnet dialogue group discussing "Why Religion Matters."
  • 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.

    Through the years, Smith has plunged heart, mind, and soul into the study of the world's religions. He trained in a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, studied with a Sufi mystic in Iran, spent a sabbatical in Tibet, where he discovered that Tibetan monks sing in chords, and delved into Judaism when his late daughter, Karen, married a Jew and converted.

    In 1996, when Bill Moyers devoted a five-part series to Smith called "The Wisdom of Faith," Time magazine titled its review, "Huston Smith: Spiritual Surfer."

    Smith, who has a good dose of humility and humor, appreciates the headline but adds that it is not entirely accurate. "In all these wanderings through other traditions, Christianity has always been my religious meal," he said. "But I'm a great believer in vitamin supplements. I can't tell you how much it has contributed to my life. I see in it no conflict with my Christianity."

    And he is hard on those who approach faith cafeteria-style, picking and choosing pieces of different traditions to make their own faith. "The salad bar does not work," he said, "because the roots aren't there."

    But if Smith is critical of society's faith-hopping fads, he is an unabashed advocate--indeed, he sometimes sounds dogmatic--when it comes to religion and its role in human life. In his new book, "Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief," Smith takes aim at what he calls "scientism," the view that science is the most accurate system of understanding the world.

    More Huston Smith
  • Read an excerpt from Smith's latest book, "Why Religion Matters."
  • Eavesdrop on a Beliefnet dialogue group discussing "Why Religion Matters."
  • "We have made a logical mistake in thinking that science is the most adequate window onto truth," he said. "It is not. It is an adequate window with a shade drawn half-way down which eclipses transcendence but in no way shows it or proves it to be wrong."

    The book takes aim not only at science, but at higher education, media, and law, all of which, he thinks, have a tunnel vision when it comes to understanding people's yearning for spirituality. Human beings, he said, are born with a spiritual impulse. It's like a jack-in-the-box.

    "You can hold the lid of the box down for a certain amount of time," he said. "We've done for about 300 years. But the spring on that box is so powerful that people are ready for any argument that releases the cover and lets their spiritual aspirations flourish."

    And that may be why he turns the leaves of the compost pile. It's just one more way Smith releases his own spring.

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