Visiting Huston Smith's home is like visiting a museum of the world religions. A carving of an Islamic angel greets visitors at the door, a figurine of Kuan Yin jostles for space on the mantel with one of St. Francis of Assisi and, on the bookshelves, the p ms of Sufi mystic Rumi sit cheek-by-jowl with the writings of St. Augustine. Virtually every faith held in some corner of the globe is represented in the art on the walls, the books on the tables and the ideas tossed into the air.
And why not? Writing and talking about what he calls "the wisdom traditions" is what has made Smith, 81, world famous. He has crisscrossed the globe several times to better explore his subject. In between, he has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Syracuse University and, finally, the University of California, Berkeley, where he has now settled into a busy retirement. His bestselling book, The World's Religions (Harper, 1958; revised edition, Harper San Francisco, 1992) has sold 2.5 million copies, and its subject and author were the focus of a highly acclaimed 1996 series of interviews with Bill Moyers on public television.
Now, on the eve of the publication of Why Religion Matters: The Future of Faith in an Age of Disbelief (Harper San Francisco), Smith sits down with PW to answer the questions inherent in the book's title: In this age of scientific achievement, does religion matter, and, if so, why? The answer to the first question, Smith concludes, is a resounding yes. "We should enter our new millennium by running a strainer through our past to lift from each of its three periods the gold it contains and let its dross sink back into the sands of history," Smith writes in the book. "Modernism's gold--i.e., science--is certain to figure importantly in the third millennium, and post-modernism's focus on justice likewise stands a good chance of continuing. It is the traditional worldview"--by which Smith means the world's faith traditions--"that is in jeopardy and must be rehabilitated if it is to survive."
And survive it must, he continues, because a people with only science to guide them are morally lost. "The scientific method is nearly perfect for understanding the physical aspects of our life," Smith says, spreading his arms wide as if to illustrate the point for a lecture hall full of students. "But it is a radically limited viewfinder in its inability to offer values, morals and meanings that are at the center of our lives." The practice of science, he continues, "can deepen our understanding" of the physical world in which we live, but it can never answer the questions about our moral universe that have troubled our ancestors since the beginning of time--who are we, why are we here and how should we behave while we are here? In Smith's words, "We cannot capture God in the everyday language" of science.
In the book, Smith also asserts that science and religion have more in common than most people realize, including the shared belief that there is more--far more--to reality than the physical world before our eyes.
The difference is that science seeks to define that reality through numbers, formulas and facts while religion seeks to know it through spiritual practice and devotion. Whether that ultimate reality is perceived as the space between atoms or the space between the human heart and its creator, "we are like two-dimensional shadows, whereas the ultimate reality is Technicolor," Smith says.
The real goal of Smith's book is not to discredit science, but to point out the failures of scientism--the belief that science--and only science--has all the answers. He is fighting what he describes as the notion that "the scientific method is the royal road to knowledge." It isn't, he concludes, and he hopes that his readers will come away not in favor of one practice over another, but with the idea of giving religion a second look.
"Pure science--this vision of the universe as 15 billion light years across--I am bedazzled and awed by it," Smith says, his blue eyes like bright beacons sparkling between the white of his hair and beard.
"But what we all overlook is that life is uncertain... and to let science eclipse the questions we can work with and gain incremental knowledge [from] puts the important questions of life, from the small ones to the ultimate ones, in the background."
Smith has spent almost half a century looking at how the world's religions try to answer those big questions. He was born to Methodist missionaries in China and came to the United States at 17 to attend college. He thought he would become a church pastor, but soon realized the pulpit could not support his vast curiosity. He began work at the University of Chicago on a Ph.D. in naturalistic theism--a philosophical system in which religion steps in only when science doesn't have the answers.
Six weeks short of earning his degree, he picked up a copy of Pain, Sex and Time by philosopher Gerald Heard. Heard's sympathetic treatment of the mystic experience was diametrically opposed to naturalistic theism. And Heard's belief that mysticism is the true experience of God was an epiphany for Smith. He finished his degree, but has since sought out the mystic path in every religion he has encountered.
But unlike most scholars in his field, Smith has never been satisfied to study world religions from the sidelines. Instead, he has always jumped right in. He has whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes in Iran, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men in India, meditated on koans with Tibetan Buddhist monks, smoked peyote with Huichol Indian medicine men and celebrated the Jewish sabbath with a daughter who converted to that faith. His films on Hinduism, Sufism and Tibetan Buddhism have all won awards, and he received a national honor for distinguished
teaching in 1964. Today, his personal spiritual practice includes bits and pieces of almost everything he has come across--yoga, meditation, scripture reading and prayer, all built upon the foundation of his father's Christianity.
Throughout his long career, Smith has never labored in obscurity. In the early 1950s, his undergraduate classes in world religion at St. Louis's Washington University were so popular, a local public television station asked him to develop his lectures into a television show, which was soon carried nationally. That program led directly to his most widely read book, The Religions of Man, published by Harper, and later retitled The World's Religions. He has since written, coauthored or edited and compiled 12 books for publishers large and small, including Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals (Putnam/Tarcher, 2000) and One Nation Under God: The Triumph of the Native American Church with Reuben Snake (Clear Light Publishers, 1996).
But Smith's most enduring publishing relationship has been with HarperCollins in its many incarnations, for which he has written since 1955 with The Purposes of Higher Education. Harper San Francisco, where Smith has been published since its establishment in 1977, considers him so integral to its list that it chose him from a stable of authors that includes Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and John Shelby Spong to deliver the keynote address at its 20th-anniversary bash. "I have found him probably the most wonderful author I have ever dealt with," croons HSF publisher John Loudon, who has worked with Smith for more than 20 years. "He is not only brilliant and a great teacher and a very good writer, but he is one who really walks his talk. He lives what he teaches, and when he writes, there is total consistency."
When Smith writes--which he does almost every morning for three or four hours--he tries to emulate Franco-Swiss religion scholar Frithjof Schuon, author of The Transcendent Unity of Religions (Quest, 1984) and Understanding Islam (World Wisdom, 1998). Smith, who has written introductions for several of the American editions of Schuon's books, says what he admires most about him is his ability to be insightful about religion without sacrificing study and scholarship. "Through 30 books, he has done what I have always tried to do, but at an order of magnitude better than I could," Smith says. "He g s so deep so fast."
Mystic though Smith may be, it was some very down-to-earth advice from Mayo Simon, a producer on his first television show in St. Louis, that has stuck with him throughout his writing career. Before the live television show aired, Simon would make Smith run through the night's topic--Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity--whatever it happened to be. Obligingly, Smith would stand before Simon as though before the live camera and doggedly lay out the finer points of this or that faith.
Inevitably, Smith says, the audience-savvy Simon would stop him and say, " 'Doesn't sound too red-hot to me,' meaning back to the drawing board," Smith says. Now, Mayo Simon's voice ech s in Smith's head with every page he writes, reminding him to make his point and move on. "I credit this whole publishing phenomenon to Mayo Simon," he says, picking up a copy of The World's Religions. "There were plenty of religion professors out there who knew more about world religions than I did, but they didn't have Mayo Simon to teach them about communication."
As for Why Religion Matters, HSF's Loudon considers it Smith's most important work since The World's Religions. He may be right. The American Academy of Religions/Society for the Study of Biblical Literature chose the work as its book of the year at its 2000 meeting and presented a panel of scientists and religion scholars who debated its thesis with Smith. On the public television show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly in December, Phyllis Tickle, religion editor emeritus of this magazine and a noted religion author, declared the book among the most important religion titles of the year.
Smith, too, has high hopes for the book. Not so much in terms of sales--though good sales are always nice, he says with a smile--but in terms of changing people's minds about science and religion. "What I am calling on us to do is to think this matter through more thoroughly," he says. "We have to realize that there may be another worldview, another big picture, more in line with what our ancestors thought, and to not just dismiss it as if everything before modern science were somehow the childhood of the human race."
Writing the book was also something of a catharsis for him. Across the landscape of his work, he has seen science and religion clash, with religion frequently getting short shrift from his colleagues in academia. Enough, he decided. "Throughout the 45 years of my career, I have presented a pleasing, smiling countenance to the world," he says. "Not that I meant to do that, but I have just dealt with the good stuff--the world's religions. Now, in the course of that time, pet peeves have arisen and I have stuffed them in the duffel bag of this six-foot frame, and it began to get congested. There came a point when I decided I would go to my grave more peacefully if I got it off my chest."
Now fully retired from teaching, Smith and his wife, Kendra, a psychologist, recently gave up their house in the Berkeley hills for one in that city's "flats." Being "cliff dwellers" was not the best idea for two retired people, they decided. They miss the hills a great deal, but Smith says he can settle for his view of them from his small office at the back of the house. There, he keeps tabs on the religious and scientific journals, always aware of which side of the debate between the two fields he is on.
"Science is like a flashlight in the hands of people living in a huge balloon," he says, a wide grin spreading beneath his mustache. "They can illuminate anything in the balloon, but cannot shine it outside the balloon to see where it is floating--or if it is floating at all."