Sad but inevitable news: religion scholar Huston Smith died at the age of 97 on December 30. I’m just one of the millions of fans, friends, seekers and skeptics who admired — loved — this wise and compassionate man. Here’s a piece I wrote about my affection for Huston Smith back in September, 2009.
By Barbara Falconer Newhall
Huston Smith doesn’t know it, but he’s been my mentor for the past decade and a half — ever since I took a job as religion reporter at a local newspaper. The religion beat has a steep learning curve, I quickly discovered, and Smith’s authoritative book The World’s Religions became my bible. It has remained so all these years.
Who Is Huston Smith?
Studying it, I often find myself trying to read between the lines — who is this man who speaks so fluently of Islam and Judaism, Hinduism and Taoism? What did he personally think of the many disparate religions he studied? Is he still a Christian? Did he ever practice any of the religions he studied?
Now I’m reading Smith’s most recent book, an autobiography, Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, written with Jeffery Paine. And I’m getting some answers.
In a chapter entitled “My Three Other Religions” Smith reveals that he “never met a religion I did not like.” Indeed, he practiced Hinduism unconditionally for ten years, followed by ten years of Buddhism, and ten years of Islam — all this without ever forsaking the Christianity of his missionary parents.
He was not following a checklist, Smith writes. He simply found these wisdom traditions, each in its turn, fitting.
Religion’s Hidden Layers
And, “the proper response to a major spiritual tradition, if you can truly see it, may be to practice it. With each new religion I entered into, I descended (or ascended?) into hidden layers within myself that, until then, I had not known were even there.”
“The Religions of Man” was first published in 1958 and republished under the gender-neutral title “The World’s Religions” in 1991. Over the years, the two editions have sold some 3 million copies. Smith taught at the University of Chicago, University of Denver, Washington University in St. Louis, MIT, and most recently at the University of California, Berkeley.
Now 90 and living in an assisted living facility in Berkeley, not far from the house in the hills he shared until recently with Kendra, his wife of 65 years, Smith’s reports that he’s finally found a mantra that suits him. He repeats it under his breath in the bathroom and in the assisted living elevator.
It’s “God, you are so good to me.”
(Last I heard, Smith had moved back to his Berkeley house from the assisted living facility.)
After a lifetime of studying and teaching, investigating and deliberating, how simple it has finally become, he writes. “I have forgotten more about the various religions than I knew in the first place. All that is left of my study of them is . . . me.”
But for me, as Huston Smith’s anonymous mentee, the most wrenching words in this book are in the epilogue:
“Soon it will be time to say good-bye,” Smith writes. “Good-bye to you, dear reader . . . Although we never met in person, you were like a friend, the thought of whom spurred me to my best efforts.”
Those last words brought me to tears.
Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, an autobiography, by Huston Smith with Jeffery Paine, HarperOne, 2009, $25.99.
For a really interesting read, check out my religion reporter colleague Don Lattin’s book, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America.”