Huston Smith Dies at 97: A Mentor to Me . . . and Millions

Huston Smith signed copies of his book, "And Live Rejoicing," at Sagrada bookstore, Oakland, CA. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Huston Smith at a book signing at Sagrada bookstore, Oakland, California. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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.

huston smith at sagrada 9-23-2012, age 93. PHoto by barbara Newhall

Huston Smith. Photo by Barbara Newhall

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.

"Tales of Wonder," written with Jeffery Paine

“Tales of Wonder,” begins with Smith’s boyhood in China as the son of Methodist missionary parents.

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.

If you enjoyed this post, you might want to read “Where Islam and Christianity Meet — and Clash.”  More about Huston Smith at “Huston Smith: ‘Be Happy'” 

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.”

Huston Smith signed books for the crowd at Sagrada bookstore, Oakland, CA. Photo by BF Newhall.

Huston Smith at a book signing for another book in 2012 surrounded by dozens of fans. Photo by Barbara Newhall

 

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  1. Alan Newhall; says:

    When I went to MIT in 1961, I was looking forward to meeting Huston Smith. His aunt and uncle were long-time dear family friends who had already told Huston I was coming. I got to know him much better over the next few years. He was active in the Methodist church I attended in Harvard Square, and was a strong supporter of and visitor to the Methodist House living arrangement where I resided for three years. So it was no surprise that I took courses from him, and that he became my counseling professor and thesis advisor (yes, we had to do an undergraduate thesis in those days). He was certainly a wise counselor — but even more, a fascinating human being. I have long remembered a discussion in which someone asked him why he had returned early from a stint practicing yoga in Tibet, and he simply said that his arthritic knees caused him too much pain. I also remember a day when he challenged my use of an esoteric term in my thesis, wondering if the word actually existed. I went to the Oxford dictionary outside his office and showed him the reference. He was delighted (and I was astounded) that I knew a word he did not. After MIT, I entered the School of Theology at Claremont in the Doctor of Religions program. Huston was an occasional visitor, and I always enjoyed time with him. I also enjoyed his books. Later on, we corresponded occasionally. Huston did not like corresponding by machine! I would send him letters typed out in an 18 point font for easier reading, and he would respond with a handwritten epistle on a yellow lined legal pad. He was always very gracious, and very encouraging as I got heavily into overseas volunteer work. I am sad that he is gone — but forever grateful for my association with him. Good man — good scholar — good teacher — enjoyable companion!

    • Alan, Thank you for sharing this story. I have a feeling that there are many, many people who have fond memories of Huston. He was such a generous presence. I had a chance to interview him at his home in the Berkeley hills when I was the religion reporter at the Contra Costa Times. Next to the spot where we talked was a pile of toddler toys: he and Kendra were taking care of one (or more?) of his grandchildren on a regular basis. So, yes. This was a man who was thoroughly grounded in the real world.

    • PS: Do you recall what the obscure word was that you knew, but Huston didn’t? I love words. Can’t have too many of them!

  2. His life and religious philosophy sound so interesting. I enjoyed this post.

  3. a beautiful tribute, when you wrote it and now, with the sad news.

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