November 16, 2010

Huston Smith: A National Treasure

Posted in Inspiring Stories, Philosophers, Science and Relgion, Theologians at 10:22 pm by tiffanyannbrown

Huston Smith is perhaps one of the wisest, most charming, and insightful men that the good world has ever had the pleasure of knowing. Now in his 90s and living in a Berkeley, California-based assisted living home, he is still married to his wife, Kendra, of nearly 70 years. Having grown up in rural China alongside of missionary parents, then quickly rising up the academic ranks while teaching at such schools as Washington University, M.I.T, Syracuse, and Berkeley, Smith is perhaps best known for his traipsing around the world to discover the unique varieties of religious experience while at the same bringing insight and understanding of such lesser-known traditions to the West. This man has literally seen and done it all.

I was first introduced to Huston Smith, as most college students were, when assigned to read one of his books, The World’s Religions (which sold over 2.5 million copies), during an “Introduction to World Religions” course in college.  Never before had I been presented with such a clear and colorful, concise and vividly written account of the world’s religions. As a result, I became completely captivated with this author, especially after watching portions of his five-part PBS special with Bill Moyers, and went on to read additional books of his including Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, Beyond the Postmodern Mind: The Place of Meaning in a Global Civilization, and most recently Tales of Wonder: Adventures in Chasing the Divine. (For a full list of books he has written, click here to visit his Amazon.com page.) In Why Religion Matters, Smith argues that religion is humanity’s greatest asset because it provides us with aspiration, hope, and courage. In Beyond the Postmodern Mind, he distinguishes between the “traditional” worldview that placed God at the center of the universe; the “modern” view in which science ruled; and the “postmodern” view that doubts whether the universe makes sense at all. In Tales of Wonder, he documents his extraordinary travels around the globe that have taken him to some of the world’s holiest places, where he has practiced religion with many of the great spiritual leaders of our time.

From a May 2009 San Francisco Chronicle article entitled “Huston Smith: Rock Star of Religions,” below are some of the reasons why I find him so interesting:

His autobiography is a dizzying tour of a singular life. Smith was there when the 1945 U.N. charter was signed in San Francisco. He met Mother Teresa, interviewed Eleanor Roosevelt and invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at Washington University in 1956. Seeking enlightenment, he took mescaline with Timothy Leary and peyote with an Indian shaman. He counts Saul Bellow, Aldous Huxley, Pete Seeger and the Dalai Lama among his legion of friends …  and late on the night before the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising, he arrived unsuspectingly in Beijing for a conference on Chinese philosophy.

In addition to his books, Smith has (luckily) given many interviews and lectures. Being an ordained Methodist minister, I came across an interview on the United Methodist Church web site where he discusses his faith story. I found his answer to the question of why he has remained a Methodist after having been exposed to so many of the world’s religions interesting. He stated:

I’m often asked why have I stayed in the Methodist church when there are so many other denominations and even other religions which I have studied and venerate. I take my answer from his holiness, the Dalai Lama, whom I have had a very deep friendship with for 35 years and I heard him ask whether conversion to another religion was ever appropriate. He said, it’s better if you can stay within your own tradition because you are imprinted with its form, and its music, and its literature, and Christmas carols, and the like. However, if you’ve been bruised by your tradition, your religion, why then, it is a good idea to look into others and possibly converting. Well, I have never been bruised by my church. I disagree with some of the policies, but just as we can disagree with the policies of the current American administration and still be an American, well, it’s the same way with me.

The link to the full interview is available by clicking here.

In May of 2000, Smith lectured at Duke University on “Why Religion Matters” where he outlined some of the major ideas from his book. Though not told in the rapid, bullet-point fashion of most lectures and presentations given today, and not accented with any flashy graphics or visual representations, I promise that if you listen to this lecture you will not only find wisdom in his words, but such beauty in his expression of them. Smith was in his early 80s at the time; if we could all only aspire to be like him!

In looking back across Smith’s life, you’d be hard-pressed to find a reason that his life has not served a uniquely divine purpose given the coincidences of his interactions with famous cultural icons in American history combined with his presence and involvement at various key events. For a truly enjoyable read and a full outline of his life experiences and lessons to date, please check out the aptly named Tales of Wonder and feel free to share any thoughts here!

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