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The World of Religion According to Huston Smith

Smith has devoted his life to the study of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. He believes in them all.

Renowned world religions scholar Huston Smith says, "Every society and religion has rules, for both have moral laws. And the essence of morality consists, as in art, of drawing the line somewhere." For Smith, a practicing Methodist who for 26 years has prayed five times a day in Arabic and who, at 78, still does hatha yoga, that line can be drawn creatively or idiosyncratically -- but it must always be done with discipline.

Best known for his book The World's Religions (published in 1958 as The Religions of Man, translated into 12 languages, and still one of the most widely used college textbooks on comparative religion), Smith believes the role of what he calls the world's "wisdom traditions" is a simple one: to help us behave decently toward one another. His documentary films on Hinduism, Sufism, and Tibetan Buddhism have all won awards, and in 1996 he was featured on Bill Moyers' five-part PBS special "The Wisdom of Faith With Huston Smith." He has taught religion and philosophy at MIT, Syracuse University, and the University of California at Berkeley.

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Q: You were born a Methodist and have stuck with it, although you've often voiced your frustration with its doctrine. Why have you stayed in the church?

A: The faith I was born into formed me. I come from a missionary family -- I grew up in China -- and in my case, my religious upbringing was positive. Of course, not everyone has this experience. I know many of my students are what I have come to think of as wounded Christians or wounded Jews. What came through to them was dogmatism and moralism, and it rubbed them the wrong way. What came through to me was very different: We're in good hands, and in gratitude for that fact it would be well if we bore one another's burdens. I haven't found any brief formula that tops that. However, I certainly would not choose that messenger if I were starting from scratch.

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