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.

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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.

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.

Q: Why not?

A: Methodists are very good on good works: Two hundred homeless people get a hot meal every evening at my church, for example. Socially, they are ahead of me: My pastor is a woman, a lesbian, and her baby and her partner are part of the congregation. Also, mine is a very interracial congregation. However, theologically they are totally washed-out.

Q: You pray in Arabic five times a day and regularly do yoga. Have you adopted these practices to supplement this washed-out Christian faith?

A: At every stage in my religious life I was perfectly happy with what I had — until along came a tidal wave that crashed over me. For example, I was perfectly content with Christianity until Vedanta — the philosophical version of Hinduism — came along. When I read the Upanishads, which are part of Vedanta, I found a profundity of worldview that made my Christianity seem like third grade. Later, I found out that the same truths were there in Christianity — in Meister Eckehart, St. Augustine, and others. But nobody had told me, not even my professors in graduate school. So, for 10 years, though I still kept up my perfunctory attendance at my Methodist church — a certain kind of grounding, I think, is useful — my spiritual center was in the Vedanta Society, whose discussion groups and lectures fed my soul. Then Buddhism came along, and another tidal wave broke over me. In none of these moves did I have any sense that I was saying goodbye to anything. I was just moving into a new idiom for expressing the same basic truths.

Q: Many in the West are attracted to Eastern religions because they avoid the kind of rule-making and dualistic thinking so fundamental to Christianity. Is that accurate?

A: The notion that Western religions are more rigid than those of Asia is overdrawn. Ours is the most permissive society history has ever known — almost the only thing that is forbidden now is to forbid — and Asian teachers and their progeny play up to this propensity by soft-pedaling Hinduism’s, Buddhism’s, Sufism’s rules. The Hindu Laws of Manu and the Buddhist Vinaya (over 200 rules for the sangha, or monastic order) make the Ten Commandments and the Rule of St. Benedict look flabby in comparison.

Q: You’ve said that your students seem to be much more interested in spirituality than in religion. What’s the difference? Why do you think young people today are so averse to organized religion?

A: The first question is easy: Religion is institutionalized spirituality. As to the second, anti-authoritarianism is part of it. Also, institutions are not pretty. Show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful, but universities? The same is true for religion.

Q: But haven’t institutions always been problematic? Why this mass exodus?

A: It’s true that the mainline churches are in terrible trouble. They’ve lost close to 25 percent of their membership in the last 25 or so years, and there’s no sign that that’s going to change. The chief reason for this is that they have accommodated the culture. Seminaries like the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley are training ministers to go out into these mainline churches. But the teachers in the seminaries look up to the university, and the university ethos is secular to the core.

People are not losing their religious needs, but they are going to three places to get their needs met. One is to conservative churches, which, for all their social benightedness, nevertheless do present their congregations with a different view of reality. Second, they are going to Asian religions. I was born on a mission field in China and it looks like I’m going to die on an American one, because America is becoming a mission field for Buddhism, Sufism, and other Eastern religions. Third, they are going to the New Age, which when I’m feeling cynical I refer to as “New Age frivolity,” because some of it is rather flaky.

Q: What’s the difference between your spiritual practices and the New Age practice of taking a bit from shamanism, a bit from Buddhism, a bit from the goddess, etc.?

A: What you describe as New Age, and what I call the cafeteria approach to spirituality, is not the way organisms are put together, nor great works of art. And a vital faith is more like an organism or work of art than it is like a cafeteria tray.

The New Age movement looks like a mixed bag. I see much in it that seems good: It’s optimistic; it’s enthusiastic; it has the capacity for belief. On the debit side, I think one needs to distinguish between belief and credulity. How deep does New Age go? Has it come to terms with radical evil? More, I am not sure how much social conscience there is in New Age thinking. If we think, for example, that we are drawing closer to transcendence or God but are not drawing closer in compassion and concern for our fellow human beings, we’re just fooling ourselves. Do New Age groups produce a Mother Teresa or a Dalai Lama? Not that I can see. So, at its worst, it can be a kind of private escapism to titillate oneself.

Q: One of the most important roles of spiritual practices has been to help us behave decently toward one another. How would you respond to those secular humanists who feel that Freud, Marx, or Darwin are teachers enough in terms of showing us how to behave decently and find meaning in this world?

A: I would not say that ethical behavior is not possible for the atheist or agnostic. It is. A couple of pretty good examples are Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. However, I will have to say that if we take the human lot as a whole, these two men must be seen as exceptions.

I don’t want to justify religion in terms of its benefits to us. I believe that, on balance, it does a lot of bad things, too — a tremendous amount. But I don’t think that the final justification of religion is the good it does for people. I think the final justification is that it’s true, and truth takes priority over consequences. Religion helps us deal with what is most important to the human spirit: values, meaning, purpose, and quality.

Historically, religion has given people another world to live in, a world more adaptive to the human spirit. As a student of world religions, I see religion as the winnower of the wisdom of the human race. Of course, not everything about these religions is wise. Their social patterns, for example — master-slave, caste, and gender relations — have been adopted from the mores of their time. But in their view of the nature of reality, there is nothing in either modernity or postmodernity that rivals them.

Q: You’ve been critical of the role secularism and science have played in supplanting religion…

A: I’m nearing 80, and I find myself more optimistic than I’ve ever been on this subject. In science, for example, physics is already out of the tunnel constructed by Enlightenment thinking. Newtonian physics worked very much at cross-purposes with the Spirit, which is beyond matter, space, and time. Of contemporary physics, Henry Stapp, a world-class physicist at Berkeley, said that “everything we know about nature is in accord with the idea that the fundamental process of nature lies outside space-time.”

Religion, for its part, says that God, who is the source of it all, is outside nature. Now, don’t quote me as saying Henry Stapp says that God exists! He didn’t say that at all. Besides, he has no competence to talk about that as a physicist, because physics can’t deal with quality or consciousness. Nevertheless, for him to say that the fundamental process of nature is immaterial opens the door for a meeting of physics and faith. Both are speaking the same language in their own domain.

Q: Where does the Native American Church fit into your spiritual pantheon?

A: In 1990, when the Supreme Court stripped the Native American Church of its right to use peyote as its sacrament, Reuben Snake asked if I could help him write a book about the church [One Nation Under God] to respond to this horrendous injustice. One of my jobs was to hit the road and gather accounts of what the church has meant to people. I heard frequent reports of how lives were going down the drain with alcohol, etc., and it was the church that straightened them up. To my mind, the peyote plant is God’s flesh just like the bread in the Eucharist is regarded as Christ’s body. I believe peyote to be an “entheogen” — a “god-manifesting” or “god-containing” plant.

By the way, the Native American Church’s rights were restored in 1994, but there have been recent moves in the Senate that threaten Native American rights on other fronts.

Q: You were part of the LSD studies at Harvard in the 1960s with Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary. How do you feel about the use of mind-altering drugs to attain a kind of mystical experience?

A: First, I have to say that during the three years I was involved with that Harvard study, LSD was not only legal but respectable. Before Tim went on his unfortunate careening course, it was a legitimate research project.

Though I did find evidence that, when recounted, the experiences of the Harvard group and those of mystics were impossible to tell apart — descriptively indistinguishable — that’s not the last word. There is still a question about the truth of the disclosure. Was the drug-induced mystical experience just an emotional jag that messed up some neural connections? Or was it a genuine disclosure, an epiphany?

Enclosed, or cocooned, in a solid religious context of belief and responsibility, entheogens have played an important part in human religious history. The Native American Church is a good example of this. But what about people who experience this outside of such a context, as most of the subjects at Harvard did? For some people, under some conditions, it can open new vistas, as William James says. But the heart of religion is not altered states but altered traits of character. For me, then, the test of a substance’s religious worth or validity is not what kind of far-out experience it can produce, but is the life improved by its use? That’s the test. Now, on that score, if you remove the “religious cocoon,” the experiences don’t seem to have much in the way of discernible, traceable effects. Certainly, they can open new vistas. But, as Ram Dass said, when you get the message, you should hang up. He did. He gave away his fortune and turned himself to good works. Tim Leary didn’t hang up.

Q: One of the roles of religion has been to help communities deal with death. In your own life, how has your faith helped you accommodate the inevitability of death?

A: I don’t have any fear of death. I do, however, have an inordinate fear of becoming dependent on other people. To me, that’s the severest test, not death.


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