Trustee Tribute to Huston Smith
A Hero of Mine
All of us can look back over our lives as educators and identify people who have been significant role models. One of those persons for me has been Huston Smith. Perhaps the most important American scholar of religions for five decades, Smith was born the son of Methodist missionaries in Dzang Dok, China, where he spent the first seventeen years of his life. Now ninety-three and confined to a chair in his assisted living apartment in Berkeley, California, the old gentleman— eyes sparkling—”banters in Chinese with his friend, Mr. Lin, the maintenance man” (Lisa Miller, “Huston Smith’s Wonderful Life,” The Daily Beast, 2009).
I had read and admired Smith’s premier work, The Religions of Man (1958) many years ago, a book that has sold more than 2.5 million copies and been reprinted over sixty times. My own life experience for twenty-five years, living and working in the religiously plural and multicultural world of Java, Indonesia, caused the book I had read in my seminary class in world religions to be fascinatingly illustrated in the lives of my neighbors, friends, and acquaintances of many faiths.
But it was the chance to meet Huston Smith personally that made such a profound impact upon me. While attending a conference entitled “The World’s Religions after 9-11″ in Montreal, Canada, in 2006, I sat very close to the front of a huge convention hall to hear him address thousands of conferees from all over the globe. Unable to stand at the podium, Smith was seated at a table at center stage. With a gentle demeanor and voice projection dimmed by age, he still had no trouble holding the audience spellbound.
At the conclusion of the session, I rushed to the platform to meet him, and rather than tower above this seated and frail world religions giant, I knelt beside his chair, took his hand, and said, “Dr. Smith, you are one of my heroes.” Without pausing, he smiled and replied, “And if I knew you I’m sure that you would be one of my heroes too!”
I’ve thought about that response many times. Here was a man who has spoken all over the globe, been a close friend of Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, and the Dalai Lama, held teaching posts at Syracuse University, MIT, and Berkeley, written more than a dozen important books, studied and observed ritual practices of Vedanta Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Sufi Islam for more than a decade each, and has been the subject of numerous articles, books, dissertations, and an award-winning PBS series with Bill Moyers, now affirming me as a person who would inspire and instruct him in some way, if only we were able to know one another better. This humble spirit, desire to keep on learning, and willingness to affirm others are secrets to the man’s greatness.
British essayist Pico Iyer, in his introduction to Smith’s autobiography, Tales of Wonder:
Adventures in Chasing the Divine, quotes Henry David Thoreau, who wrote: “To set about living a true life is to go [on] a journey to a distant country, gradually to find ourselves surrounded by new scenes and men” (“Foreward,” HarperOne, 2009, xi). That philosophy is certainly mine, as it has been Huston Smith’s. Journeying to distant countries, finding myself surrounded by new scenes and people—these experiences are the learning laboratories that have changed my own life. My encounters with serious followers of other faith traditions have made me a better Christian. Their devotion to God, as they understand God, and their commitment to living according to God’s ethical Way, as they perceive it to be, have challenged my own devotion to God and desire to live on the Way. Experiences with the Religious Other and the lessons I have drawn from them—how visibly these threads of meaning seem to lead back to this elderly hero of my choosing.
Smith is often asked why he is a Christian, after his having admired, studied, and practiced elements of so many other faiths throughout his lifetime. Bill Moyers also asked him that question.”Because I know my need for forgiveness,” Smith said with great honesty. Raised as a Christian in China, but a student of all the world’s great wisdom traditions, he says “he will never be anything but a Christian. ‘You subtract Christianity from Huston Smith, and there is no Huston Smith left’” (Quoted in Miller, The Daily Beast). And that, too, is a perspective that I claim for myself. The more I learn about religions and religious people in distant places and next door, the more admiration I have for the world’s wisdom traditions—yet, paradoxically, the more committed I am to my own Christian path.
One of the ways Smith explored religious meaning is frequently cited in articles about him. He was at Harvard University participating in psychedelic experiments with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (also known as Ram Dass). He was also engaged in the Harvard Project, which sought to raise spiritual awareness through the use of entheogenic plants. But Smith, the Methodist missionary kid and forever Christian, looks back on that period of research with a singularly orthodox eye, claiming: “The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits” (www.circlesoflight.com).
What a truism for guiding my days! When all of my ongoing study is finally completed, when academic pursuits, world travel, and busy schedules are reduced to simple days spent confined to a chair in assisted living, will people be able to look at my life—as they most certainly do look at Smith’s life today—and judge that my traits were clearly altered by my faith and exemplified in the way I conducted my spiritual life? I pray so.
Dr. Rob Sellers, CPWR Trustee. Sellers is Connally Professor of Missions, and Professor of Missions Ministry at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas.