Huston Smith: Farewell to a religious voyager who personified modern, progressive faith

Huston Smith -- to my mind an unmatched connoisseur of spiritual experimentation who was also exceptionally grounded in an extraordinary range of religious protocols -- died just prior to the new year, Dec. 30, to be exact, at age 97.

News media coverage of his death, while adequate, underplayed at least one salient point.

Which is: If any one person can be said to represent wholesale societal change, then it may be said that Smith personified the radical reevaluation of contemporary religious beliefs and practices that has profoundly divided Western culture. From the mid-20th century until today, this reevaluation continues.

Evidence of it may be seen in the ongoing culture wars dividing the United States and in parts of Europe.

As I said, the major news media provided adequate coverage of his death, given his limited fame among the general public, and even if they lingered a bit too long on Smith's brief experimentation with (then still legal) psychedelic drugs in the early 1960s.

The factual and many faceted details of Smith's academic and personal biography were capably reported, as was his strong support for religious freedoms and religious and cultural pluralism.

For those who missed his death, or are unfamiliar with his life and work, click here for the New York Times obituary. Or click here for the Los Angeles Times obit.

Several outlets noted Smith's death by reposting past interviews and stories. How much easier and cheaper is that in this age of instantaneous web news and shrinking editorial budgets?

This one from 2009 was reposted by Newsweek, and this piece, from the same year, popped up on the CNN website.

Here's a fat graph from the Newsweek piece that provides some clarity about Smith's place in the academic religion firmament:

Smith was a professor. He taught at MIT and Syracuse and other universities, and he talked about religion on public television. But he is best known for a book he wrote in 1958—before the yoga craze and the meditation craze, before the Beatles went to India—called "The World's Religions." (Upon publication, it was called "The Religions of Man," but Smith changed the title in 1991.) Each chapter is 40 or 50 pages long and each encapsulates and explicates a great religious tradition. There are eight: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Islam, Judaism, Christianity and what Smith calls the "Primal Religions," meaning those of native people. In today's world, where scholars exhaust careers parsing one or two Bible verses, a professor who dares summarize Christianity in 50 pages might be seen as foolhardy. But in his day, Smith was doing something revolutionary. Without oversimplification or condescension, Smith introduced Americans to the notion that the world is full of all kinds of believers and that an educated person might learn a thing or two from another's faith. "The World's Religions" has sold 2.5 million copies since publication. It has been reprinted more than 60 times.

Yes, Smith was a revolutionary, academically as well as in his search for meaning.

In this he reminded me of the young adult children of Summer Institute of Linguistics evangelical Christian missionaries I met in the mid-70s, when I traveled with the group in Ecuador and Peru. These young people, academically trained in rain forest sciences in the United States and thoroughly theologically literate, would canoe into the Amazon forest with only peers for company and a shotgun and fishing spears for protection and food gathering.

They'd stay out there for a week or so, absorbing the sort of knowledge you just can't obtain from books and lectures, but can only acquire experientially. Experientially was also Smith's preferred way to understand religious traditions and spiritual wisdom.

I first interviewed Smith in the mid-1990s in sunny courtyard of a Washington hotel just up 16th Street from the White House. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation (just as so many who met him have also said since his death, including Don Lattin, a veteran religion reporter who arguably, knew Smith as well as any journalist still working today).

Thereafter, Smith became an invaluable source for me at Religion News Service, who had a habit of sending me postcards -- always postcards, never letters -- suggesting story ideas (his hearing was already failing and he never took to electronic messaging of any kind).

Curiously, he never wrote my address on the cards he sent. Instead, he would snip my return address from my letters to him and paste it on his cards to me. I never asked why he did this.

It was during that first conversation with Smith -- the son of Christian missionaries in China and an ordained Methodist minister himself -- that he defined his religious identity as a "Confucian Christian." By that, he meant that despite all his religious shape-shifting, he remained a Christian (and a regular churchgoer) because that was his ancestral faith, and one to which he owed a familial spiritual allegiance.

I'm well aware that many far more doctrinally and culturally traditional believers, including many GetReligion readers, dismissed Smith as a superficial and unmoored religious thinker who fell prey to the popular syncretism of his time. If that's your want, go right ahead, but please give factual reasons (we like URLs) for why you think that in the comments section below.

However, to dismiss Smith in this way also means to dismiss the seriousness of contemporary Western religious trends toward less doctrinal formality and the borrowing of practices and insights from other faiths. This was a major news trend whether you, doctrinally, agreed with it or not.

It also means remaining willfully under informed about the religious practices and spiritual beliefs of sincere religious progressives -- a community that too many journalists, including religion specialists, are as ignorant of as they are of traditionalist believers.

That last thought of mine was underscored by a religion professor from Virginia who wrote this opinion piece published by Vox. The headline: "Americans -- not just liberals -- have a religious literacy problem."

I'm sure Huston Smith would agree wholeheartedly because it's what he devoted his inner as well as his outer life to. He did so in bold letters.

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