Ari L. Goldman, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Tales of Wonder
Adventures Chasing the Divine
By Huston Smith with Jeffery Paine
(HarperOne; 209 pages; $25.99)
The very first comparative religion book I owned was a paperback
edition of Huston Smith's "The Religions of Man," which was first
published in 1958 and later issued as "The World's Religions." All
told, the book sold some 3 million copies.
When Smith starting writing about religion in the 1950s, Muslims,
Hindus and Buddhists were seen as exotic people of far-away
countries. Today, we recognize them as our neighbors, co-workers and
friends, even if we sometimes eye them warily. Smith opened up world
religions for many of us through his 13 books on religion, his early
public television show in the 1950s and the five-part PBS series that
Bill Moyers did on him in 1996.
Now, in this delightful autobiography, issued to coincide with his
90th birthday this month, Huston Smith, the son of Methodist
missionaries in China, tells us how he became Huston Smith, the dean
of world religion experts. Along the way we meet the people who
shaped him and shared his journey. The list reads like a Who's Who of
20th century spiritual America: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the
Dalai Lama, Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Merton
and Pete Seeger (who, like Smith, was born in 1919).
Smith also uses the opportunity of this memoir to settle a few
scores. He thinks that Joseph Campbell (who also had a Bill Moyers
series), "downgraded religion to the status of a myth." The
fundamentalist religion of Campbell's youth so "scarred his boyhood
in Scotland" that he couldn't see religion any other way, Smith writes.
Smith also has little use for another religion scholar, Alan Watts,
whom he describes as "the guru of Zen who advised everyone to
meditate but did not bother to do it himself." And then, he gives the
ultimate backhanded compliment to Watts: "He was, however, an
excellent companion to go drinking with."
Smith describes his method of scholarship as just the opposite of the
Watts approach. First, he writes, "I would read each new religion's
scriptures (the Qur'an, the Torah, and so on). Second, I would seek
out its living authorities ... and learn by absorbing their example.
Third, I would do the ritual, the devotion, and the practices, to
internalize the religion. After I had done all that, two things
remained: I had to teach that religion, and I had to write about it."
In this memoir, Smith recounts his journey from China to an academic
career that took him to Washington University in St. Louis, MIT
(where he was miserable), Syracuse and UC Berkeley. And he talks
about a lot of lucky breaks along the way: how his course on world
religions led to a public-TV show, which led to a funded trip around
the world, which led to a world religion book that catapulted him to fame.
He also writes frankly about the strains that fame put on his family.
"I am a workaholic," he writes. He was so absorbed by his work that
his wife, Kendra, threatened to leave him. And only later in life did
he learn how much his children resented his trip around the world in
1957 when he left them with another family for seven months. (His
wife went with him.)
This is a personal rather than philosophical book. Smith tries to
tackle some of the great issues he has grappled with - like: If
religion is so good, why has it caused so many wars? - but the
questions are better than the answers.
At times, Smith talks about his religious journey in a way that
doesn't seem intellectually honest. He says that he "practiced
Hinduism unconditionally for ten years, then Buddhism for ten years,
and then Islam for another ten years - all the while remaining a
Christian and regularly attending a Methodist church." Or, as he puts
it in another part of the book, "I never cancelled my subscription to
Intellectual playfulness is definitely the spirit with which this
book was written. Smith wrote the book, with the help of co-author
Jeffery Paine, from his new home, an assisted-living facility in
Berkeley where he finds himself ailing but filled with gratitude.
"The day sings its song of small grace notes. In the bathroom or the
elevator I whisper under my breath, 'God, you are so good to me' -
thirty-five or forty times a day I say it. It seems I finally have a mantra."
Right to his final act, Huston Smith is proving to be the consummate
professor, giving us a valuable master class on faith and life.
Ari L. Goldman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is
the author of "The Search for God at Harvard." E-mail him at