Grand Old Scholar Huston Smith

He has been billed on book leaves as “the most learned and literary contemporary writer on the history of religions” and in newspapers as “one of the world’s most important writers and thinkers on religions of the world.” He has taught at prestigious universities and was chair of the philosophy department at MIT. He has written 15 books and has 12 honorary degrees. I’m embarrassed to say that, until today, I’ve never heard of him.

In today’s LA Times there is an admiring portrait of comparative religion scholar Huston Smith, who just published his latest book at the remarkable age of 93. Good for him. After doing some reading about Smith and his many books, I’ve learned that he is a religion scholar of the emic variety — he doesn’t just study religions, he practices and espouses them.

While it’s hard to argue with someone whose world religions book has sold more than 2 million copies, I noticed this oddity in the article:

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Smith has tried to promote what he says is the genuine message of Islam, a tradition he describes as “a Mecca of order, meaning, beauty and understanding.” It is unfortunate, he argues in the chapter “My Three Religions,” that “when my countrymen look to the Middle East (especially since9/11) they often look with eyes of fear and foreboding. In the West today, no religion is more misunderstood than Islam; on both sides religion has gotten hijacked by politics. When I think how the Islam I saw by the light of spirituality is now obscured by the dark of ideology, my heart becomes heavy indeed.”

Smith apparently has ascertained the “genuine” message of Islam, which seems a bit problematic for a scholar. It’s one thing to describe a tradition in all its messy social constructions, it’s quite another to identify and fix a particular strand of it as “genuine” or authentic. And it’s just naive not to recognize that religion — like any kind of knowledge, is inherently political or ideological.

Given Smith’s standing, I’ve ordered several of his books, albeit not without misgiving. He obviously doesn’t care much for science or materialism or critique.

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6 thoughts on “Grand Old Scholar Huston Smith

  1. Jon Monday

    Welcome to the worldview of Huston Smith.

    Regarding the statement, [Smith] “obviously doesn’t care much for science or materialism or critique.”

    Two out of three of these assumptions are false. Smith has, in his words, bookshelves of contemporary books on science – and wonders how many books on religion scientists have. He approaches science and religion with an experimenters’ mind of critical research.

    Smith turned from Naturalism (as developed by Henry Nelson Wieman) to being a mystic after being exposed to the Vedanta philosophy by Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, and Swami Satprakashananda in St. Louis.

    That philosophy demands that the individual approach religion as one would a science experiment – with critical discrimination and rational analysis. Prove it for yourself – don’t take anyone’s word for religious truth.

    When you objectively view the various religions of the world, it’s easy to see how each of them has been at least somewhat corrupted from their original teachings. Just one short example, Jesus was adamant about one must not be a materialist and says that to truly follow him, you must give all your possessions to the poor. Now, many Christian churches in the US seem to guarantee wealth if you join up. The core, or central truth of all religions is that there is a purpose to life: to identify our soul with our God. After that, they each have distinctive methods of attaining that identity.

    Huxley developed a formula for this in his Perennial Philosophy:

    First: the phenomenal world of mater and of individualized consciousness – the world of things and animals and men and even gods – is the manifestation of a Divine Ground within which all partial realities have their being and apart from which they would be nonexistent.

    Second: human beings are capable not merely of knowing about the Divine Ground by inference; they can also realize its existence by a direct intuition, superior to discursive reasoning. This immediate knowledge unites the knower with that which is known.

    Third: man possesses a double nature, a phenomenal ego and an eternal Self, which is the inner man, the spirit, the spark of divinity within the soul. It is possible for a man, if he so desires, to identify himself with the spirit and therefore with the Divine Ground, which is of the same or like nature with the spirit.

    Forth: man’s life on earth has only one end and purpose: to identify himself with his eternal Self and so to come to unitive knowledge of the Divine Ground.



  2. Cris Post author

    I appreciate the comment; this is why I’ll read some of Smith’s books for myself.

    As for your assertion that the various religions of the world have been at least “somewhat corrupted from their original teachings,” this is precisely the sort of statement that makes me uneasy and which I noted in Smith’s approach. This kind of originalist fiction ignores the fact that religions don’t appear sui generis in some original, pure, uninterpreted, unconstructed, and uncontested form. All religions have historical antecedents, all religions change, all religions are constructed, all religions are contested, and all religions are interpreted.

    Moreover, reducing all religions to some kind of “central truth” is far too essentialist and reductive.

  3. Jon Monday

    If we start with an assumption that there is a “REALITY” (call it God, Brahman, Ground of All Being, Clear Light of the Void, Creator, whatever), then all religion is about that Reality and how to be right with it.

    The core teaching of all religions relate to that underlying Reality – read Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy.

    Most churches, religious leaders, doctrines, and dogmas deviate from that Reality, and that is a corruption of the understanding and realization of the Truth of the religion, as established by the founders of those religions.

    However, the Vedanta proposition (which Smith accepts) is that we don’t have to take anyone’s word for that Truth – but can, by following the paths laid out by the various religions, confirm it for our selves.

    We don’t have to take anyone’s word for any of this. No religious leader, scholar, or even the founders of religions can substitute for you the experience of that Reality.

    There are lots of analogies:

    Regarding scriptures: You can’t get rain by squeezing an almanac.

    You can’t satisfy your hunger by watching someone else eat.

    You can hear about fire, see fire, but until you’ve been burned by fire, you have not experienced or fully understand fire.

    Regarding your statement, “All religions have historical antecedents, all religions change, all religions are constructed, all religions are contested, and all religions are interpreted.”

    I’ll just comment that if a religion is true, then that truth will remain no matter what history or society may cover them with.

    Your last point of “central truth”being far too essentialist and reductive, I’ll just say, we have to ask ourselves, Is there a Central Truth to existence or not?

    If you conclude that there is no underlying Reality, go about your life – no problem. But, if you accept that there is an underlying Reality, and you’ve now heard that you can prove it for yourself, why not pick a path and give it a try?

  4. Cris Post author

    How can we reasonably begin any inquiry with an assumption that is actually a conclusion about some ultimate nature of things? That’s simply a rhetorical question, so no need to answer.

    I have never found it productive to traffic in the truth of religions — I leave that for the theologians. I do in fact accept there is an underlying reality, and what we know about that reality to date is largely empirical. Beyond that, it’s metaphysics and turtles all the way down.

  5. Jon Monday

    No need to bring Feynman into the discussion :-)

    All of life, if it is to be lived consciously, is based on a set of assumptions or working hypothesis, which implies, if not demands a hypothetical conclusion. For instance:

    It’s better to be kind than selfish

    Love creates and sustains good relationships

    Better to work for our means than to steal or cheat.


    For those inclined, having an assumption about the Purpose of Life just makes sense – though not an absolute necessity for most people.

    Specifically about the turtles, it’s meant to be taken figuratively, not literally. Literalism is the enemy :-)

  6. Sabio

    Good post. Interesting discussion.
    My daughter is now fixated on turtles. Is the Universe speaking to me?

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