Huston Smith is doing publicity for his 14th book, though at nearly 90 he IS debilitated by osteoporosis and can't get up from his leather chair. When a visitor enters his room at the Berkshire, an assisted-living facility in Berkeley, Calif., he smiles broadly, indicates a small wicker seat and cheerfully warns of a high-pitched whine that sometimes emanates from his hearing aid. One is reminded that there is nothing glamorous about growing old, but Smith—who has arguably been the most important figure in the study of religion over the past five decades—makes it look at least bearable.
The new book, "Tales of Wonder," is a memoir. It begins at the beginning, with Smith's boyhood in Dzang Dok, China, where he was the middle son of Methodist missionaries. It ends in this two-story building in Berkeley, where Smith banters, in Chinese, with Mr. Lin, the maintenance man.
In the middle, Smith recounts professional adventures—meeting Martin Luther King Jr., befriending Aldous Huxley and the Dalai Lama, dropping acid with Timothy Leary—as well as personal catastrophes. His oldest daughter, Karen, died at 50 of cancer; his granddaughter Serena died under mysterious circumstances at 30. A determined sense of grace and optimism pervades the narrative. Smith still believes that God is good, and an encounter with Smith—through the written word or in person—bestows a kind of contentment by association: this is what it feels like to have lived a long and interesting life. The book is poignant and readable, though one wishes Smith had written it a decade ago, the better to infuse it with the passionate vitality for which he is so well known.
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 been 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.
Foundational to "The World's Religions"—and, indeed, to the way Smith approaches his subject in every instance—is this idea: at base, all the great religions are the same. This universalism grows out of Smith's personal history. He was a child in a place where (in his world, at least) Christianity, Buddhism and a little bit of Confucianism were enmeshed—yet he was raised by parents who fervently believed that Christ alone was the way to heaven. As a mature thinker, Smith embraced the first part of his boyhood experience and rejected the second. He spent his life learning about, practicing and then popularizing religions other than the one into which he was born. He has been doing yoga every morning for 50 years. (He used to demonstrate the lotus position on television but now counts himself lucky if he can put his right foot atop his left thigh.) For a decade he did the salat, Islam's ritual prayer. He studied Zen Buddhism. When asked whether all great religions lead to salvation, Smith's answer is an unequivocal yes. Religion, he says, is like a walnut. "The shell is exoteric, it's outside, visible. The kernel is esoteric, invisible. Both are important … Esoterically, religions are identical. Exoterically, they are different." Raised a Christian, Smith says he will never be anything but a Christian. "You subtract Christianity from Huston Smith, and there is no Huston Smith left."
In the academy today, Smith's big idea is seen as quaint. His all-embracing approach papers over real differences in religious ritual, practice and culture, critics say, that are necessary to understanding the world and the conflicts within it: "Smith and others have led us down a rabbit hole of nonreality that we are now trying to climb back out of," says Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University who is at work on his own book about world religions. "Is Islam the same as Christianity? To con ourselves into thinking they're the same is to believe in something that is false." Smith's contributions to the field of religious studies were crucial at a time when Americans were more parochial, says Prothero. ("The World's Religions," he adds, is "the most important book in religious studies ever.") But now, he says, it's time to move on.
Smith, however, continues to live his beliefs. On a recent Monday morning he woke up, dressed, got settled in his chair and read chapter 21 of the Book of Acts, in which the Apostle Paul asks, "Why are you weeping and breaking my heart?" Next he read a friend's commentary on a verse from the Bhagavad-Gita. Then he started to pray, first for people in his life who are suffering—on this day for a friend's daughter who has cancer—and then, at last, for himself. "I begin by asking myself, 'What is my mood? How are my feelings?' I try to understand myself because we have it on good authority from the Holy Qur'an that 'He who knoweth himself knoweth the Lord.' The answer that came up was, 'I'm fine. I'm happy. I'm well. And I'm grateful'." Finally, he tries to meditate, but even at 90 he finds it difficult to quiet all the thoughts in his mind.