The Spiritual Surfer

Bill Moyers is television's most accomplished practitioner of acolyte journalism. The technique is simple. Find an intellectual guru, sit at his feet and never interrupt wit a challenging question. Moyers has been doing this for years on public television, most notably in his hugely popular series with the late Joseph Campbell. This week Moyers resumes his on-camera spiritual education with a new five-part series, "The Wisdom of Faith," that runs right through Passover and the Christian Holy Week. This time, his seat is at the feet of Houston Smith, 76, a genial, white-bearded pioneer in the study of world religions.

Smith knows his stuff. His best-known volume, "The World's Religions" (reissued in paperback for this program), is a standard text for students of comparative religion. His is also the original New Age spiritual surfer. The son of Methodist missionaries, Smith has spent much of the last 50 years in India, Iran and other locales experiencing firsthand the mystical highs of Hindu holy men, Buddhist monks and Sufi saints. Although still a Methodist by habit ("My loyalty to the church is a kind of ancestor worship," he says), Smith has incorporated into his personal devotions Buddhist and other meditative practices, which he demonstrates for the camera. "The enduring religions at their best," he tells us, "contain the distilled wisdom of the human race."

Why, then, is this series so disappointing? For one thing, it lacks focus. Moyers can't decide whether these programs are about Smith or about the six "wisdom traditions" (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam) he discusses. For another, the film clips of chanting Tibetan monks and rituals often dictate the direction of Smith's conversation rather than augment a coherent presentation. The result is a kind of meandering spiritual travelogue, often visually stunning, which forces Smith at times into disjointed commentary.

The initial hour on Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance, never establishes what the religions of the Hindus are basically about. We never learn that the Buddha initiated a reformation of Indian religion that parallels the Protestant reformation in Western Christianity. "Karma" is mentioned once, but goes unexplained. Smith is at his best retailing personal experiences, like his eight weeks of training in Japan under a Zen roshi. Smith's delightful struggle with an elementary koan, or mind-bending puzzle, helps the viewer realize just how much Asian "enlightenment" differs from that prized by the rationalist West.

Smith's own distilled wisdom seems to be that all spiritual paths point to the same transcendent truth. Only the packaging is different. That's a very democratic assumption. After all, there is no karma in Christianity, no Creator in Buddhism. In short, ideas do matter in religion. As an ordained Southern Baptist minister, Moyers might be expected to have a few of his own. God may not need an editor, but "The Wisdom of Faith" could certainly use one.