Huston Smith (1919 – ) is a widely respected educator and media figure in the area of comparative religion. In his compact classic, The World’s Religions (1991, formerly The Religions of Man, 1958), Smith reveals many of the insights and problems inherent to a comparative study of religion.
Choosing to place more emphasis on religious experience as something integral to personal transformation, and less on historical data, Smith hopes to rekindle debate around several age old questions:
Why are we here? What gives meaning to life? Does something exist beyond the world of the senses? Is there an afterlife?
Not strictly opposed to organized religions, Smith says their group aspect makes them a “mixed bag.”
Like any term religion can be defined as one wishes, and if one links it to institutions, I think religious institutions are indispensable, but they’re clearly a mixed bag, and we’ve had the wars of religions; but I tend to think this is the nature of institutions and people in the aggregate. What government has a clean or perfect record, you know?¹
Smith is reminiscent of to another leading interpreter of religion, Joseph Campbell, whose somewhat Jungian approach to the spirit has sparked worldwide interest and debate. However, Smith, as we see in the quote immediately below, doesn’t seem to entirely equate Christianity with non-Christian world religions.²
Some interesting Huston Smith quotes via Wikipedia:³
- Smith is a practicing Christian who credits his faith to his missionary parents who had “instilled in me a Christianity that was able to withstand the dominating secular culture of modernity.”
- “Institutions are not pretty. Show me a pretty government. Healing is wonderful, but the American Medical Association? Learning is wonderful, but universities? The same is true for religion… religion is institutionalized spirituality.”
- “The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits.”
¹ Huston Smith, “The Psychology of Religious Experience” in Jeffrey Mishlove, Thinking Allowed video series: http://www.thinkingallowed.com/2hsmith.html
² I remember seeing an early b&w Huston Smith film in an Oriental Phil. course at Trent University in the mid-1980s. Smith was quite young in the film, wearing a conventional Western suit with short cut hair. The class members laughed out loud at the seeming contradiction. Here was this uber straight looking Western guy doing a film on esoteric world religions. Our professor replied something like – “That’s what things were like back then.” And in retrospect, there was really nothing to laugh about. Smith was a pioneer, actively exploring areas that most others wouldn’t even imagine questioning beyond the prevailing Hollywood and music industry stereotypes. (As much as I admire Frank Sinatra, for instance, I smirk when I hear him sing about “far Bombay” in “Come Fly with Me“). Not to say that Sinatra necessarily believed in these clichés. I have no idea. But they certainly resonated with the pop culture that he thrived in. Another musical example would be Nat King Cole’s Hajji Baba (Persian Lament). For more, see E. Said, Orientalism.
On the Web:
- “‘RUMI: Poet of the Heart,’ an award-winning 60 minute film produced and directed by Haydn Reiss, featuring Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, Deepak Chopra, storyteller and mythologist Michael Meade, and religious historian Huston Smith.”