A Kinder, Gentler Doorway into Huston Smith’s World

Click the cover to visit the Amazon page for The Huston Smith Reader. (Note: Cover image of Huston Smith may vary.)How can readers find their way into the realm of Huston Smith? This month—the gods willing—he will turn 93. Once the world’s most famous guide into comparative religion, beloved as a friendly gatekeeper for millions of curious Americans, Smith now is eclipsed by waves of other writers, filmmakers and teachers. In fact, given the explosion of the Internet and other digital media—the world’s great religious traditions now flow directly into our palms, ears and eyes 24/7.

Nevertheless, students who ask for an introduction to our world’s diverse spiritual traditions, today, are likely to receive a short list of recommendations including Huston Smith ranked with famous names like Smith’s friend Bill Moyers, Karen Armstrong, Stephen Prothero, and Philip Jenkins.

But, where do we start digging into Smith’s library of books? His overall body of work is not as fresh or as easy to sort out as the others. What’s more, these days, Smith sometimes is chided by critics for trying too hard to make the world’s religious communities seem more unified than they really are. Stephen Prothero certainly makes that point, among others. The most recent news stories mentioning Smith’s name in major publications like the New York Times reference Don Lattin’s 2010 book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club, which finally pulled back the veil over Smith’s own experimentation with mind-altering drugs in the 1960s.

Where do we turn to find the real Huston Smith? His legacy is not helped by the fact that he produced so many books. He wrote more than a dozen. Amazon lists 19 titles that are credited to Smith. Where do we start on that list? Are his earliest books still relevant? Or, what if we choose the more recent Cleansing the Doors of Perception, his 2000 book about the religious significance of drugs? That book is fascinating, but is it the best way to understand his major contribution as a scholar?

Now, University of California Press helps us all with a terrific sampling of Huston Smith’s work over many years in this new The Huston Smith Reader, edited and introduced by Jeffery Paine. It includes a very helpful 10-page Afterword by Dana Sawyer, who is working on a biography of Smith.

In 23 chapters, Paine gives us a coherent collage of Smith’s life story and passionate interest in teaching the world about the wonders of diversity. Some chapters excerpt autobiographical reflections by Smith. Other sections allow Smith to explain why studying comparative religion matters, for example, in an excerpt from his 2001 book Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief.

Yes, the book dips back into vintage Huston Smith, way back in the era when he first showed up on public TV and in then-popular magazines like Saturday Evening Post. A chapter called “The Revolution in Western Thought” begins in the tone of such early-1960s magazines: “Quietly, irrevocably, something enormous has happened to Western man.” Perhaps we all can forgive such a style, given the popularity of the Mad Men TV series . Certainly, we agree today that Western woman changed as well.

The Reader takes us through half a century of Smith’s work. Thank goodness, HarperOne gave permission for an 8-page chapter near the book’s conclusion, called “Reflections on Turning Ninety” from the 2009 Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, an Autobiography. This is a full journey through Smith’s life and thinking.

Thanks to everyone connected with this helpful new doorway into Huston Smith’s world! As a journalist covering religion for 30 years, I have interviewed Smith at length several times, collected his works on religion through the years and I can say: Smith’s own wise hand clearly rests on this collection. Thank goodness Huston Smith is still with us in early 2012.

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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

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