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The Priest, er, Rabbi, er, Guru of Ecumenicism
Based on religious experience and without rejecting Christianity on which he was raised, interfaith scholar Huston Smith concludes non-Christians are not pagans.

"I am part of all I have met,” said Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem of that name, and the same could be said of Huston Smith. The ancient mythical Trojan and the contemporary religious teacher shared intensely lived lives, unthwarted by age or infirmity.

For his part, Smith has just passed his 90th birthday in an assisted-living facility near the family home in Berkeley, California.

This book describes the frontiers he traversed in those nine decades and his story is told with a passion and clarity absent in many a younger writer. Assisting him in this project is a friend, Jeffrey Paine.

Globally regarded as a standard-bearer in interfaith studies, Smith was the middle son of Methodist parents who, early in the 20th century, had answered a call and left the United States to serve the people of the rural Dzang Zok region of China. Working in relative obscurity, they remained there until Maoist revolutionaries drove them out. The author describes his parents as “missionaries, fundamentalists, abstainers and prudes.”

They were also visionaries who, a century ago, demonstrated a sincere “passion for the lost” as they sought “to preach the Gospel where it had never been heard.” Translated into modern terms, they attempted to “see further” than many of their contemporaries and worked earnestly “to do some good in the world.”

“We are in good hands” they taught him, and “we need to bear one another’s burdens.” Smith learned from his parents that there is a loving, transcendent reality existing beyond this world. His task was to share that love in whatever ways he could in this world. In spite of the new understandings he would claim about religion, these foundational moorings continued to support him.

Tales of Wonder is filled with vignettes that shaped the author’s life with the world’s religions. Engaging those experiences with him provides readers with lenses through which they too can come to know the world’s diverse faiths.

Religious experience enlightened Smith, while doctrine frustrated him.

Early in his career he concluded that non-Christians were not pagans. To come to this conclusion, he did not compare beliefs but shared experiences.

He did this without rejecting the essential Christianity with which he had been raised. In an earlier book, The Soul of Christianity, Smith gave this explanation. A man may authentically tell his wife she means the world to him. But that does not imply she should mean the same for other men. Always the authentic teacher, Smith demonstrated a deep commitment to his own faith without being an exclusivist.

He crossed a major frontier when he moved to the United States to study. In the process, he began learning how to think for himself and to accept the scientific worldview as the way by which moderns attempt to understand reality. His vocational goals shifted from missionary, to minister, and then to college professor.

He crossed the frontier of mysticism and moved beyond Christian elitism to seeing the complementarity between faiths. He became a world traveller, a writer, public person and social activist. Inevitably, he spent time in the “spiritual wilderness” – living what some call “the dark night of the soul.”

For three distinct decades of his life, Smith focused on three of the world’s great faith traditions – Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. He offers insights gained through the practice of each. To experience them fully, he would read their sacred texts, learn from living authorities, and perform their rituals. He literally ‘internalized’ other faiths in order to live, teach and write about them. His working base was always in a secular university, but normally he found colleagues who navigated creatively between the worlds of science and religion.

Smith adds a new dimension to his writing by introducing his family. We learn of his wife’s support, but frustrated threats to leave him at one point in their marriage; of his eldest daughter’s death, of another’s divorce and a granddaughter’s murder.

The three final frontiers of his life journey involved his discovery of Native American religion, entheogens, and a personal enlightenment of what he believed was ultimate reality.

“I came to a nursing home, not to die,” he writes, “but to cheer people up.” Knowing he is loved and doing good continues to be his bottom line.

That means he tries in small but intentional ways to improve the daily lives of his fellow residents.

What about life after death? Yes, but with some qualification. “We are each allowed to choose for ourselves the possibility of what (kind of eternity) we want,” he concludes. While it is good to be remembered by survivors, the time will come when one is no longer remembered by anyone.

“At that point, I will refocus on a new vision for myself.” And like Ulysses, he invites his friends to join him in seeking that newer world.

Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine – An Autobiography. Huston Smith with Jeffrey Paine. HarperOne, 209 pages.

Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and co-ordinates adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church in that city.

Originally published in The Globe and Mail, July 3, 2009.

Used with permission. Copyright © 2009 Christianity.ca.

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