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Remembering Huston Smith, Religion’s Unassuming Revolutionary

As if 2016 could not end without one more shot in the gut, we learned on December 30 that longtime HarperOne author Huston Smith passed away. He was 97.

The world’s foremost expert on world religions, Huston Smith was one of those rare teachers who was not only knowledgeable but incarnated his subject matter. In fact, I would go so far as to call him a revolutionary prophet for our times—albeit an unassuming one—in that what he modeled was perhaps even more important than what he taught us.

In a nutshell Huston introduced the great global faiths to America’s living rooms. Huston’s most popular book, from which scores of students first learned about Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and other religions, was The World’s Religions, which has sold over 3 million copies. First published in 1958 (under the title The Religions of Man), the book did much more than explain or describe the major faiths. What was most distinctive, and why Huston’s career is worth remembering and celebrating, was his decision to understand other religions from the inside. A life-long Methodist, Huston chose to explore other faiths by spending time with each one’s wisest and best practitioners and then describe how the religion worked and functioned from their perspective.

While this sounds like a shrewd pedagogical strategy, it was much more. Remember that throughout human history religion was taught either tribally (why we are right and others are wrong) or condescendingly (why they are all wrong). Huston was deeply religious while remaining profoundly curious and open. Huston opened up a new revolutionary path and did so without calling attention to just how pioneering he was.

I am not using the term revolutionary promiscuously. One only has to point to our daily headlines to see what an achievement this perspective was. Seeing people of other faiths as fellow pilgrims is neither easy nor natural for us. As our recent election has shown, it is easy to see “foreign faiths” as dangerous, threatening, primitive, ignorant, and wrong.

Still, most Westerners see the Dalai Lama as a global ambassador of wisdom and goodness. Why are we so open to this orange-robed figure? It is not an accident that Huston helped frame his introduction to the West after Huston first met the twenty-nine-year-old exiled leader. What now seems common sense—seeing people of other faiths as sources of wisdom, such as the Dalai Lama—was actually a revolutionary act that had to be taught and modeled.

Back when Huston was only in his eighties and I was new to HarperOne’s hallways, Huston would occasionally drop by our office in San Francisco from his home in Berkeley. Never before had I understood the appeal of life in an ashram until I had the chance to sit in a room with colleagues and hear Huston reflect or answer questions. He exuded wisdom, joy, and humility, and I would gladly have volunteered for daily doses of such sessions. In their obituary, the New York Times quoted one of Huston’s most memorable lines: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.” While that is certainly worth pondering on a mountain top, the quote that stays with me the most is something he said during one of our office ashram sessions shortly after he completed his book The Soul of Christianity. I had asked whether his emphasis on the universal or shared characteristics of the world’s faiths undermined his particular faith, Christianity. He looked me in the eye and said, “If you take the Methodist out of Huston Smith, there would be nothing left.” Now, let that one sink in for a bit.

Thank you, Huston Smith. We will miss you. I hope we always remember what you taught and modeled for us.

Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor

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