RIP Huston Smith

picture of Huston Smith

Huston Smith

A great man passed away a few days ago, in the last days of 2016. Huston Smith, the brilliant scholar of religion and author of the seminal work, The World’s Religions, died at the age of 97. Smith was a mystic scholar, deeply connected to the traditions he studied, and a religious professor at various universities including MIT, where he developed a robust criticism of the march of science and its attempted colonization of meaning. He was also a member of the so-called “Harvard Psychedelic Club” along with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass). Smith brought religion and tradition alive like few can in our modern world, and as a true perennialist found a deep sympathy with the mystical strains of religious traditions, both East and West.

I saw Smith speak at a Templeton event in 2000, along with physicist Paul Davies. Soon after, I bought his latest book, Why Religion Matters. It was perhaps his last significant scholarly statement about religion as a whole and its relationship to modernity and postmodernity. I read it with great interest, and it affected me, in my early thirties, profoundly. In those days, I was a young seeker of knowledge, with my worldviews about science and religion relatively unformed, and was just diving into the world of intellectualism and cultural reflection. Smith was an erudite and scintillating guide on my journey. He spoke as few could about the relationship between these two historical movements. In fact, he was a major defender of religion and a great critic of scientists who overstepped their philosophical bounds, and he loved to poke at them and accuse them of over-reaching. For example, he loved to cite Stephen J. Gould’s oft-quoted “non-overlapping magisteria” as a perfect example of that cannibalization. In addition to his critiques of scientific triumphalism, Smith also understood the breakdown of meaning that postmodern trends have wrought and the dangers of pluralism and relativism. He was also just a delightfully passionate partisan of the science and religion wars, as the following brief passage from Why Religion Matters illustrates.

One of the subtlest, most subversive ways [scientific triumphalism] proceeds is by paying lip service to religion while demoting it. An instance of this is Stephen Jay Gould’s book Rocks of Ages, which I will approach by way of a flashback to Lyndon Johnson. It is reported that when a certain congressman did something President Johnson considered reprehensible, Johnson called him into his office and said, “First I’m going to preach you a nice little sermon on how that’s not the way to behave. And then I’m going to ruin you.” My nice little sermon to Professor Gould is, “Paleontologist though you are, you show yourself unable to distinguish rocks from pebbles, for a pebble is what you reduce religion to.” Now for the ruination. 

Or in this sweet story:Image of book

I was lunching at the faculty club and found myself seated next to a scientist. As often happened in such circumstances, the conversation turned to the differences between science and the humanities. We were getting nowhere when suddenly my conversational partner interrupted what I was saying with the authority of a man who had discovered Truth. “I have it!” he exclaimed. “The difference between us is that I count and you don’t.” Touché! Numbers being the language of science, he had compressed the difference between C. P. Snow’s “two cultures” into a double entendre.

My reading of Why Religion Matters coincided with a time of personal crisis and difficulty. In those days, I felt I found, in Smith’s take on religion, important answers. The humility before a transcendent truth, the surrender to a pre-established order, the reverence for something higher than oneself, the faith in the eventual restoration of Goodness—these are all hallmarks of religion, and in Smith’s writings on why religion matters, I found a kind of temporary spiritual solace, something beautiful in the heart of a religious worldview, though it was ultimately far from my natural home. I don’t claim to be a religious person, but Smith helped me see from the inside out the dignity of such a worldview. And for a time, it meant something to me, truly mattered in my own life. And then I moved on, hopefully retaining some of the truths therein.

It is an irony that despite my appreciation of that book, many of the places I have landed in my own spiritual and philosophical journey in the years since would have met with Smith’s disapproval. I remember reading his diatribes in Why Religion Matters about evolutionary science and Darwinism and his expressed approval for many figures dear to the intelligent design movement. It made me want to look deeper into the issue. I did so, and ended up in exactly the opposite position—highly critical of the unfortunate anti-evolutionary forces in religious movements. And I quickly became a strong critic of intelligent design (though not without acknowledging that scientists also can make very poor philosophers and even worse theologians). Always a lover of science, I became more sympathetic to its attempts, though often immature and fumbling, to build meaning out of naturalistic principles. I became less convinced of the all-embracing wisdom of the perennial tradition of mysticism. I thought I saw in Smith’s perspective, and others like it, a subtle anti-world bias, so common to any tradition that takes mysticism and non-duality to be the highest expression of truth. Perhaps that overstates matters, but it is often true that in the deeply felt veneration of spirit or God, there can sometimes be a simultaneous devaluing of creation. When we lift up our eyes to Heaven we so often lose sight of the beauty of Earth.

Image of BookSmith disliked evolution, in many of its contemporary forms, especially when it spilled over its scientific bounds and tried to provide some kind of secular framework for understanding origin and meaning. He was highly suspicious not only of Dawkins and Dennett, but of Alfred North Whitehead, Charles Hartshorne, and Process Philosophy in general. He disliked Teilhard de Chardin. Indeed, my book, Evolutionaries, with its wholehearted embrace of evolution, technology, and modernism, would likely have been robustly critiqued by this great scholar.

Smith writes:

…with Whitehead and his theological heir, Charles Hartshorne, naturalism has returned as Process Theology. Its philosophy of organism (as Whitehead referred to his metaphysics) is richer than Wieman’s naturalism, and Whitehead’s and Hartshorne’s religious sensibilities were more finely honed, but Process Theology remains naturalistic. Its God is not an exception to principles that order this world, but their chief exemplar. God is not outside time as its Creator, but within it. And God is not omnipotent, but like everything in this world is limited. “God the semipotent” is the way Annie Dillard speaks of this God.

Do we not see the hand of science—which process theologians point to proudly—in this half-century theological drift? In relating it to the concerns of this chapter, two questions arise. First, if we could have our way, would we prefer God to be fully competent or partially competent? Second, has science discovered any facts that make the first (traditional) alternative less reasonable than the second?

If it has, science has vectored the drift and we must follow its lead. If no such facts have turned up, scientistic styles of thought are guilty of colonizing theology.

I disagree with Smith on many of these points, but love reading his work, and retain a deep appreciation for his tremendous life. He was a person to listen to, respect, and learn from. We are a poorer culture without the great defenders of tradition that Huston Smith represented. No doubt, I was a better thinker, a more informed and thoughtful individual as a result of my encounter with his work. Most would be—mystics and scientists alike. His work made me more humble about the world of religious belief. And though I never personally met the man himself, by all accounts he was a beautiful human being. While he would be the first to acknowledge that our worldviews matter—our clarity of thinking, the quality of our perception, and the richness of our perspective, and even the depth of our faith—perhaps in the end, that matters even more.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • email
  • LinkedIn

Leave a Reply