I first learned of it Friday (Dec. 30), when my oldest sister, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., not far from Huston and Kendra Smith, sent me a note saying he had breathed his last about 7:30 that morning at his Berkeley home.
I was surprised that it took until Sunday (Jan. 1) for a news story to show up about the death of this remarkable religion scholar.
Several years ago I was privileged to hear Smith when he spoke at Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, Mo. Smith who started his career attending Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo., was quite elderly and mostly deaf but he was still articulate and engaging.
What Smith, most famous for his book, “The World’s Religions,” brought to the discipline of religious studies was both a deep respect for religious traditions other than his own Methodist version of Christianity, and great humility about what can be known in any final way and what, by contrast, requires faith.
It is an attitude I seek to model in my own latest book, “The Value of Doubt.”
Smith sought to understand religions by getting inside of them and seeing what makes them tick. He walked a mile or more in Hindu shoes, in Muslim shoes, in Jewish shoes and on and on.
Sometimes his investigations of spiritual traditions and new spiritual movements led him to some strange places, such as when he sought to understand what Timothy Leary and others were learning about spiritual insights through use of psychedelic drugs.
But for Smith the idea was never to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” as Leary advised, but to learn.
We have entered a time in the politics of the United States when the openness and respect that Smith taught when it came to religious traditions is under severe strain, as the man who will become president in a matter of days is the same man who said he would ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
Perhaps one helpful thing to do might be to send Donald Trump a copy of Smith’s book about world religions with a plea that he read it with an open heart.
That may seem wildly optimistic, but I’m betting if Smith were still here and in good physical and mental shape, he might do that very thing himself.
(Bill Tammeus is former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star. Reach him on Twitter at @BillTammeus)