Lessons learned from Huston Smith’s exploration of religious experience

(RNS) During his life, Smith came to believe that people turn to religion the way sunflowers bend in the direction of the light.

Huston Smith at his home in Berkeley, Calif., in 2005.  Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) When I heard the news that the beloved religion scholar Huston Smith had died at his home in Berkeley, my mind drifted back to the lively conversations we’d had over the years sitting across from each other in armchairs near the light-filled bay window of his Colusa Street bungalow.

Most of my professional career was spent as the religion reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Toward the end of my time covering the “Godbeat,” I lived in my own Berkeley bungalow just a short walk from the home Smith shared with his wife, Kendra. Smith didn’t do email, and his hearing impairments made telephone conversations difficult. So when you wanted to interview Professor Smith, even on a tight newspaper deadline, you did it face-to-face.

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There was the conversation we had in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when he urged us not to simply “blame religion” for the complex geo-political forces fueling so much violent conflict in the world today.

And there was the time when Smith first told me about his psychedelic drug baptism in Timothy Leary’s living room on New Year’s Day, 1961. “What a way to start the ’60s,” he exclaimed, laughing and eyes widening.

Smith would later be one of four visionaries I’d profile in my book “The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America.”

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He also helped inspire me to write another book, profiling two of the major influences on his life — the writer Aldous Huxley and the philosopher Gerald Heard. They, along with Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, form the backbone of that book, titled “Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk.”

Writers like me can only dream of selling as many books as Smith. His classic text on comparative spirituality, “The World’s Religions,” has sold more than 3 million copies since it was first published in 1958.

Author Huston Smith in 2000. RNS archive photo

Author Huston Smith in 2000. RNS archive photo

Smith’s lifelong calling to promote mutual understanding between the adherents of various faiths took flight in 1955 when he hosted a series of programs for the National Educational Television Network, the precursor to PBS. Thirty years later, Bill Moyers would continue to spread Smith’s gospel of spiritual compassion with a much-watched public television series, “The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith.”

Like his father, a missionary to China, Smith was an ordained Methodist minister. He never renounced that faith, even as he critiqued Christianity and tried to understand other religions from the inside out, meditating and otherwise communing with monks, mystics and imams from myriad cultures, East and West.

Smith’s desire to have a full-blown mystical experience inspired his brief collaboration with Leary, the controversial Harvard University psychologist who went on to become the self-described “high priest” of the psychedelic counterculture. While Smith soon questioned the wisdom of Leary’s crusade, he continued to be a tireless advocate for the right of Native Americans to use peyote and other psychoactive plants in their religious rituals.

At the time, Smith was teaching philosophy at the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Huxley, the author of “Brave New World” and “The Doors of Perception,” introduced the LSD evangelist to the Methodist professor.

They met over lunch in the Harvard faculty club, and Smith remembered how the charismatic Leary, who died in 1996, wore gleaming white tennis shoes below his academic tweeds. Leary and his Harvard colleague, Professor Richard Alpert, who would later travel to India and return as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, hoped Smith could help those secular psychologists understand the mystical experiences they were having on psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” and later on LSD.

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Huxley, Heard, Smith, Leary and Ram Dass were all part of a movement in the 1950s and 1960s that stressed the importance of psychological insight and personal spiritual experience over the dogma and denominationalism of organized religion — a shift that can be seen in the ongoing popularity of yoga classes and “mindfulness” meditation. But Smith always saw the value of church, advocating a middle path between free-floating mysticism and institutional faith.

“Drugs appear to be able to induce religious experiences; it is less evident that they can produce religious lives,” he wrote. “It follows that religion is more than a string of experiences.”

Smith warned that “overly rationalistic religions grow arid, and the moralistic ones grow leaden. … Religion cannot be equated with religious experiences, neither can it long survive their absence.”

During his life, Smith came to believe that people turn to religion the way sunflowers bend in the direction of the light. We reach for God, Smith said, “in the way that the wings of birds point to the reality of air.”

Looking to the day he would “shed my body,” Smith said it would be the moment when “the string will have been cut. The bird will be free.”

(Don Lattin’s forthcoming book, “Changing Our Minds — Psychedelic Sacraments and the New Psychotherapy,” will be published this spring)

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