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Huston Smith: What a Nonagenarian Can Tell You About God

Huston Smith: What a Nonagenarian Can Tell You About God April 21, 2015

Huston Smith at a book signing in Oakland, California, 2012. Photo by Barbara Newhall
Huston Smith in 2012. Photo by Barbara Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

When Huston Smith turned 90 he did what he’d been doing for a good part of his adult life – he published a book.

But this one was different. Instead of exploration and analysis of the world’s great wisdom traditions, this book was an autobiography, Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, written with Jeffery Paine.

Huston doesn’t know it, but he’s been my mentor for decades – ever since I took a job as the religion reporter at a local newspaper. The religion beat has a steep learning curve, I quickly discovered, and Smith’s authoritative book The World’s Religions became my bible. It has remained so all these years.

But Who Is Huston Smith?

 

Studying it, I often found myself trying to read between the lines — who is this man who speaks so fluently of Islam and Judaism, Hinduism and Taoism? What did he personally think of the many disparate religions he studied? Is he still a Christian? Did he ever practice any of the religions he studied?

When I finally got my hands on a copy of Tales of Wonder, I found some answers.

In a chapter titled “My Three Other Religions” Smith reveals that he “never met a religion I did not like.” Indeed, he practiced Hinduism unconditionally for ten years, followed by ten years of Buddhism, and ten years of Islam — all this without ever forsaking the Christianity of his missionary parents.

He was not following a checklist, Smith wrote. He simply found these wisdom traditions, each in its turn, fitting. And, “the proper response to a major spiritual tradition, if you can truly see it, may be to practice it. With each new religion I entered into, I descended (or ascended?) into hidden layers within myself that, until then, I had not known were even there.”

Book jacket of "Tales of Wonder" by Huston Smith

And What Can He Tell You About God?

 

What does a nonagenarian think about God when he’s all alone in a private moment? Smith reported that, at 90, he had finally found a mantra that suited him. He repeats it under his breath in the bathroom and in elevators.

It’s “God, you are so good to me.”

After a lifetime of studying and teaching, investigating and deliberating, how simple it has finally become, he wrote. “I have forgotten more about the various religions than I knew in the first place. All that is left of my study of them is . . . me.”

But for me, as Huston Smith’s anonymous mentee, the most wrenching words in this book are in the epilogue:

“Soon it will be time to say good-bye,” Smith wrote. “Good-bye to you, dear reader . . . Although we never met in person, you were like a friend, the thought of whom spurred me to my best efforts.”

Those words brought me to tears.

Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine, an autobiography, by Huston Smith with Jeffery Paine, HarperOne, 2009.

© 2015 Barbara Falconer Newhall

A version of this story first appeared on BarbaraFalconerNewhall.com, where Barbara  riffs on life, family, books, writing, and her rocky spiritual journey. Barbara is a veteran newspaper journalist whose stint as the religion beat reporter at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay Area inspired her newly released interfaith book, Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith.

 


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