In 1955, decades before mainstream America had heard of Zen Buddhism or the Koran, Huston Smith introduced us to the world’s religions on public television. An ordained United Methodist minister and religion professor, Smith produced the seventeen-part television series The Religions of Man. The tremendous response to the program spurred him to write his now-classic book The World’s Religions (HarperSanFrancisco), which has sold more than two million copies.
At eighty-three, Smith is still teaching America about the world’s religions. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, he’s been working fervently to dispel stereotypes regarding Islam and encourage interfaith dialogue. He often speaks out against the arrogance of science, the frivolity of New Age movements, and the secularization of American churches. “We are not,” he says, “going to make much progress on educating the human spirit until we find out who we are. And right now we don’t have a clue.” An important part of the answer lies in the world’s “wisdom traditions,” which help us deal with what is precious to the human spirit: values, meaning, and purpose.
The holder of twelve honorary degrees, Smith has taught religion and philosophy at MIT, Washington University, Syracuse University, and the University of California at Berkeley. He has authored more than eighty articles and eleven books, including Forgotten Truth: The Common View of the World’s Religions (HarperSanFrancisco), One Nation under God: The Triumph of the Native American Church (Clear Light), Cleansing the Doors of Perception (Tarcher), and, most recently, Why Religion Matters (HarperSanFrancisco). His films on Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Sufism have all won international awards. In 1996, Bill Moyers dedicated the PBS series Wisdom of Faith to Smith’s life and work.
Smith doesn’t like to take credit for his accomplishments, however. “I see myself, and my whole life’s work,” he says, “as simply a transmitter of what the great wisdom traditions have revealed. And each of these different traditions has some version of tat tvam asi — the Hindu notion that the deepest element within us is divine.”
Smith’s understanding of world religions hasn’t come just from books. Ingesting peyote with the Winnebago Indians and mescaline with Timothy Leary have put mystical flesh on the intellectual bones of his faith. So have his spiritual wanderings, from growing up in a missionary family in rural China, to training in a Zen monastery in Japan, to studying with a Sufi mystic in Iran, to taking a sabbatical in a Tibetan monastery. Though a hip replacement has obligated Smith to swap yoga for physical therapy, he still prays, meditates, and studies Scripture daily.
I met with Smith on two occasions at his family’s Berkeley, California, home. The walls and shelves were filled with religious art and family photos. Smith asked me to face a sunny window overlooking their garden, so that he could read my lips to supplement his fading hearing. It was a rare pleasure to witness the workings of his brilliantly clear mind and near-flawless memory, but his intellect did not eclipse his heart. In person, Smith exhibits all the kindness, generosity, and compassion taught by the traditions to which he has devoted his life.
Thompson: You were born into a missionary family in China. How did that experience affect your course in life?
Smith: My family was the only Western family in a small town in rural China, so I grew up having only one adult role model: my father. I assumed that I would be a missionary like him. I came to college in the U.S. thinking I would get my credentials and go right back, but I had not counted on the dynamism of the West. I attended a tiny little college — Central Methodist, enrollment six hundred — in the small town of Fayette, Missouri. Nevertheless, compared to rural China, it was the big time and the bright lights. Within two weeks, I had given up all thought of returning to China. This caused no vocational crisis, however, for I simply moved next door: instead of being a missionary, I would be a minister.
Whereas the plan to become a missionary lasted two weeks, the plan to become a minister lasted two years. Then, in my junior year in college, something extraordinary happened. And it happened in a single night that I remember vividly, for it was like a powerful conversion experience.
There was, in my nondescript college, one superb teacher, and he started a philosophy-of-religion club. One evening each month we would gather in his home and take turns reading papers we had written on some philosophical topic and discussing them. At ten o’clock cherry pie would appear, and after we’d all had some, we would return to our dormitory.
The evening I remember differed from all the others. Early on I felt a growing mental agitation as I was drawn into the issues we were discussing. This discussion continued as we returned to our dorm, and when we arrived, three or four of us stood in the hall still going at it with hammer and tongs. When, around midnight, we went to our rooms, my mind was still churning, and it kept on churning in bed until, around two in the morning, it detonated — that’s the best way I can think of to describe what happened. It was like the sequence in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey that depicts the future rushing toward the viewer in rivers of light, only the rivers I was experiencing consisted of Platonic ideas or forms. There I was, a young man with my whole life ahead of me in which to explore those ideas! The prospect was so exciting that I wonder if I slept at all that night. In any case, when I got up the next morning I knew I would not be a clergyman. I would be a teacher.
Thompson: You’ve stayed close to your Christian roots while rigorously undertaking the disciplines of other faiths, particularly Vedanta, Buddhism, and Sufism. How did you become involved in such varying traditions?
Smith: I didn’t go out seeking to understand these religions. It would be more accurate to say that they just came over me, like tidal waves. My first teaching appointment was at Washington University in St. Louis, after the Second World War. The call had just gone out to “globalize” the university, the thought being that if we understood other parts of the world better, we might be able to avoid such conflicts in the future. At my university, the dean sent out word that every department — except science — had to teach one course in non-Western material. I was the low man on the totem pole, so I was assigned the job of teaching world philosophies and religions.
Now, I had spent all my years in higher education, right up to the Ph.D. level, trying to catch up and become a real, red-blooded Westerner, so I knew nothing about Eastern religions. There was a Vedanta society in town, Vedanta being the philosophical arm of Hinduism. I called around and found out they had a discussion group — sort of like a Bible study group, only they studied the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads. That first evening, the swami, a consummate Sanskrit scholar and a wonderful man, discussed three verses from the Upanishads. I bought a copy, took it home, and read the verses before I went to bed. It got to me, how so much truth could come through in two pages. That was another sleepless night.
I spent ten years apprenticing myself to the swami, learning the philosophy of Vedanta and how to meditate. And I was perfectly content with Christianity and Vedanta until D.T. Suzuki came to America with Zen Buddhism. Then I was happy with those three, until Sufism came along.
Organized religion doesn’t get a fair shake in our culture. I’m not for hiding the sins and inequities of religion, which are certainly there, but I am for balancing the playing field by recognizing its virtues as well.
Thompson: Was it difficult to reconcile these different belief systems?
Smith: I didn’t have the slightest problem. The similarities were so strong it was almost as if I were hearing the same truths spoken in different languages. But they’re not identical, of course, and their differences are as fascinating as the similarities. Each one fleshes out a certain part of the truth about the human spirit. Together they form a sort of mosaic or jigsaw puzzle.
Thompson: There’s a Buddhist parable that says that one won’t find water by digging many shallow holes. What do you make of the claim that one must dedicate one’s life to a single spiritual path to reach the deepest truth?
Smith: I agree that the cafeteria-style approach to religion — I’ll take a little shamanism from the Native Americans, and some compassion from Buddhism, and so on — doesn’t work. Chögyam Trungpa, a great Tibetan Buddhist teacher, put it very accurately: When you go down the cafeteria line, you pick out what you like, but not necessarily what you need. If you knew what you needed at the start, Trungpa says, you’d be at the end, rather than at the beginning of your search. At the beginning, you know only what your taste buds tell you.
I don’t want to bad-mouth this approach, but I don’t think it has the depth of committing yourself to a single tradition. That’s why, from the start, Christianity has been my central meal. But I’m a strong believer in vitamin supplements. My experiences with these other traditions have been tremendously enriching. I don’t recommend my approach to everybody, though. I’ve been fortunate to earn my living by immersing myself in other traditions, so I’ve been able to devote a lot of time to them. Most people can’t do this.
Thompson: How do you suggest people decide what tradition is right for them?
Smith: Neophytes would do well to study the texts of the great traditions carefully and see how they relate to their lives. Also, many will benefit from finding a guru, someone who has been at this longer than they have. Now, we know from the last twenty years that there are fraudulent gurus, or gurus who start out well but have their heads turned by being idolized by their followers. This does not undermine the importance of the guru tradition, however. We all need role models, especially in our early years, before our character is formed.
A guru points out the things we overlook. The role of an authentic guru is tragic, because it is a guru’s job to put him- or herself out of business by bringing disciples to the point where the guru is no longer needed. The Zen Buddhist adage “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha” puts it very vividly: once one has reached an accomplished stage of spirituality, the teacher’s task is done.
When I finished my training in a Zen monastery in Japan, my roshi invited me to his little pavilion in the temple complex. We had worked intensively together for three months, and my devotion to him knew no bounds. In the course of that farewell session, he gave me a tour of his house. He walked me through the tiny kitchen and introduced me to the woman who took care of his food and housekeeping. Then we went into another room, where there was a television. He said, “This is where I watch television on my free evenings. Do you watch sumo wrestling?” I said I didn’t. “Too bad,” he said. “It’s wonderful.” And then he took me outside, where there were crates of empty beer bottles, and he said, “Here is what I drink while I’m watching sumo wrestling.”
This tour seemed a bit bizarre until I saw the wisdom of it. He wanted to bring himself down from the pedestal; he could not let me leave Japan thinking he was a saint. And that was exemplary behavior for a guru.
Thompson: I think many people have a lot of trouble with gurus in this society because we are so independent. We don’t want to enter into that kind of subordinate relationship.
Smith: Our society extolls a sort of independent spirituality while criticizing organized religions, but I find this type of spirituality lacking. My favorite example of the deficiency of spirituality alone is Barbara Walters’ two-hour interview with Monica Lewinsky. At one point Walters says to Lewinsky, “President Clinton has confessed that he has sinned in his relation to you. Do you think you have sinned?” And Lewinsky sort of squirms in her chair and says, “Well, you know, I’m not very religious. I’m more spiritual.” There you have it — the narcissistic side of spirituality.
In my years of teaching at UC Berkeley, I found that spirituality is a good word on campus, while religion is not. I never met a student who did not feel that she or he had a spiritual side, but if asked about religion, their standard response is that it’s dogmatic and moralistic. For them, religion says, “We’ve got the truth, and everybody else is going to hell.” It says, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, and especially don’t do the other thing.” At first, I suspected that their responses originated from some unfortunate brushes with organized religion, but their replies were so standardized that in the end I came to think that many of them were just repeating stereotypes. Probably most of them had never regularly attended a church or a synagogue in their lives.
Religion is organized spirituality, and as such, it has the same problems as every other organization or institution. I do not know of a totally pure organization or corporation. Take universities: the learning that goes on in them is wonderful, but universities carve up knowledge into departments and units, and there’s factionalism, political correctness, and the whole scramble for academic reputation. There are similar downsides to organized religion, but they tend to be seen in a harsher light. We don’t fault all doctors for the mistakes of the American Medical Association.
Thompson: Why isn’t it enough just to follow basic spiritual principles without getting involved in a formal religion?
Smith: Spirituality gives us a nice, warm feeling, but it doesn’t reach out to other people. When India had a horrendous earthquake three or four years ago, the San Francisco Chronicle listed ten organizations to which you could send contributions to help. Five of the ten were religious; “spirituality” wasn’t one of them.
Thompson: On the other hand, many spiritual individuals probably donated money.
Smith: You’re right. I was on a misleading track. I don’t want to put down spirituality, because it does do good in people’s lives. What’s not good for our culture is when spirituality elbows religion aside because it sees itself as superior and sees only the downside of organized religion. The upside is far greater.
Robert Bellah, a retired professor from UC Berkeley and one of the most discerning sociologists I know, says that, without the support of churches, the civil-rights movement would never have succeeded. And without the opposition of mainline churches in the eighties, we would have had troops in Guatemala and El Salvador backing up the CIA and installing or defending corrupt dictators.
Religion has preserved history’s greatest wisdom teachings. If the Buddha had not founded the sangha, the community of monks, the Four Noble Truths and the bodhisattva vow would have evaporated in a generation. If Jesus had not been followed by Saint Paul, who founded the Christian Church, the Sermon on the Mount would have been forgotten in a generation or two.
Thompson: You’ve criticized some of the more liberal churches for focusing on relationships between people rather than on our relationship to God. The way I think about it, our relationships to each other are the way we manifest our relationship to God.
Smith: It’s true that anyone who thinks that she is drawing closer to God, but is not drawing closer to her neighbors, is fooling herself. But the question is, how real is that relation to God which powers human relationships? The epigraph of my book Forgotten Truth: The Common View of the World’s Religions speaks to this. It’s a quote that originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education: “If anything characterizes modernity, it is the loss of the sense of transcendence, of a reality that encompasses and surpasses our quotidian affairs.” We have lost contact with the other world, a realm of existence that is superior to this one: the light of the sun outside Plato’s cave.
Transcendence — if you choose to believe in it — is what religion is about, and Christianity is in danger of forgetting this. If I may put on my historian’s cap for a moment: In China, there is heaven and earth, and, as Confucius says, only heaven is great. In southern Asia, there is samsara, which is our everyday reality, and there is nirvana. In Christianity, the horizontal arm of the cross is the social arm, where we reach out to our fellow human beings, but the taller, vertical arm always points to God, a reality that is greater than this one and to which this mundane world owes its origin.
The trouble with contemporary Christianity is that it’s as if the cross has been turned on its side. The arms are wide, symbolizing broad social outreach: reconciling congregations, welcoming different lifestyles, a hot meal 365 days a year for the homeless, two hundred people in the social hall. That’s all good, but what about the other world? The result is that people’s real spiritual center is not in the church — they come there for the good works and the socializing.
Thompson: How could a church encourage its parishioners to have those kind of transcendent experiences?
Smith: Churches have to champion this other world. But first they must realize what they’ve lost. One sign that they may be on the right path is a revival of interest in mysticism. The mystics, like Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila, are eloquent and even poetic in describing the other world. Returning to the study of the mystics would be one way to revitalize religious experience. Another approach, openly imported from Asia, involves meditation. There is a worldwide network on Christian meditation organized by a Benedictine in England.
These are good signs, but also telltale signs that we have lost our grasp on something. This is a confusing time, and there is no clear sense of direction in the mainline churches.
Another horrendous problem in our culture is the polarization between the more liberal mainline churches and the fundamentalists, who are a huge problem in and of themselves, here and in the Islamic world. Ours is, among other things, an age of multiculturalism. The adherents of different religions are rubbing shoulders as never before, and the presence of other faiths causes some to raise the drawbridge and man the walls.
This issue is very close to me. My father went as a missionary to China because he answered the call of John R. Mott, a commanding figure who launched the World Student Christian Association. Mott stood on the platform at my father’s graduation, pulled out his pocket watch, and told the graduating class how many Chinese were going to hell every second because they, the graduating students, weren’t in China converting the Chinese to Christ. The motto of the Student Christian Association was “Evangelize the world in this generation.” It’s hard to believe that, in the twentieth century, there were people who thought this way. My father, like so many others, outgrew that view and realized that converting the world was a misguided dream.
Christian triumphalism is over, and there are very few, if any, in the mainline churches who believe that only Christians will be saved. In that sense, they’ve become universalists. The fundamentalists, on the other hand, take literally the biblical phrase “No one cometh to the Father except through me.” They really do believe that Christ is the only path to salvation. So we’ve got a standoff between the two. We need to heal the rift, but are we tolerant enough in our circle that we can include the intolerant? My answer is yes, as long as they behave themselves, and behaving themselves means not attacking other people’s deepest commitments.
It took about three centuries for the Christian creeds to be hammered out, and it will take time for us to solve the issue of how to respect other religions while keeping some boundary between them and us, and maintaining a deep loyalty to our own faith.
A good analogy for this loyalty is an old-fashioned courtship and romance. When the courting is warming up, it’s like the popular song “I Only Have Eyes for You.” In the full flush of romance, you think this person is the only one in the world. You’re not thinking about other people. And there’s some value in this. Though my life has been enriched by other traditions, while gazing at the cross on Sunday morning I don’t want to think about the yin and yang or the Star of David. Similarly, when Jews come together for a Shabbat meal and speak of themselves as “the chosen people,” they’re not thinking about anyone else. It’s appropriate, at such moments, to only have eyes for one’s beloved. But some modern churches have undermined this.
There is a high Anglican Episcopal church in San Francisco that sings the Nicene Creed, which includes the lines “God of God” and “the only begotten Son.” Many people in its liberal congregation don’t believe that message, so when they come to that part of the service, they are permitted to sing, “Credo in unum deum,” which means “I believe in one God.” Still others can sing, “Om.” The three parts are composed in a way that produces a rich harmony. It’s beautiful, but it undermines the idea of ultimate devotion to one faith.
This is just a small example of a huge problem that we are going to have to work out. All I know is that both extremes — exclusivism and a superficial inclusivism that leads to “anything goes” — fail.
Thompson: Talk of fundamentalism these days inevitably comes around to Islam. You have a new book on the subject.
Smith: I’m a little bit embarrassed about it. It’s really a chapter from The World’s Religions that my publisher turned into a free-standing book with an introduction that relates it to September 11. I don’t really approve of repackaging old material.
I do my best in the introduction to puncture some stereotypes about Islam and take up the issues of violence, jihad, women, and fundamentalism. I don’t try, though, to answer all the enormously complex questions raised by September 11. The bottom line is, whatever answers people and politicians come up with, the foundation of Islam will remain.
Thompson: I have trouble reading the Koran — or the Bible, for that matter — because I continually come across passages about a wrathful, angry God. How do you approach these texts as a religious scholar and a believer?
Smith: I’m glad you included the Bible in your example, because every major religion has had to come to grips with violence and war in its history. Small enclaves like the Mennonites and the Quakers have been solidly and uncompromisingly pacifist, but, tragically, no major religion with millions of adherents has been able to avoid the use of violence. In the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Isaiah, the passage about beating your swords into plowshares is often quoted as a strong summons to justice and mercy, but we overlook the passage in the Book of Joel that says, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears: let the weak say, I am strong.” Even the great nonviolent leader Mahatma Gandhi said that, if it comes to a choice between cowardice and using force where a conspicuous wrong needs to be righted, we should use force.
The violent passages in the Bible and the Koran arise from the periods in which they were written: invariably times in which the religion was fighting for its life. In the end, however, all of the scriptures come down stronger on the side of peace, patience, and compassion than they do on violence.
Which brings us to the stereotype that Islam is intrinsically more violent than either Judaism or Christianity. The most serious study of the use of violence in the history of Islam and Christianity is Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, by Oxford historian Norman Daniel. He concludes that Islam has been no more violent than Christianity, and probably less violent. He cites many instances, the Spanish Inquisition among them: Under Moorish rule, the Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Spain lived together in peace and harmony. But when the Christians drove the Moors out and took political dominance, they either killed, expelled, or forced into conversion every Jew and Muslim. I knew about the Inquisition, but I had never heard, for example, that if a Jew refused to convert, they baked him alive — put him in a brick oven, started a fire, and walled the oven up. There’s nothing like that in the history of Islam.
Of course, it is certainly true that people everywhere use religion to achieve political ends, and we have to distinguish between the political distortion of religion and the intrinsic religion and its fundamental principles.
It took about three centuries for the Christian creeds to be hammered out, and it will take time for us to solve the issue of how to respect other religions while keeping some boundary between them and us, and maintaining a deep loyalty to our own faith.
Thompson: The way religion has been used by politicians has turned a lot of people in this society away from organized religion.
Smith: Because we are the most secular society in history, organized religion doesn’t get a fair shake in our culture. I’m not for hiding the sins and inequities of religion, which are certainly there, but I am for balancing the playing field by recognizing its virtues as well. The truth is that violence and scandal sell papers, so they’re what gets covered by the media. If a pro-life advocate shoots an abortion doctor, it’s on the front page of every newspaper in the country. Meanwhile, on that same day, millions of souls were revived by meditation or devotions of some sort, but that never hits the press. I am inclined to lay the blame for this on the unbridled profit motive in our secular society: in order to sell newspapers and boost audience ratings, the media cater to the public’s lust for violence.
Thompson: What are some headlines you would like to see?
Smith: That’s a difficult question, because the heart of religion is an interior matter, so splashing it across the front page is not totally appropriate. I would settle for the media not maligning religion or spreading stereotypes.
Thompson: You have urged people to seek religious lives rather than religious experiences. Yet you’ve studied the mystical experiences produced by “entheogens” — “God-enabling” plants, better known as psychedelics — through much of your career. Why have you been so interested in the religious aspects of drug experiences?
Smith: I ended my graduate study as a scientific materialist, thinking science had the bigger picture. But soon thereafter I came upon the writings of Aldous Huxley, who represented the mystical worldview. This was the second conversion experience for me. I read all night long, and my scientific worldview collapsed like a house of cards overnight. I found myself saying from the soles of my feet, “Yes, yes, yes, this is it.” Since that night, I never have doubted that mystics have the best take on reality.
It’s one thing, however, to believe, and another to experience something. I became friends with Huxley, and when his book The Doors of Perception came out, I thought there might be hope even for me, a natural mystic conceptually, but flat-footed experientially. At that time I was teaching at MIT, just a mile and a half down the Charles River from Harvard, where Timothy Leary, then a respected professor of psychology, was conducting research into these substances. At the time, entheogens were not only legal but respectable. Leary and his associates were getting reports of mystical experiences, but they didn’t know much about mysticism, so they enlisted Huxley, who was a visiting professor at MIT for a semester, and Huxley put Leary onto me.
Leary asked if I would be a subject for the experiment, and I agreed. I had a half dozen experiences with psychedelics and, like Aldous Huxley and William James, found that they expanded my idea of how the mind could work and what it was able to see. As Alan Watts put it, however, “When you get the message, hang up.” After those half dozen experiences, I found I was learning less and less, and the downside was coming up more and more. But I still regard those experiences as very important. I witnessed the mind working in a different way and saw visions of alternate realities just as clearly as I see the chairs in this room.
More recently, over the last decade, I joined forces with the Native Americans to win back their constitutional right to use peyote as their sacrament. I took peyote with them four times in all-night vigils. But that was in the line of duty, you might say.
My early experience with entheogens led me to research off and on how these mind-altering substances have figured into religious history. Whenever I came upon evidence of the use of entheogens by religious practitioners, I would push other matters aside and write a report on it for a journal. In that way, over time, I came to write more about these substances than any other person alive today.
Thompson: And that material has been compiled in your new book, Cleansing the Doors of Perception. Given your research and personal experiences, what do you think entheogens reveal about the mind and the spirit?
Smith: First of all, I want to be cautionary. These substances are not for everybody. They are relatively safe — safer, I would say, than driving a car on the freeway — but there are risks, and they should be taken seriously. I have great confidence in a group called the Council on Spiritual Practices, whose aim is to carve out of the horrendous mess of drug laws and hysteria a region where this class of relatively safe substances can be explored by both scientists and people with serious spiritual objectives.
There are no guarantees when it comes to a drug experience. It depends on the chemical, the personality of the individual, and the setting or circumstances. But when those three things are rightly aligned, the substances, as William Blake says, can “cleanse the doors of perception.” It’s like being in a dark room and pulling up the window shade and realizing that it’s a gorgeous sunny day outside.
Thompson: And yet you have been critical of the psychedelic movement.
Smith: Tim Leary was a charismatic man, and at first I liked him enormously. I still feel indebted to him. But he was basically an Irish rebel. He got kicked out of everything from high school, to West Point, to Harvard, to Mexico, to the U.S., which jailed him. He also needed disciples; he had to be the center of attention, which these substances made him. His slogan “Tune in, turn on, drop out” was a silly siren song.
What followed the psychedelic sixties was a total mess. Our government passed insane drug laws that put a harmless substance like peyote cactus, to which it is impossible to get addicted, in the same class as devastatingly addictive drugs like crack and cocaine. Not a single misdemeanor has ever been connected to peyote, whereas a legal, blatantly advertised drug like alcohol ravages our society. Thirty percent of the cases that turn up in emergency rooms are alcohol-related. Our draconian drug laws are a backlash against the sixties, which, under Leary’s direction, went careening down the wrong path.
Thompson: Are entheogens the only known chemical ways to get a glimpse of that other world?
Smith: No, there are at least two other ways. One is certain infectious diseases that change the brain chemistry. The other is exhaustion. Back in the hunting-and-gathering days, during shortages of food and water, people went on long hunting trips and sometimes suffered exhaustion because they couldn’t afford to let the game get out of sight. The resulting visions became part of their cultures’ cosmologies.
Similar experiences may have played into the origins of the world’s major religions. According to legend, Buddhism came into being after Siddhartha Gautama spent forty-nine days under the bodhi tree with no food or drink. We don’t know whether the story is literally true, but we know that he went through austerities that almost caused his death.
I believe that altered brain chemistry can enable God to enter human beings with such force and clarity that they become prophets. So I think it’s likely that the world’s great religions exploded into history in circumstances where brain chemistry was involved. Now, I don’t go out of my way to say this. In fact, I usually keep it to myself, because I think most people might have their faith shaken by it. But saying that these experiences depend on brain chemistry doesn’t belittle the truth of what they reveal. How God works is a mystery, and a decent respect for this mystery allows for this possibility without problems.
Undoubtedly, the transcendent experience — whatever its source — is the most important experience that a human being can have, because it opens up the certainty that the other world is more real than our quotidian world, in the same way that sunlight is more fundamental than the shadows it casts.
Thompson: Tell me about the genesis of your recent book Why Religion Matters.
Smith: That book is a kind of summary of my fifty-year career studying the major religious traditions. It’s also a very opinionated book. For fifty years I have tried to present a pleasant, smiling face to the world. When I’ve bumped into obstacles along the way that have caused frustration, I’ve mostly just pushed those feelings back down inside me. But I was beginning to feel a little bloated, and I thought I would like to go to my grave having purged all these peeves. And happily I was able to do that in good humor. My favorite reaction to the book is a two-sentence postcard from a scientist friend: “Dear Huston, I am reading your new book. You are having entirely too much fun.”
Thompson: Can you give me an example of what you strike out at in the book?
Smith: I have a personal argument with E.O. Wilson, the leading sociobiologist of today, who thinks we’re all determined by our genes. You know the store Toys-R-Us? Wilson’s view is Genes-R-Us, which I think is wrong. I think he hates religion more than anyone else I know — except my brother, though we remain fond of each other.
Wilson says the struggle between science and religion will be the struggle for the human soul in the twenty-first century, and I think he’s right. But of course he thinks science should win, and I think that science should retain an important place but not take over as our worldview. Wilson also says that religion is easier than science, which strikes a nerve with me. In my book I say something like “Mr. Wilson, when you’ve been thrown to the lions in the Colosseum, and been crucified on Golgotha, and undergone the austerities the Buddha did under the bodhi tree — when you’ve experienced all those things, then it will be time for you to speak about whether religion is easier than science.”
Thompson: Do you think that science and religion can ever come together?
Smith: The world will never be without them both. The question is: do they have to fight, or can we stake out the rightful territory of each and respect those boundaries? The modern world has been ravaged by science’s immense power over nature, and we’ve slipped into the assumption that, because science has done so well with matter, it can speak to such things as values, morals, the afterlife, and so on. That, it cannot do.
Science is a powerful instrument, and a near-perfect one for understanding the material world, but it’s also a very limited viewfinder, because it cannot address anything other than the material world, whereas religion deals with the whole of things. Now, that seems to give religion the advantage, but science can deal far more effectively and precisely with its subject than religion can with its. So that restores the balance between the two.
Thompson: In this country, surveys show that 97 percent of people have religious beliefs. Yet we’re firmly entrenched in the scientific worldview.
Smith: In my book, I use a tunnel metaphor. I think our careless belief that science can give us a view of the entire world has pushed the human spirit into a tunnel, and the human spirit is too important, too large, and too powerful to accept the tunnel as its home in the long run. The light at the end of the tunnel is the possibility that we might bring science and religion into a partnership and end the conflict that has existed for three hundred years.
Thompson: One of the major challenges religion faces is explaining the existence of evil.
Smith: Evil provides the challenge to any view of life and the world. Secular philosophies have no explanation for it, either. Evil is the Rock of Gibraltar on which all rationalistic systems eventually founder and end up in splinters. But religions have another recourse — namely, vision. The “third eye,” the Tibetans call it; the “eye of the soul,” Plato called it; the “eye of the heart,” the Sufis call it. Through it, we see a reality in which good encompasses evil and transmutes it, showing us evil’s true place in the total scheme of things.
In the religious view, good and evil are not evenly matched. Good has the upper hand. William James said that if we were to take the totality of religion and condense it into a single affirmation, it is that the best things are the most enduring things: the things that cast the last stone and speak the final word.
The Book of Job is a classic example of this: An innocent man is visited by innumerable afflictions, ending with boils that place him in physical agony. His friends try to persuade him that this is a just visitation for the evils he has committed, but he won’t accept their explanation. He stands up for his integrity and argues with them and asks them to show him what he has done wrong. In the end, Job doesn’t find a rational answer for why he, a just man, has suffered, but he is granted a glimpse of God so enormous that the question simply dissolves; he sees the place of evil in the total scheme of things. As he puts it, “I had heard of you with the hearing of the ears, but now my eyes have seen you.” So intuitive vision solves the problem of evil for the believer.
If a two-year-old drops her ice-cream cone, it’s the end of the world for her, but not for adults, because we can place it in perspective. The question is: can there be a vision of reality that makes even the worst evils imaginable — like the Holocaust or the plague — seem like a dropped ice-cream cone in comparison to the infinite perfection of the universe? I think there can.
Thompson: What proof do you have to support this?
Smith: It can never be proven, but it is supported by all the great mystics and visionaries, and, in consequence, the world’s great wisdom traditions. Some mystics report discovering this when they were experiencing the greatest anguish imaginable. Saint Francis wrote his famous “Canticle to the Sun,” one of the most glorious paeans to the divine, when his eyes were so damaged that even the flickering light of a candle caused him pain. Saint John Chrysostom was a great Christian preacher and orator, but he ran afoul of the czarina of Russia because he denounced the monarchy for not attending to the poor. He was sentenced to be dragged behind a chariot until dead. As he was greatly loved, the common people lined the street where he was to be executed, and they reported that his last words were “Praise, praise for everything; thanks, thanks for all.”
That’s the final word regarding evil from the religious perspective. When somebody feels the stones of the road banging his head and still believes with that degree of certainty, he speaks with authority.
Thompson: What has been your personal experience with suffering? Have you gone through a dark night of the soul?
Smith: I have had an incredibly blessed life compared with most people, but I have had two brushes with the dark night. In my midforties I spent three years in a deep depression. I was able to go about my duties in a minimal fashion but had absolutely no energy to do anything beyond that. And then, five years ago, my wife and I lost our oldest daughter to cancer. It was an anguish that put my midlife crisis to shame. So I am tempted to say I have had my share of trials, but I know that I have been fortunate.
Thompson: You’ve written about spiritual masters who find peace in situations where there is no hope of resolution. They seem to do it by being more in touch with their grief and sorrow, rather than transcending these emotions. This is rather different from the notion of peace as a place free of conflict.
Smith: There is no such thing in this world as a time when everything will be sunny and happy. The best we can hope for is to come to experience evil and suffering differently, as part of the order of things. It’s like a light coming to shine within the darkness, as opposed to the darkness being pushed to one side.
The happiness we gain from this is paradoxical, because the pain is resident within it. There’s a story of a Zen roshi who liked to walk on the outskirts of his village every evening. As he was returning from his walk one night, he heard wailing in a household where a child had died, and he immediately sat down and started sobbing with the family. The next day some of his disciples said, “You know, your behavior last night was terribly unbecoming. We thought you were beyond all that.” He answered, “It is because I am beyond all that that I sobbed.” He didn’t mean that he was just going through the motions, but that he was truly overcome by tears. This is the paradoxical happiness of the religious life.
Thompson: It’s true that faith can transform our suffering, but faith seems to be something one either has or doesn’t have.
Smith: It’s true: we may do things we think are wrong, but we cannot believe things we think are false. In that sense, faith is not entirely under our control. Yet neither are we totally paralyzed. Faith is something that we can move toward. We can ponder, for example, the words “wiser than despair,” which I find very catalyzing. There are so many problems — global warming, the population explosion, the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor — that it’s easy to despair, but we can at least tell ourselves that despair is not a creative stance and try to look for opportunities to put our strength to good uses.
Thompson: And hopefully, by the grace of God, we will have some experiences that keep our faith going. Have you had personal encounters with God?
Smith: I’m what Carl Jung would call “the thinking type,” and what the Hindus would call a “jnana yogi” — one who finds the way to God through understanding or knowledge. This has nothing to do with encyclopedias or logic, however. It’s more like an intuitive knowing. We all come upon thin places between this world and the other — rifts in the clouds where suddenly we see a crack of light.
Yes, I have had such experiences, some of major importance. The one I’m thinking of at the moment is my daughter’s horrendous ordeal: seven months of sarcoma cancer. There was no hope of recovery, but there was her courage, her buoyancy of spirit, and it was an inspiration. We drew strength from it.
Within those seven months fell my birthday, Father’s Day, and her birthday, and my wife and I were going up to Santa Rosa every week to visit our daughter. How could I bear for her to wish me a happy birthday for the last time? And how could I wish her a happy birthday? And yet, when we drove back, there was this paradoxical happiness. It was the light shining within the darkness. The spear of suffering turned into shafts of light.
Thompson: I wonder if you could leave us with a favorite prayer.
Smith: It’s hard for me to pick one favorite, but I have a favorite within each tradition. Here is my favorite Hindu prayer, a Sanskrit chant that translates as “Lead us from the unreal to the real. Lead us from darkness to light. Lead us from death to immortal life. Peace, peace, peace.”