does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tales of Wonder by Huston Smith, A Book Review

Two strands thread prominently throughout my writing and this blog: multiculturalism and religion. More than any other person, Huston Smith, the now 90-year-old philosophy professor and religious scholar, has informed my thinking about the intersection of culture and religion. His landmark book, The World’s Religions, has sold almost 3 million copies and is a standard textbook in introductory comparative religion classes. Now, in the twilight of a long life in which he has published more than 15 books, taught at various universities, hosted TV shows, and traveled the world several times over, he has consented at last to tell his unusual and riveting life story in Tales of Wonder.

Born in a remote Chinese village to American Methodist missionaries, Huston Smith learned early about differing cultural and religious points of view. His was the only Caucasian and, originally the only Christian, family in a place which also had followers of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and folk religion. This variety would later serve Smith well as he studied the world’s religions. It would turn out to be critical in his ultimately becoming a follower of the major religions, as well as of the folk and primal ones, all while he " ... never canceled my subscription to Christianity."

After he came to the States for higher education, Smith shed his parents' fundamentalist Methodist tradition and practiced a more secular, social activist version of Christianity. In this, he was influenced by his father-in-law Henry Wieman, the subject of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s doctoral thesis. Eventually, under the influence of other western and eastern teachers, Huston Smith came to embrace a mysticism which defines his religious views to this day.

In his introduction to Tales of Wonder, Pico Iyer says, “Professor Smith … created his own field, by not really comparing religions so much as encountering each one in turn and trying to find its burning core as well as its philosophical uniqueness.” Smith then presents his fascinating autobiography in two parts. Part I describes the historical markers of his life. Part II discusses his personal experiences with Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, mysticism, primal religions, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs.

Smith’s amazing life began with a Medieval-like upbringing in China but then went on to his becoming a professor at some of the finest universities in America and being acknowledged internationally as one of our pre-eminent religious communicators. Along the way, he has been on the frontlines of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, danced with Sufis, meditated around the clock for days with his Japanese Zen master, and helped Native Americans gain the legal right to use peyote in their religious rites. Even the Dalai Lama has acknowledged Smith as one of his spiritual teachers.

With such a complex tapestry of experiences and with Smith's first-rate writing skills, his autobiography promised to be fascinating. Tales of Wonder met brilliantly the challenge of describing this unique man. It also satisfied his life-long mission to promote understanding among differing religions. As always, Huston Smith appoaches his religious subjects in a phenomenological way, treating each religion with respect and without judgment. Given how divisive religion has been historically, Smith, in his life and in his writing, may have found the secret to helping us all get along.


Ann Victor said...

My husband (who has a serious interest in comaprative religion)has several Huston Smith books. I'm delighted to hear about this autobiography (which sounds fascinating) and am about to pop over to Amazon to see if it's available to order or pre-order.

Thanks for the tip Judith!

(Win one of five unique prizes from South Africa in the Christmas Contest on my blog)

Sun Singer said...

This is going to be a wonderful reading experience. Thanks for lighting my way to it with your fine review.


Nevine said...

I have read many books about religion, and very few that were non-judgmental. So then, this book intrigues me because you mention that Smith discusses religions of the world without judging. It must be a taxing job to try and do such a thing, especially if the person writing the book does ascribe to a certain religion. But I have found that people who have studied religion and chosen for themselves, versus people who were born into the religion that they continue to practice throughout their lives, are better able to write without judging because they have experienced more than one angle of religious experience.

Thank you for the review, Judith. It was engaging in that it drew me to the book being reviewed, and that seldom happens for me.


Sheila Deeth said...

Thanks for this introduction. He's certainly a fascinating person and the book sounds great from your review.

A Cuban In London said...

Fascinating life. And the fact that - at least from a distance - his work doesn't come across as judgemental is a bigger plus.

Many thanks. By coincidence you will be featured in my post next Sunday 20th Dec. :-)

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Nevine, as someone who has been on all sides of the religious question, I've developed a pretty hard skin for resisting religious BS. It may simply be me, but Huston Smith seems like the real deal.

Sheila, we should all have had such an interesting life. If for no other reason than that, I find Smith interesting.

Cuban, I would have loved to experienced at least some of the things Smith has done in his long life so his book was vicarious enjoyment.