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Huston Smith and the Parliament of the World’s Religions

By Rob Sellers


All of us can look back over our lives and identify people who have been significant role models. One of those persons for me has been Huston Smith. Perhaps the most important American scholar of religions for five decades, Smith was born the son of Methodist missionaries in Dzang Dok, China, where he spent the first 17  years of his life. Now 96 and confined to a favorite chair in an assisted-living apartment in Berkeley, California, the old gentleman – eyes sparkling – still “banters in Chinese with his friend, Mr. Lin, the maintenance man” (Lisa Miller, “Huston Smith’s Wonderful Life,” The Daily Beast, 2009).

Rob Sellers (right) meeting Huston Smith in 2006.

Rob Sellers (right) meeting Huston Smith in 2006.

I read and admired Smith’s premier work, The Religions of Man (1958) many years ago, a book that has sold more than 2.5 million copies, was renamed The World’s Religions, and has been reprinted more than sixty times. My own life experience for 25 years, living and working in the religiously plural and multicultural world of Java, Indonesia, caused the book I had read in my seminary class in world religions to be fascinatingly illustrated in the lives of my neighbors, friends, and acquaintances of many faiths.

But it was the chance to meet Huston Smith personally that made such a profound impact upon me. While attending a conference entitled “The World’s Religions after 9-11” in Montreal, Canada, in 2006, I sat very close to the front of a huge convention hall to hear him address thousands of conferees from all over the globe. Unable to stand at the podium, Smith was seated at a table at center stage. With a gentle demeanor and voice projection dimmed by age, he nonetheless held the audience spellbound. At the conclusion of the session, I rushed to the platform to meet him. Rather than tower above this seated and frail world religions giant, I knelt beside his chair, took his hand, and said, “Dr. Smith, you are one of my heroes.” Without pausing, he smiled and replied, “And if I knew you I’m sure that you would be one of my heroes too!”

I’ve thought about that response many times. Here was a man who has spoken all over the globe, been a close friend of Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, and the Dalai Lama, held teaching posts at Syracuse University, MIT, and Berkeley, written more than a dozen important books, studied and observed ritual practices of Vedanta Hinduism, Zen Buddhism, and Sufi Islam for more than a decade each, and has been the subject of numerous articles, books, dissertations, and an award-winning PBS series with Bill Moyers, now affirming me as a person who would inspire and instruct him in some way, if only we were able to know one another better. This humble spirit, desire to keep on learning, and willingness to affirm others are secrets to the man’s greatness.

British essayist Pico Iyer, in his introduction to Smith’s autobiography, Tales of Wonder: Adventures in Chasing the Divine, quotes Henry David Thoreau, who wrote: “To set about living a true life is to go [on] a journey to a distant country, gradually to find ourselves surrounded by new scenes and men” (“Foreward,” HarperOne, 2009, xi). That philosophy is certainly mine, as it has been Huston Smith’s. Journeying to distant countries, participating in fascinating cultural activities, and discovering and developing new friends – these experiences are the learning laboratories that have changed my own life. My encounters with serious followers of other faith traditions have made me a better Christian. Their devotion to God, as they understand the Divine, and their commitment to walking an ethical Path have challenged my own devotion to God and desire to live on the Way. Experiences with the Religious Other and the lessons I have drawn from them – how visibly these threads of meaning seem to lead back to this elderly interfaith hero.

One of the ways Smith explored religious meaning is frequently cited in articles about him. He was at Harvard University participating in psychedelic experiments with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (also known as Ram Dass). He was engaged in the Harvard Project, which sought to raise spiritual awareness through the use of entheogenic plants. But Smith, the Methodist missionary kid and committed Christian, looks back on that period of research with a singularly orthodox eye, claiming: “The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits” (www.circlesoflight.com).

The Future of the Parliament of the World’s Religions

What a truism for guiding my days, especially in the coming months as I settle into my work as chair of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. One of the things I most want to promote through the Parliament – in our newsletter, blog, webinars, programs, public appearances, and international summits and conferences – is “altered traits.” I would love for the Parliament to be known not only as the interfaith entity that can successfully bring together thousands of religious inquirers and enthusiasts from around the world for multi-day celebrations of harmony, dialogue, and inspiration, but also as the facilitator, educator, and mentor for hundreds of grassroots interfaith organizations that will join with us in helping to alter negative attitudes and destructive behaviors toward persons who follow other spiritual paths.

Yet, I know that not many of us have the worldwide fame, communication skills, or practiced wisdom of Huston Smith. I certainly do not. So I recognize the need to partner with others so that our shared efforts will be more powerful and transformative. One of my hopes, therefore, is that the Parliament can link its efforts and talents with other interfaith stakeholders. I long to be seated at a Round Table, listening to, learning from, and working with leaders of other groups who share the Parliament’s vision for helping to create more justice, peace, and sustainability in the world. I am committed to “heroic interfaithing,” in the tradition of my role model who has spent a lifetime “chasing the Divine” adventurously.

When all of my ongoing study and program planning are finally completed, when academic pursuits, world travel, intriguing engagements, and busy schedules are reduced to simple days spent confined to a chair in assisted living, will people be able to look at my life – as they most certainly do look at Huston Smith’s life today – and judge that my traits were clearly altered by my faith and exemplified others? I pray so.