Books Magazine

Grand Old Scholar Huston Smith

By Cris

He has been billed on book leaves as “the most learned and literary contemporary writer on the history of religions” and in newspapers as “one of the world’s most important writers and thinkers on religions of the world.” He has taught at prestigious universities and was chair of the philosophy department at MIT. He has written 15 books and has 12 honorary degrees. I’m embarrassed to say that, until today, I’ve never heard of him.

In today’s LA Times there is an admiring portrait of comparative religion scholar Huston Smith, who just published his latest book at the remarkable age of 93. Good for him. After doing some reading about Smith and his many books, I’ve learned that he is a religion scholar of the emic variety — he doesn’t just study religions, he practices and espouses them.

While it’s hard to argue with someone whose world religions book has sold more than 2 million copies, I noticed this oddity in the article:

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Smith has tried to promote what he says is the genuine message of Islam, a tradition he describes as “a Mecca of order, meaning, beauty and understanding.” It is unfortunate, he argues in the chapter “My Three Religions,” that “when my countrymen look to the Middle East (especially since9/11) they often look with eyes of fear and foreboding. In the West today, no religion is more misunderstood than Islam; on both sides religion has gotten hijacked by politics. When I think how the Islam I saw by the light of spirituality is now obscured by the dark of ideology, my heart becomes heavy indeed.”

Smith apparently has ascertained the “genuine” message of Islam, which seems a bit problematic for a scholar. It’s one thing to describe a tradition in all its messy social constructions, it’s quite another to identify and fix a particular strand of it as “genuine” or authentic. And it’s just naive not to recognize that religion — like any kind of knowledge, is inherently political or ideological.

Given Smith’s standing, I’ve ordered several of his books, albeit not without misgiving. He obviously doesn’t care much for science or materialism or critique.


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