Religious historian Huston Smith believes Christianity would never have existed if, at the time, “spirit had not been real and dense and palpable and evident to everyone around.” And he finds the intimate relationship between the Jews and their God “a living conversation between the human and the divine that goes on generation after generation.” In this episode of Wisdom of Faith, Smith discusses his own Methodist faith and his admiration for the Jewish faith of his son-in-law. Ultimately, he concludes, “God is everywhere.”
WATCH A CLIP
BILL MOYERS, Host: I’m Bill Moyers. We find variations of the Golden Rule in every one of the world’s great religions. But despite what they have in common, the major faiths differ in profound ways that each considers non-negotiable. So, in a world riven with beliefs both sacred and profane, how can we hold our truth to be “The Truth” when others see truth so differently? The answer, according to Huston Smith -we listen. We listen to what others say about their experience of reality. This doesn’t mean we have to turn away from our own religion. To the contrary, we just need to dig deeper into it, because at a certain depth in our own faith we strike what Huston Smith calls the “water table of common humanity.” It’s there we discover and understand what others have seen, and can listen to them as alertly as we hope they will listen to us. This has been Huston Smith’s way. When he set out to comb the enduring religions of the world for what they have to say about love, ethics, virtue and justice, he began by listening close to home.
Huston Smith’s best-selling book Religions of Man, first published in 1958 and recently revised as The World’s Religions, established his reputation. It is the summary of his own life’s adventure, as scholar and as seeker, circling the world to visit synagogues and temples, monasteries and shrines. As a teacher at MIT, Syracuse, and now at the University of California at Berkeley, he has shared with his students the fruits of this life-long pilgrimage.
For all his globetrotting, Huston Smith keeps returning here to Berkeley, where he lives with his wife, Kendra, and to the nearby Methodist church. Smith was raised a Methodist, and a Methodist he remains. In this hour of our extended visit, we journey into the heart of Christianity and Judaism in search of the wisdom of faith.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think people pray?
HUSTON SMITH, Historian of Religion: What else? What else to do at times? We have to first distinguish that there are many kinds of prayer. A drowning man or woman–I think it is natural that that person would cry out for help. I mean, never–if I talk about myself, it’s not physical drowning, but I went through a mid-life crisis where I just saw no way out and there was just desperation. And there were afternoons when I was alone in the house where I would just cry out loud. I was at the end of my tether. And I found myself just spontaneously crying “Help! Help! Help me!” It didn’t matter if there was anybody there that heard, or I wasn’t even thinking whether there was anybody there that could hear that cry. The cry was just yanked out of me. And that’s petitionary prayer in various degrees of need.
But that’s only one kind. One moves on to the prayer of praise. I came across this fragment from Annie Dillard, who said “When they come to their last moment, the prayer of the dying is not “Please,” it is “Thank you.” Just as a guest, on leaving a happy evening will thank the host at the door. Now, that’s the prayer of gratitude and praise and thanksgiving. And then, beyond that, there is the prayer of silence, where it’s just so overwhelming that words do not have any-can’t do justice, so we just choke them back, and it is the prayer of union. The whole life is learning how to pray. And the guideline, as we try to learn, is to try to pray with the heart, which means put into words so we can understand the deepest strata of our being that we’re always trying to understand. So it’s a very fumbling, very fumbling kind of prayer, but it is connected with understanding.
BILL MOYERS: What do you think prayer does for us? In your case, in your owning the solving of the resolution of your own personal crisis, what does it do?
HUSTON SMITH: I think the need-one way to put the need in human life is a sense of ultimate belonging. I think the great wisdom traditions say that though we’re in exile, this is a temporary situation, that we were created for belonging. We belonged at the first. We’re now in exile in certain ways, which unfolds certain possibilities and brings out certain capacities within us. But that the bottom line is belonging. Now, I think in times of crisis, if one prays the prayer of “please,” or “help,” at least by that very gesture, there is an implication of a possible connection with a world, a reality, which is not indifferent to us, or estranged from us.
BILL MOYERS: Jesus, himself, stood in a tradition that stretched back to the beginnings of modern history. The world of Jesus, like the world of the Hebrew prophets, was a world filled with spirits. You describe him as having the “spiritual eye. ” What do you mean by that?
HUSTON SMITH: Well, we’re not in a very good position in the modern West to try to understand the mentality of a thoroughly and truly deeply religious people for whom there was another reality that was just so infinitely more mysterious and powerful. The most important thing to me has come to be those nights that Jesus went off alone and prayed all night, the whole night in prayer. Now, what do you think was going on in that prayer? I’ll tell you, because many answers could pop out. We have to think of it as a different state of reality, those nights in prayer. I think he was, you might say, dunking himself, he was saturating himself in that reality of spirit, like a sponge. That reality came into him and it’s no wonder that when he went back in the world, he wasn’t sleepy, but that he could do his works of power, because that spirit has a different ontological reality, isn’t just a different quality that you experience. It is a metaphysical power that drenched his life, and therefore made him able to go back to the workaday world and of course the most obvious in the New Testament record is the charismatic character it gave him.
He would go-start talking on a hillside. The people would press so densely, he’d have to get in a boat and go out. Otherwise, he’d be pushed into the water. Throngs of 5,000 would crowd around and stay for three days without food. I mean, this is charisma, and the charisma comes from that spirit that he derived from this intimate to me, it’s like he became a channel and the spirit just came into him.
There wouldn’t be a Christian Church today, there wouldn’t be a Christian tradition in human history if this spirit that we’ve been talking about had not been real and dense and palpable to the point you could almost cut it and evident to everyone around, because that’s what drew the early converts.
BILL MOYERS: Do you find it as fascinating as I do that it’s impossible to discover precisely what Jesus thought of himself?
HUSTON SMITH: Yeah, I think it is. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the bottom of it. The doctrine of the incarnation itself insists that he was both God and man. That human part has to be honored as much as the divine part, which suggests that he may never have known completely. It may have been a mystery to him all the way through. lf we begin with the baptism, I personally do not think that he was sure that he was the son of God and that that experience, when the heavens opened and the dove descended, set him back no end. In fact, so much that he had to go to the wilderness for 40 days to try to think this through. “What does this mean?” And when he asked his disciples “Who do you say that I am?” In a way, he’s asking for help, just try-“Come on. Help me. What do people say as I try to think this through,” and all the way to the crucifixion, “Why hast Thou forsaken me?” I think we have to take these as not make believe. He’s just not mouthing these things. It is the constant effort to understand who-who he is.
BILL MOYERS: How do you come to grips with the fact that he spoke of a radical scheme of values -you know, “Love your neighbor as yourself. What you would like people to do to you, do to them.” And he talked about outcasts and whores being invited into the kingdom of heaven before any of the typically or self-admittedly righteous.
HUSTON SMITH: There, he enters into his prophetic mode, the denunciation of the phoniness of society and the way it is structured by values contrary to what the values of-if we could just say a loving home would be like. And there he is absolutely like a red-bearded prophet lashing out against the phoniness, the corruption of our time which sets these barriers between children of God.
BILL MOYERS: You write about the first Christians in your book very beautifully as a people of joy and love. And you say they really did -no doubt about it -feel the love of God.
HUSTON SMITH: Absolutely. The message was not just words. It was translated into the way people actually behaved towards one another.
BILL MOYERS: Central to what happened to them, however, was their belief that the Jesus they had encountered after the Resurrection was a physical reality, that he was the real thing. And the Church grew from that explosive experience. of a risen savior, as they say. Do you have a hard time with the notion of resurrection?
HUSTON SMITH: It would be difficult for a modem mind not to have trouble with it. We do not know whether the empty tomb suggests resuscitation, that it was actually the physical body that was raised. But there are other accounts in the Gospel that suggest that it was more like a-the glorified body. So the evidence is ambiguous as to whether it was the original body or it was a more ethereal body that could pass through doors and things like that, which the original body could not have done. But these are not proofs. And when you ask “Is it difficult?” Yes, it is difficult, but it is not impossible.
BILL MOYERS: What is clear from the record is that the first Christians believed it had happened. Whatever had happened, it had happened.
HUSTON SMITH: Absolutely.
BILL MOYERS: The invisible power that they gained from their conviction became the catalyst that changed their world.
HUSTON SMITH: Absolutely, and there are their accounts that they did encounter the risen Christ in one mode or another, though the mode is ambiguous from the account. But certainly there’s no doubt but that it was this conviction that death was not the last word, that here was a spiritual power which could rise from the dead, and had supremacy over the natural laws of this world.
The cross-the cross. The central symbol of Christianity. The horizontal arms reach out to other people -love your neighbor as yourself. And the vertical axis goes up to one’s relationship with the Divine. Now, that’s abstract, but if we get concrete, we all know that in the ancient world and maybe for all time, the crucifixion was the most agonizing, agonizing form of death. What this symbolizes for the believing Christian is how much God loves his people. What greater love could be shown than the voluntary willingness to take on this agony? So often we hear’ ‘Look at the world, what a shape it’s in. If God exists, why doesn’t God do something?” To which the discerning and knowledgeable Christian answers “What would you have him do, more than this?” Of course He could flash miracles and set things in straight, but that’s not the idea, the idea that this is a joint venture between the Divine and human. And if you give your child freedom, you’re not going to coerce, but you are going to set the most compelling behavior before the child that would induce and lead the child’s freedom into the kind of behavior that will save both the child and gratify the father. And that, I think, is the deepest, deepest meaning of the cross.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the chief wisdom you think that Christianity has bequeathed the world?
HUSTON SMITH: That God is love. Now, other traditions do not deny that, but they do not place it in the centrality of the faith. The Trinity supports that point, because in Christianity, one cannot think of a god who is not loving, and loving requires a relationship on which the love can be bestowed and from which it can be received, in tum.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that wisdom has offset the affliction that Christianity has brought? I mean, not just the Inquisition and the Crusades, but when Christianity was brought to Norway, the king gave the people their choice -they could believe or they could be put to death. And the story of Christianity is full, once the power of the Church was wedded to the power of the State, with this kind of example of force and terror in the name of God.
HUSTON SMITH: There’s no objective balancing of the record. We know that every institution is flawed and it brings certain benefits for which it was instituted, but it also-there’s no such thing as a pretty institution. And as to which predominates, there is no objective gauge. I like Rama Krishna’s homey way of putting it. He said “Religion is like a cow. It kicks, but it gives milk, too,” and I’m not sure that we can come any closer to balancing the record with more precision than that.
One more point, and that is that the evils are objective. They are in broad daylight and the news media can pick them up and so on. So, they are constantly being dinned in our attention, into our attention. But no one can look into the heart of another human being, and the real, real gifts, benefits that religion brings is in those moments of choice, day by day, moment by moment. Are we going to opt for the larger life, the more magnanimous, the more courageous life, or give in?
[sound of a choir singing]
PREACHER: And now for the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus reinforced his message that his good news included a God who opened a table to all of creation and all of humanity, no matter how marginalized, no matter how outcast, no matter where they lived or who they were, God’s table of fellowship was open to everyone.
Now, please receive the benediction and go in the love of God, and may that love encircle you, confront and challenge you, and comfort you. And let us carry that love to each person that we meet. In the Creator, and the Christ and the Holy Spirit, let us go forth in peace. Amen.
BILL MOYERS: Huston Smith writes “Though the language Jesus used was new, all the teachings of Jesus have counterparts in the Old Testament or Talmud. ” His scholarly interest in Judaism began long ago, when he attended Divinity School at the University of Chicago. It wasn’t until his family was joined with a Jewish family in marriage that he began to steep himself in the elements of Jewish tradition and worship.
[interviewing] I was taken with how you opened your chapter on Judaism in your
book, with this beautifully composed image of tradition.
HUSTON SMITH: Isn’t that wonderful? The elements of the Shabbat, and we’re fortunate because one of our daughters fell in love with, married, a conservative Jew and converted. And so, over the years we have had the joy of being with them at that Shabbat meal where the family is together, the lighting of the candles, the showers taken by everyone after a workaday, hectic week and coming out in clean and attractive clothes and the quiet, the world put aside. And then the lighting of the candles and the ritual. I envy-as a Christian, I envy the rituals of the Sabbath and how intact it is kept, welcoming as a bride. And I’d always seen that as just a metaphor, you know? How can you welcome the day with all the feelings of welcoming your bride, and yet it’s really there.
BILL MOYERS: Don’t you think it means something to us that we’ve lost in our way the holiness of the Sabbath?
HUSTON SMITH: Oh, I think it’s a tremendous loss and I’m the worst of sinners on this. I just have not been able to-I grew up as a boy in that, but somehow it slipped away and I’m inclined to think that if there was one regret, one thing that I wish was different, is that I had hewed to that day of rest, but not just physical rest restoration.
BILL MOYERS: On the basis of your own scholarship, research, exploration of Judaism, and on the basis of your own experience with Judaism through your daughter’s family, what would you most like a stranger to know about this ancient faith?
HUSTON SMITH: Well, my son-in-law, who is deeply-his life is just steeped in Polish background, Polish Jew, in this -he tells me what he would like most to understand his religion is the meaning and the role of sacrifice which is so central and runs all the way through it. You can say “OK, we owe a lot to God so we should give something back to God,” but that’s just the surface reading of it, and it just reaches far deeper into it. So, if you ask me what I would most like to understand, I think I’ve taken it over. We’ve talked many Saturday Sabbath afternoons about this and really thrown up our hands. I would like to have a profound-get to the bottom of what is the role of sacrifice in Judaism, how much a life can just be poured into the mold of that tradition.
The example of a life which doesn’t seek to sort of build its own trajectory so much as to pour itself into the mold of this tradition. This beautiful tree, the tree of life, maybe, rising out of the Torah because the Torah has been given to the Jewish people and sustains their incredible, incredible odyssey against the most unbelievable odds, and yet survived. And it goes back to the first verse of the Torah, “In the beginning, God created the heavens,” and these crucial additional words “and the earth.” And then, of course, before that first crucial chapter is over, why, Yahweh is looking upon all His creation and we remember the words “And behold, it was very good.” This shows the very good, it gives a lilt to the whole attitude toward nature.
BILL MOYERS: We’re talking here about an ancient people who wandered into history on a postage stamp of a land. Something lifted them out of that obscurity to greatness. What do you think it was?
HUSTON SMITH: If we look at it in historical terms, it was the Exodus, which took a milling band of nondescript people, in bondage, and forged them into a nation through their collective escape. But that’s only the beginning of an answer. What enabled that to happen? And of course their answer has been consistently “Don’t put any credit in us. We didn’t have it within us to do this.” Their answer is that “There was a power -we call it Yahweh -Who was masterminding this whole thing and He chose us to be His emissaries, to bring forth within this bewildered world the deepest truths about the nature of reality that there is.” So their answer is “We’re the chosen people.”
BILL MOYERS: But what we forget is that they were chosen, in their own mind, not for privilege, but for responsibility.
HUSTON SMITH: Exactly-exactly. If one looks at that beleaguered people as they make their-at first just a little trickle of a way through history, and the problems that beset them, enough to cause most people to just cave in. And yet somehow this notion of a chosen people seems historically to ring right, that they never buckled under. They never backed off. And no matter how impossible the situation seemed, they kept looking for “What is the meaning of this?” That passion and tenacity with which they held to that, that at each epochal stage in their development, something else came to light and they saw the meaning, and that carried them until they came to the next crisis, when that ran out, and then they had to look for something further.
Whatever the disaster that befell them -and one can name it all the way down to the Holocaust, but the equivalents of that down the way -whatever it is, they never give up and say “Well, that’s the way it is. We live in an unjust world.” They always say “What is there within us that can see that this is-there’s a message in this. We have to go deeper in our understanding of what the challenge of life affords.” So I see meaning as saying the problem is not in the way life-history is structured. There is a meaningful pattern. It may be very hard to find, but if we can find that Ariadne thread, then we can move through this anguish, this difficulty, in a way that leads into other pastures.
BILL MOYERS: In our discussion on Confucianism, we both agreed that conscience, as the Confucianists see it, arises from the need to have a civilized agreement among us that this is how we will behave, so that we can co-exist. But is your reading of the Hebrew story that conscience arises from this experience with God, this continuing argument over what is the purpose of history and how are we to act in the world? .
HUSTON SMITH: That’s true. It’s a different way. Both are social views, but there is a difference in that in the case of Confucius, that sense of a personal relationship with heaven was more muted. But for the Jews, God was a ever-present and prominent reality in very personal terms. And sometimes, the Jews being a feisty, upstanding people, they get into altercations with their God, and call Him to task for the way He is behaving or not behaving. And that goes right down in a kind of endearing, charming way in the Rabbinical tradition. You probably know the simple story about the two rabbis that would gather every Saturday morning to dispute on Torah and they were hung up on a point. And the big one was contending one thing, and the other one-rabbi was quite tiny, and so on.
And they never could come to an agreement, so finally the big one said “Well, let’s appeal to God. Who’s right?” And so they did and there was this blast of smoke and the big finger coming in, pointing at the big one, saying’ ‘He’s right.” Whereupon the little one said “OK. That makes it two against one.” [laughs]
I mean, this kind of intimacy in relationship I find quite unique among the world’s traditions where there’s more awe, stand off-ish and bowing and reverence, but not this kind of intimacy.
So it’s a living conversation between the human and the Divine that goes on generation after generation, probably will have no stop.
BILL MOYERS: Has there ever been anywhere else in history a group as remarkable as the Hebrew prophets?
HUSTON SMITH: Not in their way. They are an extraordinary band. You do not find the likes of them. In the moral desert in which they found themselves, they uttered words which the world has not been able to forget.
BILL MOYERS: What do we owe these prophets?
HUSTON SMITH: The thing that comes first to mind is their insistence on justice, and basically the prophetic principle comes down to the thesis that no society ridden by injustice is going to last. In other words, this is a yardstick for society, and, to the extent to which it is lived up to, exemplified, put into practice, that society has a future. But to the extent that we deviate from it, then no hope-no hope.
BILL MOYERS: I like the single sentence which you used to summarize the prophets’ message -~’God has high standards.” That’s what they consistently were saying. And they said it to everyone, kings alike.
HUSTON SMITH: Pomp and circumstances and power meant nothing in comparison with justice and purity and mercy. And so it is that whenever people, right down to our day, go to history for encouragement and support in the continuing struggle for justice, it’s to the prophets that they go. It moves over into Christianity in Mary’s Magnificat where my soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices. He has put down the exalted and lifted up those of low degree. He has sent the full away empty, and the poor He has nourished. Dean loge said there was more social dynamite in Mary’s Magnificat than there was in the Communist Manifesto and that comes directly from the prophets and right down to today, Martin Luther King, in his climactic speech.
MARTIN LUTHER KING: I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
HUSTON SMITH: Every valley will be lifted up and every mountain made low and the crooked shall be made straight and the glory of the Lord will be evident to everyone -all of this comes from the prophets.
If we look at what the Jews came up with in their vision of the nature of god and the requirements of Yahweh for justice, for mercy, it’s head and shoulders above the other religions of that era. But once it was in place -and it took centuries and ordeals and Babylonian captivity, anguish -but once it was in place, now here’s my theory, that was too important to keep to an ethnic people because Judaism is an ethnic religion where genealogy is important. And those truths had to break out of this people to belong to-made party to the world. That’s why Christianity broke off, and just in passing my theory, the same thing happened in India because Hinduism is an ethnic religion. I could never be an orthodox Hindu because I don’t have a caste position. It’s an ethnic religion, but again, the truths that they arrived at were so important, you can’t bottle them up for a particular people. They have to break out to the world at large. So again, you have an ethnic religion leading to Buddhism, breaking away from it, which is a world religion. It’s an exact parallel in the Near East and in Southeast Asia of the same phenomena.
BILL MOYERS: You practice yoga, meditation. You’re at home in the sacred literature of the world, of all the world’s great religions, and yet you still worship in a Methodist church. How is it that you’ve had these encounters and yet you remain a Christian?
HUSTON SMITH: Well, it seems like the same truths being announced in different idioms, but these traditions are needed to flesh out the full spiritual capacities of the human race-human beings. But when-I find no conflict between them. As I have said on occasion, I have a body and a soul and my body continues to belong to the tradition in which it was born. It was a good experience. The transmission was effected. But my soul cannot be contained in any institution. Like al-Ghazali said-he said, “My soul is a mosque for the Muslims, a temple for the Hindus, an altar for the Zoroastrians, a grazing pasture for gazelles.”
BILL MOYERS: A religious scholar recently wrote “Religions are like rivers dynamic and changing, bearing the heritage of the past to water the fields of the present.” The convergence of these great traditions was never more important to Huston Smith than in his time of greatest need. He and his family drew deep nourishment from the Jewish traditions which enfolded them when their daughter, Karen, died last year of cancer. For seven days, they sat shiva, the Jewish ritual of morning, with her husband and his family, surrounded by a community brought together in death, as in life. Have you changed your idea of death since your daughter died recently?
HUSTON SMITH: Not in terms of formal categories, but profoundly in terms of experience, in terms of experience. That is to say I always believed, with increasing assurance as the years have gone by, that death is-the body is not the whole of a person and that death is not the total end of the person. But I had never-I’m not given much to paranormal experiences. I believe in certain kinds of them and I know many people who do have those, but I’m pretty flat-footed on those. But you mention our daughter, and when our daughter died, I had a full-blown–I can’t imagine any more powerful experiential sense of her presence. I’ve read enumerable accounts of people sensing a spiritual presence which could not be detected by any sense receptors, and yet in some uncanny way, one knew was there. I’d read about those. And they will say’ ‘I could no more have doubted that that spirit was there than I could have doubted that my body was sitting in this chair. And since her death, I have had that experience, which I’d never had-never thought I would have.
BILL MOYERS: Do these six great religions, these wisdom traditions you’ve been studying for more than 60 years now–do they say anything in common about death?
HUSTON SMITH: They all say that death in this body is not the end. Moreover, it’s not the journey’s end because there is more work to be done in either coming back on this planet, as reincarnation would say, or in other realms–Bardo’s other states of being, before we’re ready to enter into our final repose and destination.
BILL MOYERS: Your friend, Aldous Huxley, wrote “There comes a time when one asks of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, ‘Is this all?’ ” Have you asked that question?
HUSTON SMITH: Yes, but not as seriously, because I pretty early on assumed that it wasn’t all. That is to say, wondrous as these are, this is not the ultimate, great though it is.
BILL MOYERS: Was there a time, when your three daughters were young and they came to you and said “Daddy, who is God?” Or “Tell me about God.”
HUSTON SMITH: [laughs] They had discussions among themselves and I overheard one of those that has stayed in my memory. It was a Sunday night, they’d gone to bed. And the older one, who was about maybe six years old, said “You know, all this talk about God. What are they talking about? You know, I can’t make any sense out of it.” And Gail, three years younger, three or four, said “Oh, I can. It’s not difficult at all. It’s easy.” “Oh, you don’t understand.” This is the older one to her younger sibling. “You just think you understand.” “Oh, no. I really understand. What they’re saying is God is everything; God is everywhere; God is in me.” Just there it is, in the minds of babes. She got the point in-at her level.
BILL MOYERS: And the point is?
HUSTON SMITH: The point is, God is everywhere.
This transcript was entered on April 2, 2015.