Remembering Huston Smith 1919-2016

Huston Smith died at the end of the last week of December, 2016. The man had a large and generous heart. His life’s work involved opening his own spirit to the religious experience of people around the world, without abandoning, renouncing or growing out of the Christian center of himself.  An expansive, spiritual human being, he taught young college-student seekers (some of whom had been hurt by religious experience) with rigor and sympathy.

Smith taught for many years in the philosophy department at MIT. He wrote about the relation between science and religion:

Science makes major contributions to minor needs, Justice Holmes was fond of saying, adding that religion, however small its successes, is at least at work on the things that matter most.

He began his life happily, as the child of Methodist missionaries in China. His life seemed to continue in a general arc of happiness until the end.  In his scholarship and teaching he searched for the soft, living center within the worlds great religions.

Huston Smith thought that the religious traditions of the world could make people kinder, more aware of–and in wonder of–the world around them,  more engaged and responsible citizens in community.

Huston Smith:

-Without attention, the human sense of wonder and the holy will stir occasionally, but to become a steady flame it must be tended.

-[Religions] widen understanding, give meaning, provide solace, promote loving-kindness, and connect human being to human being.

-I would not say that ethical behavior is not possible for the atheist or agnostic. It is. A couple of pretty good examples are Bertrand Russell and Jean-Paul Sartre. However, I will have to say that if we take the human lot as a whole, these two men must be seen as exceptions.

-I don’t want to justify religion in terms of its benefits to us. I believe that, on balance, it does a lot of bad things, too — a tremendous amount. But I don’t think that the final justification of religion is the good it does for people. I think the final justification is that it’s true, and truth takes priority over consequences. Religion helps us deal with what is most important to the human spirit: values, meaning, purpose, and quality.

-Historically, religion has given people another world to live in, a world more adaptive to the human spirit. As a student of world religions, I see religion as the winnower of the wisdom of the human race. Of course, not everything about these religions is wise. Their social patterns, for example — master-slave, caste, and gender relations — have been adopted from the mores of their time. But in their view of the nature of reality, there is nothing in either modernity or postmodernity that rivals them.

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