Huston Smith, a campus visiting professor of religious studies, died in his Berkeley home Friday after a long battle with illness. He was 97.
Smith was deeply committed to demonstrating the similarities between and merits of different major religions, particularly in regards to the greater understanding of religious truth. By publishing The World’s Religions in 1958 and selling millions of copies, Smith helped popularize the notion of interfaith dialogue and harmony.
“Nowadays, religions feel so different and isolated from each other, and they have so many disagreements among themselves,” said Swami Vedananda, Smith’s friend and a senior monk at the Vedanta Society of Northern California. “Huston Smith was able to bridge these differences and show that each religion, at its depths, were describing the same fundamental reality.”
Smith was born and raised in China by Methodist missionary parents. He eventually left for the United States to pursue a college education and later became a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
There, Smith sought to expand his view on world religions and approached Swami Satprakashananda, leader at the time of the Vedanta Society of St. Louis, to learn more. According to Vedananda, Smith drew inspiration from Satprakashananda’s teachings and became interested in the Vedanta philosophy that each religion essentially shared the basic truths of life and was merely distinguished by presentation or understanding.
When Smith settled down in Berkeley after numerous other teaching ventures, he appreciated the city greatly, according to Vedananda.
“He loved to be in the Berkeley atmosphere,” Vedananda said. “His home was in Berkeley, and he enjoyed having academic people come over to talk to him.”
Smith attended almost every annual retreat organized by the Vedanta Society of Northern California since the early 1980s, grateful that the outings hosted speakers of different religions.
Nik Warren, Smith’s friend and former colleague, also attended these retreats. Although Smith became deaf and grew sick in later years, Warren said Smith continued attending and even joked about his condition.
“We used to pick him up from Berkeley and … he would get in the car and go, ‘OK, now I’m deaf. We will meditate on the layover,’ ” Warren said. “He had a good sense of humor about the experience of being alive and the experience of dying — the experience of spirituality.”
Warren, a cofounder of the non-profit organization AHIMSA, originally met Smith in 1993 when Smith was asked to serve on the organization’s advisory board. Warren said his relationship with Smith was beyond that of a coworker — he viewed Smith as a fatherly influence with whom he shared common interests and perspectives.
Warren said Smith was “larger than life” and that people called him the “ambassador to all religions.” Additionally, Warren wrote his own personal remarks about Smith since his passing, noting his genius and intuitiveness.
“In reading his writings, we can hear the songs of our souls and the souls of our religions,” Warren said, reading an excerpt.
Bill Tammeus, a former faith columnist for the Kansas City Star, listened to Smith speak several years ago at the Country Club Christian Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Tammeus remembered the audience’s rapt attention as Smith presented his clear knowledge about his discipline, fielding questions with a jovial yet serious attitude.
“The atmosphere in the last election year has created some toxicity about religion and about multicultural relations and … (Smith’s) writing and his approach can help lead us out of darkness,” Tammeus said.
Smith is survived by his wife, three daughters and a number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.