This past December, when Professor Huston Smith died in Berkeley at age 97, we lost one of the people who most perfectly embodied the spirituality of the Bay Area. His memorial service will be held on Saturday, April 1, at 2 p.m., at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
Smith grew up in China as the child of missionaries. He came to the United States for college and became famous for his book, “The World’s Religions” (originally published in 1958 as “The Religions of Man”). On television, in print and in person, through his imagination and self-effacing humor, he gave audiences the chance to see other religions more clearly and to appreciate the diversity of human spiritual life.
Although he was also known for his acquaintance with Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass — and for a brief period of experimentation with psychedelics to induce mystical states — he devoted most of his career to building bridges between people who practice different religions.
Three qualities in particular make Smith representative of our regional spiritual culture. First, anyone who knew him could see the joy and enthusiasm for life at the center of his being. Smith believed that although we all suffer, we should fundamentally orient our lives toward joy. He writes, “Happiness is the human birthright … and we ought to live rejoicing every day …”
Smith was fond of pointing out that although most of us know Horace’s Latin motto, “Carpe diem” (“Seize the day”), we forget that the second half of the original expression is, “Rejoice while you are alive.”
Second, Smith did not just think about different religions, he tried them out. Unconstrained by boundaries between ancient wisdom traditions, he had the humility to recognize that we can benefit spiritually from other religions. Smith studied in a Vedanta school, meditated under the instruction of Zen Buddhists and even adopted various practices from Sufism (a branch of Islam).
As an ordained Christian minister, he remained open to wisdom from any tradition he encountered, ranging from Judaism to Native American spirituality. He relished the richness and diversity of expression in our local forms of spirituality.
Finally, Smith exemplified a deep and even childlike trust in God, in the power underlying and creating all things. He believed that the secular age, which mistakenly equated “absence-of-evidence” with “evidence-of-absence,” was coming to a close. He wrote, “After biological needs are met, religion is the greatest resource people have … [It] gives their lives meaning, motivation and hope.”
During one of Smith’s visits to the Cathedral School for Boys, a brave fifth grader asked him what was so special about religion. Smith replied, “It reminds us that we are in good hands, and because of that we should be grateful.”
Smith’s life is a kind of answer to the question, “What are the spiritual qualities that are important today?” You can honor this gentle and thoughtful hero by reading his books, embracing joy, cultivating his kind of openness to people who differ from you and trusting in the mystery of God.
You can celebrate his life at his memorial service this Saturday.
The Very Rev. Malcolm Clemens Young is the ninth dean of Grace Cathedral.