Religion scholar stresses events over emotions

By Bill Williams
July 27, 2009

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Huston Smith has earned an enviable reputation as one of the leading religion historians of modern times. His best-selling book “The World’s Religions’’ sold 2.5 million copies, and his views were featured in a five-part public television series with Bill Moyers.

Having just turned 90 and entering the twilight of his illustrious career as a writer and professor, Smith has penned a folksy, accessible memoir.

“Tales of Wonder’’ brims with fascinating insights and tidbits - the author once gave a college lecture while standing on his head as a yogi - but overall the book disappoints. Smith skims over the surface of his long, productive life in spare prose that lacks emotional depth.

Smith grew up in China, the son of Methodist missionaries “in a home saturated in religion.’’ The family assumed he would follow his parents into missionary work, but soon after he enrolled at Central Methodist College in Missouri, Smith knew he would not return to China because life in America was “too heady and intoxicating.’’

For five decades, he taught religion at various colleges and universities, including a 15-year stint at MIT from 1958 to 1973. When “The World’s Religions’’ was published the year Smith arrived in Boston, he had only modest expectations for the book, and later attributed its huge success to the nation’s retreat from isolationism and Americans’ search “for deeper truths to live by.’’ Smith regretted that he had not included a chapter on Native Americans or other indigenous religions, an oversight he rectified in later editions.

Throughout his life, Smith remained a Christian, although he eventually embraced and serially practiced Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, each for a decade - taking him “into hidden layers within myself that, until then, I had not known were even there.’’

Readers may wish that Smith had gone into greater depth about these spiritual forays. The text sometimes reads like a scholarly account of beliefs rather than a personal memoir or autobiography.

Smith’s lack of emotional connection is most evident when he recalls the loss of a daughter to cancer, the murder of a granddaughter, and his wife’s threat to leave him. All three potentially life-shattering events are described briefly, but without emotional resonance. We learn about the author’s mind, but not much about his heart.

When his wife, Kendra, said she was thinking of walking out, Smith sobbed himself to sleep, while conceding she “had reasons for leaving’’ because “I am a workaholic,’’ but we find out little more, other than that she finally decided to stay. Earlier in the book, Smith gave this terse description of meeting Kendra. “I’ll keep it simple. I met, I marveled, I married.’’

The author mentions his civil rights involvement, which included marching in Selma, Ala., and receiving death threats - a potentially rich vein that could have been explored in greater depth.

Smith wonders what happens to us “after we shed this mortal coil.’’ He expects there will be a period after death when he will be concerned about the loved ones he has left behind, but eventually “I will turn my back on this dear world and direct my attention to something more interesting: the beatific vision.’’

The memoir ends on a poignant note when Smith regrets not having spent more time with his parents. He recalls that the words “I love you’’ were never spoken in the Smith household. He wishes he had told his missionary Dad, “Father, I love you, and always have, and always will.’’

That passage finally lets readers glimpse Smith’s inner emotional life, which surfaces too infrequently in this incomplete account by a spiritual polymath.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

TALES OF WONDER: Adventures Chasing the Divine
By Huston Smith, with Jeffery Paine
HarperOne, 209 pp., $25.99

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