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Can Religion Save Us?


Tradition, Transcendence, and Ultimate Reality

An interview with Huston Smith
by Jessica Roemischer
 

Introduction

Huston Smith

Huston Smith, arguably today's foremost authority on the world's great religions, has, for over half a century, dedicated himself to transmitting the wisdom of the traditions through books, television, and film and in the classroom. His best-known volume, The World's Religions, has been the standard introductory textbook in college religion courses for thirty years and has sold several million copies. Dr. Smith has produced three PBS television series and was the focus of Bill Moyers' five-part PBS special, "The Wisdom of Faith with Huston Smith." His documentaries on Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sufism have received international acclaim. Having devoted a lifetime to the study of the august traditions of the world, Huston Smith was our preeminent choice to answer the question: Are the religions equipped to navigate the myriad challenges of the third millennium?

Initially, Huston Smith responded to our interview request with a letter saying, "I am hesitant to take part in your projected article for fear of sounding like a spoilsport. I gather that you want to come down hard on the perils that threaten our planet while giving your readers grounds for hope. My personal judgment is that my perspective differs so markedly from the mind-set of your readers that you would do better to bypass me on this one . . ." We were hooked. What would the dean of comparative religious scholarship have to say in response to perhaps the most important spiritual question of our time, and why did he feel that our readers would not want to hear it? Could there indeed be no cause for hope?

In his innovative and incisive critique of postmodernity, Why Religion Matters, Smith writes, "The sandwich man between placards announcing that the end is near is telling us something important. . . . He is not just protesting our reigning culture. However falteringly, he is gesturing toward a heavenly city that offers an alternative to this earthly one, which is always deeply flawed." Indeed, that man could be Huston Smith himself. And, visiting with this wise and generous octogenarian in his modest Berkeley home, for the interview that he did eventually agree to, we found why he believes that, in the face of apocalyptic times, the traditions may help us hope for a good outcome, but they may not be equipped to actually help us manifest it—at least not here on Earth!

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This article is from
Our Future Issue