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Values / Our culture, our beliefs, our responsibilities

Explorer of the World's Spirituality

July 21, 1999|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERKELEY — A garden hose beside his front door says as much about Huston Smith's religious practices as the ashram-like study on the second floor of the house. It is a professor's house, as casual as a summer cottage, with lawn chairs beside the living room couch and a wicker hamper for the mail.

At 80, the country's dean of comparative religion, whose big book, "The World's Religions," has sold more than 2 million copies in 25 years, compares religion to a good meal. Christianity has always been his entree, but he adds "vitamin supplements" from around the world.

The artworks in the room begin to say something about their owner. Chinese scrolls, Hindu goddesses, pottery, rugs and decorative plates suggest global travels and an ease in Asian cultures.

Asked how he maintains his unusual approach to a religious practice, Smith describes a routine that is not typical of a member of the United Methodist Church, which he is. His daily rituals include hatha yoga and reading from the Bhagavad Gita or the Tao Te Ching if not the Bible. He meditates as often as he prays.

And then there is composting.

"I've been surprised and gratified by the spiritual resources of that practice," Smith says of soil building. He added garden work "recently"--18 years ago--out of concern for the environment.

Because of his breadth of experience, Smith is famous in the circles that emanate from elite academic enclaves to the spiritual malls of America. One minute he's reminding you of his graduate student years at the rigorous University of Chicago. The next, he's confessing to a visit with Ramtha, a warrior from the lost continent of Atlantis being channeled through a former cable TV saleswoman in Yelm, Wash. Smith's wife, Kendra, warned him off that field trip, saying it would not do his reputation much good. He went anyway.

"I have a bit of the anthropologist in me," he explains.

Conformity has never been his goal, but no one would guess it by looking at him. He is a reed stretched across an elongated frame, with tame white hair and Nordic blue eyes. He could pass for a man from one of several professions: gentleman pastor, gentleman scholar, gentleman sage.

Witness to a Basic

Change in Attitudes

Sitting at the edge of a blue-striped couch, his back to the irises and roses overflowing the flower beds outside, he unfolds a newspaper article from 1955. It was about the first time that public television called on him to provide a primer on the world's religions for viewers. He was invited back in 1996, for a Bill Moyers special. Now that he has retired from university life, he sees the two events as the bookends of his career.

Reactions were extreme both times. Christian leaders publicly condemned Smith in the '50s for comparing their faith to other religions of the world, then congratulated him for doing the same thing in the '90s. Neither review changed his approach; they only warned him of a shift in thinking.

"In one lifetime the response went from 'don't watch it,' to 'everybody should watch it,' " Smith says of the PBS programs. "That signals a real change in our culture's attitude."

He has explained to thousands of people in hundreds of lectures exactly what the change in attitude has been, a growing awareness and acceptance of other religions. Ethnic diversity has made us more familiar with the religions that our parents once thought of as strange and exotic. That awareness, combined with a growing recognition that science and technology are not a substitute for God, have created a generation of religious seekers.

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Smith got early glimpses of the approaching wave during his unusual childhood. Born in Soochow, China, and raised by missionary parents, he and two brothers, Walter and Robert, were part of the only American family in their village. He got used to living with neighbors whose ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs were different from his own.

There were other things about life in Asia that formed him as well. He only began to recognize it later in life.

"Many assume that because I was born in China it opened me to a cross-cultural interest," he says. "On some level that's true. Living together with people of different traditions, we being the only American family, had an impact. But I came out of that environment with my sights set on becoming a full, red-blooded American boy."

Two weeks after he arrived in the U.S to enter Central Methodist College in Fayette, Mo., in 1936, he decided to change the direction of his life. "The dynamism of the West swept me up," he says. "I became scientific in my world view."

In the first three years of college, his plans ran from missionary to minister to teacher of religion. His younger brother, Walter, spent one year in the same college with Huston before he transferred to Northwestern University to study journalism.

"He was a very big man on campus," says Walter, 78, who lives in Detroit. "Huston was president of the student body and editor of the newspaper."

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