- The Way Things Are: Conversations with Huston Smith on the Spiritual Life
A certain air of dialectical paradox hovers around the figure of Huston Smith, a seeming conjunction of opposites that constitute "Huston Smith," apprehended not so much as a real individual but as a cultural phenomenon in the life of our time. In books, television shows, interviews, and innumerable public talks and workshops, not to speak of five decades of classroom performativity, "Huston Smith" dances before us as a friendly master, a bearer of secret lore that seems freely offered in his open palms. He is an esoteric metaphysician who has played the role of public intellectual in matters religious from virtually the beginning of his career in the 1950s into the twenty-first century. As a champion of the perennial philosophy contained in the revealed traditions of the past, his writing addresses itself not to the scholars of that past but to the spiritual seekers and general publics of the postmodern new age. He is a guardian of orthodoxy, a defender of the hierarchical worldview of the great chain of being, who nevertheless, perhaps out of an excess of geniality, seems always on the verge of heterodox admissions. In these senses Huston Smith stands before us asa kind of hermetic trickster figure, a psychopomp attempting to lead the post-traditional multitudes back into touch with their spiritual roots hidden in the occulted shadows of the cultural unconscious—an unconscious constituted by the sunlit world of modern science as its repressed Other. There are riches in that underworld, hermetic Huston asserts beckoningly; follow me down into this dark Light.
The interviews collected and edited by Phil Cousineau are, short of some future biographical study, the best place for the uninitiated to enter into the world of Huston Smith. Those who already know Smith's corpus might find this book slightly irksome in the repetitiveness, which is inevitable in any such gathering of interviews [End Page 186] conducted by a wide assortment of journalists who often have similar if not identical questions. The Way Things Are is nonetheless valuable in bringing forth the public voice of Huston Smith on his signature range of themes: the world's religions as repositories of "forgotten truth," the ideology of scientism as standing in need of philosophical critique in order to recover that truth, and the continuing cultural implications of the clashing worldviews of religion and science, tradition and modernity.
Huston Smith's biographical trajectory as discussed in many of these interviews, while known in its general outlines by many (especially since the Bill Moyers series of televised interviews), bears meditating on as a way of elaborating this sense of dialectical paradox in what is often, overly simply, seen as the sunlit and straightforward figure of Smith as contemporary religious philosopher. Born in China of Methodist missionary parents, religion dawned for Smith in the form of a benevolently evangelical Protestantism surrounded by a religious and cultural other: the world of "the East." Returning to the United States for college and with plans for a career in ministry and mission work, Smith fell in love with the discipline of philosophy, which he pursued in graduate school under the tutelage of Henry Nelson Wieman. The naturalistic theism of Wieman was soon displaced, however, by Smith's encounter with the writings of Gerald Heard, who gave expression to the mystical worldview that has been the foundation of Smith's philosophy ever since. A sense of the reality of monistic, neo-Vedantist mystical experience, as formulated by Heard's writings of the 1940s and 1950s, led Smith to an encounter with Heard's fellow exiled English mystical Vedantist and perennial philosopher Aldous Huxley. The combined influences of Heard and Huxley, inclusive of their interest in psychedelic experimentalism, shaped the spiritual perspective of the next decade of Smith's life in St. Louis, studying with a swami of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda order, beginning his academic career, and launching into his role as popularizer of comparative religion through a television series...