Huston Smith: Wisdomkeeper

More than three-quarters of the way through this extraordinary biography (though that label barely captures this book’s breadth and richness) of the scholar of religion Huston Smith …

Huston Smith: WisdomkeeperHuston Smith: Wisdomkeeper: Living the World’s Religions: The Authorized Biography of a 21st Century Spiritual Giant
Dana Sawyer. Fons Vitae (, 2014. PP. 304. $24.95 Paper
Reviewed by Donald H. Whitfield

More than three-quarters of the way through this extraordinary biography (though that label barely captures this book’s breadth and richness) of the scholar of religion Huston Smith, we find him at the age of seventy-three in a ceremonial tent in rural Mazatlan participating in an arduous, four-day Native American peyote ritual. Not merely observing, but fully participating in a series of all-night vigils, including ingesting peyote. We learn that he is not in the best of health, having recently been operated on for prostate cancer. His companions are members of the Native American Church who have come to Mexico from the United States with a film crew to make a documentary about their practices. They hope that the documentary will sway public and judicial opinion in their favor regarding a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the criminalization of the Church’s traditional use of psychedelic substances in its rituals. Huston (the author, Dana Sawyer, notes early on that he will refer to his subject familiarly by his first name) provides these details of the experience:

“… the peyote buttons and the tea would just circulate, which made several of us sick. You could go outside but it was thought better to use ‘the can’ … the first time I felt it coming, I yelled out ‘Can! I need the can’ but it didn’t get to me in time, so I vomited all over the dirt floor.”

The documentary was made and widely circulated in the United States, Huston provided expert testimony before Congress, and enough legislative support was gathered to pass the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” of 1994. Though the legal victory was short-lived (in 1997 the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Act was unconstitutional), reflecting on his part in the court case Huston observed, “I never felt more proud….”

This episode epitomizes Huston Smith as reflected throughout Wisdomkeeper: a distinguished scholar who is fully engaged with the spirit and practices of the religions he studies and writes about, making them co-extensive with his own intellectual and spiritual evolution; a man of principle who has always kept an eye on the practical and political dimensions of his areas of expertise and has repeatedly been willing to use his position of authority to advance progressive social causes; an adventurer into the realms of pharmacologically altered experience in order to better understand the pervasive mystical traditions that thread their way through the major world religions; and a good sport in getting right into the gritty midst of things with others in order to have a real feel for what it must be like to believe as they do.

Designating Wisdomkeeper an “authorized biography” is putting it mildly. We learn in the first pages that Dana Sawyer had Huston’s full approval and very extensive cooperation in writing the book, and it shows. Again and again, there are passages enlivening the story that are clearly taken from the author’s extensive recorded interviews. Sawyer has managed to bring off a very skillful balance of impeccable scholarship, warm and engaging storytelling (the accounts of Huston’s personal losses are heartbreaking), and what is in effect a “life and times” chronicle of one strand of religious thinking in the mid- and late twentieth century, and into the first decades of the third millennium. Although Huston himself has covered some of the same ground in his autobiographical Tales of Wonder (2009), Wisdomkeeper places him more firmly in the context of the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual currents of his lifetime through its extensive and lucid expositions of many of the concepts that have entered into and formed the background of his thought. One of the audiences for Wisdomkeeper will be the many readers who are acquainted with Huston primarily through his widely known book The Religions of Man, first published in the late 1950s and reprinted continuously. They will be pleased to find that Sawyer’s book not only illuminates the reasons why the author of The Religions of Man was able to convey so well the living essence of the world’s great religions but also offers numerous new insights into many of the thinkers who have been associated in complex and influential ways with Huston: Gerald Heard, Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Alan Watts, Ram Dass, Thomas Merton, Abraham Maslow, and David Bohm, to name a few.

Born to Methodist missionaries in 1919, Huston spent his childhood and adolescence in the complex and many-faceted cultural environment of China between the world wars, where Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, and other religious traditions co-existed and intermingled. Pursuing college studies in the United States, with the intention of becoming a missionary, then considering the ministry, Huston experienced a kind of epiphany regarding his future career as “a teacher, not a preacher” and determined that he would best flourish as a professor of philosophy, exploring “endless, awesome, portentous ideas! … I knew that I would never be bored.” Drawn to a naturalistic conception of religion, Huston entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago, where he came under the influence of Professor Henry Nelson Wieman. Wieman’s emphasis on defining religion in terms of its ability to improve society, serve humanity, and reconcile with the competing claims of empirical science greatly appealed to Huston’s youthful zeal. It was also at the university that Huston met his future wife, Kendra, the daughter of Wieman, who figures prominently in Wisdomkeeper and remains his close companion into his ninety-fifth year.

It is clear from the multiple attributions to Huston in the title of Sawyer’s book (a wisdomkeeper; someone who has lived the world’s religions; a 21st-century spiritual giant) that the author recognizes that Huston’s many years cannot be easily brought under the label “career,” even though he provided for himself and his family most of his life as a working philosophy professor. That professional trajectory has taken him from an early position at the University of Denver, to Washington University in St. Louis, to the chairmanship of the philosophy department at MIT, to Syracuse University, where he is professor emeritus, and finally to the University of California at Berkeley, where he has been a visiting professor of religious studies. What this book makes very clear is that through all of those years in academia, Huston was able to deftly secure and enhance his professional standing even while going against the prevailing approach to the study of world religions in the mid-twentieth century. It was a time when the crest of empirical science, technological advancement, and the hegemony of logical positivism and analytical philosophy prevailed, none of which was conducive to Huston’s interest in restoring to the study of philosophy one of its traditional but neglected and disparaged branches, metaphysics, which he recognized as essential to the study of religions. Instead of treating religions as just so many cultural curiosities to be intellectually appropriated as yet more components of cultural literacy, Huston explored them as living practices and belief systems that should be taken seriously as routes to deep knowledge and spiritual truth, holding out the possibility of personal, and perhaps societal, transformation. This is certainly the way in which he presents them in The Religions of Man and in all of his many subsequent books. However, running alongside Huston’s long academic, scholarly work, intertwined with it every step of the way, has been Huston’s personal involvement with a range of religious practices. It is the story of this line of development that vividly animates Wisdomkeeper.

In the mid-1940s, Huston discovered the work of that brilliant band of expatriate British writers in southern California who were in one way or another associated with the Ramakrishna order and its roots in Vedanta, a highly refined form of Hinduism that posits the underlying unity of all religious experience in the concept of a “Divine Ground” that is the metaphysical foundation of all reality. This group included Gerald Heard, Christopher Isherwood, and Aldous Huxley. Extrapolating from Vedanta, Huxley had embraced the concept of a perennial philosophy that he believed could be discovered to underlie all religious traditions. He had compiled a widely read anthology of passages from the texts of many religions that he thought exemplified this idea, The Perennial Philosophy, and this, along with Heard’s writings, became a major influence on all of Huston’s subsequent thinking about religion. The impact of these writers’ works motivated Huston to make their personal acquaintance, the first of a lifetime of seeking out the individuals behind the writings and ideas that he felt were vital to explore. Wisdomkeeper at times reads like a “Who’s Who” of many of the great spiritual thinkers and cultural personalities of the twentieth-century, all people with whom Huston was directly involved. Perhaps most prominent among these is the Dalai Lama—reading the delightful account of Huston briefing him on cutting-edge ideas in modern science is typical of the many pleasures that Wisdomkeeper provides. And the story of how Huston played a central part in identifying the multi-tone chanting of Tibetan monks is telling when we learn that he considers it his most important discovery.

Sawyer, a Huxley scholar, is particu­larly strong in depicting Huxley’s influ­ence on Huston as well as portraying Huxley himself through vivid descriptions of their interactions through the years. He argues convincingly that it is the persistence of Huston’s conviction of the validity of the perennial philosophy that has provided one of the essential tensions in his approach to the notion of the underlying unity of religions. That is, far from reducing the great variety of external expressions of religions worldwide (that is, their exoteric aspect) to a hidden, underlying sameness (their esoteric aspect, often thought to be accessible through mystical experience), Sawyer argues that Huston has maintained the importance of viewing different religions as distinct but equivalent means to the same end.

As a result of his early encounters with Huxley, Huston placed himself for many years under the spiritual guidance of the Vedanta teacher Swami Satprakashananda and became a serious practitioner of yoga. His interest in the mystical religious tradition led him to collaborate exten­sively with the noted (and notorious) psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary during his years in Cambridge, taking part in early experiments with LSD, which were designed to compare its effect to mystics’ descriptions of heightened experience. The understanding of the use of psyche­delic drugs that Huston gained during these years would later serve him well when he became an advocate for the interests of the Native American Church. Sawyer provides a strong account of the vexed relationship between Huston and Leary as the latter became more and more erratic in his thinking as the counterculture of the 1960s embraced his message of “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” conflating drug-induced states with mystical religious experience. Huston’s response to Leary reveals one of his most fundamental beliefs about the value of religion and occurs several times in the course of the book: he emphatically says that the goal of religious experience should be “traits, not states.” That is, he places the primary emphasis on the ability of religion to instill principles of behavior among people that have an ameliorative effect on human society.

Through the years, even while maintaining a public presence through lecturing and TV appearances on the highly acclaimed series The Wisdom of Faith, moderated by Bill Moyers, as well as a long involvement with the Esalen Institute, Huston has privately embraced a succession of spiritual practices, most prominently Zen Buddhism and Sufism, even while maintaining his original identity as a Protestant Christian. As portrayed in Wisdomkeeper, he has done so without succumbing to a kind of spiritual tourism, but rather as someone who recognizes how these apparently disparate traditions complement one another.

In Sawyer’s summation of Huston’s significance, he quotes Huston himself saying, “I am not an original thinker, I am simply a lover of the ancients…. It’s the ancients’ right-minded regard for transcendence that I love, and I have tried … to get it to the general public and to share that love.” Consistent with this, Sawyer rightly attributes to Huston the important role of standard-bearer of the idea of the perennial philosophy and of the messenger letting us know the special urgency of its recognition in our own time. Huston’s nuanced response to the cultural and religious clashes surround­ing the events of 9/11 and its aftermatch shows him drawing contemporary relevance from the insights of his “ancients.” Taking his cue again from Huston himself in the closing pages of The Religions of Man, Sawyer offers as Huston’s other contribution his teaching “so many people the value of listening to others.” One of these “others” is of course Huston himself, and Wisdomkeeper, without pretension and without a trace of hagiography, allows us to listen to the wisdom he has kept and is now entrusting to all of us who will listen. Who could not?

For this reviewer, reading Wisdomkeeper has been a personal spiritual journey as I revisited the thoughts of so many writers who have deeply influenced me over the last fifty years but whose significance for me in recent years had begun to fade. The experience of following Huston’s own journey and writing about it brought back to me much of what I feared I had lost, and I am grateful for the opportunity of recovering something so valuable. I have next to my computer tonight my well-worn 1959 copy of The Religions of Man—it is one of the oldest books in my library and has been with me since I first read it at the age of twelve. I have often wondered, but never made the effort to find out, who was the author of this book and why it affected me so deeply. After reading Wisdomkeeper, I now have some idea. So may you, too.

Donald H. Whitfield is Vice President at the Great Books Foundation in Chicago, where he directs adult education programs.