Huston Smith, a renowned scholar of religion who pursued his own enlightenment in Methodist churches, Zen monasteries and even Timothy Leary’s living room, died on Friday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 97.
His wife, Kendra, confirmed his death.
Professor Smith was best known for “The Religions of Man” (1958), which has been a standard textbook in college-level comparative religion classes for half a century. In 1991, it was abridged and given the gender-neutral title “The World’s Religions.” The two versions together have sold more than three million copies.
The book examines the world’s major faiths as well as those of indigenous peoples, observing that all express the Absolute, which is indescribable, and concluding with a kind of golden rule for mutual understanding and coexistence: “If, then, we are to be true to our own faith, we must attend to others when they speak, as deeply and as alertly as we hope they will attend to us.”
“It is the most important book in comparative religious studies ever,” Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, said in an interview.
Professor Smith may have reached his widest audience in 1996, when Bill Moyers put him at the center of a five-part PBS series, “The Wisdom of Faith With Huston Smith.” (Each installment began with a Smith quotation: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.”)
Richard D. Hecht, a professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, called Professor Smith “one of the three greatest interpreters of religion for general readers in the second half of the 20th century,” the others being Joseph Campbell and, in Britain, Roderick Ninian Smart.
Professor Smith, whose last teaching post was at the University of California, Berkeley, had an interest in religion that transcended the academic. In his joyful pursuit of enlightenment — to “turn our flashes of insight into abiding light,” as he put it — he meditated with Tibetan Buddhist monks, practiced yoga with Hindu holy men, whirled with ecstatic Sufi Islamic dervishes, chewed peyote with Mexican Indians and celebrated the Jewish Sabbath with a daughter who had converted to Judaism.
It was through psychedelic drugs in the early 1960s that Professor Smith believed he came closest to experiencing God. Leary, a Harvard professor who championed mind-altering substances, recruited Professor Smith to help in an investigation of psychedelic drugs. At the time, Professor Smith was teaching philosophy nearby at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Leary thought that he had had a profound religious experience in Mexico in August 1960 when he first ate psilocybin mushrooms, which can produce hallucinations. Accordingly, he wanted religious experts to be part of his Harvard Psilocybin Project for the study of mind-altering drugs. Richard Alpert, a colleague in Harvard’s psychology department, was a critical figure in the initiative. (He later took the name Ram Dass.)
On New Year’s Day in 1961, Leary’s team ingested mushrooms in his living room. “Such a sense of awe,” Professor Smith said afterward. “It was exactly what I was looking for.”
A year later, the group gathered in a church basement as a Good Friday service was being held upstairs and tried an experiment involving 20 volunteers in which half were given the psilocybin mushrooms and the other half a placebo. Professor Smith received the drug, which was legal at the time, and reported that he was certain he had had a personal experience with God. He thought that the voice of a soprano singing upstairs was surely that of an angel.
“From that moment on, he knew that life is a miracle, every moment of it,” Don Lattin wrote in “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” a 2010 account of the psychedelic research project, “and that the only appropriate way to respond and be mindful of the gift of God’s love was to share it with the rest of the world.”
Professor Smith later became disenchanted with Leary’s “tune in, turn on, drop out” gospel, but he retained his belief that the briefest of insights from a psychedelic trip could be mind-expanding.
Those early drug experiments, however, were enough for him, he wrote in “Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals” (2000). (The word entheogenic refers to substances that produce an altered state of consciousness for spiritual purposes — “God-enabling,” in Professor Smith’s words.)
“If someone were to offer me today a substance that (with no risk of producing a bummer) was guaranteed to carry me into the Clear Light of the Void and within 15 minutes would return me to normal,” Professor Smith wrote, “I would decline.”
Huston Cummings Smith was born to Methodist missionaries on May 31, 1919, in Suzhou, China. The family soon moved to the ancient walled city Zang Zok, a “caldron of different faiths,” he wrote in his 2009 memoir, “Tales of Wonder: Adventures Chasing the Divine.”
“I could skip a few blocks from my house past half the world’s major religions,” he added. “Side by side they existed.”
He decided to be a missionary, and his parents sent him to Central Methodist University, a small Bible college in Fayette, Mo. He was ordained a Methodist minister but soon realized that he had no desire to “Christianize the world,” as he put it; he would rather teach than preach.
Admitted to the University of Chicago Divinity School, he became intrigued by the scientific rationalism propounded by Henry Nelson Wieman, an influential liberal theologian there. He also became attracted to Professor Wieman’s daughter, Kendra, then an undergraduate. They married in 1943.
Besides his wife, he is survived by two daughters, Gael Rosewood and Kimberly Smith; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
Professor Smith was working on his doctorate at Berkeley and leading Sunday services at a Methodist church in 1944 when he encountered a book that changed his life: “Pain, Sex and Time: A New Outlook on Evolution and the Future of Man” (1939), by Gerald Heard. Mr. Heard advanced an expansive view of spirituality and came to be called “the grandfather of the New Age movement.”
Professor Smith read all two dozen of Mr. Heard’s books and tracked him down at Trabuco College, which Mr. Heard had founded in the Santa Ana Mountains. After dinner, they retired to a large rock.
“They just sat there in silence, gazing at the barren canyon walls,” Mr. Lattin wrote in “The Harvard Psychedelic Club.” “Huston realized there was nothing he needed to ask the man. It was enough just to sit with him on the edge of the canyon.”
Mr. Heard told Professor Smith how to get in touch with Aldous Huxley, the novelist, mystic and psychedelic pioneer, and in summer 1948, Professor Smith took a bus into the Mojave Desert to Huxley’s cabin. The two had a deep conversation about boundless desert sand and Old Testament prophets.
Professor Smith received his Ph.D. in 1945 from the University of Chicago, taught for two years at the University of Denver and accepted a professorship at Washington University in St. Louis.
Huxley recommended he meet Swami Satprakashananda, a Hindu monk who had founded the Vedanta Society of St. Louis in 1938. Professor Smith soon became the president of a Hindu society and an associate minister of a Methodist congregation in St. Louis.
In 1955, he turned his popular college lectures into a series of programs on world religions for the National Educational Television network, the precursor to PBS. On one program, he demonstrated the lotus position.
He was hired by M.I.T. in 1958 and two years later joined other professors in inviting Huxley to deliver seven lectures, which drew standing-room-only crowds. In the decade since their last meeting, Huxley had experimented with mescaline and written “The Doors of Perception,” which became a counterculture classic. Professor Smith confessed to him that he had never had a full-blown mystical experience despite his studies of religious mysticism.
Huxley said Leary could probably supply what he wanted, and gave Professor Smith his phone number.
Professor Smith joined campaigns for civil rights in the 1960s and for a more tolerant understanding of Islam in the 2000s. He wrote more than a dozen books and held professorships at Syracuse University and Berkeley. He helped introduce the Dalai Lama to Americans.
Despite his liberal views, Professor Smith argued that science might not totally explain natural phenomena like evolution. He clung to his Methodism while criticizing some of its dogma. He prayed in Arabic to Mecca five times a day.
His favorite prayer was written by a 9-year-old boy whose mother had found it scribbled on a piece of paper beside his bed.
“Dear God,” it said, “I’m doing the best I can.”