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A Life of Exploring Religious Frontiers

A Life of Exploring Religious Frontiers

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Published by bde_gnas
Mysticism
Mysticism

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Published by: bde_gnas on Apr 21, 2013
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04/22/2013

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A Life of Exploring Religious Frontiers
By Huston Smith
It is a great honor for me to have the opportunity to inaugurate this Kernlectureship. As a student of world religions, I am, of course, very familiar with thelines “One to me is fame and shame; one to me is loss and gain; one to me ispleasure, pain” (Bhagavad Gita). To practice those lines is to bring together theopposites—I’ve been working on doing that for many years, but tonight is aholiday. And my spiritual mentor for tonight is Joe Lewis, who towards the end ofhis life said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor; and believe me, rich is better.” Sotomorrow I’ll get to work again on “One to me is fame and shame,” but tonight I’m just going to wallow in glory and celebrity and enjoy it.I would never have thought to propose the title of these remarks, which I owe tothe organizers of the lectureship. As you might imagine, publishers and agents,more and more every year, have been leaning on me to write my autobiography,and I have flatly refused. There is nothing that lures me in that directionwhatsoever. But this lecture comes at it from a different angle, not so much thefacts and events of a life as the key points in its development, providing anopportunity to take notice of issues that I’ve come upon in the course of my journey. And I must say, the more I got into the suggested topic, the more Ienjoyed reflecting back on what were the key points that directed me on my life’s journey.The first poem I ever memorized was Rudyard Kipling’s “The Explorer,” whichhad a great impact on me. It goes like this:“There’s no sense in going further—it’s the edge of cultivation,”So they said, and I believed it—broke my land and sowed my crop—Built my barns and strung my fences in the little border stationTucked away below the foothills where the trails run out and stop:Till a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
 
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”
 
I must have been about twelve years old when I memorized that poem, but eventhen I recognized that, yes, I wanted to go and look beyond the foothills wherethe trails run out and stop, to find what is hidden behind the Ranges. For thisevening, I have itemized twelve frontiers that I crossed to explore what lay on theother side.1. My life began in China, with missionary parents in a small inland town wherewe were the only foreigners. That wasn’t a frontier, that was just home. Growingup there, I had the language of a native speaker, and in fact my two brothers andI have been told that, after we all came to America, when we were together wewould talk in Chinese rather than in English. So my small town in China wasn’t afrontier, it was home. My first frontier was America, when I arrived at college ageand came to the United States.That was an amazing frontier. Never mind that my landing pad in the UnitedStates was Central Methodist College, enrollment 600, in Fayette, Missouri,population 3000. Never mind all that. Compared with Podunk, China, it was theBig Apple, bright lights, and the big time. After all, Fayette had radios, a motionpicture theater, and of course, cars. I had come over intending to get myeducational credentials and go right back to China. Because I had only oneAmerican male role model, my father, I assumed that missionaries were whatAmerican boys grew up to be. But that lasted about two weeks. With all thedynamism and action in Fayette, Missouri, I wasn’t going to go and waste my lifestagnating in traditional rural China.2. After I had come to America and crossed that frontier, the next one was thefrontier of the mind. It happened very dramatically. I’ll prefix it with a confession.(We all know that an honest confession is good for the soul—unfortunately, it canbe very bad for the reputation, but I’ll confess anyway.) When I entered college at17, I wanted to be Big Man on Campus, and I thought the way to do that was to join all the organizations I could get into and make my presence known. Thatcontinued for two and a half years until midway in my junior year. There was inthis college, which was anything but distinguished, one splendid professor, andthat’s all a college needs. He was in philosophy and religion, my field. He starteda little philosophy of religion club, and I feel sorry for the students today in theirmega-universities. In my little college, we were in and out of our teachers’ homesall the time. One evening a month we would go to this professor’s house andtake turns reading a five-page paper and then discuss it. At the end, cherry pie ala mode would appear, and we would go back to our dorm.
 
For me, one of these evenings was different from all the others. From the start, Ifelt a tremendous agitation as I was drawn into the issues we were discussing,and that lasted on the way home. My fellow students and I just kept talking, andwhen we reached the dorm, a little nucleus of four or five of us stood in the hall ofthe dorm for another ninety minutes, going at it hammer and tongs. When I finallywent up to my room, the ideas were still charging around my mind. And that kepton until around two o’clock in the morning, when it seemed like my minddetonated.To try to give an impression of what I experienced, I remind those of you whohave seen the movie
2001: A Space Odyssey 
of the scene that tried to conveythe future rushing at you. Streamers came out of the back of the screen, directlyat you, and flashed by, disappearing into the past behind you. My experiencewas like that. But it wasn’t like special effects, it was like Platonic ideas, and theywere so real that they were palpable. There I was, a young man with an entire lifeto explore those ideas. I wonder if I slept a wink that night. But in any case, thatwas the turning point that led me to the vocation of a professor of philosophy andreligion.3. The next frontier was science, and it led me to the University of Chicago,where science was very prominent in the curriculum. What impressed me wasthe power of science—it has changed our world beyond all recognition. Myfriends and our servants in the Chinese town could never have imagined theworld we inhabit in the technological West. Along with its technologicalinnovations, science has also changed our worldview. I was young,impressionable, fresh to the confusions of the world, and I became converted towhat I now call scientism, the belief that science gives us the biggest picture—not the Bible, as I thought in my youth—not even religion—but science. And Ianswered that call with every cell of my being. That frontier stayed in place until Iwas within a couple of months of completing my doctoral dissertation, when all ofa sudden, another frontier—a very different one—appeared on a secondunforgettable night. I’ve only had two nights as dramatic as those (leaving asidemy wedding night—I just thought of that).4. The second unforgettable night came from reading the first book on mysticismI had ever encountered: Gerald Heard’s
Pain, Sex and Time: A New Outlook on Evolution and the Future of Man 
. It presented mysticism and the mysticalworldview. From its opening page, that book took me over, and I found that fromthe soles of my feet all the way up, I was saying “Yes! This is the way things are!”As for my scientific worldview, which I had been so gung-ho for, it collapsed that

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