Tuesday night I attended an event at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco, a conversation between Phil Cousineau and Huston Smith to celebrate their new book, A Seat at the Table: Huston Smith in Conversation with Native Americans on Religious Freedom. In the book, Smith, the renowned historian of the world’s religions, interviews ten American Indian spiritual and political leaders about their generations-long quest for religious freedom. The book sprang from a film Smith and Cousineau made documenting the World Parliament of Religions in Cape Town, South Africa in 1999. The title came from that conference as well, when an Indian elder addressed the session, saying Native Americans weren’t there looking for more rights or fewer rights, they were simply asking for a seat at the table. Cousineau said he and Smith looked at each other and said, that’s the title for the film. Which it was, and now the book.
For me the high point of the evening (and there were many—Cousineau is a wise, eloquent speaker, and Smith is a legendary religious scholar and profoundly charming) was when Smith responded to a question about these polarized times we live in. He said one thing the Native American cultures teach is the importance of listening. We need to know the context of other’s issues, but most importantly, it takes two to tell the truth: one to speak it, and one to hear it. Wise words to take out into the night.