Smart, Ninian

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SMART, NINIAN . Roderick Ninian Smart (19272001)usually cited without his first namewas one of the most influential religion scholars of the twentieth century. Combining academic and personal leadership with a generosity of spirit and gracious personality, he was loved and cherished by many people all over the world. Praised by colleagues and students as an imaginative, inspiring teacher who possessed both lightness of touch and depth of learning, he enjoyed a high academic profile and wide international influence, especially in the English-speaking world. His prolific output established his worldwide reputation, based on an immense range of knowledge and a compassionate concern for humane and universal values. His careful attention to the intricate details of different religions, philosophies, and cultures was always set within a larger global vision transcending narrow tribal and national boundaries. Intent upon promoting personal and social well-being, he authored, edited and co-edited more than forty books (which were translated into many other languages) and over 250 articles, essays, chapters, and encyclopedia entries. His writings on the study of religion have influenced generations of students and scholars and also a wide general readership eager to learn about world religions and philosophies.

Biography and Scholarly Achievements

Born in Cambridge, England, to Scottish parents on May 6, 1927, Smart was educated at Glasgow Academy after his father had become Regius Professor of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow. Both his father and mother, a published poet and woman of means, deeply influenced him. Ninian and his two brothers all grew up to become professors in different disciplines. After school, Smart joined the British Army Intelligence Corps (19451948) and after infantry training was sent to learn Cantonese at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Postings to Singapore and then Sri Lanka provided his first extended contact with Buddhism. After demobilization, he joined Queen's College, Oxford, in 1948 to study classics, ancient history, and philosophy, while continuing his interest in Chinese and Asian studies, later supplemented by Sanskrit and Pali at Yale. Graduate studies at Oxford in the philosophy of religion were combined with the comparative study of religions. Working with J. L. Austin and R. C. Zaehner, Smart presented the first postwar dissertation in philosophy of religion at Oxford, later published as Reasons and Faiths: An Investigation of Religious Discourse, Christian and Non-Christian (1958).

At Oxford he met Libushka Baruffaldi, and they were married in 1954, Libushka providing loving support that sustained him and their four children throughout his long career. Smart's first post was a lectureship in philosophy at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (19521956), followed by appointments in the history and philosophy of religion at King's College, London University (19561961), and then as first H. G. Wood Professor of Theology at Birmingham University (19611967). In 1967, Lancaster University appointed Smart as founding professor of religious studies, a position he held till 1982. Together with his colleagues, Smart brought the Lancaster Religious Studies Department to great international renown, promoting the historical, phenomenological, and social-scientific study of religion. During his time there, more than twenty Sri Lankan students obtained a doctorate in religious studies at Lancaster, and more than one hundred Lancaster religion graduates later held posts in higher education worldwide. He also served as pro-vice-chancellor of Lancaster University (19691972). Later, Lancaster University awarded him its highest honor as honorary professor of religious studies, and he became emeritus in 1989.

From 1976 on, Smart was also professor of religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, dividing his time for some years between Lancaster and California. In 1986 he became the first J. F. Rowny Professor in the Comparative Study of Religion, a position he held until his retirement in 1998. In 1996 he was named the Academic Senate's research professor, the highest academic honor of the University of California for its faculty. Smart chaired departments at the Universities of London, Birmingham, Lancaster, and at Santa Barbara. He was elected president of the major learned societies in his field, the British Association for the History of Religion (19811985), the American Society for the Study of Religion (19841987), and the American Academy of Religion (19982000). He was awarded seven honorary doctorates, including degrees from Loyola University, Chicago, and the Universities of Glasgow, Stirling, Kelaniya (Sri Lanka), Lancaster, and Middlesex. In 1999, Queen's College, Oxford, where he had studied, made him an honorary fellow.

Smart was frequently invited as guest lecturer and visiting professor at, among other institutions, Yale, Wisconsin, Princeton, Banaras, Queensland, Otago, Cape Town, Bangalore, and Hong Kong. His Heslington Lectures at the University of York (1966) were published as Secular Education and the Logic of Religion (1968). His Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (19791980) appeared as Beyond Ideology: Religion and the Future of Western Civilization (1981/1982), and his Drummond Lectures at the University of Stirling (1985) as Religion and the Western Mind (1987). Other prestigious lectures included the Stewart Seminars at Princeton University (1971), resulting in a major theoretical work, The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (1973/1978); the Chavara Lectures at the Center for Indian and Inter-Religious Studies, Rome (1993); and the Dharma Endowment Lectures at Dharmaram College, Bangalore (1997).

Smart was strongly committed to wider issues in religious education. He was prominent in setting up the Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education (1969), aimed at helping teachers in English schools to introduce the study of world religions into the curriculum. As one of its founding co-chairs and a subsequent president, Smart provided significant leadership and, in 1969, was appointed director of the Schools Council Project on Religious Education in Secondary Schools, which he was instrumental in establishing in Lancaster. The related Project on Religious Education in Primary Schools was set up under his direction in 1973. Through his close collaboration with the acclaimed BBC television series The Long Search (19741977), dealing with the religions of the world (though not those of Africa), and through his association with the popular Open University religious studies program in Britain he exercised extensive public influence. With several British colleagues Smart was also, in 1971, cofounder of the internationally known journal Religion: A Journal of Religion and Religions, now edited in Lancaster and California.

An extensive traveler, Smart attended innumerable conferences and meetings, always encouraging younger scholars. His friends knew him as a keen cricket and tennis player who greatly enjoyed family life, conviviality, and good conversation; and as someone who doodled, wrote limericks and poems (some published as Smart Verse, 1996), drew cartoons, and painted with water colors. Smart was looking forward to a long, active retirement but, soon after his permanent return to Lancaster, he died unexpectedly on January, 29, 2001. This tragic loss occasioned warm tributes from former colleagues, friends, and students around the world. The many memorial celebrations and colloquia honoring this eminent scholar seem already to have moved his life and work into the realm of legend.

Approaches to the Study of Religions

Smart wrote extensivelyand, in the eyes of certain critics, sometimes too superficiallyon most religious traditions in the modern world. He became well known through the five editions of his widely used textbook, The Religious Experience (first published as The Religious Experience of Mankind, 1969), later superseded by The World's Religions: Old Traditions and Modern Transformations (1989). His early work in the philosophy of religion dealt with questions of truth and dialogue, combined with an interest in the study of Buddhism and Hinduism. Smart went on to develop a phenomenologically grounded, multidisciplinary, cross-cultural approach to the comparative study of religious traditions ancient and modern, what he later called the study of "worldviews" and "ideologies." He also spoke of religious studies as "aspectual," "dealing with a vital aspect of human institutions and experience," exploring the power that religion exercised over the human mind, imagination, societies, and cultures. Without denying the necessity of philology, he emphasized the need for clear conceptual analysis and attention to "religion on the ground," requiring a social-science approach.

Smart's work has made important contributions to theory and method in the study of religion, comparative ethics, religious education, sociology of religion, and studies in politics and religion. Much of the theoretical orientation of his vast program is lucidly summarized in his two inaugural addresses, "The Principles and Meaning of the Study of Religion" (1968) and, twenty years later, "The Study of Religion as a Multidisciplinary and Cross-cultural Presence among the Human Sciences" (1989), where he also announced his intention to undertake a future study of a universal human "grammar of symbolism," once he had completed his work on world philosophies. Unfortunately, his early demise prevented this promising plan from coming to fruition.

His second book, A Dialogue of Religions (1960/1981) presents an imaginary dialogue between six different people (a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Sri Lankan Buddhist, and a Japanese Buddhist), covering topics from rebirth and salvation to the worship of God, incarnation and history, Buddhism, and the Trinity. The book reflects Smart's sympathetic imagination and his capacity to understand the dialogical process. Many consider his early Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy (1964/1992) to be his finest and technically most accomplished work. It showed an excellent grasp of complex issues in Indian philosophy and was innovative in not using Sanskrit or Pali words in the text, but instead giving their English translation, supplemented by an annotated glossary explaining the original Pali and Sanskrit words. Another helpful but less well-known study on Indian thought is The Yogi and the Devotee: The Interplay between the Upanishads and Catholic Theology (1968), based on his Teape Lectures given in Delhi and Calcutta in 1964.

Smart's writings on education date mainly from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. Secular Education and the Logic of Religion (1968) was influential in shaping the form and content of British religious education by arguing: (1) the pluralist nature of society; (2) the neutrality of the state with regard to religious matters; and (3) the need for a disinterested, rather than confessional, study of religion at all levels of education. This book championed a nondogmatic, multi-faith approach through the use of a phenomenological method that promoted empathetic understanding and objectivity. It also first introduced Smart's account of the multidimensional character of religion, later widely diffused through The Religious Experience and subsequent publications, such as Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs (1995/2000) and Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs (1996). These dimensions are the doctrinal or philosophical, mythic or narrative, ethical or legal, ritual or practical, experiential or emotional, and social or organizational, to which he later added the artistic or material and the political or economic. These describe religions as they exist rather than reducing them to their origins and functions. It is wholly appropriate to speak, as some do, of a Smartian six- (or eight-) dimensional approach to the study of religion, which many have found illuminating in reaching conceptual clarity and empathetic understanding of religious traditions and secular ideologies.

Among Smart's last books were an Atlas of the World's Religions (1999) and World Philosophies (1999), which begins with the "one world" theme and shows his continuing exploration of philosophical diversity, including that of African philosophies, within a new worldview of global pluralism. Described as "the heaviest book he has written," its impressively wide sweep and inclusiveness are its great strengths, reflecting immense learning, though it has been judged as "too ambitious and too reductive," pleasing neither the specialist nor the general reader. Others assess it more positively, for it shows Smart's continuing preoccupation with important philosophical issues, his clarity of perception and acuity of mind, and an astute observation of a fast-changing global scene.

Significance and Legacy

Smart was a great pragmatist, but also a pioneer, prophet, and visionary. The newly emerging global civilization was for him "an age of opportunity" requiring a balance between personalism and pluralism. Speaking of "a creative critical pluralism" arising out of the interactive encounter of different cultures, and a new "transcendental humanism," he affirmed: "It is the mutual interpenetration of cultures through empathy that the comparative study of religion offers as a major ingredient in the formation of a peaceful global city" (Beyond Ideology, 1981, p. 312). He strongly opposed the ghettoization of religious studies and dispassionately pleaded for treating all symbolic systems or worldviews together, calling for a deeper conversation between the different religions through the creation of a new umbrella organization, a global academy of religion.

It is too early for a full critical assessment of Smart's contribution to the study of religion. Only time will tell which of his numerous works and ideas will be of lasting influence in the comparative study of religion, in philosophy of religion, or in education. His writings can be seen as mirroring some of the important developments in the modern study of religion without including more recent theoretical issues developed by poststructuralist, postcolonial, and feminist critics. Although sometimes criticized as too broad-ranging, Smart's work advocates a strong pluralist position and possesses a genuine inclusiveness, reflecting the ability to represent "the other" through a deep empathy that is rare among scholars. Although one might not always agree with a particular thesis, his ideas throw light on many different problems in the study of religion.

Smart carried his brilliance and learning lightly, advocating that "the understanding of religion is not only important in itself, but it can be fun." He also maintained that being religious is more important than studying religion. His scholarly achievements and the wide diffusion of his work owe much to his effective use of the media. Described as a peripatetic scholar of religion, philosopher, comparative theologian, poet, and global citizen, Smart's personality was in many ways as important as his approaches to the study of religion. He once wrote, "the study of religion is a science that requires a sensitive and artistic heart," and he embodied this more than most. A more nuanced interpretation of his achievements and the historical significance of his oeuvre is still to come, but it is imperative that all that is most original, innovative, and best in his work will be carried on by others for whom his legacy remains both inspiring and challenging.


Extensive bibliographical references to Smart's works, though not complete, can be found in the two Festschrift publications that appeared during his lifetime (giving him great pleasure): Aspects of Religion: Essays in Honour of Ninian Smart, edited by Peter Masefield and Don Wiebe (New York, 1994), and The Future of Religion: Postmodern Perspectives, Essays in Honour of Ninian Smart, edited by Christopher Lamb and Dan Cohn-Sherbok (London, 1999). Lancaster University is developing the Ninian Smart Archive and a bibliography, which will list all of Smart's publications, from the strictly academic to the merely flippant and entertaining. A good overview of Smart's wide research can be gained from John J. Shepherd, ed., Ninian Smart on World Religions: Collected Works, 2 vols. (Aldershot, UK, 2005), which brings together key articles in the theory and method of the study of religion, religious education, philosophy of religion, interfaith dialogue, comparative ethics, Buddhism and Hinduism, religious traditions in the modern world, and religions and worldview analysis. Smart himself published two collections of selected articles: Concept and Empathy: Essays in the Study of Religion, edited by Donald Wiebe (London and New York, 1986), a compilation of previously published articles that contains his Lancaster University inaugural address, "The Principles and Meaning in the Study of Religion"; and Reflections in the Mirror of Religion, edited by John Burris (London and New York, 1997). Smart's approach to religious experience has been analyzed by Jose Kuruvachira, Religious Experience Buddhist, Christian, Hindu: A Critical Study of Ninian Smart's Interpretation of the Numinous and the Mystical (New Delhi, 2003).

Smart's work was referred to several times in the first edition of The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade (New York, 1987), to which he contributed the articles on "Soteriology" (vol. 13, pp. 418423) and "Comparative-Historical Method" (vol. 3, pp. 571574), themes that are also discussed in his The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (Princeton, 1973).

In addition to the publications cited in the entry above, other books by Smart include Philosophers and Religious Truth (London, 1964/1969); The Philosophy of Religion (New York, 1970/1979); The Phenomenon of Religion (London, 1973/1978); New Movements in Religious Education, co-edited with Donald Horder (London, 1975); The Phenomenon of Christianity (London, 1979), also published as In Search of Christianity: Discovering the Diverse Vitality of Christian Life (San Francisco, 1979); and Sacred Texts of the World: A Universal Anthology, co-edited with Richard D. Hecht (New York, 1982), wherein Smart's different dimensions of religion are used for the arrangement of selected texts, including passages from new religions and secular worldviews. Smart's interests in comparative theology and what some call his "theological intentions," are evident from The Concept of Worship (London and New York, 1972); his Christian Systematic Theology in a World Context, coauthored with Steven Konstantine (London and Minneapolis, 1991); and Buddhism and Christianity: Rivals and Allies (London and Honolulu, 1993). Smart's Gifford Lectures were published as Beyond Ideology: Religion and the Future of Western Civilization (London, 1981; San Francisco, 1982). His own religious beliefs are perhaps most clearly delineated in "An Ultimate Vision" in Ultimate Visions: Reflections on the Religions We Choose, edited by Martin Forward, pp. 257265 (Oxford, 1995).

Themes relating to religion, politics, and nationalism are taken up in many of Smart's writings, but are especially focused on in Mao (London, 1974); Religion and Politics in the Modern World, co-edited with Peter H. Merkl (New York and London, 1983/1985); and in Religion and Nationalism: The Urgency of Transnational Spirituality and Toleration (Rome, 1994). Personal appreciations of Ninian Smart as a colleague, scholar, teacher, and friend are found in "Tributes to Ninian Smart (19272001)" in Religion 31, no. 4 (2001): 315386.

Ursula King (2005)