Smart, Roderick Ninian

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Philosopher, historian of Comparative Religion; b. Cambridge, England, May 6, 1927; d. Lancaster, England, Jan. 29, 2001.

Ninian Smart was born to an academic family. His father, William M. Smart was an astronomer, his mother was poet Isabel Carswell, and his elder brothers were J.C. Smart (Philosophy) and Alastair Smart (Art History). In 1954 he married Libushka Baruffaldi, with whom he had four children.

Scottish Epicopalian, Smart studied at Glasgow Academy. While serving in World War II as a Captain in the Royal Army Intelligence Corps (194548), he studied Cantonense and was introduced to Thervadan Buddhism in Sri Lanka. After the war he studied at Queen's College, Oxford (Classics and Philosophy, 194854), then lectured in Philosophy at University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (195255), Yale (including studies of Pali and Sanskrit, 195556), and also at King's College, London (195661). He served as H. G. Wood Professor of Theology at Birmingham University (196167), founding Professor of Religious Studies, University of Lancaster (196782), and Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara (19761998).

Professor Emeritus at the Universities of Lancaster (1989) and California (1998), his academic career included honorary professorships and degrees, numerous visiting professorships and lectures across the globe (including the Gifford Lectures), executive positions with various academic societies, consulting work (including editor of The Long Search Series ), and appointments as director of Schools Council Project on Secondary and Primary Religious Education (19691979), centered at the University of Lancaster, and vice-chancellor of that institution (196972).

A pioneer in the comparative study of religion, Smart was a prolific writer and lecturer. His early work focused on issues in the philosophy of religion, including substantial comparative explorations of Indian philosophy. This included a linguistic analysis of religious doctrines and concepts that distinguishes between patterns of religious discourse and practice according to particular experiential types: the numinous, the mystical, and the incarnational. This "logical strand" model of religion draws on examples from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity to illustrate how religious propositions and practices are contextualized in terms of these particular doctrinal systems.

He later went on to frame cross-cultural expositions of these and other religions in terms of various dynamic and interacting "dimensions" that are distinguished under the general categories of belief and practical manifestation. The former division of this dimensional model of religion includes: the doctrinal and philosophical; the mythic and narrative; and the ethical or legal. The latter involves: the ritual or practical; the experiential or emotional; the social, institutional or organizational; and the material or artistic.

Smart also extended his studies of religion to include "worldview analysis," arguing that secular ideological orientations (such as Marxism, scientific humanism, nationalism, and democratic liberalism) significantly resemble religious traditions in the way in which they are empowered through their own ritual, symbol, and myth. He advocated an "interactive pluralism" committed to tolerance and openness in inter-religious and even inter-ideological dialogue and comparative study, with the goal of enhancing and refining one's own worldview through the phenomenological study of others. In regard to methodology, he stressed an attitude of "informed empathy" and advocated a "polymethodic" approach to the study of religion. Smart argued that the scientific study of religion ought to include the various academic disciplines, and refrain from imposing values and beliefs on the subject in question.

He also distinguished the scientific study of religion from various religious theologies. While theological approaches espouse and defend truth claims of religious faith, religious studies, Smart observed, maintains a neutrality on these questions. Nevertheless, the two disciplines are often mutually engaged: theology is a major subject of religious studies and religious studies provides much helpful material for theologians. Indeed, Smart himself co-authored a substantial ecumenical work of systematic theology, one that explores essential elements of Christian faith in light of contemporary developments in religious studies.

Ninian Smart was a highly influential figure in the philosophy of comparative religion and in the method and theory of religion. He played a key role in the worldwide development of religious education and the discipline of religious studies. He founded the first religious studies department in the United Kingdom and was a major force in the international expansion of the discipline. But he is best known for his survey texts on the world's religions and secular ideologies. These, as well as his other books, demonstrate Smart's vast breadth of cultural and historical knowledge, his sharp eye for comparative detail and significance, and his keen philosophical insight into religious traditions and other worldviews.

Bibliography: Books by Ninian Smart: Reasons and Faiths (London 1958); A Dialogue of Religions (London 1960), reprinted as World Religions: A Dialogue (Harmondsworth 1966); Historical Selections in the Philosophy of Religions (London 1962); Philosophers and Religious Truth (London 1964); Doctrine and Argument in Indian Philosophy (London 1964); The Teacher and Christian Belief (London 1966); Secular Education and the Logic of Religion (London 1968); The Yogi and the Devotee (London 1968); The Religious Experience of Mankind (New York 1969, new edition 1984), new edition published as The Religious Experience (New York 1991); The Philosophy of Religion (New York 1970, new edition 1979); The Concept of Worship (London 1972); The Science of Religion and the Sociology of Knowledge (Princeton 1973); The Phenomenon of Religion (London 1973); Mao (London 1974); Background to the Long Search (London 1977), published also as The Long Search (Boston 1978); The Phenomenon of Christianity (London 1979), published also as In Search of Christianity (New York 1979); Beyond Ideology (London 1981); Worldviews, Cross-cultural Exploration of Human Beliefs (New York 1983); Prophet of a New Hindu Age (London 1985); Concept and Empathy, ed., d. wiebe (New York, 1986); Religion and the Western Mind (London 1987); The World's Religions (Englewood Cliffs 1989); Christian Systematic Theology in a World Context (London, 1991); Buddhism and Christianity (Honolulu 1993); Religions of Asia and Religions of the West (Englewood Cliffs 1993); Dimensions of the Sacred (Berkeley 1996); Reflections in the Mirror of Religion, ed., j. p. burris (New York 1997); World Philosophies (New York 1999). For a chronological listing of Smart's publications and professional activities, as well as a detailed biographical sketch to 1993, see: the Appendix and p. magee, "Roderick Ninian SmartA Biographical Sketch," eds., p. masefield & d. wiebe, Aspects of Religion: Essays in Honour of Ninian Smart (New York 1994).

[m. stoeber]