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Smith, Wilfrid Cantwell


Historian and comparativist of religion, minister; b. July 21, 1916, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; d. Feb. 7, 2000, Toronto. The younger of two sons of Sarah Cory Cantwell and Victor Arnold Smith, as a youth Smith attended Upper Canada College of Toronto and spent extended periods in France, Spain, and Egypt. He obtained an Honours B.A. in Oriental Languages at University College, University of Toronto (1939), and subsequently studied Christian theology and Arabic and Islamic history at Cambridge, England (193840). Following missionary work in India, both as a teacher of Islamic and Indian history and as a minister of the United Church of North India (194046), Smith went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Oriental languages at Princeton University (1948), and was appointed W. M. Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University (1949). In Montreal he established and directed the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies (19511964) before moving to Harvard University as the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions (196473). He later founded the Department of Comparative Religion at Dalhousie University in Halifax (197378), returned briefly to Harvard University (197884), and then settled in Toronto as professor emeritus at Trinity College, Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto (19852000). Throughout his

academic career he held executive positions with various professional associations. His books have been translated into more than ten languages.

Trained as a specialist in Islamic studies, Smith broadened his areas of historical expertise to include other major religious traditions, and explored issues in the comparative study and method and theory of religion. In his early research in Islam and in his seminal work, The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (1962), Smith began to develop a personalist, comparativist approach to the study of religion. Over his prolific career, his carefully researched analyses focused on the major themes of faith, belief, history, religion, transcendence, cumulative traditions, world theology, and religious pluralism.

In his exploration of the dynamics of faith, Smith responds critically to trends in the philosophical theology of his time. These tended to concentrate in the analysis of faith on the propositional truth claims of creedal belief that are given in narrowly systematized and institutionalized contexts. Supported by his detailed historical research into various religious traditions, Smith argues that faith is essentially an intimate relationship of love and commitment to God that profoundly influences a person's way of being and acting in the world. Questions concerning religious truth are only answered in reference to a particular orientation of faith. Faith is a personal experience of individuals that expresses the dynamics of the human encounter with ultimate Reality, in the unfolding of religious meaning and personal transcendence.

The historically developed expressions of this common and primary feature of religious life are the many different religious traditions of the world. Smith observes that religion, understood as a unified and fixed institutional system of beliefs and practices, is a recently developed intellectual abstraction that does not correspond to a concrete reality and tends to adversely depersonalize the subject of study. He deconstructs the idea in light of his analysis of faith and speaks rather of specific, diverse, and dynamic cumulative traditions. These various religious traditions, which Smith shows to be historical, interconnected, interdependent, and continuously constructed, provide the multifarious data for the scholar of religion. But for Smith it is faith that provides the common thread in the development of a world theology of different religious traditions.

Smith's comparative methodology hopes to transcend parochial and absolutist attitudes of earlier inter-religious relations by stressing personal engagement in interfaith dialogue. He insists in his "religious pluralism" that in the global and corporately communal context of modern life means that comparativists must be unassumingly selfconscious and cognizant both of the historical construction of religious traditions and their interconnected nature. In a world theology, religious traditions must be studied on their own terms and from a perspective that recognizes the universally salvific power of God or the Ultimate and the mutual intelligibility of diverse religious views and practices.

Smith's work has drawn much attention and many responses from diverse circles in religious studies and theology, which speak to the originality and substance of his contributions. Regarded as "the 'father' of the pluralist model in Anglo-American theology" (Grüschloß,359), he has significantly influenced contemporary understandings of certain key concepts and categories in religious studies and theology. Moreover, he has helped in the process of bridging the methods of religious studies and theology, and has stimulated and influenced the direction of comparative religion and interfaith dialogue into the 21st century.

Bibliography: w. c. smith, Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis (Lahore 1943); Islam in Modern History (Princeton 1957); The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (New York 1962); The Faith of Other Men (Toronto 1962), revised and republished as Patterns of Faith around the World (Oxford 1998); Modernisation of a Traditional Society (Bombay 1965); Questions of Religious Truth (New York 1967); Religious Diversity: Essays by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, ed. w. g. oxtoby (New York 1976); Belief and History (Charlottesville 1977), republished as BelievingAn Historical Perspective (Oxford 1998); Faith and Belief (Princeton 1979), republished as Faith and Belief: The Difference between Them (Oxford 1998); On Understanding Islam: Selected Studies (The Hague 1981); Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (Philadelphia 1981); What is Scripture?A Comparative Approach (London 1993); Modern Culture from a Comparative Perspective, ed. j. w. burbidge (Albany, N.Y. 1997). r. t. mccutcheon, "Wilfred Cantwell Smith: A Chronological Biography," ed. m. despland and g. vallÉe, Religion in History: The Word, the Idea, the Reality (Waterloo, Ontario 1992). a. grÜnschloß, Religionswissenschaft als Welt-Theologie: Wilfred Cantwell Smiths interreligiöse Hermeneutik (Gottingen 1994). Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 4 (1992) 1105.

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