Sunday, 11 December 2011

Ninian Smart and the growth of dilettantism

The big problem with Smart’s understanding of Religious Studies was his inconsistency. As he observed in his methods paper he came to Religious Studies with a thorough and highly specialized training. This included a strong background in various languages including Latin, Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit, and Pali, immersion in the complexities of British analytic philosophy, and considerable historical knowledge. To these academic skills he added extensive cross-cultural experience which he first gained as an intelligence officer serving the British Army in Sri Lanka and India in the mid-1940’s (Smart 2000:20-22 and 31).

Therefore, one the one hand he criticized trends like postmodernism while at the same time criticizing what he saw as a trend towards specialization. These criticisms of Religious Studies need to be seen against the background of Smart’s own training and high expectations of the abilities of other scholars and his own students.

They should not be seen as a blank check to lower academic standards. Although Smart’s comments about “professionalism” clearly show that he recognized the dangers of dilettantism he side stepped the issue without really facing up to the fact that it represented a growing trend, particularly in North America. No doubt Harnack would have pointed this out with alacrity.

Smart’s bold advocacy of a multi-disciplinary, polymethodic, comparative, approach, to the study of religion and religions is exactly the sort of thing Adolf Harnack feared. This is not to say that if we had a time machine that enabled us to transport Smart back to 1901 for a meeting with Harnack they would not have agree on many issues. Indeed, they would probably have become close friends.

The problem was not with Smart himself, who was a thorough and highly gifted scholar, but rather it is with those who adopted his arguments without his rigor. Smart decried over-specialization, but was none the less highly specialized in his approach, and he always demanded mastery of their topics from his graduate students. Unfortunately, few other teachers are as skilled and able as he.

Ironically, it was Smart’s former colleague Eric Sharpe, the critic of Harnack, who eventually highlighted the growing dilettantism of many Religious Studies programs ...

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Changing times

While Smart was still hopeful about the future of religious studies academic fashions began to change. First it was Marxism heavy. That is designer Marxism created for and propagated by highly privileged pseudo-intellectuals who were as far removed from the realities of the working class as it was possible to get. They corrupted the lucid prose of Marx with an intoxicating cocktail of early twentieth century scholastic German. As Karl Popper wrote in another context these authors had “nothing whatever to say”, but they said “it in Hegelian language”(The Myth of Framework, London, Routledge, 1994:78).

Marx and Engels in Alexanderplatz, Berlin

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 everything changed. Within a couple of years the fog of designer Marxism had been replaced first by deconstruction and then by post-modernism. Both were equally mystifying as was the fact that former “Marxists” were now convinced post-modernists. The fact that the guru of these new trends Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), in his essay “The Force of Law,” found Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by D. Cornell (New York: Routledge, 1992), admired the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), whose political theories he aligned his own with worried no one.

After all Derrida was “on the left” and he clearly said that Schmitt was a Roman Catholic (Cornell, 1992:52) omitting to add that Schmitt had formally left the church as a teenager and consciously developed his political ideas in the service of Hitler. Thus the moral seriousness and clearly stated message of Marx was transformed into an unreadable morass of morally dubious assertions that only the unenlightened were interested in questioning while true believers swallowed them wholesale.

Derrida at the AAR in Toronto

At the same time research budgets began to shrink increasing the appeal of esoteric interpretations and endless discussions of language over the rigours of fieldwork and archival research. A new scholasticism took hold of many scholars and by his own admission Smart’s vision for the future of religious studies began to dim.

To be continued ...

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Smart's vision of a bright future for Religious Studies

Three years later Smart took up the theme of professionalism once again in his article “Methods in my Life” where he provided the social and historical context for his inaugural address and defended his basic argument about the nature of Religious Studies. Yet again in this paper he stressed the importance of empathy for understanding religions and the need for what he called a “plural, polymethodic, non-finite” approach to the subject (Smart 2000:22).

Then he outlined some dangers he believed were threatening the integrity of the field in particular what he called “the trend to the particularization of cultures” (Smart 2000:30) based on “New Theories, such as deconstruction” that he saw as encouraging people with “ideological or spiritual axes to grind” to use Religious Studies for their own ends (Smart 2000:34). After spending considerable effort decrying “pseudo-specialization” and the growing influence of specialists who, in his view, threatened “the fragmentation and disintegration of Religious Studies” (Smart 2000:31), he concluded that “Religious Studies, provided it does not choke on specialism or commit methodological suicide, has a marvelous future” (Smart 2000:35).
To be continued ...

Smart, Ninian. "Methods in My Life" 18-35. In Stone, Jon R., ed., The Craft of Religious Studies. New York: Palgrave, 2000. 

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The importance of openness and alternatives

Thus, according to Ninian Smart, “all worldviews are open to question and debate” including “the evolutionary model … we cannot dogmatically assert any one worldview to be established” (Smart 1989:9). Stressing one of his basic educational principles, he argued, “It is I believe a principle of education that you should, where there is doubt, point out alternatives.” (Smart 1989:10). Praising both Gandhi and Popper for their openness Smart argued that what is needed is academic “openness” adding “I count myself a glasnostic” (Smart 1989:10).

Ninian Smart at a conference in Washington, D.C.

This led him to declare “If we wish, therefore, to teach British history creatively, we should emphasize the progress towards openness, criticism and democracy which we have made: and indeed towards internationalism. We do not want to stick to utter tradition, but to find in tradition modern values” (Smart 1989:13).

He wound up his paper by re-asserting his views about the nature of religion, Religious Studies, and its value to society. Then he compared the study of religion to the study of nationalism urging that one enlightened the other. Finally he declared that Religious Studies “is a wonderful subject” and that 60 Lancaster Religious Studies graduates were teaching in universities worldwide.

Eight years later, in 1997, the "Council of Societies for the Study of Religion" published several papers in its "Bulletin" on the relationship between religious studies and theology to which Ninian Smart and his former colleague Eric J. Sharpe contributed. Once again Smart displayed an almost missionary zeal by restating the aims outlined in his inaugural address. Although he made a strong plea for a “multidisciplinary” approach to the study of religion that of necessity involved the interaction of several disciplines he never really fully explained here or elsewhere how he saw this approach working in practice.

At the same time he clearly recognized growing concerns about the development of Religious Studies but failed to address them adequately. Instead he simply restated that “Religious Studies is a field which is aspectual, cross-cultural, multidisciplinary (polymethodic), and non-finite” which he argued is “an important social science and humanities subject” (Smart 1997:68). The closest he came to addressing problems within the field was when stated quite bluntly that “Too much of academe is swayed by propaganda, notably in the humanities and social sciences” and asserted his belief in the importance of “professionalism” (Smart 1987:68).

Smart, Ninian: Religious Studies & Some Contradictions in Mrs. Thatcher’s Policies, Lancaster 1989.

Smart, Ninian: “Religious Studies and Theology”, in: The Council of Societies for the Study of Religion Bulletin, vol. 26, No. 3, 1968, pp. 66-68.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Ninian Smart's exergual lecture at the University of Lancaster

In his exergual lecture Smart restated his vision of Religious Studies as “an approach which is crosscultural, open, empathetic, descriptive, theoretical and critical” (Smart 1989:1). This led him to argue that “Because the study of religion is crosscultural and plural it is transnational” (Smart 1989:3) and this is where it came into conflict with Thatcher’s “strong nationalism” (Smart 1989:1 and 3).

Facing what he clearly saw as barbarians at the gate of higher education Smart offered a defense of education as a good in itself. Education, he argued “is more than a way into usefulness. It involves cultivation of human quests and interests” because, he argued, “direct relevance may tend to be self-defeating” (Smart 1989:4).

Apart from his criticisms of Thatcher’s policies Smart made several asides lamenting the failure of Britain’s “new universities,” which were built in the 1960’s, to live up to their initial promise. All too often they had reverted to old ways and lacked imagination (Smart 1989:4).

A third theme that ran through this speech echoed a tone of disappointment with the way Religious Studies had developed. Smart found it necessary to define what he meant by a secular university.

For him this did not mean a university that promoted, or was built on secularism, rather “Religious Studies is, as I have said, crosscultural. Its scope includes world religions. It is the logical way to explore religion in the secular university. By ‘secular’ here I mean ‘pluralistic.’ It is part of the logic of the university that it should be open to truth” (Smart 1989:6). For Smart this meant that “The liberal cannot shut out non-liberal positions, but should preserve the plural milieu” (Smart 1989:7).

Smart, Ninian, The Principles and Meaning in the Study of Religion, Lancaster, Department of Religious Studies, 1968.

Smart, Ninian: Religious Studies & Some Contradictions in Mrs. Thatcher’s Policies, Lancaster, Department of Religious Studies, 1989.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ninian Smart's inaugural lecture - launching British Religious Studies

Ninian Smart outlined his basic understanding of Religious Studies in his inaugural lecture The Principles and Meaning in the Study of Religion in 1968.
In this lecture he summarized his views about the teaching of religion in an upbeat manner. Religion, he argued, must be studied in the following ways:

1) Historically
2) Phenomenologically
3) Anthropologically and sociologically
4) Psychologically
5) Philosophically

Then he added that the study of religion must:

1) engage with modern atheistic thought
2) engage other religious traditions and not simply Christianity
(Smart 1968:10-11)

He ended his lecture by arguing that “the pattern of religious studies is determined by an inner logic. This pattern of a pluralistic, structural, ancient and modern study of religions suits all interests (Smart 1968:14)

Twenty-one years later, on 22 June 1989, Ninian Smart delivered his exaugural address shortly before leaving Lancaster to take up a full time position at the University of Santa Barbara. In sharp contrast to his inaugural address Smart’s words were heavy with foreboding.

The title was Religious Studies & some contradictions in Mrs. Thatcher’s policies, summed up his main concern that the educational “reforms” pushed through by Sir Keith Joseph were a step backwards and no reforms at all. The quest for “economic relevance,” he argued was a short term expedient that failed to offer long term solutions to Britain’s future (Smart 1989:1-5).

Smart, Ninian, The Principles and Meaning in the Study of Religion, Lancaster, Department of Religious Studies, 1968.

Smart, Ninian: Religious Studies & Some Contradictions in Mrs. Thatcher’s Policies, Lancaster, Department of Religious Studies, 1989.

Copies of both of Ninian Smart's lectures will soon be available for download from the "Study of Religion" link on the Understanding World Religions Website. The website is linked to this blog. Profesor Smart gave me permission to distribute them years ago well before his tragic death. It can be found at:

More to follow …