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.

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