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 ...