Dimensions of the Sacred:An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs
By Ninian Smart
University of California Press, 331 pages, $29.95
The modern study of religion is about a century old. It has a longer lineage, of course: Hume’s Natural History of Religion and Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus are important forerunners, as (on some readings) is Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods. But the presence in universities of the paraphernalia of a scholarly discipline with religion (as opposed to theology) as its topic does not much predate the twentieth century.
By some measures, this particular academic discipline is flourishing. The American Academy of Religion attracts more than ten thousand to its annual meetings, and several hundred doctoral degrees in religious studies are awarded every year in the United States. But the appearance of health is deceptive. The discipline is like those stalks of corn that grew from the seed that fell upon stony ground in the parable of the sower: they have grown quickly and they look luxuriant, but they haven’t the root-system to sustain life and are quickly withered by the sun. The sun in question is the recovery of theological voice, both within the academy and without, by those doing serious intellectual work from within the bounds of some particular religious tradition. The rationale for the establishment of the modern study of religion was that it could be properly scientific (a Geisteswissenschaft—these things always sound better in German), while theology could not. But no one, not even the practitioners of religious studies (other than a lunatic fringe), seripline, always undeveloped, has gone.
In light of all this, Dimensions of the Sacred has the look of a beautiful bloom on a dying plant. Of its kind it is very good. Ninian Smart has been thinking and writing about religion and the study of religion for more than three decades. He writes with care and clarity, and with the assurance of a scholar who has been displaying the skills evident in this book for a long time. He has read widely and has a facility for pithy summary of other people’s work and for synthesizing great swaths of scholarly work on particular topics—such as the relations between religious commitment and nationalism, or the effects of modernity upon the formation and maintenance of doctrinal systems. Smart is one of the discipline’s major figures, and this book may turn out to be his major synthetic effort. If you want to know where the modern study of religion stands, and what topics are of interest to it, you should read this book.
What Smart offers is a descriptive analysis, from a broadly phenomenological perspective, of the main dimensions of religion—of religion in general, that is, as well as of particular religions. He wants to describe the grammar of religious symbols, to show the “modes and forms in which religion manifests itself.” Smart distinguishes seven such dimensions: doctrinal, ritual, mythic, experiential, ethical, social, and material. Each of these is given a chapter, and he includes a brief final chapter on the political effects of religion, wherein he offers some comments on the possible future of religion in general and of certain religions in particular.
Each dimension is treated both abstractly and concretely—as when, for instance, Smart defines the ritual dimension of religion (it is, for him, a species of repetitious or stylized performative act or utterance), and then offers many examples of its varieties. One of the book’s strengths is the range of the examples offered. In the ritual chapter, for example, Smart mentions Hindu fire sacrifices, Christian Easter rites, Chinese Marxist pilgrimages to Mao’s mausoleum, Tibetan Buddhist shamanistic rituals, Mahayana Buddhist worship of bodhisattvas, Qur’anic chant—and much more. Naturally, examples are treated very briefly; the scope of the book does not permit anything else. But so far as I can judge Smart is careful to be accurate and clear, and to show in the service of what theoretical point every example is used. His understanding of religion extends, as is obvious even from this list of examples, to Marxism, and indeed to any complex of phenomena that might reasonably be thought to have all or most of his seven dimensions.
Another strength of the book is that it doesn’t treat its chosen dimensions in isolation. Smart attempts throughout to discern threads running across the dimensional divides, and to show why they are there. For instance, he explores the likely relations between telling particular stories and teaching particular ethical attitudes or practices: if an important religious narrative for you is that of Confucius’ life in the Analects, you’ll be likely to think that the ideal way to live is as a tradition-committed sage; if, on the other hand, you tell the stories of Buddha’s previous lives as part of your religion, you’ll be implying a correspondingly different set of ethical attitudes as desirable. Similar kinds of connections are drawn among the other dimensions, and this is one of the things that makes the book read as a connected whole.
But the fact remains that the book has an oddly quaint air. Smart himself sees this, saying that much of his book is relatively old-fashioned. There’s nothing wrong with quaintness by itself, of course, but this isn’t the quaintness of the thatched roof or the hand-made book; it’s the quaintness of the phrenologist who doesn’t quite realize that his theories have no purchase. The easiest way to see this in the case of Smart’s book is to ask what it is for: what benefits are to be had from reading it, and to whom is it addressed? Smart thinks that it is for all who take religion seriously, and that its audience is “religionists” who offer an uncommitted interpretation of religious phenomena. Its platform, he says, is that of science, in the broad sense; and its principal benefits are that it acts as a counterpoise to tribalism, and that it raises questions that it may be fruitful for committed religious people to consider.
But this is all wrong. It claims a status for itself above the objects of its study, whereas in fact its platform is simply one among others, not elevated above those of the religions it describes. Religionists are a tribe, too (though not a terribly interesting one), and it’s hard to see why speaking as a member of that tribe is anything other than one more instance of tribalism; and the religions are perfectly capable of generating and considering their own questions about religion, without the dubious help of religionists.
These points can be approached rather differently by asking about the place, in Smart’s book, of judgments as to the truth of religious claims or the desirability of patterns of action advocated by religious communites. Smart seems to think of his work as eschewing all such, for he presents it as concerned only with synthetic description. When he does make normative judgments (for instance, he claims that the Guru Maharaj Ji is not worthy of the worship his followers give him), he always does so with a certain distanced coyness, as though saying, “Yes, I can make judgments too, but when I’m wearing my scholar’s hat I prefer not to.”
But the coyness is a diversionary tactic: it masks the deep normative commitments that in fact saturate Smart’s work. He is committed at least to the controversial claims that religionists are less tribal than people of faith; that a good understanding of beliefs held and practices performed by people of faith can be produced by comparative and synthetic description of the sort found in his book; and that it is possible to divorce descriptive acts from normative beliefs. The first and third of these claims are clearly false; and the second needs a lot of work if it is to be made plausible. But the fundamental problem is not that Smart believes such things (and many others like them), but that he seems to see neither that he does, nor that they require defense. He is blind to his own tribal allegiances.
This is a book with numerous virtues. But they are vitiated by the fact that the intellectual enterprise it represents is without roots, without the self-awareness to perceive and understand the nature of its own commitments, and with the power to bear only sickly fruit.
Paul J. Griffiths is Associate Professor in the Divinity School and in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.