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Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Overview
Wilfred Cantwell Smith (July 21, 1916 – February 7, 2000) was a Canadian professor of comparative religion
Comparative religion
Comparative religion is a field of religious studies that analyzes the similarities and differences of themes, myths, rituals and concepts among the world's religions...

 who from 1964-1973 was director of Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions
Harvard Divinity School
Harvard Divinity School is one of the constituent schools of Harvard University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States. The School's mission is to train and educate its students either in the academic study of religion, or for the practice of a religious ministry or other public...

. The Harvard Gazette characterized him as one of the field's most influential figures of the past century. In his 1962 work The Meaning and End of Religion he notably and controversially questioned the validity of the concept of religion
Religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

.

Smith was born in Toronto
Toronto
Toronto is the provincial capital of Ontario and the largest city in Canada. It is located in Southern Ontario on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. A relatively modern city, Toronto's history dates back to the late-18th century, when its land was first purchased by the British monarchy from...

 to parents Victor Arnold Smith and Sarah Cory Cantwell.
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Encyclopedia
Wilfred Cantwell Smith (July 21, 1916 – February 7, 2000) was a Canadian professor of comparative religion
Comparative religion
Comparative religion is a field of religious studies that analyzes the similarities and differences of themes, myths, rituals and concepts among the world's religions...

 who from 1964-1973 was director of Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions
Harvard Divinity School
Harvard Divinity School is one of the constituent schools of Harvard University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States. The School's mission is to train and educate its students either in the academic study of religion, or for the practice of a religious ministry or other public...

. The Harvard Gazette characterized him as one of the field's most influential figures of the past century. In his 1962 work The Meaning and End of Religion he notably and controversially questioned the validity of the concept of religion
Religion
Religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values. Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to...

.

Early life and career


Smith was born in Toronto
Toronto
Toronto is the provincial capital of Ontario and the largest city in Canada. It is located in Southern Ontario on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. A relatively modern city, Toronto's history dates back to the late-18th century, when its land was first purchased by the British monarchy from...

 to parents Victor Arnold Smith and Sarah Cory Cantwell. He was the younger brother of Arnold Smith
Arnold Smith
Arnold Cantwell Smith, OC, CH was a Canadian diplomat. He was the first Commonwealth Secretary-General, serving from 1965–1975.A talented student, he won a Rhodes Scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford....

 and the father of Brian Cantwell Smith
Brian Cantwell Smith
Brian Cantwell Smith is a scholar in the fields of cognitive science, computer science, information studies, and philosophy, especially ontology. His research has focused on the foundations and philosophy of computing, both in the practice and theory of computer science, and in the use of...

.

He received a B.A. with honours in oriental languages
Languages of Asia
There is a wide variety of languages spoken throughout Asia, comprising a number of families and some unrelated isolates. Many languages have a long tradition of writing.-Central and North Asian languages:*Turkic**Azeri**Kazak**Kyrgyz**Tatar**Turkish...

 in 1938 from the University of Toronto
University of Toronto
The University of Toronto is a public research university in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, situated on the grounds that surround Queen's Park. It was founded by royal charter in 1827 as King's College, the first institution of higher learning in Upper Canada...

. After his thesis was rejected by Cambridge University
University of Cambridge
The University of Cambridge is a public research university located in Cambridge, United Kingdom. It is the second-oldest university in both the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world , and the seventh-oldest globally...

, supposedly for its Marxist critique of the British Raj
British Raj
British Raj was the British rule in the Indian subcontinent between 1858 and 1947; The term can also refer to the period of dominion...

, he and his wife Muriel Mackenzie Struthers spent seven years in Pre-Independence India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 (1940-1946), during which he taught Indian and Islamic history at Forman Christian College
Forman Christian College
Forman Christian College University, or FCCU, is a chartered university in Lahore, Pakistan, named after its American-born founder, Dr. Charles William Forman.- History :...

 in Lahore
Lahore
Lahore is the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab and the second largest city in the country. With a rich and fabulous history dating back to over a thousand years ago, Lahore is no doubt Pakistan's cultural capital. One of the most densely populated cities in the world, Lahore remains a...

.

In 1948 he obtained a Ph.D in oriental languages at Princeton University
Princeton University
Princeton University is a private research university located in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. The school is one of the eight universities of the Ivy League, and is one of the nine Colonial Colleges founded before the American Revolution....

, after which he taught at McGill
McGill University
Mohammed Fathy is a public research university located in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The university bears the name of James McGill, a prominent Montreal merchant from Glasgow, Scotland, whose bequest formed the beginning of the university...

, founding in 1952 the university's Institute of Islamic Studies
McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies
The McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies and the Islamic Studies Library were established in 1952 by Wilfred Cantwell Smith, and since 1983 both have been housed in Morrice Hall on McGill's campus in downtown Montreal...

. From 1964 to 1973 Smith taught at Harvard Divinity School
Harvard Divinity School
Harvard Divinity School is one of the constituent schools of Harvard University, located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States. The School's mission is to train and educate its students either in the academic study of religion, or for the practice of a religious ministry or other public...

. He left Harvard for Dalhousie University
Dalhousie University
Dalhousie University is a public research university located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. The university comprises eleven faculties including Schulich School of Law and Dalhousie University Faculty of Medicine. It also includes the faculties of architecture, planning and engineering located at...

 in Halifax, NS, where he founded the Department of Religion. He was also among the original Editorial Advisors of the scholarly journal Dionysius
Dionysius (journal)
Dionysius is a scholarly journal published by the Department of Classics at Dalhousie University. It was established originally in 1977, and a new series began in 1998. It publishes articles on the history of ancient philosophy and theology, and has a special interest in the Aristotelian and...

. In 1978 he returned to Harvard. After his retirement from teaching, he was appointed a senior research associate in the Faculty of Divinity at Trinity College
University of Trinity College
The University of Trinity College, informally referred to as Trin, is a college of the University of Toronto, founded in 1851 by Bishop John Strachan. Trinity was intended by Strachan as a college of strong Anglican alignment, after the University of Toronto severed its ties with the Church of...

, University of Toronto, in 1985. He died on February 7, 2000.

The Meaning and End of Religion


In his best known and most controversial work, Smith contends that the concept
Concept
The word concept is used in ordinary language as well as in almost all academic disciplines. Particularly in philosophy, psychology and cognitive sciences the term is much used and much discussed. WordNet defines concept: "conception, construct ". However, the meaning of the term concept is much...

 of religion, rather than being a universally valid category as is generally supposed, is a peculiarly Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

an construct
Construct (philosophy of science)
A construct in the philosophy of science is an ideal object, where the existence of the thing may be said to depend upon a subject's mind. This, as opposed to a "real" object, where existence does not seem to depend on the existence of a mind....

 of surprisingly recent origin. The anthropologist and writer on religion and post-colonial studies Talal Asad
Talal Asad
Talal Asad is an anthropologist at the City University of New York.Asad has made important theoretical contributions to post-colonialism, Christianity, Islam, and ritual studies and has recently called for, and initiated, an anthropology of secularism...

 has characterized The Meaning and End of Religion as a modern classic and a masterpiece.

Smith sets out chapter by chapter to demonstrate that none of the supposed founders of the world's major religions had any such intention. The one exception on the face of it, he concedes, is Islam
Islam
Islam . The most common are and .   : Arabic pronunciation varies regionally. The first vowel ranges from ~~. The second vowel ranges from ~~~...

. In a chapter titled, The special case of Islam, Smith, a minister in the presbyterian
Presbyterianism
Presbyterianism refers to a number of Christian churches adhering to the Calvinist theological tradition within Protestantism, which are organized according to a characteristic Presbyterian polity. Presbyterian theology typically emphasizes the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures,...

 United Church of Canada
United Church of Canada
The United Church of Canada is a Protestant Christian denomination in Canada. It is the largest Protestant church and, after the Roman Catholic Church, the second-largest Christian church in Canada...

 whose academic speciality was Islam, argues that the prophet Muhammad
Muhammad
Muhammad |ligature]] at U+FDF4 ;Arabic pronunciation varies regionally; the first vowel ranges from ~~; the second and the last vowel: ~~~. There are dialects which have no stress. In Egypt, it is pronounced not in religious contexts...

 would have been, above all others perhaps, profoundly alarmed at any suggestion that he was starting a new religion. Smith points out that the Arabic language does not even have a word for religion, strictly speaking: he details how the word din, customarily translated as such, differs in significant important respects from the European concept.

Smith suggests that practitioners of any given faith do not historically come to regard what they do as religion until they have developed a degree of cultural self-regard, causing them to see their collective spiritual practices and beliefs as in some way significantly different from the other. Religion in the contemporary sense of the word is for Smith the product of both identity politics
Identity politics
Identity politics are political arguments that focus upon the self interest and perspectives of self-identified social interest groups and ways in which people's politics may be shaped by aspects of their identity through race, class, religion, sexual orientation or traditional dominance...

 and apologetics
Apologetics
Apologetics is the discipline of defending a position through the systematic use of reason. Early Christian writers Apologetics (from Greek ἀπολογία, "speaking in defense") is the discipline of defending a position (often religious) through the systematic use of reason. Early Christian writers...

:

"One's own 'religion' may be piety and faith, obedience, worship, and a vision of God. An alien 'religion' is a system of beliefs or rituals, an abstract and impersonal pattern of observables. A dialectic ensues, however. If one's own 'religion' is attacked, by unbelievers who necessarily conceptualize it schematically, or all religion is, by the indifferent, one tends to leap to the defence of what is attacked, so that presently participants of a faith - especially those most involved in argument - are using the term in the same externalist and theoretical sense as their opponents. Religion as a systematic entity, as it emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is a concept of polemics and apologetics" (p. 43).


By way of an etymological
Etymology
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time.For languages with a long written history, etymologists make use of texts in these languages and texts about the languages to gather knowledge about how words were used during...

 study of religion (religio, in Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

), Smith further contends that the term, which at first and for most of the centuries denoted an attitude towards a relationship between God
God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

 and man (p. 26), has through conceptual slippage come to mean a "system of observances or beliefs" (p. 29), a historical tradition which has been institutionalized through a process of reification
Reification (fallacy)
Reification is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction is treated as if it were a concrete, real event, or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a "real thing" something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea...

. Whereas religio denoted personal piety
Piety
In spiritual terminology, piety is a virtue that can mean religious devotion, spirituality, or a combination of both. A common element in most conceptions of piety is humility.- Etymology :...

, religion came to refer to an abstract entity (or transcendental
Transcendence (religion)
In religion transcendence refers to the aspect of God's nature which is wholly independent of the physical universe. This is contrasted with immanence where God is fully present in the physical world and thus accessible to creatures in various ways...

 signifier) which, Smith says, does not exist.

He argues that the term as found in Lucretius
Lucretius
Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. His only known work is an epic philosophical poem laying out the beliefs of Epicureanism, De rerum natura, translated into English as On the Nature of Things or "On the Nature of the Universe".Virtually no details have come down concerning...

 and Cicero
Cicero
Marcus Tullius Cicero , was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist, and Roman constitutionalist. He came from a wealthy municipal family of the equestrian order, and is widely considered one of Rome's greatest orators and prose stylists.He introduced the Romans to the chief...

 was internalized by the Catholic Church through Lactantius
Lactantius
Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius was an early Christian author who became an advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, guiding his religious policy as it developed, and tutor to his son.-Biography:...

 and Augustine
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo , also known as Augustine, St. Augustine, St. Austin, St. Augoustinos, Blessed Augustine, or St. Augustine the Blessed, was Bishop of Hippo Regius . He was a Latin-speaking philosopher and theologian who lived in the Roman Africa Province...

. During the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

 it was superseded by the term faith, which Smith favors by contrast. In the Renaissance
Renaissance
The Renaissance was a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th to the 17th century, beginning in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spreading to the rest of Europe. The term is also used more loosely to refer to the historical era, but since the changes of the Renaissance were not...

, via the Christian Platonist Marsilio Ficino
Marsilio Ficino
Marsilio Ficino was one of the most influential humanist philosophers of the early Italian Renaissance, an astrologer, a reviver of Neoplatonism who was in touch with every major academic thinker and writer of his day, and the first translator of Plato's complete extant works into Latin...

, religio becomes popular again, retaining its original emphasis on personal practice, even in John Calvin
John Calvin
John Calvin was an influential French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism. Originally trained as a humanist lawyer, he broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530...

's Christianae Religionis Institutio (1536). During 17th Century debates between Catholics and Protestants, religion begins to refer to an abstract system of beliefs, especially when describing an oppositional structure. Through the Enlightenment
Age of Enlightenment
The Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state...

 this concept is further reified, so that by the nineteenth century Hegel defines religion as Begriff, "a self-subsisting transcendent idea that unfolds itself in dynamic expression in the course of ever-changing history ... something real in itself, a great entity with which man has to reckon, a something that precedes all its historical manifestation" (p. 47).

Smith concludes by arguing that the term religion has now acquired four distinct but confusingly conflated connotations: 1) personal piety; 2&3) an overt system of beliefs, practices and values manifesting, on the one hand, as the ideal religion of the theologian and, on the other, as the empirical phenomenon of the lived tradition; and 4) a generic summation or universal category, i.e., religion in general (p. 48-9).

The Meaning and End of Religion remains Smith's most influential work. Some have suggested that the the former nun Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong
Karen Armstrong FRSL , is a British author and commentator who is the author of twelve books on comparative religion. A former Roman Catholic nun, she went from a conservative to a more liberal and mystical faith...

 has taken up and applied Smith's emphases, but any similarities between the two are superficial.

Books

  • The Muslim League, 1942-1945 (1945) Minerva Book Shop, 57 p.
  • Pakistan as an Islamic State: Preliminary Draft (1954), Shaikh Muhammad Ashraf, 114 p.
  • Islam in Modern History: The tension between Faith and History in the Islamic World (1957), Princeton University Press 1977 paperback: ISBN 0-691-01991-6
  • The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), Fortress Press 1991 paperback: ISBN 0-8006-2475-0
  • Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis (1963), South Asia Books 1985 edition: ISBN 0-8364-1338-5
  • The Faith of Other Men (1963), Dutton, ISBN 0-453-00004-5. from seven CBC radio
    CBC Radio
    CBC Radio generally refers to the English-language radio operations of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The CBC operates a number of radio networks serving different audiences and programming niches, all of which are outlined below.-English:CBC Radio operates three English language...

     talks
  • Questions of Religious Truth (1967), Scribner
  • Religious Diversity: Essays (1976), HarperCollins paperback: ISBN 0-06-067464-4
  • Belief and History (1977), University of Virginia Press 1986 paperback: ISBN 0-8139-1086-2
  • On Understanding Islam: Selected Studies editor, (1981), The Hague: Mouton Publishers: ISBN 90-279-3448-7, Walter De Gruyter Inc. hardcover: ISBN 90-279-3448-7, paperback: ISBN 3-11-010020-7, 2000 reprint: ISBN 3-11-013498-5
  • Scripture: Issues as Seen by a Comparative Religionist (1985) Claremont Graduate School, 22 p., no ISBN
  • Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (1989) Macmillan paperback: ISBN 0-333-52272-9, Orbis Books 1990 paperback: ISBN 0-88344-646-4
  • What Is Scripture?: A Comparative Approach, Fortress Press 1993: ISBN 0-8006-2608-7
  • Patterns of Faith Around the World, Oneworld Publications 1998: ISBN 1-85168-164-7
  • Faith and Belief, Princeton University Press 1987: ISBN 0-691-02040-X, Oneworld Publications 1998: ISBN 1-85168-165-5
  • Believing, Oneworld Publications 1998: ISBN 1-85168-166-3
  • Wilfred Cantwell Smith Reader (2001), Kenneth Cracknell editor, Oneworld Publications, ISBN 1-85168-249-X

Further reading

  • Talal Asad
    Talal Asad
    Talal Asad is an anthropologist at the City University of New York.Asad has made important theoretical contributions to post-colonialism, Christianity, Islam, and ritual studies and has recently called for, and initiated, an anthropology of secularism...

    . "Reading a Modern Classic: W. C. Smith's The Meaning and End of Religion," History of Religion 40, no. 3 (2001): 205-22.
  • Edward J Hughes. Wilfred Cantwell Smith: A Theology for the World (1986), SCM Press, ISBN 0-334-02333-5
  • Bård Mæland, Rewarding Encounters: Islam and the Comparative Theologies of Kenneth Cragg and Wilfred Cantwell Smith (2003), Melisende, ISBN 1-901764-24-9
  • Kuk-Won Bae, Homo Fidei: A Critical Understanding of Faith in the Writings of Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Its Implications for the Study of Religion (2003), Peter Lang, ISBN 0-8204-5112-6

External links


See also

  • Religious pluralism
    Religious pluralism
    Religious pluralism is a loosely defined expression concerning acceptance of various religions, and is used in a number of related ways:* As the name of the worldview according to which one's religion is not the sole and exclusive source of truth, and thus that at least some truths and true values...

  • Universalism
    Universalism
    Universalism in its primary meaning refers to religious, theological, and philosophical concepts with universal application or applicability...

  • Essentialism
    Essentialism
    In philosophy, essentialism is the view that, for any specific kind of entity, there is a set of characteristics or properties all of which any entity of that kind must possess. Therefore all things can be precisely defined or described...