Notes on the Sociology of Religion (17)

John C. Rankin

Smith, Wilfred Cantwell, The Meaning and End of Religion (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1991 edition of original 1962 edition)


  1. Background: a) 1926-2000; Ph.D. in Islamic Studies, Princeton; then taught at McGill and Harvard; a) groundbreaker in comparative studies in religion: The Meaning and End of Religion = his seminal work, challenging very essence of the reifying assumptions of what constitutes a “religion,” thus calling for a paradigm shift.
  2. (Forward by John Hick): a) opening question: “Why, within God’s providence, has humanity’s religious life taken the pluralistic form which history shows us?” (p. vi.); b) concept of “religions … a modern invention of the West,” − 1. absent in Greek NT, 2. special case of Islam; c) Smith’s proposal to drop term of “religion” and replace it with two terms: “faith” and the “cumulative traditions,”iInner and outer − 1. language of “theology” viewed as second-order descriptive to the first-order “expressions of faith,” 2. nix “religions” as a “socio-political” entity, identify the religious as the “area of inner personal faith and experience,” and free cumulative traditions from “monolithic illusions” (p. xii).
  3. What is religion and religious faith?: a) a) issues of science, multiplicity of religious traditions, change and vitality of faith; b) historian of religion describes, but from without, not within − 1. three groups that challenge scholarly inquiry into religion: a) can only be known from within, 2. it is above one’s ability, 3. spirituality cannot be examined; Smith’s goals: achieve a world community + how to find personal meaning in life; d) particular religion depends on ability to grasp comparative religions; e) difficulty in defining “religion” − 1. suspend, for the moment, the large questions, and particularistic claims to truth; and seek to make partial advances, methodologically, and thus undergird the ability to approach the large questions.
  4. “Religion” and the West: a) operative questions of how words are used, intellectual conceptions and interface with the real world − 1. change in word usage over time and in various contexts; b) “religion” as a word and meaning exists – but what of its history? − 1. Latin religio in Roman thought: various meanings of obligatory behaviors (taboos and rites) – pursuing the “Great Something,” an attitude, 2. enter the NT ecclesia: New concept of “faith” with use of religio, i] radical change, rooted in ancient Hebrew qahal, 3. either/or, true/false issues + martyrdom, 4. growth of religio to signify “boundaries” that unite us + interface with, 5. worship the one true God in pre-Christian/universal concept (Ficino), 6. Augustine’s Platonism − rise from temporal good to eternal good; ideal versus accidents, Christiana religio rooted in universal a priori; thus deeper piety than the identified “Christianity” is in view, 7. after Augustine, religio not the focus, apart from monastic and certain vocational life in the church: “faith” becomes more central, 8. reformational use: true versus false religion, i] personal piety undergirds true religion, 9. transition to the “triumphant intellectualism” of the Enlightenment: religion = an abstract idea, system of ideas, i] natural religion and deism, 10. arrival at the reification of religious groups: central idea in Smith’s thesis, i] dialectic remains – plural religions and generic religion, 11. liberal Protestantism: intellectual and experiential fused, 12. “My own suggestion is that the word, and the concepts, should be dropped – at least in all but the first, personalist, sense” (p. 50), i] thus, dual focus on vitality of personal faith + traditions of other people are essential.
  5. Other Cultures, “The Religions”: a) at pre-reified levels, inner personal orientation key − 1. absence of reification prior to Western development, 2. absence of the noun, “religion,” but not the adjective, “religious” – key, i] Greeks though about the gods, not about religion. ii] cf. Egypt, Iran, classical India, Chinese and Shinto thought, Buddha, iii] “To be religious without reifying” (p. 57), iv] classical Hebrew has no word signifying religion, v] NT pistis: noun and verb, faith and believe, vi] nix Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Shintoism, Buddhism etc.; b) “We have here a recapitulation of a standard gradual process of reification: the preaching of a vision, the emergence of followers, the organization of a community, the positing of an intellectual ideal of that community, the definition of the actual pattern of its institutions” (p. 67) − 1. reification, in any religious community, leads to either/or dichotomies of inclusion/exclusion, 2. graph on p. 77 from 639 book titles across the centuries, showing reification trajectory where “Christian faith” dominates, then yields to “Christian Religion” which finally yields to dominance of “Christianity.”
  6. The Special Case of Islam: a) Arabic word din used in the Qur’an = religion in personal as well as systematic senses from the outset −1. singular, not plural, 2. Islam as the true religion and assumption as “a generic universal” (p. 82), 3. Islam as a coherent, historically self-identifying and closed system from the outset, 4. the word “Islam” used in these senses, i] reticence of the West to use “Islam” until more recently; using various reifications across the centuries (e.g., Saraceans, Tartars, Turks, Mohammadanism”); b) process of reification took longer − 1. Persia and Zarathushtra/Zoroastrianism, 2. Mesopotamia, 3. either/or realities in Hebrew qahal and NT ecclesia, i] sheep and goats, ii] Persian conflict/dualism, 4. contrast w/intrinsic plurality of “religions” further East, i] Church dealt w/Greece and Rome; but no fusion, no plurality here, ii] its religious/secular divide not found in din of Islam, 5. power of Mani to consciously found a religion, i] “He is perhaps the first person in human history ever to have written a scripture consciously” (p. 95), ii] but “Justice,” reified as Manichaeism, dissipated, labeled heretical and/or was absorbed, 6. cognates of Arabic din find their way into may other languages, carrying with it the concept of both personal and systematic “religion,” i] conformity elements, 7. Reification trends and intrinsic challenge from Islam where Qur’an discloses “timeless truth” (p. 103) in concrete situations; translation issues from the perfect given Arabic, and the mundane of all other languages, 8. “Delicate balance” Smith attempts: “One need not assert, therefore, what a Muslim would inevitably and vigorously reject, that the text of the Qur’an was influenced by Manichee ideas or that the essential form of Islam is to be understood in terms of Persian concepts of religion. Yet one may proffer the suggestion that some Middle Easterners in the early days of the Muslim community, when they heard the Qur’an or thought about Islam, were influenced in their understanding of the one or conception of the other by such pre-Islamic language, 9. thus, Smith sets the stage for Muhammad to seemingly “self-consciously and deliberately to have set about establishing a religion” (p. 105), 10. Reification of other “religions” came from outsiders; but In Islam, Muhammad preached in order to reform an outsider’s religion (Judaism and Christianity) for the sake of the Arabs, i] Islam as the only religious movement “launched by a reformer and accepted by a people standing outside the tradition … being reformed” (p. 108), 11. this = first stage in long process of reifying Islam, i] Muslims began to reify from within – moving from non-reifying verbal essence to accepting other angles, 12. Islam used 8 times in Qur’an; Allah used 2,697 times; thus the very ascendancy of the use of Islam reifies, in contrast to focusing on Allah, i] verbal nouns of Islam (verb aslama: “submit”) and iman (“faith”), 13. Qur’an is imperative; choice to recognize it and bind oneself accordingly – a challenge, not a religion, 14. Kafir or infidel is an unbeliever who rejects what he knows to be true, 15. impossibility of translating English statement (with reifying qualities): “I am not a Muslim,” for that means a choice not to submit to Allah/God, which means no linguistic alterative but for a Jew of Christian to be Muslim or an infidel, 16. reification flows from apologetics beginning in the latter part of the 19th century, 17. graph on p. 116, listing of Qur’anic and Arabic books, where the trajectory shows reification from “faith” to “Islam,” but more recently and precipitously that with graph on p .77 relative to Christianity.
  7. Adequacy Question for Reified Term “Religion”:  a) new term needed in evolutionary process − 1. use of “religion” in a “malaise” (p. 120); b) a thesis point: “This much, at least, would seem evident: that humanity is now reaching a stage of awareness in the religious realm where it may, and its leaders of thought perhaps must, decide whether or not in the future to use the concepts ‘religion’ and ‘the religious’ a fundamental elements for understanding” (p. 120) − 1. Less serviceable than in past, 2. single noun formulation not dynamic enough for “religions” that survive the rise and fall of any and all civilizations, i] rise of secularism; c) “Before presenting my own arguments in favour of dropping these concepts…” (p. 125); a review of modern dissatisfaction with the term relative to Christianity (e.g., Barth, Brunner, Tillich, C.S. Lewis, Bonhoeffer); likewise with Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam − 1. “The observer sees the movement; the participant sees what it signifies” (p. 129), 2. “The participant is concerned with God; the observer has been concerned with ‘religion” (p. 131), 3. Time to challenge the whole notion, i] the term is inadequate for believer and is misleading for the outsider, ii] true across the board in understanding God and history, iii] “essences” do not change (God); histories do (man), iv] what exists cannot be defined; thus to name a religion is false – “to define is to set limits; but no man can set limits that other men cannot transcend” (p. 45), To define denies “right to the freedom and integrity of faith” (p. 145). d) five views on how to resolve question − 1. “Nature and origin theory,” 2. irreducible commonality (Aristotle), 3. transcendental ideal and imperfect manifestations (Plato), 4. nuance of no. 3 for Islam: Islam an ideal not in heaven, but in Muslim mind, 5. transcendentalist notion of identifying religion with its history; e) “The concept of religion and the religious, we conclude, both in practice is being dropped in part and in principle ought to be dropped altogether … For fundamentally one has to do not with religions, but with religious persons” (p.153).
  8. Defining the Cumulative Tradition: a) ambivalence of inner religious experience as an open question; and outer social construct of religious history which is open so scholarly inquiry; b) proposal to remove ambivalence by replacing reified “religion” with two terms: “I propose to call these ‘cumulative tradition’, on the one hand, and ‘faith’, on the other. The link between these two is the living person” (p. 156) − 1. the latter is very personal, 2. suggesting here a method, 3. applies across the board – from ahistorical sources of “Hinduism” to historical events in “Judaism” and “Christianity,” 4. “The cumulative tradition, then, of what has been called religion and each particular religion is dynamic, diverse, and observable. It is, I suggest, historically intelligible” (p. 168), 5. “Cumulative tradition is not inflexible, is not reifiable.
  9. Faith: a) personal nature – cannot be reified, b) method devised here as “an analysis explicitly to do justice to the unfathomability of personal faith” (p. 170) − 1. corollary need is to understand its impact on religious history, 2. faith expressed in art, in community and character, 3. return to assumed thesis at outset: “For as suggested in our opening chapter, one of our modern problems is to construct a world-wide community even though it is composed of a diversity of religious traditions” (p. 177), 4. Christian faith expressed in prose (e.g., Apostles’s Creed and Tillich’s systematic theology), 5. no Latin or cognate language has a verb to go along with “faith,” and they settle for “believe,” 6. only makes sense in that faith is expressed by people involved with 7. “Faith lies beyond theology” (p. 185), 8. a thesis point: “The cumulative tradition is the mundane result of the faith … ever changing, ever accumulating, ever fresh” (p. 186), i] all persons involved with cumulative traditions, with such living realities.
  10. Summary conclusion: a) inner piety reified into religion(s); b) drop “religion”;  c) replace with distinct terms of “faith” and “cumulative tradition”; d) therefore, embrace dialogue, not either/or; e) Use of “religion” as a word will be bypassed in 25 years or so; f) double entendre: The end of religion is, or leads to, God.
  11. Critical concerns: a) Smith makes his assumptions, then engages in critical historical and linguistics, and returns to his assumptions −1. Did he merely find what he set out to find?; b) is he, in a sense, like Mani or Muhammad (or even Joseph Smith), in declaring a new (method) to religion as a conscious act? − 1. In his desire to construct a worldwide community – does this require some form of hierarchal power, or can it grow from the grass roots? If the latter, how, and on what historical model?; c) must definitions be necessarily limiting? Might they be liberating by giving critically honest boundaries to reality?; d) if the “nature of origins” theory is not sufficient, at what point are cause and effect interrupted for the sake of a position?; e) the one term is replaced by two – increased complexity and awkwardness in going contrary to Occam’s razor?;  f) is not the simple word “worldview” better yet, as it were?;  g) how successful has Smith been in overcoming the use of the word “religion?” Not as he hoped, but he has permeated the discussion well; h) Christianity’s prose ultimately grew out of Hebrew plurality of poetry mixed in with its prose; i) the noun “faith,” if viewed with its necessary NT essence as “trust” (i.e., faith is trust in Someone, someone or something), brings noun and verb together under the more dynamic “trust”; j) how is “theology” defined so that “faith” lies beyond it? Faith in Whom, whom or what? And the defining etymology of theos + logos.


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