Wilfred Cantwell Smith
From “Mankind’s Religiously Divided History Approaches Self-Consciousness,” vol. 29, no. 1 (October 1964)
Wilfred Cantwell Smith, 1965. Photograph of Wilfred C. Smith, 1965. UAV 605, Harvard University Archives.
To this distinction between tradition and faith I give the greatest importance. By “tradition”. . . I mean: the doctrines, the legal institutions, the dance patterns, the art, the architectural constructions—anything that can be and is transmitted externally from one generation to another, that can be observed, and objectively established. By “faith,” on the other hand, what do I mean? I do not intend to define it; one might be tempted to work on the operational definition that faith is what the tradition means . . . to the insider. The faith of a Buddhist is the meaning that the Buddhist tradition has for him, in its cosmic implications. If we think of an outsider studying the Church, for example, we can recognize that it is one thing for him to learn that in Christian worship there is a cross; it is another thing for him to ascertain what the cross means to the Christian who is worshiping. Something similar holds for other groups, other symbols, other ages. The first stage for the West, including the Church, was to learn what precisely have been and are the religious forms of the world’s various communities. More recently we have begun to enter a phase of attempting to understand the significance of these forms in the religious life of those for whom they have been avenues of faith. . . .
To return to the West’s incipient concern not only to know outward form but to penetrate inner meaning: part of its new understanding is . . . that the significance of the traditional forms for the man of faith reaches far beyond the religious tradition itself, to embrace the whole of life—so that one should perhaps say, rather, that faith is what the universe means to a religious man, in the light of his tradition. We understand the faith of Hindus only when, like them, we can use the religious tradition of Hindus to enable us to see all of life, from medicine to nuclear weapons, from economic development to the disloyalty of a friend, through Hindu eyes.
. . . Even with the new opportunities of asking those who hold it, the faith of other men has hardly yet become intelligible. Muslims, for example, may say what their tradition and its symbols mean to them, and yet do so in terms that we on the outside cannot understand. One of the characteristics of religious faith has been precisely that often it can be spoken of meaningfully only to those within the same tradition.
. . . The point is serious and must be given weight. It is far too early, however, to accept it in the sense of agreeing ahead of time that an understanding of the faith of other men is totally impossible, and there is no use trying. I personally am convinced that it can be done, even though I know that it is difficult. Yet even those who are persuaded that the enterprise will fail, should surely be willing to wait let us say 150 years, until we have applied as much energy and intellect to the attempt to understand faith as we have applied in the last 150 to attempt to understand traditions. If at the end of that time we have got nowhere, then perhaps we may call it off. In the meantime, the venture is far too exciting, and the tentative results already . . . seem vastly too promising, for such pessimism.
Nevertheless, let no one underestimate the gravity of our new ambition: to understand a faith that we do not hope to share.
We leave aside for the moment a consideration of the revolutionary implications of this in case we should succeed—the attainment of a new type of religious outlook, the opening up of perhaps a new chapter in mankind’s religious history.
Wilfred Cantwell Smith was director of the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR) at HDS from 1964 to 1973.