photo of Wilfred Cantwell Smith holding a book in his office


The Moral Imagination of Wilfred Cantwell Smith

Religious truth lies not in systems but in persons.

Wilfred Cantwell Smith, circa 1980. HDS photograph

By Donald K. Swearer

Few historians of religion in America are as well known and controversial as Wilfred Cantwell Smith, although his sometimes contentious reputation was not mentioned in the February 2000 obituary that lauded him as “one of the past century’s most influential contributors to interfaith dialogue and the comparative study of religion.”1

When I began my teaching career at Oberlin College in the mid-1960s, Wilfred Cantwell Smith and Mircea Eliade bookended religious studies for me. Although their approaches to religion were in many respects a picture in contrasts—history of religions versus history of religion, historical diversity, faith, and transcendence versus hermeneutics and patterns—both brought to the field a moral commitment that expressed their “ultimate concern.”2 In inaugurating the journal History of Religions, for instance, Eliade made a strong case for the comparative study of religions as playing a vital “cultural role”:

not only because an understanding of exotic and archaic religions will significantly assist in a cultural dialogue with the representatives of such religions. It is more especially because by attempting to understand the existential situations expressed by the documents he is studying, the historian of religions will inevitably attain a deeper knowledge of . . . ; [what it means to be human]. It is on the basis of such a knowledge that a new humanism, on a world-wide scale, could develop.3

No doubt Smith would quibble with the meaning of “representatives of such religions” and “humanism,” but he would be very sympathetic to Eliade’s language of “existential situations” and a “deeper knowledge of what it means to be human,” for Smith viewed religion in terms of the matrix of the existential encounter among persons, and as an essential quality of what it means to be human.

As a critic, Smith attacked contemporary philosophical discussions of religious language for failing to reckon with its religious and historical quality within a comparative context, for failing to treat religious statements as essentially human and personal, and for a lack of sensitivity to the profound, elusive, and complex quality of human life.4 In like manner, he took on historians of religion cum phenomenologists for addressing religious objects and patterns, but not the persons related to them5—even though, as we shall see, Smith did use the terminology of “patterns.” Smith’s criticisms continued to be refined and elaborated in his many publications subsequent to the appearance of his seminal monograph, The Meaning and End of Religion, published in 1962.

Smith has been controversial, in part, because he chose to be contentious, and he was contentious because he thought that many professionals in the field treated religion as a system, an “ism,” a simplistic and sterile, overly conceptualized, static entity which had little to do with the personal and historical reality that we label “religion.” In other words, those of us who teach religions do not really teach “religion.” Rather, we teach a text, a methodology, the sociology of religion, the philosophy of religion, and so on—pursuits that are far removed from the mystery and manure of real-life persons trying to make sense of a world that is often boring and meaningless, and at the same time seemingly in danger of falling apart at the seams. Smith’s controversial “personalism” upheld the view that religious truth does not lie in religious systems, but in persons.

This is my own personal, normative assessment of Smith’s contribution, through a constructive—rather than a critical—interpretation of Smith’s 1981 monograph, Towards a World Theology, which captured my attention more than 25 years ago.6 I was gratified to see that Kenneth Cracknell’s 2001 anthology of Smith’s work, Wilfred Cantwell Smith: A Reader, confirmed the significance of Towards a World Theology among the many works in the Smith oeuvre. In Cracknell’s view, Towards a World Theology offers an overview and recapitulation of Smith’s main concerns. He includes five selections from Towards a World Theology in four of his anthology’s seven divisions: Smith as comparativist, critic, theologian, and prophet. Cracknell and many others highlight the categories of faith and transcendence as two major themes in Smith’s thought. While I do not disagree with this emphasis, I find the categories of person, community, and imagination equally if not more significant.

In Towards a World Theology Smith tilts at the windmills of the academic study of religion on an even grander scale than in his earlier writings. Have we not really subjected our teaching—if not our understanding—of religion to the epistemology of the natural sciences, he asks, which locates the truth in objects, which claims that the truth can be manipulated, tested, repeated, verified empirically, and so on? What kind of truth is that? Is it religious truth? Surely not, he suggests. Religious truth, truth in the most profound sense, truth that emerges from those intersecting moments of our mundanity and transmundanity, cannot be so quantified. Truth in this sense is fundamentally personal. It involves a knower—not simply the human context in which a person knows and an object is known. Knowing the truth, then, is not a question of subjective versus objective, internal states of mind versus external objects, but an organically whole “act of truth.” It is, in Smith’s terms, a “critical, rational, inductive, self-consciousness by which a community of persons . . . is aware of any given particular human condition or action as a condition or action of itself as a community. . . and is aware of it as it is experienced and understood simultaneously both subjectively (personally, existentially) and objectively (externally, critically, analytically. . . ).”7

To know the moon from the standpoint of humane studies, Smith argues, would include exploring a knowledge of the role of the moon in human life and in the history of human culture, including poetry and religion and love, as well as the natural sciences, technology, and space travel. To understand the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, South India, would not only involve dates, sizes, and composition, but how it feels to be a worshiper within it, its significance in the lives of the shopkeepers in its environs, and its role in the life of the city.8 Knowing the truth in this sense is an art requiring a series of human qualities, including “faith.” In practical terms, it involves a community of both practitioners and scholars.

To know another, contends Smith, we must be able to stand in that human situation realizing that there is no person on earth we can fully understand, and yet, no person that we cannot understand at least somewhat. Humane knowledge is integrative of the person and the community, in contrast to objective knowledge that presumes separation and leads to fragmentation. Objective knowledge stresses method and implies that what is known is both dominant and dominated. By way of contrast, humane learning involves being open to a greater-than-oneself, which Smith calls “transcendence”; it is a process of becoming, not simply one of knowing.

In Towards a World Theology Smith is not saying that those who teach religion should not be rational or rigorous or any of those qualities we associate with being objective and descriptive rather than normative and subjective. He is saying, however, that such a posture jeopardizes not only the kind of learning that ought to take place in the academy, but the very nature of religious truth itself. Religious truth for Smith is multivalent and multiplex, a four-dimensional crossroads where we extend our critical self-understanding into the breadth of the human community, the depth of our personal self-understanding, and the extended reach of our transcendence—thus, an insight both timely and timeless, historical and transcendent.

Smith is not asking academics who teach religion to be persons of faith, although his own understanding depends very much on the fact that he is a person of faith; nor is he asking those of us who teach religion to “do” religion. But he is, by his own terms, asking us to teach not only religious traditions (or “cumulative tradition,” as he characterizes it), but “faith,” with all that implies both for the pedagogy and epistemology of this enterprise. We might say that Smith calls on us to teach religion with sufficient background and training in the history, languages, and cultures of a religious tradition, so that any living being at any existential moment is understood to mirror a world at once particular and universal, and is thus a unique individual who is part of a much larger diachronic and synchronic framework and whose personal story is seen as part of a cosmic story, both human and divine.

Smith calls on professionals in the field of religion to become a part of that story, to enter imaginatively into what it means to be a particular Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, or Jew, rather than teaching the “isms” or the “ologies.” His point might be seen in dialectical terms, in that he asks us to move between the particular and the generic. This is at the very foundation, I believe, of what Smith means by a “world theology,” or perhaps it would be more apt to say the dynamic, interactive process that gives shape to a world theology. He is convinced that we can teach “faith,” “salvation,” and “sacraments” from a generic perspective, that the challenge of teaching “sacraments” within the context of world religion is really no different than teaching it within a particular tradition.

Let me illustrate what I understand to be Smith’s point here by referring to his discussion of Buddhists (note, not Buddhism) in his 1965 book, The Faith of Other Men, originally delivered as radio talks over the national network of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and revised and republished in 1998 under the title Patterns of Faith Around the World.9 In this slim volume, Smith organizes his discussion of each community of religious persons around a single symbol, “in the hopes that through it we may gain an insight into the religious life of those for whom it is meaningful” (49). For Buddhists, he chose Shinbyu, the Burmese novitiate ordination ceremony.

He begins the chapter with a description of the physical space in which the ceremony takes place—a temple in a village setting sufficiently demarcated to symbolize its sanctity, set apart but near enough to be relevant and involved with everyday problems. “Between the recognized norm and the actuality of everyday life, between the abiding and the transient, the sacred and the profane, the relation is close, yet the two are not identical” (49).

Theology in a living, real sense is not Christian or Muslim or Jewish, but a “self-theology” that at one and the same time excludes no one.

Smith situates the Shinbyu comparatively within the framework of a rite of passage: “In broad sweep it compares to ‘joining the Church’ or First Communion or Confirmation in the Christian pattern, Bar Mitzvah in the Jewish, and to related ceremonies throughout the world” (50). He then turns to a description of the ritual as a reenactment of the “Going Forth” or “Great Renunciation” of Siddhartha Gautama, the bodhisattva, the future Buddha, that he characterizes as a “spiritual quest, to seek out a remedy for humanity’s ills” (51). Like the comparable rites of passage to which Smith refers, a village Shinbyu is a major gala event for the families whose male children are being ordained, as well as for the entire village.

After describing the Shinbyu ceremony within the particular social and physical space in which it takes place, and the normative narrative that the ritual reenacts, Smith moves to a generic interpretation:

. . . beyond the forms there is . . . the intimation of a transcending, limitless truth. This infinite becomes in part available to us within the finite, through these finite channels that a society inherits and cherishes, and uses to express its faith and to nourish it. Can we learn something of that faith, and appreciate in part that inner meaning, by exploring the significance of these outward forms? (52)

For Smith, the truth to which a religious symbol points cannot be fully apprehended, either by those outside a tradition or by those inside it. Whereas, for Smith, the Shinbyu as religious symbol points to a transcendent “greater than,” equally important is the fact that it is situated in a multivalent matrix of diachronic and synchronic meanings that challenge facile generalization. His personalist interpretation of the ritual involves what he refers to as “poetic truth,” the Going Forth myth that symbolizes a more universal psychological and spiritual truth. He concludes, “interpretation, then, must be suggestive rather than conclusive” (53). This cautionary note does not undermine interpretation, but engenders a degree of hermeneutical humility in the interpretative act.

In reading Towards a World Theology, one is reminded of the priority Smith assigns to “faith” as a category of understanding religion, of his insistence that religious truth is personal and the connection between the two. Faith for him is much like Martin Buber’s “Between,” that sense of essential connectedness that underlies all apparent me-and-thems, us-and-theys, which transforms the objective “I-It” attitude toward the world into an “I-Thou” attitude, an “orientation of the whole personality,” an “organizing principle by which the person is open to the infinite and is enabled to see all that is finite in relationship to that infinite.”10

A theology of religion or a world theology builds from this premise—not a premise in a logical deduction, but a premise on which we understand all religious persons to base their lives. In reading Towards a World Theology, I began to understand more clearly what Smith means about converting noun-terms for religion—the “ities” and “isms”—into adjectives and adverbs, what it means to be “Muslimly” or to act “Christianly.” In “faith,” in the most basic sense of what it means to be a human being, I am the other and the other is me. Theology in a living, real sense is not Christian or Muslim or Jewish, but a “self-theology” that at one and the same time excludes no one.11

What does such a claim mean? A Christian or a Buddhist or a Muslim is not only identified with a particular religious tradition, but with a world human history or story. On this point Smith becomes a visionary, not of a world religion, but of a world community predicated on faith. This also means that when Smith, as a faithful person within the Christian community, talks about a theology of comparative religion with special reference to Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist communities, he is not trying to represent Islam as a religious system, or to “do” Hindu or Jewish theology in general. He is, odd as it may sound, doing his best at being adjectively Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist, by representing a particular Muslim, a Hindu person, an actual Thai Buddhist living in Bangkok in 2010. That is, as a person of faith, he is trying not only by his reason but also by his empathetic imagination to look at the world as a Buddhist or a Jew might, rather than as the Buddhist or the Jew.

I have brought Smith’s perspective to my own teaching. Several of the readings in the Buddhist-Christian encounters course I taught recently reflect his emphasis on the religious person. One example is Kosuke Koyama’s Water Buffalo Theology, a personal theological reflection first published in 1974 and reissued in 1999. Koyama confesses that after three years as a missionary in Chiang Mai, Thailand, his interest shifted from Buddhism to Buddhist people, with the discovery that what really matters is not a set of doctrines called Buddhism, but people who are trying to live according to the Buddha’s teachings:12

Buddhism does not and cannot engage in dialogue with Christianity. Buddhists can. Christianity neither eats nor sleeps. Christians do. Buddhism does not sweat under the hot Bangkok sun. Buddhists do. Islam does not recite the Qur’an. Muslims do. . . . The reality of these traditions lies in living persons.13

From a person-centered perspective, Towards a World Theology is at one and the same time Smith’s own particular theology, an expression of his faith or “I-Thou” posture toward the world, but, embryonically at least, it is also a theology of religion. A Buddhist or a Muslim might, indeed, quibble with Smith’s understanding and interpretation of his or her tradition, but these disagreements will be no more and no less than disagreements that might arise among those who stand within one historical religious community. These disagreements will be fruitful and insightful, if illumined by faith in Smith’s sense, and not mere intellectual confrontation. While Smith’s interpretation of a notion like “transcendence” might sound too Christian or theistic for a Theravada Buddhist, for example, interreligious encounter in Smith’s sense would welcome such disagreement, for without it the dialectic between the particular and the generic might be obfuscated or even lost.

Some—perhaps many—might be uncomfortable with Smith’s approach, in part because his style can be that of a crotchety moralist, going so far as to label the use of “objective” knowledge in humane studies as “immoral.” Beyond his sometimes tough moralism, Smith’s approach to religion and religious studies may provoke discomfort because, while historical and inductive, it also embraces paradox and celebrates the elusiveness of what it means to be authentically human. From this perspective, I am tempted to say that the value of Towards a World Theology lies less in its theology—of which it has very little in any conventional sense—and more in the challenge it offers to the way we as students and teachers approach religious studies.

What would it mean if we were to teach religion “faithfully,” in Smith’s sense? In the first instance, it would mean that courses in a particular religious tradition or aspect of that tradition should take account of its “cumulative” nature. To be sure, one course in religion or a particular religious tradition must set reasonable limits on what it can cover and accomplish. Regardless of its focus, however, any single course that does not reflect the richness and diversity constituting its broader context runs the risks of reductionism and distortion. The New Testament, for example, should certainly be studied from historical and literary-critical perspectives, but, as Smith argues,14 it should also be understood as sacred scripture that has influenced lives and shaped perceptions throughout a two-thousand-year-long history. From this perspective, a New Testament course in historical or literary criticism might be important in the development of exegetical skills, but it fails as a study of sacred scripture in the sense suggested by Smith if it neglects the nature and role of the New Testament in the lives of Christians and Christian communities. Syllogistically, I propose that for Smith “Bible” is to “scripture” as “belief” is to “faith.”

A Smithian “holistic” approach to the study and teaching of religion calls for a cognizance of the relationship of a particular subject matter to the total life of a religious community in its historical and contemporaneous dimensions. Within the context of a “world theology,” a particular course dealing with theology, scripture, sacraments, ethics, and so on, would have a generic dimension built into it. For example, the New Testament course which has as part of its structure an exploration of the transformative power of scripture within the lives of individuals and communities, could explore this perspective in terms of the Bhagavad Gita in relationship to Hinduism or the Qur’an in relationship to Islam. “The Qur’an is significant not primarily because of what historically went into it but because of what historically has come out of it,” opines Smith. “The attempt to understand the Qur’an is to understand how it has fired the imagination, and inspired the poetry, and formulated the inhibitions, and guided the ecstasies, and teased the intellects, and ordered the family relations and the legal chicaneries, and nurtured the piety, of hundreds of millions of people in widely . . . divergent centuries.”15

Smith’s position has profound implications not only for the substance of what we teach, but for the way in which we go about teaching it. Teaching religion, he contends, requires interpretation, imagination, insight, perceptivity, human sympathy, and humility. It should not be engaged as an exercise in conveying a series of “facts” duly observed and recorded, or as simply the logic of belief devoid of poetry and paradox.

In my view, the role of imagination in Smith’s writings has been undervalued, despite the frequent occurrence of the term in many of his books and articles. For Smith, imagination has both epistemic and moral connotations. Epistemologically, coupling imagination with faith enhances the apprehension of transcendence, but also the understanding of persons and religious communities. To my knowledge, Smith did not write poetry and his English prose can be quite tortured and Germanic, but his understanding of the theological underpinnings of faith and transcendence, person and community is attuned to the nuances of symbol, metaphor, and poetry.

The moral dimension of imagination finds expression in empathic understanding and sympathy, terminology used by Smith. “It is hardly too fanciful,” Smith says, “to hold that our one-worldedness is bringing all humanity together in such a way that every one of us is being caught up in the processes of all.”16

It is his deep moral sense, I believe, that undergirds and inspires Smith as a constructive critic and prophet-visionary, not only of religious studies as a discipline, and of the academy, but of culture. To highlight this claim I close with a passage that exemplifies the vision that Wilfred Cantwell Smith communicated as teacher and scholar, and as director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School from 1964 to 1973. It is a vision even more cogent, compelling, and relevant today than it was when Smith penned it more than a decade ago:

Some of you will perhaps say that surely we can get on with the business of political structures, of economic planning, of technical advance, of strategic defense, without raising “extraneous” issues of religious faith or cultural convictions: issues that may be interesting in themselves, but are irrelevant to secular concerns. This division of life into two spheres, religious and secular, is a characteristically Western pattern. We tend to assume that everyone else will share it . . . that the problem of building a new world order is that of imposing Western civilization on the world. . . .

. . . [Fortunately] there has been some recognition, though belated and partial, that the nineteenth-century solution of Western domination by force must be abandoned . . . [and along with it] the arrogance of cultural superiority. . . .

The new world that is waiting to be born is a world of cultural pluralism, of diverse faith. . . . Let no one imagine that building the new world community will be easy. . . . Is this possible? . . . I do not know, [but it is] the fundamental challenge facing humanity today; whether we shall rise to it or not remains to be seen. My own faith is that it can be achieved.17


  1. “Wilfred Cantwell Smith, July 21, 1916–February 7, 2000”;
  2. The terminolgy “ultimate concern” is identified, in particular, with Paul Tillich, who taught at Harvard Divinity School (1955–1962) and the University of Chicago (1962–1965).
  3. Mircea Eliade, “History of Religions and a New Humanism,” History of Religions 1, no. 1 (Summer 1961): 2–3. Italics and words in brackets are mine.
  4. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Belief and History (University of Virginia Press, 1977), 5–7.
  5. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Faith and Belief (Princeton University Press, 1979), 7.
  6. I have adapted elements of previous comments on Towards a World Theology into this essay; see Donald K. Swearer, “How Do We Teach Religion?” Theology Today 40, no. 3 (October 1983): 319–325.
  7. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (Westminster Press, 1981), 60.
  8. Ibid., 65, 66.
  9. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Patterns of Faith Around the World (OneWorld Publications, 1998). Parenthetical page references for quotations that follow are to this edition.
  10. Towards a World Theology, 110–111.
  11. Ibid., 124.
  12. Kosuke Koyama, Water Buffalo Theology, 25th anniversary ed. (Orbis Books, 1999), 93.
  13. Ibid., xiv.
  14. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, “The Study of Religion and the Study of the Bible,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 29, no. 2 (June 1971): 131–140.
  15. Ibid., 134, 133.
  16. Patterns of Faith Around the World, 109.
  17. Excerpted and adapted from ibid., 110–120.

Donald K. Swearer was director of the Center for the Study of World Religions and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard Divinity School from 2004 to 2010. These words are adapted from remarks given as part of the Center for the Study of World Religions’ 50th anniversary symposium held at HDS on April 15–16, 2010.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.