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This essay examines Smart’s seven dimensional model of religion against six main world religions.
I shall then examine how other belief systems fit into the same model. I shall consider other models briefly attempting an analysis of whether Smart’s model is successful.
‘When I mention religion I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.’
(Henry Fielding: TomJones)
The first consideration when attempting the definition of religion is that a straight forward definition such as Fielding attempts in his classical work excludes the world view of religion. He speaks of Christianity excluding some traditions we will examine. Each religious tradition within itself embodies numerous belief systems. Many philosophers and theologians would insist that religion is not definable.
Smart recognises that religion:
‘ is partly a matter of convention as to what is counted under the head of religion and what is not.’
(Ninian Smart: ThePhenomenon of Religion p10)
In setting out his model Smart attempts to find one that is inclusivistic of global religion whilst confining the definition to that which can be classified as ‘of religion’.
The seven dimensions are: InowExperiential; Doctrinal; Mythical; Ritualistic; Institutional and Ethic I now propose to examine these key areas explaining briefly what Smart meant by them attempting to apply it to the six world traditions.
Smart explains the experiential dimension as the emotions witnessed by the founder of the tradition and its followers. Rudolf Otto describes it as the ‘numinous experience’, that is, the feeling one experiences when the senses of man are aroused as a result of paranormal or special places.
Examples of this are Moses and the Burning Bush; Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.
The second aspect of the experiential is that of mysticism. This is an inner seeking of that which is unknowable. Examples of this would be the whirling dhervishes and the Hasidic tradition within Judaism.
Smart explains this as the formulation of a system to encapsulate the tradition. For instance, Smart gives Aquina’s philosophical explanation of creation an authoritative feel compared with the story of creation in Genesis. There is also the doctrine of theTrinity going some way to explain Jesus as God within Christianity. Within Buddhism, the Buddha explained himself the path to salvation whereas other traditions have left that to the succeeding institution to develop.
Smart explains this as sacred history or sacred story rather than the term we are familiar with today. The great religions have stories to tell of their founders such as the Enlightenment of the Buddha or the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. There are also stories to explain difficult concepts for example evil. Many faiths strengthen these stories by writing them down as in the Torah or the Qur’an.Oral traditions also evolve such as the Catholic tradition of relying on various saints for help.
Smart explained this as a method by which religion expresses itself. Humankind uses rituals worldwide as a form of communication, for example, the handshake. There is a binding together of people who recognise these rituals. Examples of these will be: the ancient Jewish tradition of ritual sacrifice in the Temple; Baptism withinChristianity.
Religions usually follow a code ofethics they expect their followers to adopt. This concerns not only the individuals’ behaviour but also that of the society. Examples of this are: the ten commandments; the 613 commandments of Jewish Law; Vatican Edicts on birth control.
Smart describes this as the tangible visual embodiment of religion that can be seen on two levels – through groups of people as in the Church, or the Sangha. The second level is through the buildings such as the mosque, the mandir, the cathedral. Also within this category can be places of religious significance such as Benares, the River Ganges and Jerusalem.
These aspects of religion can be translated into works of art; architecture; music. This aids ritual or understanding sacred story for example hymns, rosary beads.
In Smart’s book Religious Experience and Mankind he argues that this model works as closely as possible to discovering the nature of religion. He struggles however in that other world philosophies such as Humanism and Communism closely follow the model.
For the purpose of brevity, I shalloutline the model against communism to illustrate the comparisons.
In the ritual dimension, communismhad set in place ceremonies performed in praise of the philosophy for examplethere were annual celebrations of the revolution. In the experiential dimensionKarl Marx was held as the ‘prophet’ and founder of wisdom. His revelation of anew system created the ‘wow’ factor. In the mythological dimension oraltraditions were developed of the revolution. Das Kapital became the sacredtext. In the doctrinal dimension, edicts were passed down explaining howpeople were now meant to work and live.
In the ethical dimension moralbehaviour and the laws of society were adjusted to make credible the communisttradition. For instance, it was acceptable to murder if the ‘criminal’ was apolitical agitator and the authorities executed. In the institutional dimensionthe communist party became the ‘church’ and the mission was communism. In thematerial dimension places such as Lenin’s tomb became a shrine, a focal pointof worship. Yet, communism could never be considered a religion but more anideology. Yet it fits within the model quite confortably.
The social dimension isquestionable. It also relates to politics and racism as ‘an identity, a label,a badge of allegiance of a group’. This is how Richard Gombrich terms modernworld religion. For him, the key to defining religion is ‘what you do, notwhat you think.’
Hans Kung demonstrates thatreligion can be classified in terms of family. Indian religions tend to followa mystical route with a mystical leader; Chinese religion with a wise sage; andNear Eastern religion with a wise figure.
It is not possible to put a narrowdefinition on the religion but I can accept that they belong together infacilitating humankind with its humanity.
Fielding Henry: Tom Jones Oxford World Classics Oxford 1998
Gombrich Richard: TherevadaBuddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benaresto Modern Colombo RoutledgeLondon 1988
Kung Hans: Tracing the Way:Spiritual Dimensions of the World Religions Continuum 2002
Otto Rudolf: Mysticism(East) RA Kessinger Publishing 2003
Open University: A5 Religion Block4 units 14-15 pp 36-38
Smart Ninian: The Phenomenon ofReligion London and Oxford 1978 p10
Smart Ninian: ReligiousExperience and Mankind Collins New York 1971
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