In a way, what Professor Ninian Smart presents in his Gifford Lecture series, Beyond Ideology, and reflects on are the many varieties of religious and symbolic identity. He labels the ideology herein as ‘transcendental pluralism’: transcendental because the sorrows and happinesses of humans, the quest for identity in the individual and in the group, are illuminated by what lies Beyond, whether looked at from the angle of the Christian tradition or from the Eastern and Buddhist traditions.
Smart points out early in the first chapter that the privatisation of religion creates a distinction between church and state, which flows from the desire to ensure religious tolerance and to defuse religious conflict. If we can consider secular ideologies as replete with symbols and half-articulated values, playing in the same league as the traditional religions, then the questions that we might ponder are questions that bridge the gap between religion and politics. Thus, in Smart’s opinion, an important part of the study of religion, which is ‘the analysis of worldviews providing an interpretation for individual and collective experience’, applies to the understanding of secular attitudes. His exploration is into a range of pictures and a range of identities, stressing that the traditional religions and secular ideologies must have views about each other.
Smart’s analysis of ‘ideology’ then turns to considering a theory of the configurations of religions. His main point in chapter 2 is that the history of religions involves depicting histories, but in a manner that requires empathy and structural delicacy. We are warned, though, to keep the tasks of the historian and the philosopher separate in our minds. The very transition in the imagination from one’s own culture to that of another tradition involves the comparative method. However, Smart posits a second reason why comparisons sprout up through the tangles of history: because we detect, or think we detect, patterns and similarities. He is suggesting that we can look to a dynamic in religious experience that helps to explain something of the shape of religions. This is what he calls ‘intra-religious explanation’, moving from one ingredient to another, not explaining religion by what lies outside it. To Smart, religious doctrines are to be seen through the lens of practice, where we respect the context as well as the culture. At the microscopic level, then, we are concerned with the delineation of the individual conscious universe. But macroscopically the science of religion concerns universes that overlap.
In chapter 3, a comparative analysis of Buddhist and Christian religious viewpoints begins with an explanation of why followers of specific ideologies may not be able to relate to the beliefs of others. Smart begins with a discussion of the Buddhist form of Transcendence. As he sees it, not only is there a transcendent state, but it is to be found in and through higher experience, lying beyond ‘infinite space’. A prominent difference exists, though, between the conception of time in Buddhism, which is cyclical, and that of Christianity, with its linear sense of history. So while the Christian worldview and the Buddhist both have the sense of the Transcendent, the context and character of that Beyond diverge greatly. In a discussion of the differences between the figureheads of these religions, Smart posits that though Buddha is sometimes spoken of as being ‘a god above gods’, this is only a manner of speaking; he is not in their league. This brings Smart to the strangest split between Buddhism and Christianity: the doctrine of non-self, the denial of the immortality of the soul, the rejection of a changeless something within the person. Smart concludes that the scheme of classical Christianity is more centralized than that of Buddhism, and the central point is humanit.
It is the author’s opinion that we will generally find humans’ systems of belief, their worldviews, are like much else of their cultural existence, a mingling of pattern and serendipity, of theme and accident. Yet he believes that there may nevertheless compatibly be a manner of accounting for the differences between East and West. Smart claims the purification of consciousness, the topic of chapter 4, in one way or another unites mystics or contemplatives from different traditions. His main point is that there is a kind of transcendental consciousness-purity which enters as a dynamic element into various religious traditions. The importance of this thesis is partly to be found in what it denies: ‘that such inner consciousness-purity is at all the same thing as certain other important modes of religious experience’. In brief, Smart finds that the Buddhist transcends the search for individual security and seeks to banish it by dissolving all identities. The Christian accepts the search for security and the need for meaningful identity, but binds the believer, in identity, to one for whom one should lose one’s soul in order to save it.
The fifth chapter turns the discussion to understanding the ideologies of East and West through the application of the Great Vehicle and the Christian scriptures. In Smart’s opinion, one of the main achievements of the German universities in the nineteenth century, and of the Protestant faculties of theology in particular, was the use of the new methods and theories of historical and philological enquiry upon the scriptures of Christian tradition. By probing the words of the Bible the critics gave new life to the various categories and images surrounding the figure of Christ. Thus it is not surprising that modern Christianity has tried to reshape the intellectual content of faith in order better to conform to the shifting and growing insights of science. On the other hand, one of the main attractions of Buddhism is the modernity of its ideas about events and causality: in reducing the visible world to a vast interconnected swarm of events it echoes the findings of modern science. Thus the world presents itself as a swarm of particulars upon which we project our conceptions and classifications. As Smart claims, every act of consciousness, other than consciousness-purity, is interplay between the graspable and the grasper and so involves a kind of distortion.
The relation between Christianity and Buddhism, as chapter 6 details, perhaps lies at the heart of the problem of diversity. Smart claims this is part of the problem of religion in the modern world – the assumption that there is no Beyond, that ‘weal and woe’ are just to be influenced by events here on earth. Yet despite this secular dimension of theism, there remain some claims which are ineluctable: one is the notion that theism concerns a living God, and another that he is beyond the cosmos. In brief, what the great religions claim, against radically secular ideologies, is that there is a Beyond, and this is somehow accessible to the religious experience of the human race and is not just a philosophical speculation or a theory about the world. So then: there is a notorious split between those who entertain the living possibility of the Beyond and those who consider that they have left behind any religious vision of the cosmos. Smart prefers to look at all this through two aspects, first from the point of view of earth, and then in relation to heaven. The way of Buddhism is to transform feelings by inducing a special kind of deflation of the world and a special analysis of the personal, resulting in a new form of detachment and compassion. The path of Christianity is rather opposite, for the world is transformed not by a kind of subtraction but by a kind of enhancement. The two-level theory draws us to consider that criticism has to do with spiritual meaning. Religion is not a game or a piece of science or just philosophy; its meaning lies in its ultimately spiritual goals.
In chapter 7 Smart turns his attention away from the formalised religions of East and West to focus instead on secular ideologies, or at least to look at the history associated with them. He feels that it would be too simple to say that the ideologies are in effect modern religions because undoubtedly much in the analysis of religion applies to them, too. In order to best categorise these worldviews, he begins with an account of the past 200 years. Beginning with the French Revolution, Smart lays down the main thesis that he has been hinting at: ‘a people nationally has a right to its own sovereign state’. Since the main agents of national renaissance and political revival were middle class, nationalism was frequently tied in with forms of constitutions that were adapted to the capitalist wave. What is important to Smart’s argument is that religion itself has been one of the defining characteristics of a nation in its own self-consciousness. While discussions of totalitarianism and socialism are entertained, Smart favours comparing Marxism and social democracy. From his argument, we may perceive hints of how nationalism and transcendental worldviews may be related. For Smart, it is doubtful whether religion can be wholehearted in its acceptance of the national ideal, however strongly it may have entered into the fabric of the notion upon which the State is predicated. Christianity, for example, has been organised upon the national assumption and has lost some of its power to criticise the State and the nation; likewise, Buddhism has not been effective in resisting the forces of nationalism.
Moving from Buddhism and Christianity, Smart changes pace and discusses ideology in China. First, he provides a historical comparison between China and India, specifically regarding the effect that British colonisation had on the national identities of natives. China did not undergo the same degree of restructuring that was brought about in India, but were left riddled by the opium wars. The Chinese Rebellion had a strange mingling of parts: modernising and socially revolutionary, charismatic, visionary and religious. From this, Smart’s discussion turns to an analysis of the state of Confucianism over the development of Chinese nationalism, finding that Confucianism was much more than a system of ideas and rites: ‘it was the soul of the bureaucracy precisely because it was through the Classics that the aspirant Mandarin had his mind deeply formed’. But it was hierarchical; and through that too it became embedded in a form of feudalism that in its rural injustices could so persistently spark rebellions among the poor. The Cultural Revolution itself was also an anti-Confucian movement, in that it emphasised the importance of young people, not the old. But this meant that Buddhism was not in a strong position to function as an ideology of a renewed China. Taoism could hardly, either, prove any kind of salvation. The Chinese experience, then, in the modern world is one in which the live option turned out to be a form of Marxism. In Smart’s opinion, it was Mao’s genius that he came to formulate a yellow Marxism.
In the final chapter, Smart attempts to scaffold the different areas of his discussion. Mainly, he addresses here the affect that science has on religion versus secular ideology. He finds that herein we have the tension between outer plurality and inner conformity. In some degree this tension is overcome in the liberal democracies. The problems of pluralism, though, is reflected in the tensions between group identity and individual identity and between openness and tradition. Thus ‘any realistic personalism has to recognize the social dimension of the individual’, which Smart dubs social personalism. A consequence of social personalism is cultural pluralism and the recognition within any given society of minority rights. A free and critical society rests on a great degree of security. Given this fact, it is harder than normal to achieve interactive pluralism in a society which is itself plural. Smart now turns back to the questions of why theism should be taken seriously in the modern age. In summary, the theism which presents itself to the contemporary world is one which in principle can be critical in temper, both about its own transcendental emptiness and about human experience seen from the commanding heights of what lies Beyond, as reflected in the experience of the Divine.
The publication includes a postscript, where Smart focuses on the ‘new worldview’, claiming that it is in the mutual interpretation of cultures through empathy that the comparative study of religion offers as a major ingredient in the formation of a peaceful global city. Thus, Smart’s new transcendental ideology, incorporating the opens spirit and a sense of social personalism, seems to him to be the one best suited to the humane development of the global city. Thus, the resources of the past can be used to give a sense of vision and dignity to the inhabitants of our planet.