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Andreas Grünschloß

Religionswissenschaft als Welt-Theologie

Wilfred Cantwell Smiths interreligiöse Hermeneutik

(FSÖTh 71) Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994 (pp.359f)


Wilfred Cantwell Smith, known as the 'father' of the pluralist model in Angloamerican theology, has made a substantial contribution to interreligious hermeneutics, widely unknown in German theology and Religionswissenschaft today. The author of this book is presenting a comprehensive reconstruction of Smith's oeuvre on all academic levels: Islamic studies, religious studies/comparative religion, and Christian theology.

(1) The biographical context and work-historical background of Smith's academic achievements is portrayed in chapter one . The development of his religio-scientific thinking can be traced through the academic institutions which he always shaped as an influential chairperson (McGill, Harvard, Dalhousie). Many of Smith's ideas on interreligious hermeneutics were already present in the topics of the courses he gave (cf. 321ff), and have become part of the institutional policy of the respective academic units, as can be demonstrated by the author's archival research. Following his life and work through time, this introductory overview on Smith's thought, its major shifts and publications, can be schematically summarized in a work-historical "bio-graph" (66), and a systematic-chronological overview of his publications (326ff).
     The following chapters are organized around the three major academic areas of Smith's work, and follow the chronological development of his academic emphasis.

(2) First, chapter two analyzes Smith's contribution to Islamic studies . Starting with the studies on modern Islam in India, a major epistemological shift in his thinking can be identified: from the socio-historical perspective on religious and political developments to an empathetic understanding of the inner faith of Muslims. His informants were mostly representatives of a modernist Islam, dissatisfied with traditional legal orthodoxy, and inspired to reform their own tradition in the light of modern values, and by means of a more 'mystical' approach to theology. Smith not only describes this development, but he takes part with a kind of 'theology from outside', which offers a reconstruction of Islam as centered around personal faith. With an almost mystical immediacy -- Smith is influenced by Islamic mysticism -- he tries to trace traditional stratifications in Islam back to their primal function for personal faith. Therefore, his philological studies on islâm, îmân, tasdîq, arkân, sharî'a and igtihâd are critically validated within the context of current Islamic studies. For Smith, however, the faith of the individual person is the primal thing in Islam (as in all religion); everything else is a mode of 'reification' and lifeless structuralism (Islamic law, beliefs, etc.). Thus, in his Islamic studies one can find important groundwork for the later comparative studies on religion, faith, and belief. Although Smith, as a participant engagé 'from outside', appears as "a true friend of the Islamic world", his modern-individualistic and hidden mystic bias has led him to underestimate the traditional consensus and socio-political impetus of Islam, and it has led him to overestimate the possibilities of enlightened Muslims to modernize Islam as an organized religion.

(3) Chapter three is focussed on Smith's Religionswissenschaft. In the beginning, his program for religious studies is analyzed: his dialogic and personalistic method with its interreligious verification principle, as well as the thesis that comparative religion is the locus where mankind's variegated religiosity becomes self-conscious. It seems, however, rather questionable whether Smith's 'program' is actually leading to a 'thick description' of religious phemomena: on the contrary, one can detect an inherent inclination towards abstraction. This suspicion is proved through a close examination of his Begriffsstudien on "religion", "faith", and "belief" (ME, BH, FB). Apart from the fact that ME has already become a "modern classic" in Religionswissenschaft, the bipolar distinction between "cumulative tradition" and "personal faith" does not prove itself useful as an alternative concept for what has traditionally been called 'religion'. As a close examination of Smith's faith-terminology can show, the normative (theological) undercurrent is too heavy for a descriptive concept in religious studies. In coherence with his studies on the Islamic concept of faith, Smith always tries to isolate a single 'true meaning' of faith within the flux of different religious traditions: immediate personal piety over against fixed beliefs and crystallized traditions. Faith is the core of 'religion', he tries to show with acribic philological details. However, it can be demonstrated that much of this thesis is already presupposed in Smith's own normative scheme , using the religio-historical 'material' for a demonstration in the style of a phenomenology-of-religion approach. Despite his attempt to allow genuine pluralism, Smith can even be accused to have formulated a new 'meta-concept' of religion ("faith"), which is then used in a quite inclusivistic manner in relation to, for example, Buddhism (183ff). This critical thesis can be backed up systematically by the author's "synthetic reconstruction of some normative presuppositions in Smith's 'pistology'" (194ff), revealing not only a 'Cambridge-connection' (via J.Oman and H.H.Farmer) to Schleiermacher's concept of Frömmigkeit, but also a strong idealistic strand in Smith's pistology: the reconstruction of human religiousness in the 'transcendental' realm of glaubender Glaube -- over against specific 'categorial forms'. Given this analysis, the investigation is carried further to Smith's universal-historical constructions, his interpersonal criterion of truth, his assessment of religious symbolism, and his interpretation of sacred scripture(s). -- All in all, Smith's "comparative religion" has certainly produced important insights in Religionswissenschaft: the 'shaky' character of the western concept 'religion', the interrelationship of religious traditions, the epistemological role of 'personal friendship', ethical responsibilities in religious studies, etc. It has failed, however, to establish convincingly an alternative paradigm within the discipline (as originally planned).

(4) Chapter four , finally, concentrates on Smith's theological publications. It starts with an examination of his early missiological essays, which have been quite innovative within missiological thinking, because they offer an interesting perspective on missiology as a way of intercultural and interreligious hermeneutics within the context of religious pluralism. Smith appears -- already in this phase (1960-70) -- as a theological pluralist, seeing God at work "redemptively" in all traditions of mankind. From this position it is consequent for Smith to opt for a "world theology", in which all religious traditions are not just objects of thought, but take part as constructive subjects. Since Smith's 'world-theological' aspirations rest completely on his comparative concept of "faith", a similar strand towards abstraction and towards relativizing concrete religious traditions can be detected. Therefore, Smith's vision is not only in danger to run against the current ecumenical emphasis on concrete inculturation and social contextualization, it is also in danger of moving behind the categorial forms of any religious tradition. Theologically speaking, this reproach culminates in Smith's attempt to disengage the sola fide from its christological basis, an attempt which leaves Christ merely as a perspectively representational figure, and which preserves general "faith"; in a kind of meta-pietistic conserve. Against such aspirations one will have to realize that the differing truth-claims and concrete beliefs of religious traditions are playing a more important role than Smith is ready to admit. -- Despite these criticisms, Smith has made a convincing case for a dialogical Christian theology , which is actually reckoning with new empirical knowledge in the process of personal encounters with the 'face' of the religiously other, and which does not merely deduce instant perspectives about the other from a self-sufficient 'own' tradition.


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