Essay on Religion and Cantwell Smith

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This classic work is a study of the evolution of "religion" as a reified, essentialist concept in modern intellectual history. Religion, as Cantwell Smith persuasively argues, is--when understood either as designating an absolute "thing" in human experience ("religion in general") or as indicating a particular instantiation of that thing ("the Christian religion" or "the Buddhist religion")--purely a modern intellectualist construct, one that has no parallel in pre-modern Western thought or in the ideas of non-Western cultures that have not come under decisive Western influence. Cantwell Smith further argues that the term "religion" and the concept that it communicates create barriers to true scholarly understanding of human religiousness.

The methodology proposed by Cantwell Smith involves recognizing what we have called "religions" as being, in fact, nexuses of "cumulative traditions" (the historically-observable data of religious life in history--artworks, buildings, rituals, communities) and "faith" (the inner encounter between the individual and what Cantwell Smith calls "transcendence"--presumably comparable to Otto's Heilige or Eliade's "the sacred," and similarly susceptible to the charge that it is simply a smuggled-in God-concept).

The Meaning and End of Religion is now nearly half a century old, and it shows its age. While the historical survey is very compelling, and the case Cantwell Smith makes in this portion of the book is persuasive, much of the rest of the work…