Wilfred Cantell Smith a much respected Canadian religion academic died in 2000 but as other great thinkers like him his works continue to live after his passing.
Smith has dealt extensively with the matter of “faith” and how we as people interpret or understand it on a daily basis. Faith according to Smith is the essence of humanity and it is for this reason that much of his work has delved largely on this matter.
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Before we go any further it is important to appreciate that Smith is a world class scholar who spent sometime teaching a Christian mission college in the Indian subcontinent before and after it was divided to create Pakistan.
While there he developed an appreciation for the Muslim faith and on his return to Canada he helped set up the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. He later on moved to Harvard where he became the Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions.
Never one to be held down by conventions, his biggest aim was to move away from the Christian theology he had long dealt with, as a student and teacher, to a much broader way in which a better understanding of religion can be attained. Smith once described his work as: “the search for conceptual clarification of man's relation to transcendence.” (Jagger, 2004).
Religion obviously has two terms that go hand in hand, “belief” and “faith”, as far as many people are concerned. Smith felt that faith is not only feature that defines religious life (Smith, 1998) but more what fully defines the human life.
Faith according to Smith is different from belief. Not the matter that in Christianity the two terms represent the same quality and have therefore been used interchangeably as was used in the New Testament to in the translation of the word “pistis” (Smith, 1997).
Smith’s beef, if you will, with “belief” today is that “belief” seemed to have acquired different meanings in English over time and it has brought about much confusion.
In Believing: An Historical Perspective, Smith asserts that “faith” is concerned with persons and on the other hand “belief” refers to propositions (Smith,1997). This led to his observation that “belief” has come to simply mean a lack of certainty, i.e. believing in something that may not have factual truths.
“Belief” is an opinion or conviction (Random House Dictionary, 1996). This definition is one that made Smith discount belief as something that can influence religion. Smith has dealt further with this matter in another one of his works, “Faith and Belief”.
He felt that the changes that have occurred the terms “faith” and “belief” are his reasons for the position he holds that religion is not about belief. About religion itself, Smith argues that the terms “faith” and “cumulative tradition” are more apt terms for it.
Smith points out that faith, though also very diverse, does not attract manifold interpretations as the term belief does. He also sees faith as cutting across all the religions of the world and it is what compels people to act in accordance to what their religion teaches.
This point is what has won me over to Smith’s idea that religion is not about belief. I am in total agreement with Smith’s view of things here.
In fact many people have followed Smith’s point of thinking and today the term “transcendence” is gaining ground around the religious circles. And whenever the term transcendence is invoked what comes to mind is Buddhism, so its clear why Smith’s observation takes all the religions under its his wing, so to speak.
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