Ninian Smart

Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Smart, Ninian. Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

The following review of Ninian Smart’s Dimensions of the Sacred shall limit itself to chapter four, “The Experiential and Emotional Dimension.”  Within the context of this chapter Smart advances his “two-poles theory” of religious experience, a theory that may in fact constitute the fundamental organizing principle of Dimensions of the Sacred

Claiming less ramified descriptions of religious experience are closer to some "pure" religious experience, Smart distills from the data two basic types of religious experience: the numinous experience of some divine Other, and the contemplative experience of inner unity.  These experiences (along with the panenhenic experience of outer cosmic unity and the shamanistic experience that precedes the numinous and contemplative experiences--neither of which Smart seems very certain) are not some sort of superfluous tack-on or projection, rather they are grounded in the very nature of human beings.  They are, in the words of Smart, "a 'natural' product of humankind" (108).  Thus, Smart avers, "the two‑poles theory is plausible not just in terms of the variety of types of religions, but also from the standpoint of human nature" (176).  The virtue of such a two-poles theory, according to Smart, is that it allows for several different modes of variation (e.g., given that A = contemplative experience and B = numinous experience, the modalities of religion may be represented as follows: A at the exclusion of B and vice versa, A dominant over B and vice versa, and A balanced with B) and therefore avoids the sins of single-core essentialism. 

But Smart, who is almost giddy at this point in the book, cannot leave well enough alone, moving from his two‑poles theory into that which he has just discredited, essentialism.  First, Smart enumerates six properties that are common to both poles: timelessness, transcendence, ineffability, invisibility, spacelessness, and bliss.  Then, Smart lets the cat out of the bag, as it were, going where no phenomenologist of religion should go: “All these reasons converge in encouraging us to think that the differing experiences might apply to the same entity.  In other words, perhaps nirvana and the Divine are one” (173). Smart is an experiential monist in pluralist garb.  He wants to believe that at bottom religious experience is singular, of a singular entity, yet gives rise to a plurality of religious traditions.

We can, therefore, sum up Smart's two-poles theory as follows: religion is grounded in human nature (168, 176), the experience of some nirvanic-divine entity (173).  While this experience is singular, direct and pure, distinguishable from later context-dependent accretions (168, 179), it is twofold depending upon whether such an entity is conceived of as "out there" or "in here" (although, in Smart's words, "the quest for the inner is also the search for the meaning of the universe," 176).  And, although this experience/s gets parsed out in terms of five basic modalities as well as in terms of tradition-dependent contexts, it displays six common attributes.  No doubt about it: Behind his phenomenological mask, Smart is a full-blooded essentialist.