Roderick Ninian Smart
Department of Religious Studies
The Department of Religious studies was profoundly shocked and saddened by the news that our beloved colleague and professor Ninian Smart died suddenly in Lancaster, England on January 29, 2001. The unexpected news arrived only days after he bade farewell to his many friends here, having given up his Santa Barbara home in preparation for settling in England. He was 73 years old. He is survived by his dear wife, Lubushka, his son Roderick and daughters Luisabelle and Caroline, and their families, including eight grandchildren.
Born in Cambridge, England in 1927 to Scottish parents, Ninian was educated at Glasgow University and at Queen’s College, Oxford. Following positions at Yale University, London University, Banaras Hindu University and Birmingham University, he became the founding Professor of Religious Studies at Lancaster University in 1967. In 1976 he came to UCSB and spent part of each year at Lancaster University and UCSB until his retirement from Lancaster in 1982. He retired from UCSB in 1998 but remained a preeminent presence among as an emeritus professor. Richard Hecht recalled Ninian’s effect on his colleagues during his euology on February 5, 2001:
“I met Ninian in 1977 … and with his appointment our two universities were drawn together. Lancaster and Santa Barbara were still young and perhaps it was out youth that attracted him and where he could leave his lasting impress. In both universities Religious Studies flourished; to both he brought his sparkle, his renown, his loyalty, his wisdom and perhaps most importantly, his magnanimity. One of our colleagues in Santa Barbara remembers a conversation she had with Ninian nearly twenty years ago about Gnosticism. Ninian said to her ‘Life is very difficult and we owe it to our fellow human beings to be as cheerful as we can.’
“Of course being a Scot in Santa Barbara did create something of a stir. Ninian loved to ride his bicycle through the student community of Isla Vista to the campus. He insisted on never locking his bicycle and it was ‘pinched’ several times. He would ride leisurely, just at a pace necessary to keep him upright and moving forward, and he would be passed by other bicyclists, skateboarders, roller-bladers, and those walking alongside of him. But it was his kilt that turned many a head.
“He became the first J.F. Rowny Professor in the Comparative Study of Religions at Santa Barbara. He rose to the highest step of the University of California’s professorate and in 1996 was named the Academic Senate’s Research Professor, the highest academic honor given in the University of California to its faculty. Ninian served as our department chair, as he did at Lancaster and at Birmingham. During his life-time of scholarship, he held the presidencies of the major learned societies in the study of religions, most recently the American Academy of Religion, the largest professional society for Religious Studies in the Americas.
“When the definitive history of the study of religion in the twentieth century is written, Ninian will certainly be seen as a giant among his peers. His many books opened religion to scholar and layperson alike. Often the most important and lasting advances in an academic discipline are the result of a new insight enwrapped in simplicity. Thus, Ninian’s insistence that our discipline must be both multi-perspectival and multi-dimensional transformed Religious Studies. ‘Poly-methodological doodling’ was a central component of his phenomenology, and by the way, he remained committed to ‘phenomenology’ as the best descriptive term for what we do. And, how many thousands or tens of thousands of students first learned to think about religion comparatively and through its multiple dimensions in The Religious Experience (first published in 1969).
“He seemed always able to stay well-ahead of the discipline. That is what leaders do. In 1978, he used the term ‘religion on the ground’ for the first time in a conference intended to assess the future of the study of religion. Of course, few there understood the full implication of this new formulation, but now all would recognize it to capture the turn toward deep contextualization which has been so productive for the study of religion over the past two decades. He coined the term ‘worldview analysis’ as another description for Religious Studies in part to control conversations on long plane trips and the invariable question of the person sitting next to him, ‘And what do you do?’ But, it also allowed him to advance our discussion of nationalism as the modern competitor of traditional religion. His Worldviews: Cross-cultural Explorations of Human Beliefs (1981) anticipated the wide and important interest in the globalization of religion, diasporic studies of religion, the post-colonial studies in religion.
“Come again with me to Ninian’s introductory course in the study of religion and let us remind ourselves that he had an all-encompassing vision of what Religious Studies should be. He often told those first and second year students that Religious Studies was time travel. And certainly it was for him. He knew the history of religious traditions, but the study of religion was always about the present for him as well. He would often add to his descriptions of the power of phenomenological empathy that ‘walking in another’s moccasins’ would ultimately ennoble us. He was a man born in the century of humanity’s greatest barbarism. But, he also was a man of the future who hoped that the study of religion would allow us in the twenty-first century to overcome the darker tragedies of his century.”
We will remember Ninian as a brilliant thinker and leader in our field of study, certainly, but also as a warm and wonderful human being who loved painting, cricket, writing poetry, and a decent drink. His bow ties and the ever-present flower in his lapel, and most of all the twinkle in his eye, left their indelible marks on the department. We are much the better for having known him. We will miss him greatly.