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Obituaries

Ninian Smart; Professor of Religious Studies and Writer

February 01, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ninian Smart, a popular professor of religious studies at UC Santa Barbara and England's Lancaster University and a prolific author on comparative religions, has died at the age of 73.

Smart died Monday in Lancaster Royal Infirmary in Lancaster, England, after suffering a stroke Sunday night. He had recently moved to Lancaster after retiring from UC Santa Barbara, where he taught for 25 years and was J.F. Rowny Professor of Comparative Religions.

Internationally respected, Smart was president of the American Assn. of Religion, the primary professional association for scholars of religious studies, theology and ministerial training.

Revered for his teaching, Smart was better known to the public for about three dozen highly readable books on religions around the world.

Smart described himself as "a Westerner, a Scot, a male, an Episcopalian, albeit with Buddhist leanings" but studied, compared and wrote about all religions with equal and unabashed gusto.

Huston Horn, an Episcopal priest in Pasadena who reviewed Smart's 1979 book "In Search of Christianity" for The Times, wrote: "From catacombs to SatCom II, Ninian Smart knows his subject in such global detail and nuance as to cause me to marvel.

"He neither defends Christianity nor attacks it but he does set it before us with a charm and originality rarely encountered [sad to say] in books on religion, books familiar more for cautious piety than pungent phrase. Where, pray, has one encountered an analogy of biblical infallibility to a bet on Diablo Canyon in the Kentucky Derby?"

Loyola Marymount philosophy professor Richard J. Morris attempted to match Smart's colorful phrasing in his Times review of the author's 1981 "Beyond Ideology":

"All right; so the man's a miracle," he said of Smart. "He not only knows what it's like to be a Catholic, or a Buddhist, or a Chinese Communist for that matter; he can describe how it feels. Exactly. He takes me up on Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka, and I see my own Christian beliefs through the eyes of a Buddhist monk. He has me peer into my own soul and paradoxically see the meaning of nibbana. He even has me take a few, uncertain steps along the route of the Long March. It fair shakes a body to find himself in someone else's head."

The book, Morris added, "throbs with passion. It's a dangerous book to read; for it shows us how to put pluralism into practice, how to move from the slogan to the reality."

In his writings and his lectures, Smart endeavored to explain the philosophy and history of various religions in the context of daily life through the ages. Once he marshaled his ideas, he said, he could write a book in as little as eight days.

With Phillip E. Hammond, Smart in the last decade published several books in a series called "The Religious Contours of California." Because of its multi-ethnicity and plural culturism, they said, the state encompasses a microcosm of world religions. The books, along with the widespread teaching of comparative religion, Smart believed, would build a more cooperative statewide community.

"Knowledge of religions," Smart told The Times in 1994 when the first three volumes were published, "creates an atmosphere of tolerance, while ignorance fosters prejudice."

He turned one of his hobbies, poetry, into the 1996 book, "Smart Verse: The Owl Flies Amid the Wood Wind Hooting."

Born Roderick Ninian Smart on May 6, 1927, in Cambridge, England, the professor's son was educated at Oxford University. From 1945 to 1948, he served in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the British Army Intelligence Corps.

Smart taught successively at University College of Wales, the University of London and the University of Birmingham before joining the University of Lancaster faculty in 1967. He remained there until 1982, teaching for six of those years in Lancaster and Santa Barbara.

During his long career, Smart also was a guest lecturer at far-flung schools--the universities of Wisconsin, Queensland, Cape Town, Hong Kong, Delhi and Edinburgh, and Princeton, Otago, Harvard, Yale and Banaras Hindu universities.

Married in 1954 to Libushka Clementina Baruffaldi, Smart had four children, Roderick, Luisabel, Caroline and Peregrine.

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