the gods

Gene Thursby gthursby at
Tue May 27 11:54:01 UTC 1997

Cheers to Howard Resnick for enlivening the discussion.  Because I am an
amateur at best in Indology, I prefer to read (without comment) the opinions
and information that circulates on this excellent list.  But in this
instance I'll risk a comment and a quotation. 

Dr. Resnick made an admirable clarification regarding the question of gods:
"My point is simple and general: if any of us, including Dirghatamas, states
that a god exists or doesn't exist, we speak not as 'neutral' scholars but
as metaphysicians. This alone was my argument."

It seems unassailable to me, not to say that it should not be assailed on
this list.  Nevertheless it is a wonderful phenomenological interpretive
principle, seldom so well stated as by Dr. Resnick.

This context invites quotation from an esteemed Euro-Californian, Ninian
Smart. He recently wrote the following in support of the principle as he was
commending his own preferred phenomenological term 'focus':

"We need a term to stand for the phenomenological object of religious
practice and experience.  I prefer 'focus', in part because it has a plural
('foci'), whereas 'the ultimate' cannot be very naturally plural and in part
because it does not carry any ontological baggage. . . .  It does not matter
whether Vishnu exists or not -- that is, it does not matter for our
purposes, though for the faithful of course it matters -- or whether there
is a transcendent ultimate;  but we can still recognize that Vishnu is the
focus of the Vaishnava's dreams and worship, as Christ is the focus of the
Eucharist. . . .
        "The notion of a focus enables us to talk about worship and other
activities in meaningful ways without having to comment on whether there is
a Vishnu or a Christ.  But it does enable us to think of Vishnu as focus
entering into the believer's life, dynamizing his feelings, commanding his
loyalty and so on.  This is an advantage in discussing a controversial
subject like religion.  For a believer the focus is real, and we can accept
this even if we do not want to say that it (or she or he) exists.  I thus
distinguish between 'real' and 'existent' as adjectives.  The former I use,
in this context, to refer to what is phenomenologically real in the
experience of the believer.  Whether real in this sense exists is an
altogether different question."

It is a "metaphysical question" (according to Dr. Resnick in his
clarification) rather than a phenomenological one.

All of this is well-known to all members of the list, and perhaps better put
by Resnick than by Smart.  However, this kind of distinction is surprisingly
easily forgotten and surprisingly seldom consistently put to use by
scholars.  Cheers to Dr. Resnick for so clearly bringing it to notice!

Nothing can be done, of course, about figures such as Dirghatamas -- except
to acknowledge that they are not functioning as 'phenomenologists' as much
as 'metaphysicians' (when inquiring into Agni as 'existent') and that the
great but imaginary line between phenomenology and metaphysics is crossed or
ignored again and again in most traditions of discourse and debate --
especially if there are are multiple contenders for the status of 'ultimate'
or multiple 'gradations of ultimacy' (how awkwardly stated) assumed.
However, what may distinguish the modern scholarly tradition is that it
invites, if not demands, observance of the distinction.

The quotation, by the way, was from Ninian Smart, _Dimensions of the Sacred:
An Anatomy of the World's Beliefs_ (U California P, 1996), p.9.  A rather
undisciplined book, but one that sums up Smart's work over the decades as a
creative conversationalist on the subject of how to converse about
traditional texts and belief patterns.

	        Gene Thursby <gthursby at>

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