OBITUARY:Professor Trevor Ling

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The Independent Online
In the 1960s when the new discipline of Religious Studies broke out from the matrix of (Christian) Theology, with its traditional orientation to the training of clergy, Trevor Ling was one of its most creative and influential pioneers.

As with others of his generation, the Second World War did as much, if not more, to shape the scholar to come. The Army took him to India, where he was profoundly influenced by an unconventional Baptist missionary, Horace Collins, who encouraged him to learn spirituality from Hindus. He was gripped and educated by India with an unsentimental fascination.

After Oxford, he became a Baptist minister, a part-time academic, and an occasional Labour candidate, until he took his family to Rangoon in 1960, to be University Chaplain, employed by American Baptists. Working with them destroyed his patience with Baptist Christianity. Thereafter he increasingly distinguished between religions which divided because they insisted on being "right" over others, and those which were comprehensive because they could allow themselves to be complemented by others. But in the 1960s he was still ready to work with Anglicanism. He was ordained by Michael Ramsey, but being a priest eventually became irksome and he resigned his orders. Later, he worshipped in the Anglican Cathedral in Singapore, but was close enough to being a Buddhist to have to resist that label, also.

Ling's early scholarly work was on Buddhist mythology of evil, which he compared with Satan in Christianity. In Buddhism, he saw evil being overcome essentially by the inner disciplines of meditation, while in Christianity Satan was overcome by the Community of the Holy Spirit. When the community failed him or became unbearable (as in mass-evangelistic and charismatic forms), he made more of the Buddhist possibility. Its inwardness perhaps suited the strongly independent and private aspects of his personality.

His period at Leeds University (1963-72), as Lecturer and then Professor of Comparative Religion, was a time of great achievement. With Professor John Tinsley, he made the decisive break- through in establishing Religious Studies as a distinct discipline there. His widely used History of Religion East and West came from courses he inaugurated. The histories of "living religions" are told alongside each other, from the early city civilisations of Asia to the 1960s. Constantly comparing East with West, the book is an education in world history and an experiment in "the comparative philosophy and sociology of world religions".

Sometimes, religious studies are thought to be "objective", as theology is not. But Ling never gave up seeking good religion and advocating what he found. Some scholars thought the occasional preaching in his books a weakness, but it could be seen as an act of responsibility. He emphasised the rational and secular practicality of most Indian religion, arguing that the study of religion should not be misshaped by an obsession with the minority quests for otherworldly personal salvation. The secular was not, for him, an alternative to religion, but a set of clues to the nature of religion.

After Leeds, Ling hardly settled. He interrupted his time as Professor of Comparative Religion at Manchester University to teach in India for two years, then took early retirement in 1982 to spend a decade in Singapore. Perhaps there was more here than the mobility of a world-class academic. He was concerned to be in touch with the sacred, and his abrupt and decisive exodus from the British academic scene could indicate that he eventually found the modern university as constricting as dogmatic churches.

Haddon Willmer

Trevor Oswald Ling, minister of the church, priest, theologian: born London 17 February 1920; Lecturer, then Professor of Comparative Religion, Leeds University 1963-72; Professor of Comparative Religion, Manchester University 1972-82; Professor of Comparative Religion, Visva Bharati University, India 1978-79; Visiting Professor and Research Fellow, Singapore 1981- 92; married 1949 Mary Evelyn Inkster (died 1973; three daughters), 1977 Jeanne Openshaw; died 24 March 1995.