The term in English was originally used in Christianity, though historians now use the term for those who are considered worthy of veneration for their holiness or sanctity in all major religions.
Many religions use similar concepts, but different terminology, to venerate individuals worthy of honor in some way, e.g., see Hindu saints. John A. Coleman S.J., Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, wrote that saints across various cultures and religions have the following family resemblances:
- exemplary model;
- extraordinary teacher;
- wonder worker or source of benevolent power;
- a life often refusing material attachments or comforts;
- possession of a special and revelatory relation to the holy.
While there are parallels between these (and other) concepts and that of sainthood, each of these concepts has specific meanings within a given religion. Also, new religious movements have sometimes taken to using the word in cases where the people so named would not be regarded as saints within mainstream Christianity. Some of the Cao Dai saints and saints of Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica are examples of such.
The anthropologist Lawrence Babb in an article about Sathya Sai Baba asks the question "Who is a saint?", and responds by saying that in the symbolic infrastructure of some religions, there is the image of a certain extraordinary spiritual king's "miraculous powers", to whom frequently a certain moral presence is attributed. These saintly figures, he asserts, are "the focal points of spiritual force-fields", exerting "powerful attractive influence on followers but touch the inner lives of others in transforming ways as well."
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