The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology

Index of Articles
MWT Course

Wildman's
Weird Wild Web

Home
Links
Jokes
Other Courses

Hick, John

Contents

John Hick: Man of Many Mysticisms (Richard Peters, 2005)

John Harwood Hick (Robert Smid, 1999)

John Hick: Mann's Quick Notes (Mark Mann, 1997)

John Hick: Man of Many Mysticisms

Richard Peters, 2005

 

John Hick was born in 1922[1] to Mark and Aileen Hick in Scarborough, England (Hick, 2002, 1-8).  His ancestors owned a successful shipping company, though his grandfather had left the shipping business to become a solicitor.  Hick’s Autobiography gives the impression that his parents also worked in sales.  In any event, Hick grew up in an upper middle class family that evidently valued and had the resources to encourage both entrepreneurship and education (Hick, 2002). 

By seventeen, Hick was reading Nietzsche, Mill, Whitehead, Freud, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Kant, the empiricists, and other philosophers.  He was encouraged in these pursuits by his uncle, Edward Hirst, who was then retired from teaching Christian Ethics at Manchester University and other colleges, and who had authored several books.  According to Hick, his uncle was “ahead of his time in taking account of ancient Chinese thinkers” (Hick, 2002, 16).  Hirst once recommended that Hick attend university to study philosophy, but later encouraged him to pursue law instead. 

Hick took this advice for a time, studying law at what is now Hull University.  While there, encouraged by friends and nearby WWII bombings, he “experienced a powerful evangelical conversion to fundamentalist Christianity” (Hick, 2002, 26-27).  His conversion involved a personal appropriation of the fundamentalist Protestantism that surrounded him at Hull, which included believing in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, creation and fall, Jesus as God incarnate, miracles, heaven and hell, etc. (Hick, 2002, 33-34).  Prior to this experience, Hick’s religious attitude was one of openness to the diverse interpretations and expressions of the divine that were then available to him through spiritualists, Pentecostalists, Theosophists and other voices.  With his change of his mind came a change of vocation; Hick decided to train for ministry and enrolled at University of Edinburgh in 1941 (Hick, 2002, 27-35). 

Hick’s divinity studies were interrupted after his first year by a call to military service.  He objected to war and refused to fight, joining the Friends Ambulance Unit instead.  With the FAU Hick provided medical assistance to allied soldiers, assisted in the distribution of aid to civilians, and made similar non-violent contributions to the allied effort (Hick, 2002, 36-65). 

Hick resumed his studies at Edinburgh in 1945, and there “realized the immense importance of Kant” for his theory of religion through a faculty member named Kemp Smith, a well-known translator of Kant’s work (Hick, 2002, 68).  He also started to drift away from fundamentalism toward “very conservative” Evangelicalism while at Edinburgh (Hick, 2002, 68).  In 1948 he went on to Oriel, where he completed his PhD, defending a dissertation that would later become Faith and Knowledge, published in 1957. 

Hick’s drift from conservative religious expression continued.  In 1967 he was appointed to the H. G. Wood Chair of Philosophy at Birmingham University where he opposed a policy requiring students to study the doctrines of the Church of England regardless of their respective religious traditions (Smid, 2005).  He has since become a champion of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, and is presently (so far as I can tell) Danforth Professor of the Philosophy of Religion, Emeritus, at Claremont Graduate University in southern California (Hick, 2005). 

 

THE FIFTH DIMENSION

Hick’s Epistemology

Hick’s theory of religion begins from what he characterizes as a Kantian account of the relationship of human minds to the world.  According to Kant, we human beings relate to the world outside of us by way of intervening cognitive forms and categories.  These function to provide us with a coherent and consistent experience, but in doing so they obscure the reality that lies behind and sources our experiences.  The degree to which the noumenal world—that is, the world outside of us—is obscured by these forms and categories is severe for Kant.  It is so severe, in fact, that not even spatial and temporal extension belongs to things as they are in themselves but only to things as we experience them (Kant, Critique of Pure Reason).  Try to imagine occupying no space and passing through no time and you will get a sense—having failed at the endeavor—of just how radical a divide Kant supposes separates the world as we experience it from the world as it is in itself. 

As appropriated by Hick, however, Kant tells us merely that the mind makes a “positive contribution to the character of its perceived environment” (Hick, 1989, 240-1).  Hick does not wish to follow Kant so far as to suppose, with him, that the world apart from our experience of it is non-spatial and non-temporal.  He does follow him in denying that we have unmediated access to the external world as it is in itself (Hick, 1989, 242).  Hick is worth quoting at length on this point:

Kant’s own reason for distinguishing between noumenon and phenomenon was peculiar to his complex philosophical architectonic.  He came to it through a critical discussion of space and time which, he argued, cannot be objective realities but must instead be forms which the mind imposes on the sensory manifold.  From this it follows that the world an sich differs from the world of human experience in not being temporally and spatially ordered.  But we do not need to follow Kant at this point in order to arrive at the distinction between things as they are in themselves and those same things as humanly perceived.  For it arises out of elementary reflection upon our experience.  We quickly realize that the same thing appears in either slightly or considerably different ways to different people owing both to their varying spatial locations in relation to it and to differences in their sensory and mental equipment and interpretive habits. (Hick, 1989, 242)

Thus, the divide between the “noumenal” and “phenomenal” realms (so far as nature is concerned) is not nearly so severe for Hick as it was for Kant, which raises the question whether and to what extent those terms are appropriate to describe his construal of the relationship between the mind and the world.  Hick seems to think that the human mind is far more intimately related to—far more continuous with—the world than Kant did.  On this point, then, Hick’s construal of the relationship between mind and world appears to have more in common with the pragmatists than with Kant.

Hick suggests that his construal of the relationship of the human mind to God, however, is much like the relationship that Kant supposed exists between the human mind and the world (Hick, 1989, 243).  For Hick, God (or the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Real, etc.) is the Noumenon behind the phenomena of religious experience, and that Noumenon might bear little similarity to its corresponding phenomena:

…the Real is experienced by human beings, but experienced in a manner analogous to that in which, according to Kant, we experience the world: namely by informational input from external reality being interpreted by the mind in terms of its own categorial scheme and thus coming to consciousness as meaningful phenomenal experience.  All that we are entitled to say about the noumenal source of this information is that it is the reality whose influence produced, in collaboration with the human mind, the phenomenal world of our [religious] experience.  (Hick, 1989, 243)

As Hick reads him, however, Kant denied that there is a divine Noumenon that is experienced in phenomena.  Kant postulated God as that which orders nature so as to create our felt moral obligations; nothing at all is known about God (Hick, 1989, 243).  Once again, in supposing that the Noumenon can be known—however obscurely—in and through its phenomena, Hick supposes that the categories of noumenal being and human cognitive categories are somewhat similar; they certainly cannot be so radically different as they were for Kant (Hick, 2002, 69).  The “main difference” between the views of Kant and Hick on this matter

…is that the categories…of religious experience are not universal and invariable but are on the contrary culture-relative.  It is possible to live without employing them; and when they are employed they tend to change and develop through time as different historical influences affect the development of human consciousness.  (Hick, 1989, 244)

Thus, Hick’s understanding of the degree to which human conceptual categories obscure “noumenal” realities is less severe than Kant’s on both counts.  Hick construes the relationship of human minds to the world more like pragmatists do, and he understands the relationship of human minds to the Ultimate like Kant understood the relationship of human minds to the world. 

 

Transcategorial reality

But Hick is not a strict Kantian when it comes to the relationship between human minds and God.  He differs from Kant in supposing that the divine Noumenon is at play in human religious experience.  He differs from the pragmatists in supposing that our conceptual categories are not and cannot become significantly conformed to the divine Noumenon.  This latter is what he seems to mean when he writes that “all that we are entitled to say about the [N]oumenal source of this information is that it is the [R]eality whose influence produced, in collaboration with the human mind, the phenomenal world of our [religious] experience” (Hick, 1989, 243).  Something can be known about God—that God is that which causes certain experiences called religious—and we can even improve in this partial knowledge about God, says Hick, but it is nave to think that we can know God well.  

To efficiently express this view, Hick introduces the term transcategorial to refer to the category of divine being-in-itself.  That God is transcategorial means that God is not like our conceptions of God; our cognitive categories are not well suited to cognize God.  We can experience God, but our cognitive categories are such that our experiences of God are unlike God (Hick, 1999, 8).  God is experienced through our categories, but God as Godself is also invariably obscured by them. 

 

Spiritual freedom

It follows for Hick that we have considerable spiritual freedom.  Though our conceptual categories must be like the world if we are to survive within it, no analogous necessity holds between those categories and the “fifth dimension.”   In fact, our freedom as spiritual beings—beings that can freely choose our own ways to be religiously and ethically engaged—depends on this lack of necessity (Hick, 1999, 38).  It is thanks to this freedom that diverse religions and cultures can coexist within the human race in spite of our common humanity.  The “epistemic distance” created by the fact, as Hick sees it, that our conceptual categories shape and obscure the divine reality is also important for making the world a crucible appropriate for “soul-making.”  Hick reasons that certainty in religion would be a sure source of inauthenticity and insincerity in religion, whereas uncertainty is a condition that allows for the free embrace or free rejection of goods and evils and thereby for the free development of sinners and saints (Hick, 1999, 38).

 

God and the Absolute, experienced and a se

Insofar as we experience Ultimate Reality at all for Hick, we experience it through the conceptual categories provided by a culture, and therefore experience it as distorted by that culture.  Hick identifies two broad conceptions of Ultimate Reality as “God” and “the Absolute.”  He employs the term “God” to refer to Ultimate Reality as experienced through the categories of Western religions like Christianity, and the term “Absolute” to refer to Ultimate Reality as encountered in Eastern religions such as Hinduism (Hick, 1999, 77). 

Westerners tend to think of ultimate reality in terms of a personal deity who creates, instructs, saves, etc.  But within each of the major Western religious traditions are mystical conceptions of God that disallow such mythological depictions.  Hick cites Pseudo-Dionysius as an example within the Christian tradition of a mystical theologian.  In Dionysius’ hands, the greatness of God becomes the ineffability, indescribability—transcategoriality—of God, such that God is beyond affirmations and denials, greater than anything we limited human beings can think about God (Hick, 1999, 79f).

Though Hindus also indulge in ascribing positive qualities to Ultimate Reality, they honor a complementary tradition of repudiating such ascriptions to a greater extent than we do in the West.  For this reason, a distinction between Ultimate Reality as experienced and Ultimate Reality a se features prominently in Hinduism.  Hick finds it convenient to apply this distinction toward his understanding religious pluralism.  In this way the many gods of the religions become for Hick but expressions of the many ways in which Ultimate Reality shows up in experience, and the diverse ways that Ultimate Reality is experienced are a function of the diversity of culturally-relative cognitive categories (Hick, 1999, 91-92). 

 

Critical realism, true myth, and the criterion of authenticity

Because Hick supposes that Ultimate Reality or the Real is manifested in diverse ways on this side of experience, he has a realist’s attitude toward religious experience.  That is to say, Hick’s religious epistemology suggests that it is improper to dismiss religious experience as mere delusion or projection; as he sees it, something of religious significance is in fact responsible for many religious experiences.  But Hick rejects nave realism—Ultimate Reality is as I experience it—consistent with his thesis that we lack cognitive categories that are adequate to comprehend Ultimate Reality.  Rejecting antirealism and nave realism as extremes, Hick instead embraces what he calls a “critical realist” appreciation of religious experience (Hick, 1999, 42-3).

Critical realism implies the need for criteria of authenticity.  In other words, because Hick believes that Ultimate Reality is hidden even in our experience of it and that it is possible to confuse actual with counterfeit religious experience, Hick must suggest a way to help us sort through our religious experiences to find what is valuable in it.  To handle the problem caused by the fact that our categories shape our experience of the Ultimate, Hick recommends that we regard our religious traditions as significantly comprised of myths that are literally false but also true as descriptions of our experience of Ultimate Reality (Hick, 1999, 228-240).  In response to the problem provided by counterfeit religious experience Hick recommends that we look for the “long-term transformative effect on the experiencer” (Hick, 1999, 163) as an indication of the value and authenticity of any would-be religious experience.  Authentic encounters with the Ultimate ought to produce compassion, love, and other valuable attitudes and emotions within the life of the experiencer.  If such attitudes and emotions are not produced, or if harmful attitudes and emotions develop instead, then the experience should be rejected as inauthentic (Hick, 1999, 163f). 

 

Summary and Conclusion

As we have seen, Hick uses a modified Kantian epistemology to produce an account of mystical experience that also gives proponents of too-often competing traditions a way to appreciate religious diversity.  He suggests that God/the Ultimate/the Real/the Absolute is such that our cognitive categories cannot accommodate it except through culture-specific metaphors and myths that inevitably obscure its true character.  For this reason, Hick recommends that we approach religious myths as literally false but existentially true, that is, true as descriptions of how the Ultimate is experienced within our traditions. 

We can appreciate Hick’s theory of religion for its contribution to interfaith dialogue.  It has inspired and provided a theoretical construct within which such dialogue might take place.  Given the variety of religious experience plus Hick’s conclusion that the Ultimate is transcategorial, however, I wonder why we should believe that anything of interest to us lies behind religious experience.  Insofar as the nature of the Ultimate is beyond our cognitive grasp it is beyond our attempts to evaluate its worth, or for that matter, its reality.  If we cannot grasp the nature of the transcategorial—and this is analytic in the term—then the function of the category “transcategorial” is merely to point beyond.  But that about which we can neither affirm nor deny anything might, in fact, not be anything.  The pluralism that Hick embraces, then, must include agnosticism.  But if this is true, then how does it not reduce to agnosticism?

 

Bibliography

Hick, John, 1966. Faith and Knowledge. New York: Cornell University Press.

Hick, John, 1989. An Interpretation of Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hick, John, 1999. The Fifth Dimension. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.  

Hick, John, 2002. John Hick: An Autobiography. Oxford: Oneworld Publications.

Hick, John, 2005. http://www.johnhick.org.uk/. Accessed 3/16/05.

Kant, Immanuel, 1787. Critique of Pure Reason. Translated by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smid, Robert W., 2005. “John Harwood Hick.” http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/courses/mwt/dictionary/mwt_themes_875_hick.htm#top. Accessed 3/16/05.

Wildman, Wesley, 2004. “The Resilience of Religion in Secular Social Environments: A Pragmatic Philosophical Analysis.” Unpublished manuscript.

 

Notes

[1] This is a calculation from Hick’s own testimony that he was fifteen years old in 1937 (Hick, 2002, 18).

 

John Harwood Hick

Robert W. Smid, MWT II, 1998-1999

His Life

[Note: I have found a disturbing wealth of obscurities and contradictions regarding Hick’s biography. I have determined that the account given by Paul Badham in God, Truth, and Reality is the most reliable for three reasons: first, Badham knows Hick personally; second, that book is the most recent to include a biography; and third, that book is a tribute to Hick and thus has the most at stake in its accuracy. Therefore, the information included above is either from Badham’s account or else represents information in addition to that found in Badham’s account.]

John Hick was born in 1922 in Yorkshire, England. Little information is available about his life from this event until his entry to the University of Edinburgh in 1941. Hick had originally intended to study law, but his plans were interrupted by the second world war. While he did not actually enlist in the army—Hick was a committed pacifist—he did serve in the Friends’ Ambulance Service in both Britain and the Middle East. Upon the war’s end in 1945 Hick resumed his studies, although he now found philosophy more appealing than law. He graduated from Edinburgh three years later with First Class Honors in Philosophy. He then proceeded to pursue a D. Phil. on the relation between belief and faith at Oxford University. Following the completion of his doctorate, Hick took a brief respite in the pastoral ministry. He received his training for this endeavor as an S. A. Cooke bye-fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University. He would subsequently serve as pastor to a Presbyterian church in Northumberland. In 1953, John was married to Hazel; this constitutes the only event of this period that receives mention in biographical accounts. John and Hazel have since had one daughter and three sons (one of whom died at the age of 24). Following this intermission to his academic career, Hick would proceed to a series of posts in the philosophy of religion, including Cornell University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Cambridge University.

Perhaps the most revealing facet of John Hick’s biography, however, can be derived from his appointment to the H.G. Wood chair of philosophy at Birmingham University in 1967. It is at this point that the impact of Hick’s life on his philosophy of religion can be first and most clearly recognized. Brad Stetson traces this impact to the socio-cultural and religious context that Hick encountered at this his first substantial academic post. Birmingham, he explains, was and is itself a hotbed of religious and cultural pluralism, claiming large populations of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs—amongst others—from all over the world. Despite this teeming diversity, Hick nonetheless observed a pervasive racism entrenched in the British mind, which he attributed to centuries of British imperialism and its attendant misimpression of socio-cultural superiority. Moreover, he noted that this bigotry was not lost on the local Christian churches—and particularly the Church of England—who manifested the same intolerance on a religious level (Stetson 9-10). In Hick’s own life this situation was manifested most directly in the core requirements of the curriculum at the University of Birmingham, which required that each student, despite his/her own religious heritage, study the doctrines of the Church of England. To Hick, this signaled a blatant disregard for any religious traditions outside of Anglican Christianity. Deeming this parochialism shortsighted, insolent and simply intolerable, he used his influence as the Chairman of the Religious and Cultural Panel of the Community Relations Committee and of ‘All Faiths for One Race’ to effect a number of appropriate changes in the University’s curriculum.

William James argued that beliefs are themselves only rules for action; so it is that Hick’s pursuit of a viable religious pluralism can be seen as his attempt to address worldwide the problem of religious intolerance as he experienced it in the microcosm of Birmingham. His action with regard to the curriculum proved only the beginning of a concern that would dominate his career as a philosopher of religion. Indeed, out of these very concrete concerns would develop one of the most intricate and systematic theories of religious pluralism. In 1980, Hick accepted the Danforth Chair in the Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate School in Claremont, California. Nineteen tears later, Hick remains at this post and continues to make a significant contribution to the philosophy of religion.

His Philosophy of Religion

John Hick is not best understood as a theologian. Rather, he as always been employed as and has always professed to be a philosopher of religion. Not surprisingly, however, Hick’s work has had significant theological implications. Almost a lifelong Presbyterian, Hick’s concerns have been primarily concerned with Christianity, and thus it is Christianity—more than any other religion—that is subjected in his works to all of the implications of his philosophy of religion. Traced below are what I consider to be Hick’s greatest contributions to the study of religion: his developments of the relation of faith and knowledge, the problem of theodicy, the prospects of modern Christology, and his pluralistic theory of religions. These contributions are presented in roughly the order in which they were addressed in Hick’s career, with reference to his more significant publications. Finally, the article will conclude by assessing Hick’s relevance to theology, especially as it proceeds in a pluralistic world.

Relation of Faith and Knowledge

John Hick’s established an almost immediate reputation upon the publication of his first book, Faith and Knowledge in 1957. This book, as its title indicates, provides a forceful response to the criticism that faith is an illegitimate form of knowledge. Writing as a philosopher of religion in the forties and fifties, Hick felt tremendous pressure to respond to the frequent critique of analytic philosophers who contended that that religious language—and thus theology—is cognitively meaningless. In response, Hick attempts to demonstrate that the truth or falsity of religious propositions do, in fact, make an empirical difference in the life of a believer. Only by reconciling faith and knowledge in this sense does he believe that he can assert faith with intellectual integrity. Thus, his self-declared intent in this his first book is "a bridging operation between philosophy and theology." (1957, xii).

Hick accomplishes this by proposing a tripartite structure of experience—the natural (physical), the human (social), and the divine (spiritual)—which he explains as follows. Every experience is significant within the realm of the physical world. This is the world in which everything counts, because everything counts for survival. Some experiences, however, also appear to some to lend themselves to social significance, having a meaning in addition to the merely physical. This reflects human ways of relating, and bears a particularly ethical character. And yet other experiences seem to some to carry spiritual significance, which rises above but does not exclude the physical and social (ethical). This highest level reflects the means by which the experiencer orients himself/herself to the physical and social world as a whole. While these three represent different structures of experience, contends Hick, the epistemological pattern of the experience itself remains the same. If this is the case, then it must be true that faith is itself simply one form of experiential knowledge, equal in stature to any other form.

To demonstrate his theory, Hick argues that all experiences are themselves mediated, thus adopting a Kantian understanding of experience. Accordingly, there are no pure and direct experiences; rather, there are only interpretations of experiences. Therefore, all experiencing is really only "experiencing-as". The most significant facet of experiencing-as with respect to Hick’s argument is the signification given to any particular experience. By this he means that the interpretation given to any experience will have primarily to do with the level of meaning one attributes to any experience. One can interpret an experience as having either physical, social, or spiritual significance, which will cause the experience to be understood in the terms of that structure. This same statement taken backwards, one will only interpret an experience in a certain way because that experience lends itself to a particular structure for a particular experiencer. Thus, any given experience must have cognitive meaning to the interpreter in order for the interpreter to interpret the experience in the manner interpreted. Ergo, religious experiences—experiences interpreted as having divine or spiritual significance—are de facto cognitively meaningful. That is, faith (as that by which people experience the world as providing an orientation to life as a whole) is no different from knowledge (as that by which people survive and interact in the physical and ethical facets of life).

The most significant implication of this theory of experience is that experiences are themselves religiously ambiguous. That is, they can be interpreted religiously or naturalistically with equal justification (incidentally, they are also ethically ambiguous by implication, although Hick does not defend this point). Indeed, one person could experience everything as having religious significance, while another person could experience those same events as being devoid of any religious significance. The ambiguity of experiences entails that the world can be exhaustively interpreted in either way. Furthermore, because that signification originates from the experiencer, there can be no external imperative interpreting a given experience in a particular way. Thus, just as it becomes impossible to disprove the cognitive meaningfulness of religious experiences, it likewise becomes impossible to prove them as well. This implications has serious consequences for debate between the religious and the nonreligious; in truth, no argument can be made for either side. Rather, it must remain the possibility especially of the former to facilitate the possibility of religious experience in general such that all people can benefit from the appropriate orientation toward life in general that it alone can allegedly provide.

Central to everything Hick would accomplish from here on would be this understanding of religious experience as revelation: the recognition of the divine significance of what might otherwise appear to be merely historical events. Revelation as history entails that God’s presence can never be demonstrated, but only experienced by one who experiences with faith. Faith, therefore, can also never be demonstrably proven true, but nonetheless represents a form of experiential knowledge that is necessary equivalent to all other forms of experiential knowledge. While this move is primarily reflective of the philosophical atmosphere in which Hick was writing in the fifties, this initial concern of his (i.e., the defense of faith as a viable interpretation of experience) would nonetheless provide the foundation for an approach that would characterize all of his subsequent work in the philosophy of religion.

The Problem of Theodicy

The outworking of Hick’s theory of religious experience can be most immediately seen in his second book, Evil and the God of Love. This book picked up where the first left off, and thus secured Hick’s position as one of the foremost scholars in the philosophy of religion. Having established that experiences themselves are religiously ambiguous, Hick proceeds to ask why this should be the case. If religious experience—which is functionally synonymous with both faith and revelation for Hick—is a realistic possibility, then why is God so stingy with such experiences? Certainly an omnibenevolent and omnipotent God, such as that described by Christianity, would want and be able to ensure that all people could experience the transcendent in a way that properly frames their physical and ethical lives in general. In short, Hick asks why God so often withdraws into ambiguity when faith is precisely what people need. Thus Hick finds himself engrossed in the larger debate on theodicy.

Hick’s distinctive contribution to this debate is his proposition of an Irenean understanding of evil in place of the hitherto more prominent Augustinian understanding. The Augustinian view, first, suggests that human beings are completely fallen from grace and are now so trapped in sin that only God’s redemptive intervention can pull them out. For Hick, this assessment is extreme and unnecessary. The Irenean view, in contrast, posits that God created humanity in purposive incompleteness, subsequently placing humanity in an environment characterized by both good and evil, wherein each human would have to chose between God and the alternative. God thus placed Godself in "epistemic distance" from humankind, so that humans would have the cognitive freedom to make an undetermined choice. Only with such distance from God could the choice be free, and therefore the present context is really only a test—a process of "soul-making"—rather than God’s ultimate neglect. Indeed, as we choose God, we human beings complete ourselves as the created image of God.

Despite this test, if remains true that evil nonetheless has significant reign in this world, such that no one—despite how holy—sees the world sufficiently through the eyes of faith. Certainly it is the case that some people do this better than others; however, it remains a fact that no one is completely open to the religious significance of this event. Therefore, given that God is both omnibenevolent and omnipotent, God must both want and be able to effect the salvation of all people. This can only be accomplished if people can in come way complete their "soul-making," and therefore Hick turns to eschatology. That is, he asserts that people must complete their soul-making in some form of an afterlife, an assertion which is later reinforced in his 1985 publication of Death and Eternal Life.

While this solution is vague, it does satisfy the logical requirements of an omnibenevolent and omniscient God who requires both distance and reunion with God’s people. It also overcomes the Christian tendency to limit salvation, which inevitably alienates it from the rest of the world’s religions. More significant for Hick’s approach, however, is that it develops an account of Christianity that is primarily oriented to the experiential encounter with the transcendent God Godself, rendering the necessity of Jesus Christ somewhat questionable. While the appropriate character and necessity of Christ are not explicitly questioned in this book, the stage is nonetheless set for a revision of Christianity that is reduced to the encounter with the transcendent God.

Uniqueness of Jesus as the Christ

As was mentioned above, a natural outworking of Hick’s theory of mediated experience is the notion that no experience can be demonstrated to more appropriate than any other experience. While this implication was noted to hold true in the dialogue between religious and non-religious interpretations of experience, it must be noted here that it holds true for interpretations of experience among religious groups as well. Thus, there can be no more special pleading for the exceptional truth of the dominant religion(s) in any culture, an implication that the radical diversity of the modern world is certain to ensure. Rather, Hick contends, religions ought instead to insist on the religious character of their experiences as such, affirming that very experience in contrast to those who have no such experience. In short, because religious propositions cannot be proven and only produce strife among the religions, each religion should focus on its religiousity per se rather than on the distinctiveness of its claims. Effectively, then, religions can cease their attempts to convert each other and focus instead on facilitating religious experience among the nonreligious.

The implications of this for Christianity are for Hick primarily reflected in Christology, an issue which receives substantial attention first in God and the Universe of Faiths (1973). Hick argued that the propositional truth-claims of traditional Christology—most significantly, insistence on the uniqueness of the revelation of Jesus Christ—are indefensible as such. Specifically, he argues that the "high" Christology established in the early Creeds is no longer feasible in the present age, and must be effectively "lowered." Such modification will facilitate not only a more authentic self-understanding of Christian experience, but also a greater harmony among the world’s religions (most notably Judaism and Islam). By according their understanding to Hick’s theory of experience, Christians will come to understand their truth-claims regarding Jesus as reflective not of propositions but rather of an interpretation of the events surrounding Jesus’ life as having religious significance.

Wesley Wildman’s analysis in Fidelity with Plausibility of Hick’s theory in this regard provides helpful ties to Hick’s theory as it has been elaborated above. Wildman suggests that there are two complimentary ways in which Hick approaches religious the significance of Jesus for Christianity. First, he questions whether Jesus, as an historical figure, is a "worthy referent" for religious experience. That is, Jesus must have sufficient historical experience to merit being the subject of a contemporary religious experience. Second, he determines to what degree a theological interpretation can be applied to the historical reconstruction of Jesus in the first part. He insists that many of the meanings applied to Christology can remain meaningful, but that their metaphysical form is often less than adequate. The result of this two-fold descrimination is what Wildman terms an inspirational Christology, one in which the historical events surround Jesus Christ inspire experiences of religious significance—i.e., they are revelatory—in the life of Christians. This approach is in direct contrast to asserting that any of the events surrounding Christ are true, unique, or exhaustive of religious experience. To the contrary, they affirm Christian experience without concomitantly denying the possibility of revelation surrounding other events.

What Hick has effectively prescribed for Christianity is a shift from Christocentrism to theocentrism. That is, he insists that it is the experiential engagement with the transcendent God—rather than propositional truths regarding the metaphysical accomplishments of Jesus Christ—that inspires Christians to interpret the world religiously. Such a shift, he believes, will allow the modern Christian to interact with those of other faiths while neither discarding an authentically Christian faith nor disparaging the faith of others. Such harmony is a high virtue for Hick in this advent of worldwide pluralism, and this last appropriation of Christianity appropriates it for inclusion in Hick’s ensuing perennial philosophy.

Religious Pluralism

Given Hick’s understanding of religious experience in conjunction with his modifications of Christianity regarding theodicy and Christology, it is not difficult to imagine how Hick founds his theory of religious pluralism. He terms this theory "a religious but not confessional interpretation of religion in its plurality of forms" (1989, 1). As a whole, it constitutes an hypothesis that attempts to incorporate the religious experiences of all religions. The unifying factor is, of course, religious experience as the interpretation of experiences as having divine significance. This unification is suggested in the subtitle of the book generally considered to be the most complete elucidation of his perennial philosophy, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (1989).

Among the implications of such a large-scale unification project are, first, the necessary modification of each religious tradition to various degrees. Such modification has already been seen with respect to Christology within Christianity, All such claims to propositional truths must be modified to reflect what Hick sees as their true character as religious experience. Second, these religions must be modified in their terminology so that they can refer, if only vaguely, to the same thing. Therefore, Hick acknowledges that he can no longer talk about God per se, and perhaps not even about the transcendent; rather, the term he finds most appropriate to describe the referent of the world’s religion is "the Real," which he believes does as much justice to Eastern religions as Western ones.

As mentioned above, Hick acknowledges that his interpretation of religion is only an hypothesis. That is, he is not under the impression that he can prove that religions all reference "the Real" as he suggests they do; rather, Hick feels compelled to offer what he asserts is a compelling account of what religions are about. That is, by examining all religions in a certain light, Hick draws near to the possibility of determining something of the character of religious experience in general. Thus, Hick’s own goal is commensurate with respect to this hypothesis is commensurate with his larger goal regarding religious pluralism: the affirmation and facilitation of religious experience as such, which in this case is enabled by greater knowledge regarding the experience in general.

Significance for Theology

John Hick is often cited as one of the most—if not simply the most—significant philosopher of religion in the twentieth century. His contribution to this field have been so substantial that they easily spill immense implications over into related fields. Clearly, Hick’s work has such implications for theology. Hick challenges theologians to transform Christianity to effectively address the modern world, which is now undoubtedly pluralistic. He both criticizes what he considers outmoded Christian in light of recent developments in religious epistemology, while simultaneously suggesting new possibilities for the enrichment of Christian experience as religious experience. While some of these suggestions are certainly open to debate, it is nonetheless certain that Hick, like Columbus, has discovered the "new world"—a new pluralistic world—which all future theology must take into account (although it is clear that, despite this recent discovery, the Indians—though this time the real Indians—have long since beaten us here as well).

Bibliography

Primary Works

Hick, John (1957). Faith and Knowledge: A Modern Introduction to the Problem of Religious Knowledge. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

-------- (1963). Philosophy of Religion (2nd ed. in 1973, 3rd ed. in 1983, 4th ed. in 1990). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

-------- (1966). Evil and the God of Love (2nd ed. in 1977). New York: Harper and Row.

-------- (1968). Christianity at the Centre. New York: Herder and Herder. Revised in 1977 as The Centre of Christianity (San Francisco: Harper and Row) and revised again in 1983 as The Second Christianity (London: SCM Press).

-------- (1971). Arguments for the Existence of God. New York: Herder and Herder.

-------- (1973). God and the Universe of Faiths: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

-------- (1976). Death and Eternal Life. New York: Harper and Row.

-------- (1980). God Has Many Names. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

Hick, John and Michael Goulder (1983). Why Believe in God? London: SCM Press.

Hick, John (1985). Problems of Religious Pluralism. New York: Macmillan Press.

-------- (1989). An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. New Haven: Yale University Press.

-------- (1989). Ghandi’s Significance for Today. London: Macmillan.

-------- (1990). A John Hick Reader, ed. Paul Badham. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International.

-------- (1993). Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

-------- (1993). The Metaphor of God Incarnate: Christology in a Pluralistic Age. Loiusville, KY: Westminster John Know Press.

-------- (1995). A Christian Theology of Religions: The Rainbow of Faiths. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know Press.

Secondary Works

D’Costa, Gavin. 1987. John Hick’s Theology of Religions: A Critical Evaluation. New York: University Press of America. Revision of thesis (Ph.D)—University of Cambridge, 1986.

D’Costa, Gavin. 1997. "John Hick," in The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theologians in the Twentieth Century, ed. David F. Ford, 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, pp. 268-72, 353, 628-9, 633.

Geivett, R. Douglas. 1993. Evil and the Evidence for God: The Challenge of John Hick’s Theology, afterward by John Hick. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

God, Truth and Reality: Essays in Honour of John Hick, ed. Arvind Sharma. 1993. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Jason, N. 1988. "Hick, John Harwood," in New Dictionary of Theology: A Concise Resource, eds. Sinclair B. Ferguson and David F. Wright. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, p. 299. This dictionary I have found to be, in fact, a problematic resource; it is factually unreliable, heavily biased, and--to my mind--an example of questionable scholarship in general.

Rose, Kenneth. 1996. Knowing the Real: John Hick on the Cognitivity of Religions and Religious Pluralism. Toronto Studies in Religion, vol. 20. New York: Peter Lang.

Stetson, Brad. 1994. Pluralism and Particularity in Religious Belief. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Streiker, Lowell D. 1967. "John Hick," in Modern Theologians: Christians and Jews, ed. Thomas E. Bird. New York: Association Press, pp. 152-168.

Wildman, Wesley J. 1998. Fidelity With Plausibility: Modest Christologies in the Twentieth Century. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 193-216.

John Hick: Mann's Quick Notes

Mark Mann, MWT II, 1996-1997

Religious Epistemology: religious empiricism

  1. He views humanity as naturally religious
  2. Religious experience is the ground for all claims about God
  3. Religious faith not a matter of believing religious propositions but it is the uncompelled interpretative element within religious experience
  4. Religious awareness, though having a unique referent, is structurally similar to all cognitive-experiential knowledge
  5. We cannot know the divine an sich; all experiencing is an experiencing-as that includes interpretation

Theodicy

  1. Augustine (and traditional theology): evil is a privation of the good having no ontological status
  2. Irenaeus: the image of God is the raw material that has the potential to develop into the likeness of God which (revealed in X) is the goal of the maturation process of life guided by the Holy Spirit; the Fall refers to our existence as imperfect and immature creatures; the world with its suffering and pains is the medium of this "soul-making" process, this continues even after death!
  3. Humans consist of body/soul/spirit (in East body/mind/atman)
  4. Although each religion has its own eschatological expectations, each declares that our final state lies beyond the powers of our imagination (No kidding!)

Christology

  1. Jesus is God in being so open and responsive to God that God was able to act through him and was thus incarnate in his life
  2. Incarnation merely a metaphor, not to be taken literally: Jesus did God’s will, Jesus was open and responsive to God, Jesus was a finite reflection of the divine love
  3. But the Real has manifested itself in a number of historical figures who have been exemplars of the perfect relation with the Real; this nullifies claims about Christ’s uniqueness, absoluteness and exclusivity

Pluralism

  1. He is perhaps the chief advocate of religious pluralism
  2. The Real or Transcendent is one but is pluriform in its manifestation as all things are known according to the mode of the knower: there is a distinction between noumenon and phenomenon; thus the Real is unknown to us except in its many manifestations
  3. The ultimate goal of all religions is personal transformation from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness

The information on this page is copyright 1994 onwards, Wesley Wildman (basic information here), unless otherwise noted. If you want to use ideas that you find here, please be careful to acknowledge this site as your source, and remember also to credit the original author of what you use, where that is applicable. If you want to use text or stories from these pages, please contact me at the feedback address for permission.