Traditionally, Christianity has supposed that its central claims are true and that where these claims conflict with those of other religions, the latter are to be seen as false. But in some parts of the globe nowadays, such a view is no longer seen as acceptable. Many would deride it as religious imperialism or arrogance (or worse). Others argue that it is somehow arbitrary or unjustified.
Some like John Hick opt for what is called religious pluralism. Religious pluralism argues (at least by its more sophisticated defenders) that no one religion can be considered as normative or superior to others, but that all the major religions are historico-culturally conditioned responses to the one ultimate reality. Hick is well known for his labors especially in philosophy of religion (for example his seminal work, An Interpretation of Religion was so pivotal in shaping the discussion on religions that he received the 1991 Grawemeyer Award for the most significant new thinking in religion). But how does Hick arrive at religious pluralism?
All the major religions, according to Hick, are in ‘contact’ with the same divine reality. But how can this be so when there is so much diversity among the great religious traditions? The answer, Hick argues, is that historical and cultural factors affect the way in which a given religious tradition perceive this transcendent Reality—that is, the differing conceptions of ultimate reality are historically and culturally conditioned responses to this ultimate Reality. Thus, “…we always perceive the transcendent through the lens of a particular religious culture with its distinctive set of concepts, myths, historical exemplars and devotional or meditational techniques. And it is this inexpugnable human contribution to religious awareness that accounts for the fascinating variations of religious thought, experience and practice…” (An Interpretation of Religion, 8).
Taking Immanuel Kant’s epistemological distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon, Hick affirms a distinction between the religious Ultimate an sich and the religious Ultimate as it is experienced. The former Hick will refer to as “the Real.” Kant had argued that in all perceiving, we never perceive a thing “in itself” but rather our mind is actively involved in shaping what it is that we perceive. It is this that Hick applies to his theory of religion. For Hick, the Real is never the direct object of experience. Rather, the Real is the “divine noumenon” that is experienced within the various religious traditions as the range of ‘divine phenomena. That is, the Real in itself is never what is perceived. What is perceived is its cultural and historical manifestations. These manifestations can be personal, like Yahweh, Allah, Krishna etc.; or impersonal, like Brahman, Nirvana, etc. Because the real is ineffable, we cannot posit anything about it that is common to its manifestations. That is, we cannot say of the Real that it is personal (as in theism) or that it is impersonal (as in monism); we cannot say that it is loving or benevolent or holy anything of that sort. No human concepts can be applied to the Real—it is wholly ineffable.
Hick suggests then, that this might be the the answer to the problem of conflicting truth claims among the various religions. He does not claim that “all religions teach the same thing”, that would be patently false. Rather, they have the same ground (he might say). Their conflicting truth claims can be attributed to cultural and historical factors.
But why is Hick motivated to postulate the existence of the Real? He will respond that the common effect that the various religious traditions have on mankind ‘testify’ to its existence. And what is this “common effect?” It is the “transformation from self-centredness to Reality-centredness.” Hick takes this transformation as salvation/liberation and understood this way, all the major religions have equal validity and all provide paths to salvation.
But how do we know when this transformation/salvation has taken place? Hick argues that we know transformation has taken place by the “spiritual and moral fruits found in the lives of exemplary believers within the respective traditions.” Those who have been thus transformed will exhibit love, compassion for all life along with joy, inner peace, strength, etc. So Hick pulls from the various religious traditions people of upright moral standings as examples: From Tibetan Buddhism, the Dhali Lama; from Christianity, Jesus; from Vedantic Hinduism, Shankara, and so on.
This is why then, Hick finds the traditional Christian claim to the uniqueness of Christ and the superiority of Christianity to other religions so repulsive. Indeed, he just finds it , arrogant. Instead, Hick insists, the various religions must “modify” their central claims to accommodate one another and to give an account for the Real. Thus in The Myth of God Incarnate, he siezes that most central of Christian teaching, the doctrine of the incarnation, offering a staggeringly reductionistic interpretation of it as an example of the sort of “modification” he has in mind. But alas, as brave as his atttempt might be, Hick’s extremely made-over Jesus leaves a lot to be desired.