Hick On Religious Pluralism

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.


6 Responses to Hick On Religious Pluralism

  1. Don Jr. says:

    I just stumbled upon your blog here. Interesting stuff. Bill Vallicella, over at Maverick Philosopher, has a chain of posts related to this topic. The last post in the chain specifically discusses Hick. (In case you weren’t aware, I thought it might be of interest to you.)

  2. Xavier says:

    Thanks don jr. I check out Bill’s blog every now and then myself, though I haven’t been there in a while. Thanks for the link. I’ve got another post or so on the topic so I will add a link to Vallicella’s comment. Feel free to stop by.

  3. Keith says:

    You’ve done a very perceptive job of summarizing Hick’s position, Xavier. Defending Christian particularism against such claims demands that we first understand the pluralist’s arguments. Our’s is, as William Craig has said, a politically incorrect salvation (It is especially interesting that Hick was a mentor to Craig for one of his doctorates). Though it treats the issue of particularism in a slightly broader way, this article by Craig is worth the read: http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/politically.html Nice Post

  4. Clint says:

    This is a very informative post! When thinking on this issue I find it helpful to look at the available options one might have when deliberating over what view to take. It seems to me that as an “exclusivist” I have but three options to consider:
    (1) I can maintain my beliefs (that is, beliefs leading to exclusivity).

    (2) I can suspend my belief (i.e. agnosticism)

    (3) I can deny my belief (which is what the Pluralist wants me to do).

    It seems though that none of these options can allow for the type of Pluralism that John Hick would endorse. If (3) is taken it will still be exclusivistic against those who still believe. If (2) is taken then we are still disagreeing, thus excluding, those who hold the belief in question and those who deny their beliefs. Finally, if (1) is taken, then we have maintained what we already believe and are still “arrogant” in the eyes of Pluralists. So is everyone exclusivistic? While it is possible that I have oversimplified many underlying issues, I find that this, at the very least, addresses a fatal flaw with the system of religious pluralism. I will end by saying that I find the concept of “God’s ineffibility” illogical. How does one even speak of or define this view?

  5. Keith says:

    Clint, thanks for your insightful thoughts. What if, as Hick desires, all those who share your exclusivistic beliefs are convinced by Hick and accept (3), or at least some version of it, thus conceding that Jesus is not the only way? You said “If (3) is taken it will still be exclusivistic against those who still believe.” But on this model, there are none who still believe exclusively. Thus, Hick gets what he wants and noone is prejudiced against.
    Now, having said all that, let me say this: I dont believe this is what you meant. I think I know what you are getting at, and I think I agree with you on it. But, would you mind fleshing it out a bit? Thanks again for your insightful thoughts.

  6. If you are interested in some radically new ideas on religious pluralism in relation to the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your advice on improving content and presentation.

    My thesis is that an abstract version of the Trinity could be Christianity’s answer to the world need for a framework of pluralistic theology.

    In a rational pluralistic worldview, major religions may be said to reflect the psychology of One God in three basic personalities, unified in spirit and universal in mind – analogous to the orthodox definition of the Trinity. In fact, there is much evidence that the psychologies of world religions reflect the unity of One God in an absolute Trinity.

    In a constructive worldview: east, west, and far-east religions present a threefold understanding of One God manifest primarily in Muslim and Hebrew intuition of the Deity Absolute, Christian and Krishnan Hindu conception of the Universal Absolute Supreme Being; and Shaivite Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist apprehension of the Destroyer (meaning also Consummator), Unconditioned Absolute, or Spirit of All That Is and is not. Together with their variations and combinations in other major religions, these religious ideas reflect and express our collective understanding of God, in an expanded concept of the Holy Trinity.

    The Trinity Absolute is portrayed in the logic of world religions, as follows:

    1. Muslims and Jews may be said to worship only the first person of the Trinity, i.e. the existential Deity Absolute Creator, known as Allah or Yhwh, Abba or Father (as Jesus called him), Brahma, and other names; represented by Gabriel (Executive Archangel), Muhammad and Moses (mighty messenger prophets), and others.

    2. Christians and Krishnan Hindus may be said to worship the first person through a second person, i.e. the experiential Universe or “Universal” Absolute Supreme Being (Allsoul or Supersoul), called Son/Christ or Vishnu/Krishna; represented by Michael (Supreme Archangel), Jesus (teacher and savior of souls), and others. The Allsoul is that gestalt of personal human consciousness, which we expect will be the “body of Christ” (Mahdi, Messiah, Kalki or Maitreya) in the second coming – personified in history by Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Buddha (9th incarnation of Vishnu), and others.

    3. Shaivite Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucian-Taoists seem to venerate the synthesis of the first and second persons in a third person or appearance, ie. the Destiny Consummator of ultimate reality – unqualified Nirvana consciousness – associative Tao of All That Is – the absonite* Unconditioned Absolute Spirit “Synthesis of Source and Synthesis,”** who/which is logically expected to be Allah/Abba/Brahma glorified in and by union with the Supreme Being – represented in religions by Gabriel, Michael, and other Archangels, Mahadevas, Spiritpersons, etc., who may be included within the mysterious Holy Ghost.

    Other strains of religion seem to be psychological variations on the third person, or possibly combinations and permutations of the members of the Trinity – all just different personality perspectives on the Same God. Taken together, the world’s major religions give us at least two insights into the first person of this thrice-personal One God, two perceptions of the second person, and at least three glimpses of the third.

    * The ever-mysterious Holy Ghost or Unconditioned Spirit is neither absolutely infinite, nor absolutely finite, but absonite; meaning neither existential nor experiential, but their ultimate consummation; neither fully ideal nor totally real, but a middle path and grand synthesis of the superconscious and the conscious, in consciousness of the unconscious.

    ** This conception is so strong because somewhat as the Absonite Spirit is a synthesis of the spirit of the Absolute and the spirit of the Supreme, so it would seem that the evolving Supreme Being may himself also be a synthesis or “gestalt” of humanity with itself, in an Almighty Universe Allperson or Supersoul. Thus ultimately, the Absonite is their Unconditioned Absolute Coordinate Identity – the Spirit Synthesis of Source and Synthesis – the metaphysical Destiny Consummator of All That Is.

    For more details, please see: http://www.relgiouspluralism.ca

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

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