A while back I had a post on John Hick’s religious pluralism. According to Hick, all the major religions are in ‘contact’ with the same divine reality. The differing religious traditions are simply mankinds 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.”
Taking Immanuel Kant’s epistemological distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon, Hick affirms a distinction between the Real in itself and the Real as it is percieved. 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.
But there is a certain ambiguity in Hick’s discussion of the Real and how it relates to its various manifestations (its personae and impersonae) that his reader will find quite frustrating, and serves (I think) to undermine his view. How exactly should we understand the nature of the Real and its manifestations? Could Hick be a polytheist, for instance? When George Mavrodes charged him with polytheism, Hick insisted that he was nothing of the sort. Upon reading Hick’s Interpretation of Religion Mavrodes had suggested that Hick believed the various manifestations of the Real had real objective existence so that Allah, Jehovah, Brahman, Nirvana, Krishna etc. all somehow existed in some metaphysical realm simultaneously. But Hick contended that this was not precisely what he meant and that he was “at one level a poly-something, though not precisely a poly-theist, and at another level a mono-something, though not precisely a mono-theist.” But what does that mean? Mavrodes points out that in Kant’s system the noumenon as well as the phenomenon have real existence. That is, for Kant, the “thing in itself” has real objective existence, and so is the thing as it is experienced or perceived. But Hick seems to want to have it both ways. For on the one hand, he wants to employ Kant’s epistemological distinction, but then he cannot accept the metaphysics that it implies.