Hick On the Nature of the Real

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.

3 Responses to Hick On the Nature of the Real

  1. Clint says:


    Very intriguing post. What source did you use for your information on Mavrodes? In my limited knowledge of John Hick I would imagine he would be committed to, or at least would want to say that the manifestations must be subjective, that is, there does not exist INDEPENDENT manifestations in any metaphysically objective sense.
    Hick often employs the Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. Maybe you are familiar with it. There exists a king who brings in a few blind men and tells them to feel an elephant (they don’t know it is an elephant) and tell him what they think they are touching. One man feels the leg and describes it to be a massive pillar. Another feels the tusk and comes to the conclusion that it is a ploughshare while another feeling the tail understands it to be a brush. There is more to the parable than this but the point is that each has a limited perspective on the same ultimate reality. So while each is having a subjective experience, their independent experience does not exhaust the whole of reality.
    In order not to create a straw man it must be said that Hick knows that the parable doesn’t work for him. He wants us to imagine that we are each touching the very same part and interpreting it differently. How is it that we each experience the same reality and yet interpret it differently? Hick will answer that “God is ineffable” or unknowable. Does he know this?

  2. Clint says:

    By the way, the reason the parable does not work for Hick is that he knows that we as exclusivists would admit that other religions have partial truth. We just feel as Christians that we have a more complete truth guided by historical evidence, philosophical harmony and of course the inner-testimony of the Holy Spirit.

  3. Xavier says:

    Clint, you are right. Hick only makes partial use of the “elephant analogy.” And like you said, what he wants is for us to imagine that we are each touching the very same part and interpreting it differently.
    By the way, I’m glad you asked for the Mavrodes source. Here it is:

    George I. Mavrodes, “Polytheism” in Thomas D. Senor, ed., The Rationality of Belief and the Plurality of Faith (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1995), 261-262.

    In this volume, Plantinga and van Inwagen also attack Hick’s views. Hick responds to all three in
    John Hick, “The Epistemological Challenge of Religious Pluralism” in Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 14 No. 3 July 1997, pp. 277-286.

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