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John Hick (1922-2012): John Hick’s Philosophical Advocacy for Religious Pluralism

**UPDATE: My research article has fluctuated from 3% to 6% in the top viewed trophies at Academia.edu.


Famous British theologian and philosopher John Hick passed away earlier this year (see Birmingham Post, see Francis X. Clooney’s respectful tribute in America Magazine, see Prosblogion’s Memoriam,).  At the time of his passing, I was coincidentally working on a research paper on his advocacy for religious pluralism.  Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with his controversial pluralist beliefs, he was one of the most important thinkers of the latter half of the 20th century.  Although his pluralist manifesto was An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2004), almost everything he published contributed in one way or another to advancing the pluralist hypothesis laid out most carefully in that book.

An Interpretation of Religion: John Hick's Magnum Opus or Manifesto

There are many available summaries of his case for pluralism found in either book-long critiques too polemical to be trusted or chapter-long engagements with too specific a focus to give a quality overview of his pluralist hypothesis.  Other summaries are too brief to be very useful as a scholarly introduction.  My contribution is intended to fill this need, and to help establish the proper impression about the full weight of his case for pluralism.

Rather than offer my own evaluation, I have chosen to write something that will be more useful both to exponents and critics of pluralism: to spell out Hick’s view in his own words and to summarize his responses to the most important criticisms of his position.  It is irresponsible for professional theologians and philosophers to criticize Hick’s views on pluralism without fully engaging the responses or counter-critiques he offered to similar criticisms while he was still alive.  As I point out in the research, a great number of critiques of his pluralist hypothesis failed to accurately capture the sophisticated nuances of his case.  The facile approach of building a straw man when his responses and clarifications were so well published should not be an option for any response that dignifies itself as a critical one.  It is my hope that this contribution will aid those aiming for a more credible engagement with the work of John Hick (1922-2012).

I have now created a link to my article on my PDF catalogue for those who want to read the treatment in its entirety, but this post only includes the introduction.

Hick’s Philosophical Advocacy for Pluralism

Introduction

Although British theologian and analytic philosopher John Hick has contributed to several theological and philosophical disciplines, his pluralist hypothesis has been his most enduring and provocative contribution to the discourses of Christian theology and analytic philosophy.[1]  His rigorous case for philosophical pluralism establishes him as one of the most important thinkers of the second half of the twentieth century.  He has arguably sustained what could be considered “the most compelling philosophical advocacy for religious pluralism ever written.”[2]  His work is already treated as the “classic of its type,” [3] and is a pioneering effort that has produced a mountain of response literature—polemical, critical and laudatory.  Few are the theologians and philosophers who have entire books dedicated to their writings; even fewer still while they remain alive.  Hick’s arguments for philosophical pluralism were so persuasive and provocative that many books were published in response entirely dedicated to further exploring the merits (or demerits) of his case during his lifetime.[4]  Although Hick saw himself as “only one of a number of theologians and philosophers who have independently developed a broadly pluralistic point of view,” the “sheer mass of literature that has already accumulated” around the issues he raises (not to mention the level of argumentative sophistication and wide reaching influence of his writings) testifies to his work’s role as the vanguard of “the rapidly developing pluralist perspective.”[5]  If nothing else, John Hick is the best-known pluralist proponent.

Hick’s pluralist hypothesis is both a modern and a religious outlook that establishes credibility by appropriating a wide range of philosophical and theological resources in a way that also fits the empirical phenomenology of religion and accommodates modern sensibilities.[6]  This paper will first offer a selective sketch of Hick’s position with special attention to clarifications he has made in light of his critics.  An equally selective overview of Hick’s critics will draw further attention to different ways Hick’s pluralism was misunderstood, but without failing to also notice several of the most important critiques of his position.  Our overview will end by underscoring what his pluralist hypothesis contributes to a theology of religions.

(Click Here for PDF version of full article: John Hick’s Philosophical Advocacy for Pluralism)


[1] For brief summaries of his views, see Paul Hedges, Controversies in Interreligious Dialogue and the Theology of Religions (London, UK: SCM Press, 2010), 113-114; Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to the Theology of Religions: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 282-293; Eugene Thomas Long, Twentieth-Century Western Philosophy of Religion 1900-2000, Handbook of Contemporary Philosophy of Religion series, vol. 1 (Norwell, Massachusetts: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000), 400-404.

[2] Yandall Woodfin’s blurb for John Hick’s magnum opus, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, 2nd ed. (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2004).

[3] Terrence W. Tilley’s blurb, ibid.

[4] Countless articles in academic journals and over fifty unpublished Ph.D. dissertations have been written on Hick’s work, but some examples of entire books dedicated to his work include Terry Richard Mathis, Against John Hick: An Examination of His Philosophy of Religion (Lanham: New York: London: University of America Press, 1985); Chester Gills, A Question of Final Belief: John Hick’s Pluralistic Theory of Salvation (London: Macmillan and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989);  Gregory H. Carruthers, The Uniqueness of Jesus Christ in the Theocentric Model of the Christian Theology of World Religions: An Elaboration and Evaluation of the Position of John Hick (New York and London: University Press of America, 1990);  Harold Hewitt, ed., Problems in the Philosophy of Religion: Critical Studies of the Work of John Hick (London: Macmillan and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991);  Arvind Sharma, ed., God, Truth, and Reality: Essays in Honour of John Hick (London: Macmillan and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993);  Chris Sinkinson, John Hick: Introduction and Assessment (Leicester: UCCF/RTSF, 1995);  Hiromasa Mase and Hisakazu Inagaki, eds., Explorations in Religious Pluralism: John Hick Studies (Tokyo: Teimeido, 1995); Christopher Sinkinson, The Universe of Faiths: A Critical Study of John Hick’s Religious Pluralism (Waynesboro, Georgia: Paternoster Press, 2001); Paul Rhodes Eddy, John Hick’s Pluralist Philosophy of World Religions (Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2002).

[5] John Hick, The Rainbow of Faiths: A Christian Theology of Religions (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster Knox Press, 1995), 149.  Eddy, John Hick’s Pluralist Philosophy of World Religions, xi. Indeed, some critics have made a name for themselves arguably by becoming Hick’s most outspoken critics.  Here I especially have in mind former student (and faithful friend) of John Hick, Gavin D’Costa.  That is not to say that D’Costa would not have become a recognized theologian in his own right, but starting off his career as Hick’s most outspoken critic certainly boosted his visibility in the growing literature surrounding the controversy.  Gavin D’Costa, John Hick’s Theology of Religions: A Critical Examination (New York and London: University Press of America, 1987); ed., Christian Uniqueness Reconsidered (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 1990); The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2000); Christianity and World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions (Malden, Massachusets: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009); ed., The Catholic Church and the World Religions: A Theological and Phenomenological Account (New York: T&T Clark, 2011).

[6] I do not mean by “modern sensibilities” mere political correctness.  “Modern sensibilities” here refers to the authoritative role given to science and the critical disciplines that methodologically preclude confessional commitments of a religious nature a priori as a means to make inquiries about truth more objective.

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