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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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5 Comments

  1. If you are interested in some new ideas on religious pluralism and the Trinity, please check out my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, and give me your thoughts 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 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.

    After the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions, perhaps the most subtle expression and comprehensive symbol of the 3rd person of the Trinity is the Tao (see book cover); involving the harmonization of “yin and yang” (great opposing ideas indentified in positive and negative, or otherwise contrasting terms). In the Taoist icon of yin and yang, the s-shaped line separating the black and white spaces may be interpreted as the Unconditioned “Middle Path” between condition and conditioned opposites, while the circle that encompasses them both suggests their synthesis in the Spirit of the “Great Way” or Tao of All That Is.

    If the small black and white circles or “eyes” are taken to represent a nucleus of truth in both yin and yang, then the metaphysics of this symbolism fits nicely with the paradoxical mystery of the Christian Holy Ghost; who is neither the spirit of the one nor the spirit of the other, but the Glorified Spirit proceeding from both, taken altogether – as one entity – personally distinct from his co-equal, co-eternal and fully coordinate co-sponsors, who differentiate from him, as well as mingle and meld in him.

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

    Samuel Stuart Maynes

  2. Hello Samuel,

    Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm here on this post thread about John Hick’s pluralism. Did you get a chance to read my summary of Hick’s views?

    Since you asked for my thoughts about your position, here goes:

    The way you describe and summarize your position it sounds like you are attempting to subsume the truth claims of the world’s major religions under the rubric of Christianity, viewing the best of their insights as incomplete versions of truths only fulfilled most fully in Christianity or Christian theology. This is called fulfillment theology–theology that views the world’s major religions as possessing scattered incomplete truths that are fulfilled finally and fully in Christianity. When one’s own religion is viewed as the final and most complete fulfillment of all religious truths found in other religions, this is called one-way-fulfillment theology.

    As I mentioned in my paper on John Hick referenced in this post, Paul Hedges makes the case that one-way fulfillment theology is patronizing, and proposes an alternative view he calls “mutual fulfillment.” See Hedges, Controversies in Interreligious Dialogue and the Theology of Religions (London, UK: SCM Press, 2010) 26, 243-52. For his more extensive treatment on the whole topic of fulfillment theology, see his book Preparation and Fulfillment: A History and Study of Fulfillment Theology in Modern British Thought (New York: NY: Peter Lang, 2002).

    What made John Hick’s pluralism so different was that he attempted a non-confessional and philosophical meta-interpretation of world religions that did not attempt to construe all other religious traditions in terms of his own Christian theology.

    Your thoughts?

    Bradley

  3. Bradley, thanks for your thoughtful comments. My Trinity Absolute concept is such an expanded and abstract version of the Holy Trinity, that orthodox Christians sometimes see it as a radical redefinition of dogma merely for the sake of pandering to numerous inferior religions. So, I am caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand I’m accused of Christian heresy, and on the other, of “one-way-fulfillment” theology patronizing other religions.

    Yes, I read your summary of “Hick’s Pluralist Hypothesis.” You quote Hick as saying that God (the ineffable ultimate reality) is unlimited and therefore may not be equated “without remainder” with anything that can be humanly experienced and defined. Of course, the unlimited or “Unconditioned Spirit of All That Is and is not,” as I call the third persona, always escapes our full understanding; but the scriptural idea that humans are made in the image of God implies the common sense notion that human religions probably reflect the threefold psychology of One God in Trinity expression. On the face of it, maybe God is telling us something about his multi-dimensional self, through the diversity of major religions, which can be seen to fall into three basic “attitudes to the Absolute.”

    Yes, orthodox Christians may have to adjust their thinking a bit in order to get up to speed, but I’m not making this stuff up. Clearly, God has manifested himself through several historic messengers. The diversity of world religions may very well be rooted in the diversity of the divine life itself. Thus, a deeper understanding of the Trinity might include a synthesis of all that God has revealed of himself, as contained in the wisdom of all the world’s major religions.

    If you read the Preview on my website at http://www.religiouspluralism.ca, you will see that I am merely expanding on what is already inherent (but sometimes obscured or hidden) in the orthodox concept of the Trinity. Despite apparent differences, the underlying similarities among religions suggest the possibility that they may all be merely different facets of the same multi-dimensional reality. It is only common sense that the Trinity would reveal itself in three basic religious attitudes to the Absolute. Indeed, when we examine world religions, we see in the personalities they portray and the language they use, a reflection of one or other (or some combination) of the three divine psychological personae.

    My thesis is that as the world becomes more and more religiously and culturally diverse, we will have no choice but to practice pluralism in order to avoid a “clash of civilizations” over what amounts to a possibly preventable and ultimately correctable misunderstanding. To quote from my Homepage, I maintain that:

    “As religious communities and as growing nations, our futures are inextricably linked, being joined at the hip so to speak. We must develop a truly multi-cultural, multi-religious society in order to get along. Religious variety would be a wonderful source of cultural stimulus, if religious beliefs could be placed in some sort of comprehensive context which recognizes the differences, but integrates their best attitudes in one inclusive framework. Diversity can be healthy and something to be celebrated. Pluralism also has the virtue of being a universal moral worldview.

    Mere toleration is too fragile a foundation for a world of religious differences in close proximity. It does nothing to unite people, and leaves in place the stereotypes and fears that underlie old patterns of division and violence. In the world in which we live today, our elitism and ignorance of one another will be increasingly costly. If the interactions of society are to be at all a rational process, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of religious groups in the oneness of the community, without hindering the maintenance by each group of its own identity.

    There must be some form of creative pluralism or constructive interpretation that will allow all groups to agree to a “minimal consensus” of shared beliefs in a systematic unity. And there must be some metaphysical systematic unity, because ultimately all truth (including science) must be part of the explanation of One God.

    Recently, a number of theologians have suggested that the Trinity may provide the key to an inclusive theology of religions, and a new understanding of religious diversity. An expanded abstract version of the Trinity can function as a metaphysical “architectonic principle” to unlock the providential purpose and meaning of religious variety, in the portrayal of the multi-dimensional nature of God.

    In the past, religious misunderstandings have caused immense grief, but civilization is rapidly approaching the point where the very survival of the world depends on overcoming anti-social religious conflicts, and the negative impacts of increasing population on the planet. The human race can no longer afford religious strife that divides people and disturbs urgent cooperation on mutual issues such as conservation and sharing of resources, combating climate change, stimulating healthy economic growth, etc.

    Peace in the world requires peace among religions. Religious pluralism is a necessary paradigm shift whose time has come. Absent any better idea, the Trinity Absolute concept of One God in three phases or personae is the only adequate metaphysical vehicle necessary and sufficient for a real form of religious pluralism that is more than just lukewarm toleration and talking past one another.”

    Samuel Stuart Maynes
    http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

  4. My Trinity Absolute concept is such an expanded and abstract version of the Holy Trinity, that orthodox Christians sometimes see it as a radical redefinition of dogma merely for the sake of pandering to numerous inferior religions. So, I am caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand I’m accused of Christian heresy, and on the other, of “one-way-fulfillment” theology patronizing other religions.

    I can understand your dilemma and it’s not surprising that you are accused of heresy. I think your position is problematic for conservative theology because you actually are redefining “the Trinity” to be inclusive and because your theology doesn’t seem to fit well the Jesus who in the Bible says “I’m the only way,” and appears to make going through him essential to salvation.

    The Broadening of Terms and Defining “Heresy” :: In order to be inclusive the way you are attempting requires a generic broadening of Christian terms that have acquired such specific historical meaning, and this raises the question of how one defines “heresy.” How do you understand your view as not being “heresy”? This requires careful thought, because if there is such a thing as “heresy” and “orthodoxy,” one must define them in such a way that they don’t become totally subjective. The meaning of “heresy” among conservatives is often virtually defined as “anything that goes against the teaching of scripture,” which inevitably is adopted so as to devolve into “any view that doesn’t agree with my own (or my own Christian denomination’s) interpretation of the Bible,” since the way people interpret the Bible has been the cause of the mass proliferation of Protestant denominations now for centuries each initially accusing the other of heresy (but in modern/postmodern times that has toned down quite a bit and often takes the milder form of simply accusing the other of misinterpreting or misunderstanding the Bible or its implications). So if we are going to escape total subjectivity in the meaning of the term “heresy,” the only alternative that I can think of is to define heresy historically. I have my reasons for thinking that even defining heresy this way is actually problematic as well, but I wanted to get your thoughts on this before I tell you what I think.

    Exclusivist Passages and Dynamics in Scripture :: The other problem (in addition to the historical problem of the meaning of Christian terms and what constitutes “heresy”), your views also seem to rub pretty hard against certain biblical passages that would then require an unseemly explanation, as well as the preaching of the Apostles that seemed to condemn those who didn’t believe in Jesus and require explicit faith in him to receive “the Spirit,” etc. Let’s call these passages the “exclusivist proof texts.” You can find them in the Old Testament and the New, and they are many. I’m curious how you would salvage so much of what is considered “biblical revelation” once you’ve broadened the meaning of “the Trinity” in the way you have. I’m sure that’s a question you’ve thought about, and I would love to hear your thoughts. I know people like Stanley Grenz and Clark Pinnock in the evangelical camp have already fought this battle with theological conservatives who still take the Bible seriously, and it would appear they have lost that battle given the status of popular Christian theology today which is more-or-less exclusive or just barely inclusive. In Eastern Orthodoxy exclusivism seems to be the norm. In Catholicism, however, Vatican II has opened a new door (see my post here). Catholics are bound to the Church’s official interpretation of the Bible, which makes the theology of Vatican II hopeful for those interested in a highly inclusive or even pluralist theology. But I would like to hear how you reconcile the exclusivist proof texts.

    There are other points to discuss, but I think this will be the best place to begin given your disposition to favor the Christian revelation in your theology of religions.

    Pax,

    Bradley

  5. Bradley, I must say your feedback is immensely helpful, but I don’t think Jesus said, “I am the ‘ONLY’ way” (see John 14:6). On page 11 of my Preview, I argue that:

    “The Bible says that there is no way to the Father, except through the Son, and implies that Jesus Christ will be the Supreme Judge of all human beings on ‘Judgment Day.’ However, it would only be fair if Christ shares that judgment seat with Muhammad or the Mahdi in the case of Muslims, Indra or Krishna for Hindus, Gautama or Maitreya for Buddhists, Lao-Tzu for Taoists, and so forth. Some just recognition is required.

    Christians believe that a spark of the divine spirit of God indwells all humankind, and this is essentially the same spirit that is in the Father, in the Son, and glorified in the Holy Spirit of Father and Son. The Qur’an agrees that “the spirit of Allah is closer to you than your jugular vein.” Hindus call it the “Purusha.” Buddhists refer to it as the “Unconditioned.” Neo-Confucians call it the “Tao.” Spirit is the glue that binds.”

    Please indicate some other “Exclusivist Passages and Dynamics in Scripture.” Perhaps I already have or can reduce the difficulties in some way. Maybe my views “rub hard against certain biblical passages” as you say, but if so, I would be grateful if you would show me where. In fact, I do believe in Jesus, and I’m trying to make the case that in a pluralistic framework, other religions can accept him also (e.g. Jesus is already honored in the Quran).

    Yes, I am broadening the concept of the Trinity to include Whitehead/Hartshorne “panentheism,” and Buddha’s idea of the “Unconditioned,” among other things. Leaving aside my expanded understanding of the mysterious Holy Ghost, for the moment; please give me your comments on my identification of Christ as representing the Supreme Being or Oversoul, as detailed on pages 8 & 10 of my Preview, i.e.:

    “In order to be internally and externally consistent, the case is made that the second person of the Trinity is the Supreme Being or Allsoul of all human souls, which has long been a Hindu belief, and used to be a major tenet of Roman stoicism and early Christian faith. Never entirely eclipsed, this emphasis on God as immanent has more recently been called Process Theology or Panentheism (all in God).”

    For Trinitarians, I would think the scriptural confirmation that humans are made in the image of God suggests the common sense notion that human religions probably reflect the threefold psychology of One God in Trinity expression. On the face of it, maybe God is telling us something about his multi-dimensional self, through the diversity of major religions, which can be seen to fall into three basic “attitudes to the Absolute,” as I have shown.

    I agree with you that “heresy” is an impossibly subjective term. I find that it is almost always used by bigots as a trump card to shut down the conversation when they run out of arguments. The best defense is to cite alternative authorities, which is what I am able to do with more or less success in many cases. However, any “new narrative of religious pluralism” is bound to attract this type of criticism from those who feel threatened.

    Samuel Stuart Maynes
    http://www.religiouspluralism.ca

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