The Value of Pluralism – Christian Reflections on John Hick 13 December 2015

John HickA Pew Research study published in May has shown that Christianity has a shrinking share of the population in the US. Moreover, a 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that there has been a slight increase in the number of people claiming to adhere to non-Christian religions. Furthermore, there is some reason to believe that the exclusive claims of Christianity are a turn off to some. So, for example, a 2012 article in Christianity Today reckons 3 out of 10 young people think Christianity is too exclusive in our multi-cultural world. Whether we like it or not the religious face of Western culture is changing, and the operative word is “pluralism.”

Those – particularly Christians – who wish to reflect on and make sense of this could do worse than to begin with the work of the late John Hick, a world-renowned philosopher of religion and highly influential pluralist thinker. Whilst I strongly disagree with him on several points, Hick is often challenging and always interesting. Hick is most famous for his work on religious pluralism, and what follows here is a very brief account and appraisal of it. For further details the reader should consult Hick’s “An Interpretation of Religion,” or for a more popular level treatment “The Fifth Dimension.”

Theorising Diversity

Hick’s pluralism was a long time in the making. He was particularly influenced by his multi-faith work in Birmingham, England, as he spent time in various mosques, synagogues, gurudwaras, and temples. It seemed to him that whilst all the externals were different, at a very deep level these religions were essentially the same: “men and women were coming together under the auspices of some ancient, highly developed tradition which enables them to open their minds and hearts upwards towards a higher divine reality which makes a claim on the living of their lives.” He quotes the Sufi poet Rumi approvingly: “The lamps are different but the light in the same: it comes from beyond.”

Hick’s pluralism flows from his interpretation of religious experience, which is essentially an application of a historically significant distinction classically drawn by Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, when it comes to sensory awareness we must distinguish between the “noumena” – the world as it is in itself – and the “phenomena” – the world as it is experienced by human observers. Kant’s central insight was that there is a reality beyond us, but that our awareness of it is, by necessity, determined by the form of human consciousness. We filter reality through our unique, though highly limited, cognitive apparatus.

Hick applied this distinction to God, or “The Real,” to use Hick’s preferred phrase. Hick therefore wants to distinguish between the transcendent divine reality – The Real as it is in itself and which from our point of view is “transcategorial” (or ineffable) – and the humanly constructed God figures (Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Shiva) or non-personal “Absolutes” (Nirvana, Brahman, The Tao) of the various world religions. Hick draws also on the Wittgensteinian idea of “seeing-as” as a clue to the nature of religious experience: noting how something can be experienced in one way by one person and in another way by someone else, as in the famous duck/rabbit picture. On Hick’s view all the world religions are literally false, but mythically true; in other words, they fail to describe this Ultimate Reality as it is in itself, but they are all valid or appropriate responses to it.

Religious experience, then, was central for Hick. He was particularly impressed by various saints, mystics and gurus, and how their various religious experiences greatly impacted them. This as much as anything else lead Hick – rightly in my view – to think that there is more to our existence than purely materialistic or naturalistic accounts of reality permit. His chief work, An Interpretation of Religion, is a sustained defense of the rationality of building one’s beliefs on religious experience as well as regular sensory experiences. Unlike many Christian apologists Hick did not consider the correct approach to be that of providing arguments directly for Ultimate Reality. Instead his focus is on providing an argument for the rationality of trusting religious experience as a mediated awareness of that reality, an argument which relies on the so-called “principle of credulity”: we are rational to assume that what appears to be the case is the case, unless we have good reason to think otherwise.

One of the strengths of Hick’s view is that much of the typical fire directed against religious experience is impotent when directed at Hick. For example, in his book “Believing Bullshit” Stephen Law argues that the vast differences between religious experiences and the beliefs they are said to support gives strong reason against treating such experiences as reliable or veridical. But such a critique does no damage to Hick’s pluralist hypothesis, which holds that differences in religious experience are simply culturally conditioned responses to The Real; or The Real as experienced through the various filters of cultural traditions and belief frameworks. Far from agreeing with Law, Hick claims that we best make sense of the phenomenon of diverse religious experience by postulating this Ultimate ineffable/transcategorial “Real” whose universal presence is humanly experienced in different ways. So, whilst the categories of thought which structure sensory experience are common to all humans, those categories which structure religious experience are shaped in such a way as they vary from one culture to another, thus giving rise to various religious experiences. Hick sums it up thus: “It follows that religious experience is not to be taken at face value as an experience of the Ultimate Reality as it is in itself but rather as an experience formed jointly by the universal presence of the Real and our own varying religious conceptualities and spiritual practices.”

Furthermore, Hick’s position seems to offer another non-naturalistic option for explaining why it is that people seem generally to select the God in whom they believe on the basis of the culture and traditions of the land of their birth. More conservative thinkers have offered their own responses to this, but for those not inclined to be persuaded by such answers, and yet who find themselves seeing the value in religious experience, and convinced of the rationality of trusting religious experience as a vehicle for mediating something of an “Ultimate Reality” or “fifth dimension of the universe,” Hick certainly provides food for thought.

Common Words

Another positive we can draw from the work of Hick is his emphasis that there is indeed much that is similar between the various world faiths. It is common, particularly amongst a certain breed of fundamentalist evangelicalism, to view other faiths with deep suspicion, and even in extreme cases as demonic. Hick’s work is a timely corrective to this way of thinking. Consider this prayer, written by the founder of Sikhism, Guru Nanak:

“There is but one God. He is all that is.
He is the creator of all things and He is all-pervasive.
He is without fear and without enmity.
He is timeless, unborn and self-existent.
He is the Enlightener.
And can be realised by grace of Himself alone.
He was in the beginning; He was in all ages.
The True One is, was, and shall forever be.”

If you prayed this prayer in a Christian church you’d almost certainly receive hearty “amens.”

I think Hick was also correct to chastise much of contemporary theology as “depressingly inward looking.” Part of the reason for this, observed Hick, is that too many theologians are interested solely in their own creeds, or, to use Hick’s charming phrase, they have their “heads stuck in the ecclesiastical sand”. Even today many university “Theology” degrees are really little more than Christianity degrees, with a general reluctance to grapple seriously with the fact that Christianity is only one of many great world faiths, or theologies. Hick regarded this attitude as a legacy of Christian arrogance and feelings of superiority, which sadly overflowed into historical horrors such as the Crusades and persecutions of the Jews. There is of course a growing awareness of the spiritual depths and power of other religious traditions – particularly non-Western ones – and it can only be a healthy thing that Christians are being forced to rethink their attitudes towards other faiths and recognise much of the good that is in them, even if these other faiths aren’t taken as salvific.

Between Pluralism and Exclusivism

Of course, Hick’s position – taken neat – is far from completely convincing and is vulnerable on a number of fronts. Interestingly, it was a Zen Buddhist friend of his – Masao Abe – who raised one crucial question. In describing his pluralist position, Hick had used the analogy of viewing the world through different coloured glasses – the pure light of reality shines upon us all but among those who are conscious of it some wear theistic glasses, others Zen glasses, and we each experience The Real accordingly. However, Masao rightly asked whether it might be the case that some pair of glasses gives a more accurate view of reality than others. In fact, I think a reasonable position between Hickian pluralism and the complete rejection of other religions lies somewhere in the neighbourhood here, and there seems to be an increasing number of theologians and Christian thinkers willing to view God at work, at least to some degree, in the insights of other religious traditions. Hick might claim that it cannot be the case that some are better than others since we are thinking of an ineffable or transcategorial Real.

However, here he faces another not insubstantial problem, raised by former Anglican Michael Goulder: what on earth is Hick talking about? If The Real is truly ineffable and transcategorial then aren’t we now talking of something so vague as to be of no use? Moreover, how are we to believe in such a thing? Is it even a “thing” in any meaningful sense? What content can be given to the concept of The Real that makes it possible to have beliefs about it at all? Further, Hick regards love and selflessness as those things which demonstrate that a person has experienced this Real. However, if The Real is transcategorial why think these particular attributes are more to be associated with The Real than, say, selfishness and hatred? In fact, why even suppose The Real is connected in a special way with religion at all, rather than, perhaps, war?

As one reads Hick it seems that he is primarily driven by the need to avoid saying “X is true but Y is false” because he thinks it smacks of arrogance. However, doesn’t Hick’s claim that all are literally false and that pluralism is true? Moreover, he doesn’t actually argue that no religion could be closer to the truth than another, and it can hardly be wrong or arrogant to think “X is true but Y is false” since this happens all the time in other areas of inquiry. Why should religion be any different.

Whilst these and other problems remain for Hickian pluralism I think Hick has certainly changed the face of inter-faith relations and thinking for the better. He has challenged Christians to rethink, at least to some degree, their view of the value of other religions; he has shown the importance of inter-faith engagement, which the world needs today more than ever; and his emphasis on religious experience is a welcome corrective to the dry traditionalism and straight-jacket rationalism that often (and, in my view, damagingly) dominates the discussion in the West. And good on Hick for all that.


About Stephen Graham

Stephen J. Graham graduated in theology and philosophy from Queen's University Belfast. He is a freelance writer with a special interest in philosophy of religion and Christian apologetics.

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