Hick is the named pluralist theologian in the OCR Religious Studies A2 course. You need to know his teachings about religion and religious experience and 'the Real'. You must understand his use of Kant and be able to explain how he reinterprets Christianity by demythologising biblical teachings and re-evaluating the concept of the divinity of Christ. You will need to consider to what extent his global theology presents a workable solution to the problem of the relationship between different religions in a multi-cultural world.
John Hick was born in 1922. He studied law at Hull university and whilst there converted to evangelical Christianity after an intense religious experience that left him in 'emotional termoil'. Following this experience he changed the direction of his life and abandoned law for philosophical studies at Edinburgh University. The war interupted his studies and Hick, as a conscientious objector, served in tha abulance corps. When the war ended he completed his studies at Edinburgh and then went to Oxford as a postgraduate student. After completing his doctorate he went to Cambridge to train as a priest and in 1953 was was ordained and got married. He initially worked as a parish priest in Northumberland but soon moved to America to work first at Cornell Univeristy and then at Princeton Theological Seminary. Whilst there he was accused of heresy for refusing to accept the virgin birth. His theological ideas were becoming more and more liberal and he had already abandoned the evangelical Christianity that he initially attracted him. In 1963 Hick returned to England and went to teach at Cambridge. He spent three years there and wrote his influential book Evil and the God of Love before moving to Birmingham and taking on the post previously held by Ninian Smart (who had moved to Lancaster to found a Religious Studies faculty there).
His experiences in Birmingham were central in helping him to construct his pluralist theology. He became involved in multi-faith groups which gave him direct experience of non-Christian faiths. In his autobiography he wrote that although religious beliefs and styles of worship differed
'...at a deeper level it seemed evident to me that essentially the same thing was going on in all these different places of worship, namely 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” toward a higher divine reality which makes a claim on the living of their lives.'
Hick wrote many books during the course of his career and these reflect the gradual development of his pluralism. Initially his belief in a loving God led him to inclusivism on the basis that such a God would not condemn non-Christians to hell. He also began to question and reject many of the traditional Christian beliefs about Jesus. In 1973 he published God and the Universe of Faith which explored the idea that the world religions are all different interpretations of the same divine reality. 1977 he edited a book called The Myth of God Incarnate which challenged traditional interpretations of the incarnation.
He thinks that you cannot create sound arguments to disprove God's existence either!
One important question for religious people is the question of whether or not there is any evidence for God or any basis for religious belief. Throughout history people have tried to construct arguments for God. Arguments for God based upon reason and evidence are known as natural theology. Many philosophers - including Hick - think that it is impossible to create convincing rational arguments for God. The evidence can be interpreted in more than one way.
Note: this means that for Hick religious belief is founded on personal faith rather than universally accepted evidence. However, this does not mean he thinks faith should be entirely unwarrented. Hick expects faith to be based on personal religious experience. He says that we gain knowledge of God in the same way we gain other knowledge about the world, through what we experience ourselves.
If reason and general revelation cannot provide a sound basis for faith then what can? For Hick the answer is that religious experience is what gives people the reason to believe. People are religious because they experience the divine.
However, Hick recognises that the world is ambigous. Our everyday experiences can be interpreted in a religious way or in a non-religious way. What one person regards as a religious experience may not be viewed in that way by others. Furthermore, experiences can be interpreted through Christianity, but they could also be interpreted through Islam (or Buddhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Judaism, Sikhism etc). Faith is our interpretation of events.
Justifying religious belief on the basis of experience points Hick towards pluralism because it applies to all religions. All religions seem to be in the same position:
If no religion can prove their claims and if experience is what provides the grounds for belief then all religions must be treated with respect and taken seriously.
The similarity between religions challenges traditional Christian claims because if Christianity genuinely was the 'correct' religion then it should produce better people.
'If we take literally the traditional belief that in Christ we have an uniquely full revelation of God and an uniquely direct relationship with God...then surely this ought to produce some noticeable difference in our lives. Christians ought to be better human beings than those who lack these inestimable spiritual benefits. … So we are stuck on the horns of a dilemma. We either have to claim,against the evidence of our experience, that as members of the body of Christ Christians ingeneral are better human beings than non-Christians, or we are going to have to rethink those of our traditional doctrines that entail that.'
John Hick, 'The Next Step Beyond Dialogue' in The Myth of Religious Superiority: A Multifaith Exploration, ed. Paul Knitter
Hick believed that people have genuine experiences of spiritual things and the Real accounts for the diverse spiritual experiences of people in different faiths. He accepted that people may have very different spiritual experience (e.g. they may experience a monotheistic God, a pantheon of gods and goddesses or animistic nature spirits). Although these experiences are very different they still (according to Hick) came from the same thing. Hick explained that the differences in the ways that people experience 'the Real' are accounted for by the fact that people exist in different cultures and this shapes their experience.
'...given the various cultural ways of being human we can I think to some extent understand how it is that they constitute different "lenses" through which the divine Reality is differently perceived. For we know that all human awareness involves an indispensable contribution by the perceiver. The mind is active in perception, organising the impacts of the environment in ways made possible both by the inherent structure of consciousness and by the particular sets of concepts embeded in particular consiousneesses. These concepts are the organizing and reconitional capacities by which we interpret and give meaning to the data which come to us from outside. And this general epistemological pattern, according to which conscious experience arises out of the interprative activity of the mind, also applies to religious experience.'
We can explain what Hick means by use of an analogy.
When Hick says that cultural context is the 'lens' through which the divine is experienced he is alluding to the way a lens can bend the light or add a colour tint to the experience. Cultural differences account for the differences between the different experiences of the divine and explain why different religions teach different things about God.
Hick argues that religious experience is shaped by culture. This means that religious belief involves an element of projection. What people believe about God/gods/godesses/spirits is shaped by their own cultural values and needs. However, Hick denies Feuerbach's claim that religious belief is merely projection.
'...each of these divine personae...has inevitably been influenced by human imaginative construction....there is an element of human projection...But it does not follow that the divine personae are purely human projections.'
Consider: Are you more persuaded by Feuerbach or Hick? Do we need to assume that there is a divine reality if we can explain religious belief in entirely naturalist terms? Is Feuerbach too quick to dismiss the possibility of any genuine external cause of religious experience?
For Hick, human projection shapes (and sometimes distorts) the experience of the divine, but it does not cause the experience. The cause of the experience is the divine itself. Hick is a critical realist (as opposed to a non-realist). He does not go as far as Cupitt who challenges not just specific doctrines about God but the very existence of God.
Hick's pluralism is sometimes called 'transcendental pluralism' because it is built on the idea that the Real is beyond our experience of it and 'transcends' theological categories and descriptions.
To understand more fully Hick's teaching about religious experience we need to consider how he uses ideas and concepts drawn from Kant.
Immanuel Kant was an eighteenth century German philosopher. Several of Hick's ideas draw from Kantian concepts.
The reason why we cannot experience things in their pure form is because we cannot independently test the reliability of our sense. We only know how things seem to us. (This links to Cupitt's non-realist interpretation of God).
Kant distinguished between a 'thing in itself' and a 'thing as we experience it'. He called the former 'noumena' and the latter 'phenomena'. We have knowledge of the world through our senses. We experience 'phenomena' - the way things seem to us. We do not experience noumena - things in their pure form.
As Hick pointed out, there is actually a long tradition within religions of distinguising between God's action which we can experience and can therefore have knowledge of and his essential being which is inaccessible to us and remains unknown.
This distinction is used by Hick when he distinguishes between the noumena of the divine (which is its essence, the way it really and truly is independent of our sense) and the phenomena of the world religions which is the phenoma of the divine.
Hick said that distinguishing between noumena and phenoman enables us to make sense of the idea that all religions are talking about the same reality although they may do it in different ways.
'This distinction enables us to acknowledge both the unlimited trasncendent divine Reality and also a plurality of varying human concepts, images, and experiences of and responses to that reality'.
Kant's distinction between noumena and phenomena relates to his ideas about perception.
If we experienced things exactly as they really are then the phenomena would be identical with the noumena. The object as it seems to us would be exactly the same as the object as it really is.
The reason why this is not the case is that our minds affect how we experience things. We do not experience the world in a neutral way but through the lens of our own experience.
'Kant distinguishes between noumenon and phenomenon, or between a Ding an sich [the thing itself] and the thing as it appears to human consciousness…. In this strand of Kant's thought—not the only strand, but the one which I am seeking to press into service in the epistemology of religion—the noumenal world exists independently of our perception of it and the phenomenal world is that same world as it appears to our human consciousness…. I want to say that the noumenal Real is experienced and thought by different human mentalities, forming and formed by different religious traditions, as the range of gods and absolutes which the phenomenology of religion reports.'
As we saw when we studied Smart, theology has traditionally been done from a faith-based perspective which means that Christian theologians tend to study non-Christian religions by explicitly or implicitly comparing them to Christian beliefs and practices.
Very often they have viewed more favourably religions which are more similar to Christianity. Thus Judaism, being monotheistic and sharing a common history with Christianity, has often been regarded as being more true and more worthy of respect than a polytheistic religion like Hinduism. In other words, Christianity has been the standard by which all other religions have been measured and judged.
The term 'Copernican Revolution' alludes to the realisation that the sun and not the earth was the centre of the solar system. The old world view with the earth at the centre orbited by the planets, sun moon and stars was replaced by one in which the earth had no special status but was just one of the planets.
Even when those studying non-Christian religions have tried to avoid overt value judgements they have often subconsciously compared non-Christian beliefs and practices to Christian ones which can result in a misrepresentation of the traditions. For example, the Hindu Trimurti might be compared to the Trinity or the Sikh amrit ceremony to a Christian baptism.
Hick argues that theology needs to get away from a Christocentric approach to theology. We need, he says, a Copernican revolution in the study of religions. Just like the Cosmological Copernican revolution the theological one is driven by observations about the world which do not fit with the old Christocentric way of seeing things.
'Now it seems to many of us today that we need a Copernican revolution in our understanding of the religions. The traditional dogma has been that Christianity is the centre of the universe of faiths, with all the other religions seen as revolving at various removes around the revelation in Christ and being graded according to their nearness to or distance from it. But during the last hundred years or so we have been making new observations and have realised that there is a deep devotion to God, true sainthood, and deep spiritual life within these other religions...would it not be more realistic now to make the shift from Christianity at the centre to God at the centre?'
There are several reasons to support the claim that a Copernican revolution in theology is necessary.
Hick points out that many religions have distinguished between the action of God which we experience and can therefore have knowledge of God and the essence of God which is inaccessible to us. (I.e.what God does and what God is).
Apophatic theology begins with the belief that God is essentially unknowable. We can say what God is not, but we cannot definitively say what God is.
Cataphatic theology takes as its starting point the belief that God 'accommodates' himself to our understanding through things like the incarnation.
'Certainly, it is possible that one particular religious tradition is uniquely normative, and that I happen to have had the good fortune to be born into it...Yet the possibility must persistently recur to any intelligent person...that to assess the traditions of the world by the measure of one's own tradition may merely be to be behaving, predictably, in accordance with the conditioning of one's upbringing.'
Hick, 'On Grading Religions' in On Contemporary Classics in the Philosophy of Religion ed A. Loades & L.D. Rue
Hick suggests that to avoid excluding or marginalising polytheistic or non-theistic religions (i.e. Buddhism) we should avoid using the term 'God' when describing the the unknown truth that all religions orbit around. In his 1989 book An Interpretation of Religion he suggests that we use the term 'the Real' instead.
Fundamentalist claim that the Bible contains propositional truth. I.e. it contains propositions (factual statements) about God. Liberal Christians are more likely to look for non-propositional truth in the Bible. They would say that the Bible does not contain direct statements about God. Rather, it contains spiritual truths. Hick, like other liberals, seeks out the non-propositional religious truths in the Bible.
The idea of 'demythologising' goes back to the twentieth century New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann. He believed that the the gospels contain essential truths expressed through myths. He said that in order to rediscover these truths for a modern audience the gospel stories need to be 'demythologised'.
Hick agreed that the gospels contain myths. He believed that the Church can no longer expect people to take these myths literally because the myths reflect outdated world-views. Hick thinks that describing the stories as 'myths' does NOT mean that they have no value. Myths can contain spiritual or allegorical truth. He says
'In the Scriptures we speak about God in true myths, that is to say, descriptions which are not literally true but which nevertheless have the effect of evoking in us an appropriate dispositional response to the ultimate subject-matter of the myths.'
Hint: If you use a quotation, explain it. So in the above quotation you might elaborate on the idea of 'true myths'.
One of the Christian myths that Hick considers is the resurrection. In an article on the resurrection (found on Hick's website here) Hick explained that the discrepancies between the gospel accounts of the resurrection make it very unlikely that Jesus was bodily resurrected from the dead. Thus the resurrection is a myth. Hick concluded the article by exploring what the resurrection might mean when demythologised.
'So for me Easter is a joyful symbol of a central element of the gospel, God's gift of renewal, of ever new beginnings, of rebirth, of life transcending death... Easter is our Christian symbol of hope, of the ongoing fact of new life, of freedom from the grip of the past, of openness to the future, to new possibilities, ultimately openness to the Kingdom of God and an intimation of life beyond death.'
Hick The Resurrection of Jesus
Hick believes that the Bible contains nonpropositonal truth rather than propositional truth.
Hick (unlike Cupitt) was reasonably confident that some type of divine being exists and death is not the end so for him the resurrection could still contain the idea that life continues beyond death. The resurrection story is valuable, but realist interpretations of it (i.e. interpretations that say it really happened) make Christianity seem unbelievable and even ridiculous. How could Jesus appear in a locked room if he had been physically resurrected and had a material body? What sort of state would his body have been in if it had been in the tomb for several days? Why didn't the disciples recognise him if his earthly body had been raised?
Consider what type of truths you might discover in the following doctrines if you demythologised them
The resurrection is just one element of Jesus' story that Hick was keen to reinterpret. He believed that many of the traditional doctrines about Jesus (such as the incarnation, the doctrine of atonement, the Trinity and the virgin birth) are all mythological in character. He believed that by removing these mythological and (in his view) inaccessible and unbelievable doctrines about Jesus it is possible to rediscover who Jesus actually was and what he taught.
Many more traditional Christians would say that Hick's views undermine Christianity because he does not believe that Jesus was Son of God. However, Hick argued that his view of Jesus is a return to Jesus' actual message. He believed
'The historical Jesus of Nazareth did not teach or apparently believe that he was God, or God the Son, Second Person of a Holy Trinity, incarnate, or the son of God in a unique sense.'
High Christology: A term applied to theology that emphasises the divinity of Jesus. He is placed high up, with God.
Low Christology: refers to theology which presents Jesus as basically human as a prophet/teacher type figure.
Hick backs this up by arguing that
'Within Judaism 'son of God' was a very familiar metaphor. The messiah was a son of God in the Jewish sense of someone specially chosen by God for a particular role. Adam was the son of God (Lk. 3: 38), the angels were sons of God, the ancient kings of Judah were enthroned as son of God, 'Thou art my son, this day I have begotten thee' (Psalm 2:7; 2 Samuel 7: 14), Israel as a whole was God's son, indeed any outstandingly pious Jew could be called a son of God. So Jesus was a son of God in the metaphorical sense that was familiar to the Jews of his time, a sense that carried no implication of divinity.'
Lecture given in 2006 in Birmingham and reproduced under the title Believable Christianity on Hick's website here.
In other words, Hick believes that there are sound historical reasons for rejecting the idea of the Incarnation and also therefore the Trinity. Furthermore, he argued that the idea that an a person could be both finite mortal human and infinite eternal God is just incoherent. Therefore,
'...to say, without explanation, that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was also God is as devoid of meaning as to say that this circle drawn with a pencil on paper is also a square.'
Essay on Jesus and the World Religions
Just as Hick believed that demythologising the resurrection does not devalue it he also believed that demythologising the incarnation does not undermine Jesus.
'The idea of incarnation is a powerful metaphorical idea. It means to embody some ideal or conviction in one's life. We all know what is meant when someone says that, for example, Nelson Mandela, after the triumph of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, incarnated the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation. He embodied this in his life and actions. And the metaphor of divine incarnation, according to which Jesus embodied an overwhelming awareness of the goodness and love of God, is intelligible, believable, and morally challenging.'
Hick Believable Christianity
Hick believed that an interpretation of Jesus which recognises his humanity is more 'morally challenging' than traditional views. It is more morally challenging because if Jesus was human then we should (in theory) be able to live up to the moral standard that he presents.
'So what is left of the Jesus of the New Testament? That's the wrong question. It's not a matter of what is left, but of what is revealed when we remove the barriers of later church doctrines. What is revealed is the heart of Jesus' life and teaching: the challenging moral teaching summarised in the sermon on the mount, preaching an indiscriminate love for all, his unforgettable parables of the love of God, his powerful criticisms of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and his identifying with the poor and marginalized, those despised by the establishment, and his treatment of women, welcoming them as disciples, and his healing ministry. And although, as I pointed out a moment ago, he did not himself have a social gospel, because he believed that God was soon to intervene to establish the divine kingdom on earth, there is a social gospel implicit in his life. The Jesus of history then, I suggest, minus the impressive but today unbelievable theological structure that the church has built round him, is rightly our lord, guru, role model.'
Hick Believable Christianity
'In Jesus presence, we should have felt that we are in the presence of God - not in the sense that the man Jesus literally is God, but in the sense that he was so totally conscious of God that we could catch something of the spiritual consciousness by spiritual contagion.'
Hick 'Jesus and the World Religions' in The Myth of God Incarnate ed Hick 1997
Consider for yourself whether belief in the literal incarnation is a necessary condition of being Christian! A critic of Hick (and of pluralism generally) Harold Netland though it was not. He said that in Hick's theology Jesus becomes 'Simply one of many great religious leaders who have been used by God to provide salvation for humankind.' He has lost his uniqueness. Hick would presumably agree with this assessment but would think that challenging Jesus' unique status is a positive - rather than negative - step.
Hick's ideas can be described as an attempt to create a 'global theology' because he tries to provide a method of approaching theology which accounts for all religion and which enables creative inter-religious dialogue. Global theology can be contrasted with traditional 'Christian theology' which viewed non-Christian religions from a Christocentric view point. In his 1973 book God and the Universe of Faiths Hick gives guidelines for how Global Theology may progress.
'What is such a programme likely to involve? Clearly it must be the work of a mutlititude of minds and of several generattions. THere woudl seem to be two main tasks to be performed: first the critical sifting of the several accumulated religious traditions to reveal more clearly the forms of religious experience living within them; and secondly the construction off tehologies (in the plural) based upon the full range of man's religious awareness. Ideally, no doubte, the first of tehses taskes would be completed before the second is begun. But in fact they must both go on as best they can, some people working at one, some at the other.'
The reference to 'critical sifting' makes it clear that Hick does not believe that all elements of all religion come from the divine. He considers religion to have developed through 'a complex interaction between religious and non-religious factors' and he says that 'sinful distortion' plays a part in our images of the divine alongside human imagination. He is not saying that all religions are all true. Therefore a global theology needs to provide a way of sorting out what is true and valuable in religion from what is not. When he wrote God and the Universe of Faiths he said that within Christianity the process of sifting is already quite advanced as Christian theology has already tried to 'distinguish between the central message of the gospel and its expression in the now obsolete thought forms of earlier ages' whereas other religions (he gives Islam as an example) have not yet really begun to reevaluate their own traditions and beliefs.
To what extent it is possible to create a workable 'global theology' is something that you need to consider for yourself. It is clear from the above quotation that Hick expects the process to take a long time ('many generations'). It is not an easy task. However, Hick thinks that it is possible. He says
'What we are picturing here as a future possibility is not a single world religion, but a situation in which the different traditions no longer see themselves as each other as rival ideological communities. A single world religion is, I think, never likely, and not a consummation to be desired. For so long as there is a variety of human types there will be a variety of kinds of worship and a variety of theological emphases and approaches.'
Hick, God has many names, 1980
Hick believes a global theology is necessary because it is essential that religious people respect each other.
'Why does all this matter? We only have to look at the state of the world to see why. The Catholic theologian Hans Kung has said that there will never be peace between the nations until there is peace between the religions. And I would add that there will never be genuine peace between the religions until each comes to recognise the equal validity of the others. Let us all do in our time what we can to bring this about.'
Hick Believable Christianity
Hick said that he has been “attacked from different quarters as anti-Christian, as too narrowly Christian, as an atheist, a polytheist, a postmodernist, and as not postmodernist enough!”
More traditionally-minded Christians would challenge Hick's interpretation of Christianity. They might argue that he undermines the essence of the religion and reduces the Bible to a set of fictional stories with some nice morals. Many Christians regard believing in the incarnation to be a central tenant of Christianity (it is, afterall, affirmed in the creed 'we believe in one God, father almighty and in his Son, Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit...' etc.). Theologians like Barth who emphasised the centrality of Jesus as God's self-revelation would almost certainly consider Hick's depiction of a fully human Jesus as damaging to Christianity. Christians wanting to defend the traditional doctrines about Jesus might argue that;
Many Christians who believe in the incarnation also argue for realist interpretations of other Biblical ideas like the resurrection and the incarnation.
A different approach to evaluating Hick's theology is to question some of his initial assumptions. Does Christianity need demythologising? According to Hick it does because realist interpretations of the Bible put people off Christianity and make Christianity incompatible with other religions. However we could challenge this.
From the opposite end of the spectrum one could accuse Hick of not being liberal enough. Given that he accepts that our beliefs about God involve an element of projection and given that we have no independent knowledge of what 'the Real' is like perhaps we should reject belief in any type of divine reality.
Similar points could be made regarding the Bible. If the Bible contains errors, inconsitencies and morally dubious teachings then why not abandon it rather than 'demythologise' it? Arguably there is little to distinguish the Bible from any fictional allegories and thus no reason to continue to give it any authority. Richard Dawins (every theologians favourite athiest!) says
Even if we do try to demythologise the Bible and treat certain teachings as authoritative then we have given ourselves a difficult task. What criteria should we use? Who should do it? What is left at the end of it? How do we know whether or not we have preserved the essential message and aren't we in danger of allowing our own preferences to guide us so that we reject what we don't like and keep what we already believe?
The task of creating a global theology faces similar problem so that whilst it might be a nice idea in theory we could question whether or not it is workable.
To be fair to Hick he does recognise that the task will not be easy and his own books and concepts (such as the Copernican Revolution) are presented as possible steps in the right direction which could be superceeded if someone else created a better theological framework. However, we could still argue that he underestimates the difficulties.
Finally, there are philosophical challenges to Hick.
It is also worth sketching out criticisms of Hick which have been levelled at him but which are based on misunderstandings of his views.
Hick's official website can be found here. Many of the articles listed are about religious pluralism.
Internet encyclopedia page about Hick's ideas is found here.
Very detailed but accessible explanation and evaluation of Hick here.