John Hick (1922-2012) was a theologian and philosopher of religion who promoted religious pluralism in the comparative study of religions. Hick is one thinker among many that attempted to make sense of the various religious traditions across the world and find a solution to conflicts among world religions. His view was to appreciate religious diversity and, in particular, to view all religions as being equally valid and based on the same divine, Ultimate Reality. Hick authored an important article called The New Map of the Universe of Faith published in his book God and the Universe of Faiths (1973) in which he explicates these views.
Hick defines religion as “an understanding of the universe, together with an appropriate way of living within it, which involves reference beyond the natural world to God or gods or to the Absolute or to a transcendent order or process.” He shows interest in the formation of religions in the “two cradles of civilization.” These being Mesopotamia in Persia and the Indus Valley in India, both of which are regions in which the “reverence for nature deities” and “spirit worship” were present before identifiable religions. From these two cradles of civilization a subsequent “golden age of religious creativity” emerged that Hick locates around 800 BCE and views as responsible for the development of the world’s religions,
“This consisted in a remarkable series of revelatory experiences occurring during the next five hundred years or so in different parts of the world, experiences which deepened and purified men’s conceptions of the ultimate, and which religious faith can only attribute to the pressure of the divine Spirit upon the human spirit” (1)
Indeed there emerged great religious creativity in various religious figures and movements. One could point to the early Jewish prophets, Zoroaster, Confucius, Lao Tzu, the Upanishads, the Buddha, the Bhagavad Gita, Pythagoras, and the Golden Age of Greek philosophy as examples. After roughly three or so centuries, Christianity followed and then seven centuries later Islam. Hick views these developments as follows,
“The suggestion that we must consider is that these were all moments of divine revelation. But let us ask, in order to test this thought, whether we should not expect God to make his revelation in a single mighty act, rather than to produce a number of different, and therefore presumably partial, revelations at different times and places? I think that in seeing the answer to this question we receive an important clue to the place of the religions of the world in the divine purpose. For when we remember the facts of history and geography we realize that in the period we are speaking of, between two and three thousand years ago, it was not possible for God to reveal himself through any human mediation to all mankind… If there was to be a revelation of the divine reality to mankind it had to be a pluriform revelation, a series of revealing experiences occurring independently within the different streams of human history” (2).
According to Hick, this same God or Ultimate Reality has made its nature known to peoples of various places across the world. God did so in a manner that was compatible with the patterns of social and cultural life that had already developed in those areas. Yet despite this common ground, the relationship between the various religions has not been without its issues and controversies. The major religions have often viewed themselves as being rivals, but Hick maintains that the “same divine reality has always been self-revealingly active towards mankind.” The differences that exist are due to the human response emerging from “different human circumstances”; Hick writes,
“These circumstances—ethnic, geographical, climatic, economic, sociological, historical—have produced the existing differentiations of human culture, and within each main cultural region the response to the divine has taken its own characteristic forms. In each case the post-primitive response has been initiated by some spiritually outstanding individual or succession of individuals, developing in the course of time into one of the great religio-cultural phenomena which we call the world religions” (3).
“Thus Islam embodies the main response of the Arabic peoples to the divine reality; Hinduism, the main (though not the only) response of the peoples of India; Buddhism, the main response of the peoples of South-East Asia and parts of northern Asia; Christianity, the main response of the European peoples, both within Europe itself and in their emigrations to the Americas and Australasia… [T]hese revelations took different forms related to the different mentalities of the peoples to whom they came, and developed within these different cultures into the vast and many-sided historical phenomena of the world religions” (4).
Hick does not believe that all concepts of God or of the transcendent are equally valid. Despite this, he does maintain that “every conception of the divine which has come out of a great revelatory religious experience and has been tested through a long tradition of worship… [is] likely to represent a genuine encounter with the divine reality.” The different accounts of encounters with divine reality are valid, but they are also incomplete as they cannot fully represent the “infinite nature of the ultimate reality.”
How does this inform Hick’s view of the many world religions? Their variety is indeed there but they have all come into contact with the Ultimate Reality. Their “differing experiences of that reality, interacting over the centuries with the different thought-forms of different cultures, have led to increasing differentiation and contrasting elaboration.” He also writes that,
“Not all religious men will think alike, or worship in the same way or experience the divine identically. On the contrary, so long as there is a rich variety of human cultures—and let us hope there will always be this—we should expect there to be correspondingly different forms of religious cult, ritual and organization, conceptualized in different theological doctrines. And so long as there is a wide spectrum of human psychological types—and again let us hope that there will always be this—we should expect there to be correspondingly different emphases…” (5)
Hick thinks that in the future the world religions will become less rivals and more mutual contributors to resisting secularization and finding the right relationship with the Ultimate Reality. According to Hick’s interpretation of Christian scripture, in the vision of the heavenly city “it is said that there is no temple—no christian church or chapel, no jewish synagogue, no hindu or buddhist temple, no muslim mosque, no sikh gurdwaras.”
Criticism of Hick
Hick has certainly not been without his critics. His views are indeed controversial and difficult to marry with religious orthodox, in particular conservative Christian, views and other worldviews, such as philosophical naturalism.
It is Hick’s pluralistic theology and view of comparative religions that have been most heavily criticized. Most Christian theologians will contend that it lacks biblical warrant to view Christianity as only one of many different yet equally valid conceptions of the Real or Ultimate Reality. Many Christian theologians argue that Christianity alone has the correct conception of God among the world religions and that the acceptance of God’s saving work through Jesus Christ is essential to one’s salvation. Only Christ’s death on the cross alone can pay the debt for human sins, which is not a payment that can be made by the acts or teachings of any other religion or religious figure. Jesus Christ himself made exclusive claims, such as claiming to be the only way to God (John 14:6), that only he knows the Father (Matt. 11:25-27), and that through his death and resurrection all saving authority over spiritual sin is his (Matt. 28:18-20). Exclusivism is also part of early Christian teaching; for example, Peter teaches that only through Jesus can salvation be attained (Acts 4:12), which is also echoed in the Apostle Paul (Romans 5:17-19) and in 1 Timothy 2:5. One would find similar arguments from Hindus, Muslims, and many others who view their religions as exclusively true. Muslims embrace the Shahada, which is the profession of faith that holds exclusively to the prophethood of Muhammad and the oneness of Allah. The is no other God than Allah and Muhammad is his final messenger.
It is on this point that critics will argue that rather than Hick’s viewpoint being tolerant and open to all religions, it is actually an exclusive position itself. In positing that behind the revelations of the world religions there is a single Ultimate Reality who provided the revelation is to affirm that the exclusive claims of the religions themselves are mistaken. In other words, if Hick is correct, then Jesus Christ was mistaken in proclaiming to be the only way to God. Equally, the central profession of the Islamic faith must also be erroneous. The critic argues that Hick’s viewpoint becomes just as exclusive as the exclusive religions themselves.
There have also been philosophical critiques of Hick’s views. Hick adopts the Kantian distinction between noumenon and phenomenon to explain the Real/Ultimate Reality. The Real is unknown and unknowable (the noumenon), but can be known to exist based on its multiple phenomenal appearances in various world religions (phenomenon). It is here that a major philosophical critique has bee posited; for example, if the Real is ineffable then how can Hick claim it to serve as the explanatory ground for religious experience? Moreover, if it is beyond the distinction between good and evil, why believe that it is the ground of moral development rather than moral degradation?
The value that many scholars see in Hick’s philosophy and theology is that he attempted to defend the rationality of religious practices. He also brought into the discussion the topic of religious diversity, especially in a time when the philosophy of religion was still dominated by Western theistic discussions. Contemporary discussions on the topics of religious language, religious epistemology, the problem of evil, Christology, and religious pluralism continue to be influenced by Hick’s thought.
- Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press. p. 318.
- Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 318.
- Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 319.
- Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 319.
- Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 320.
Cramer, David. n.d. John Hick (1922—2012). Available.