John Hick’s Religious World

John Hick is eminently readable. He is a theologian who wears his heart on his sleeve. He has no time for the kind of theology which uses traditional language without making clear whether such language is to be taken literally. Hick puts his cards on the table. There is no way he will entertain anything other than a thoroughly demythologized theology. Thus the pluralist theology of John Hick and the theology of conservative evangelicalism are poles apart. Nevertheless, the conservative evangelical may benefit from Hick’s frankness. We know exactly where we stand with Hick, who says what he means without worrying about whose sensitivities he is offending. The evangelical who is in dialogue with other less radical theologies than that of Hick has to spend time over questions of basic comprehension. With Hick, he can concentrate on responding to his theology without being sidetracked by the issue of correct interpretation. It is often said that in order to understand a theology, we need to understand something of the theologian’s development and progress. This is particularly true in the case of Hick. He began his theological development as a conservative evangelical. He has moved via theodicy to universalism, and then to a demythologized Christ. Commenting on his concern with theodicy, as reflected in his early book, Evil and the God of Love, Hick writes, ‘(I)n wrestling with the problem of evil I had concluded that any viable Christian theodicy must affirm the ultimate salvation of all God’s creatures.’

Taking this stance on universalism, Hick questions the viability of the view that the only way of salvation is the Christian way: ‘Can we accept the conclusion that the God of love who seeks to save all mankind has nevertheless ordained that men must be saved in such a way that only a small minority can receive this salvation? It is the weight of this moral contradiction which has driven Christian thinkers in modern times to explore other ways of understanding the human religious situation.’At the heart of Hick’s own exploration of other ways of understanding the human religious situation lies a demythologized Christ. This view of Christ, for which Hick was to gain both fame and notoriety through his book, The Myth of God Incarnate, may be summed up thus: The incarnation is ‘a mythic expression of the experience of salvation through Christ… (which) is not to be set in opposition to the myths of other faiths as if myths were literally true-or-false assertions’. This brief summary of Hick’s theological development raises the issue of whether or not he has begged some important questions. We might well ask such questions as these: Is it true that any viable Christian theology must affirm the universal salvation of all God’s creatures? Is it self-evident that there is a moral contradiction between God’s desire to save all mankind and the view that not all will receive salvation? How legitimate is it to write off biblical teaching about Jesus Christ as mythology which has nothing to do with literally true-or-false assertions?

Hick and the Contemporary Scene

The question now arises of the relationship between the problems Hick addresses and the theology he propounds. We have the impression of the problems creating the theology rather than the theology working with the problems. Is this not a case of the tail wagging the dog? Hick writes as though a modern theology must make drastic changes as it moves from one problem to another. We may well wonder if this does not undermine the divine origins of the gospel of Jesus Christ and its relevance for every generation. Hick makes much of the uniqueness of the contemporary situation. He writes as if the problems of pluralism were entirely unknown in earlier generations There may be some truth in Hick’s analysis of the modern world. We need however to look at the history of pluralism at a time before Hick came ‘to live in the multi-cultural, multi-coloured and multi-faith city of Birmingham.’

We can, in fact, go back into the world of the Old and New Testament Scriptures. In the Old Testament, there is a continuing conflict between God and the gods.The peoples of the Ancient Near East could accept and worship as many extra deities as their needs demanded. Within this pluralist context, the Old Testament proclaims God not as one among many but as the God who is incomparable ― the God in whose sight the ‘gods’ are nothing.In the New Testament, we find Paul preaching in Athens, a ‘city… full of idols’.When Paul preached Christ ‘perhaps… (the Athenians) were astonished that anyone would want to bring still more gods to Athens, god capital of the world! Athenians, after all must have needed something like the Yellow Pages just to keep tabs on the many deities already represented in their city!’From the Old and New Testament Scriptures, we discover that pluralism is nothing new. The people of God in biblical times could not avoid the fact of pluralism. They did not, however, succumb to its pressures. Hick’s reaction is very different. Pluralism for him is the norm to which the Christian message is expected to conform. A Christ-centred message is not congenial to modern pluralist society. So the Christian message must be adjusted in order that it can be fitted more readily into the contemporary outlook.

For Hick, the pluralist context has become the pretext for treating the biblical text lightly and for producing a theology which no longer accords the central place to Christ.

A Demythologized Christianity
Hick assumes that the only viable interpretation of Christianity will be a thoroughly demythologized one. ‘Christian theology has long recognised the presence and function of myth in the scriptures … and has long been concerned to couch the Christian message in ways that are intelligible to the demythologized modern mind.’

Although Hick may take demythologization for granted, we must point out the importance Scripture attaches to historical truth – for example, ‘If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.’Again Paul declares that Jesus Christ has been ‘designated Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead’.Hick, however, will not think of Christ in this way. Commenting on the direct connection between demythologizing and pluralism in Hick’s thought, James Cook writes: ‘For Hick the unique character and claim of traditional Christianity are obstacles in the way of attaining “a global religious vision” to which he feels Christians are being called … When proper deference has been paid to John Hick’s statement that The Myth of God Incarnate needed to be written because of the growing knowledge of Christian origins, one suspects that a motive at least as strong is the opinion that Christianity must surrender the uniqueness of the incarnation in order to make peace with other world religions.’In order to understand the significance of this ‘global religious vision’, we should appreciate how deeply committed Hick is to both demythologizing and pluralism. Hick is not one of those theologians whose definition of ‘myth’ is so ambiguous as to leave us wondering how seriously he takes the whole process of demythologizing. Here is how he defines myth: ‘A myth is a story which is told but which is not literally true or an idea or image which is applied to something or someone but which does not literally apply, but which invites a particular attitude in its hearers.’He proceeds to describe ‘the truth of a myth’ as ‘a kind of practical truth consisting in the appropriateness of the attitude it evokes’.By speaking of this ‘kind of practical truth’, Hick tries to look behind ‘the incarnational mythology to the religious experience which it expresses’. In this way, he seeks to discover a ‘quality of psychological absoluteness’ in the ‘incarnational mythology’. In other words, he emphasizes the believer’s personal testimony this is true for meas distinct from the authoritarian demand that Christianity be presented as an absolute truth for the adherents of other religions as well as for Christians. This view of practical truth is very different from that of the New Testament, which refuses to dissociate practical from historical truth. According to the apostle Paul, if Jesus was not raised from the dead, then all who believe and preach the Christian gospel are in error.Take away the historical truth of Jesus Christ, and we are left not with practical truth, but with an illusion. Hick relates the incarnational mythology to pluralism by suggesting that we have not properly understood the ‘Christian myth of incarnation if we take it to mean an exclusive claim for Christianity as the only way of salvation’.Hick’s pluralist theology makes a radical contrast with the views of Lesslie Newbigin, who distinguishes between cultural pluralism and religious pluralism. ‘Cultural pluralism I take to be the attitude which welcomes the variety of different cultures and lifestyles within one society and believes that this is an enrichment of human life … Religious pluralism, on the other hand, is the belief that the differences between the religions are not a matter of truth and falsehood, but of different perceptions of the one truth: that to speak of religious beliefs as true and false is inadmissible.’Hick would not allow such a distinction. According to Hick, ‘(I)t is not appropriate to speak of a religion as being true or false, any more than it is to speak of a civilisation as being true or false.’ In line with this, Hick describes religions as ‘distinguishable religio-cultural streams within man’s history, (which) are expressions of the diversities of human types and temperaments and thought forms’.In Hick’s view, cultural pluralism and religious pluralism are inseparable. From his radically pluralist perspective Hick writes, ‘I now no longer find it possible to proceed as a Christian theologian as though Christianity were the only religion in the world. Surely our thinking must be undertaken, in the “one world” of today and tomorrow, on a more open and global basis.’Hence Hick ‘seeks to develop a Christian theology of religions which takes the decisive step from… a … one’s-own-religion centred to … a God-centred view of the religious life of mankind’.This contrast is presented with a view to developing a ‘global religious vision’. This approach is open to question on two counts. First we must call in question the idea that a Christ-centred view is neither God-centred nor global in its vision. Christians are convinced that salvation has its origin in the God who so loved the world as to give his only Son.When we keep Christ at the centre of our theology, we honour God and his global concern for man’s salvation. Second, we must challenge the view of God contained in Hick’s ‘global religious vision’. According to Hick, ‘a revelation of the divine reality to mankind … had to be a pluriform revelation, a series of revealing experiences occurring independently within the different streams of human history’.What kind of ‘God’ does this suggest? Does Hick not leave us with a ‘God’ who can be conceived in whatever way we choose? To pursue Hick’s global religious vision is, in effect, to abandon the search for truth. Is that a price worth paying? If, in view of his radically pluralist theology, Hick is still to be regarded as, in any sense, a Christian theologian, it can be only in the sense that he belongs to a Christian religio-culture tradition. He was born and brought up in a society shaped by Christianity. Any attempt on Hick’s part to continue to speak of salvation must face the criticism that, ‘in this total relativism, we have no ground for speaking of salvation at all’. Hick’s discovery of a ‘quality of psychological absoluteness’ (that is, truth for me) would appear to be nothing more than sheer pragmatism. He does not wish to be burdened with a theological absolute, which must be imposed on adherents of all religions. Nevertheless, conscious of the need for an absolute, he clings to this notion of ‘psychological absoluteness’. Cut loose from the historical foundations of the Christian faith, Hick’s theology offers no alternative but a leap, which bypasses history and moves from a rather contentless ‘divine transcendent’ to ‘man’s religious awareness’. He stresses the importance of ‘the construction of theologies (in the plural) based upon the full range of man’s religious awareness’.The adequacy of this preoccupation with experience has been questioned by Newbigin ‘Anyone who is familiar with the religious literature of the world knows that the religious experiences of the biblical writers are not unique. There is a large amount of devotional literature in the worlds of Hinduism and Islam which can be used without incongruity by a Christian. What is unique about the Bible is the story which it tells, with its climax in the story of the incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection of the Son of God. If that story is true, then it is unique and also universal in its implications for all human history’.

However much we may value the religious experiences associated with the other religions, we, who take seriously the biblical story, must affirm that the way between the divine transcendent and man’s experience, the true and living way, is Jesus Christ. When the focus of attention is on man’s experience rather than Jesus Christ, theology becomes more of a description of pluralist society than a proclamation of the gospel. With Hick’s account of Christian beliefs, we find that theological affirmation is swallowed up by sociological observation. Emphasizing that ‘Christian beliefs consist in the beliefs of Christians’, he stresses the variety of beliefs held by Christians. It is this which, according to Hick, must be ‘the starting-point for our inquiry into the relationship between Christianity and the other religions of the world’. If Christians hold such a variety of beliefs, it follows that ‘the Christians of one age cannot legislate for the Christians of another age’. In effect, as a modern pluralist, Hick is trying to retain the name ‘Christian’, while dissociating himself from historic Christian beliefs. Hick’s demythologized, pluralist theology is presented as an authentic expression of Christianity. In taking his own version of Christianity as the starting-point for dialogue with other religions, Hick contemptuously dismisses those who would honour the Scriptures and stand by the faith once for all delivered to the saints ‘Christianity will we may hope outgrow its theological fundamentalism, its literal interpretation of the idea of incarnation, as it has largely outgrown its biblical fundamentalism.’Or again, ‘The doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity may turn out to be part of the intellectual construction which has to be left behind when the disciple of Jesus discards the cultural packaging in which Christianity has wrapped the gospel.’However confident Hick is about his version of Christianity the question remains whether, in fact, his view is a denial rather than an interpretation of the gospel. Once we have seen what Hick proposes to leave behind, we may wonder where he would take us from here. Hick writes, ‘the future influence of Jesus may well lie more outside the church than within it, as a “man of universal destiny” whose teaching and example will become common property of the world, entering variously into all its major religions and also secular traditions.’Without speculating about Hick’s view of the whole range of ideas and practices which are collectively described as the New Age Movement, we may note a general similarity between Hick’s theology and New Age teaching. If this Movement has been shown to depart radically from biblical theology, a similar criticism may be levelled at Hick. Does he not present us with a deviation from rather than a variation of Christianity? In stressing the importance of dialogue between the various world religions, Hick contrasts dialogue and confrontation. ‘The dialogue between these who accept and value religious diversity is quite different from the older kind of confrontation in which each group was concerned to establish the unique superiority of its own tradition.’While true dialogue must always be more than a monologue in which both sides speak at each other rather than to each other, we must not overemphasize the contrast between dialogue and confrontation. The Communist writer, Milan Machovec has made this point well. ‘We do not want half-baked believers in dialogue: we want to confront real Christians.’Authentic encounter is the way to fruitful dialogue. This is the approach which has been emphasized by Stephen Neill. He seeks to enter into the heart and spirit of other religious without disloyalty to his own. He asserts, ‘It is those who have the deepest and most confident faith themselves who have the courage to launch out on this adventure of the human spirit.’ He insists that ‘dialogue does not involve indifference to truth or the abandonment of all objective criteria of judgement’.A deep and confident faith is not the same as ‘self-assertion’ which ‘is always a sign of lack of inner confidence’. Neill maintains, ‘the Christian cannot compromise. Nevertheless, his approach to other forms of human faith must be marked by the deepest humility.’The contrast between Neill and Hick is striking. Neill writes, ‘There are certain basic convictions which must be maintained, if Christianity is to be recognisably Christian.’These convictions include ‘The Christian faith may learn much from other faiths: but it is universal in its claims: in the end Christ must be acknowledged as Lord of all.’In the light of this understanding of dialogue, representatives of other religions may not readily assume that Hick’s theology is an authentic expression of Christian faith.


Link to the full article with footnotes – John Hick’s Religious World 

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