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.’
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.
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 me― as 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’.