Philosophy of Religion
John Hick's pluralist hypothesis: An introduction
Information: This article gives a brief introduction to the history of John Hick's pluralist hypothesis, and his belief that each faith-tradition is to be understood as a different human responses to the same transcendent Reality. The central tenets of Hick's pluralist hypothesis were set out by him in: An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent and A Christian Theology of Religions: Critical Dialogues on Religious Pluralism. All quotes are taken from Hick's work, unless otherwise noted. A version of this article was originally published on the website www.faithnet.org.uk.
John Hick (b.1922) is an English philosopher of religion, who in his early years embraced a more evangelical (and fundamentalist) form of Christian belief; one that was firmly committed to the idea that Christianity was the true faith, and the Bible as God's sole revealed Word. However, during the course of his life he began to find great difficulty in trying to justify the belief that one faith-tradition was true, and that friends of his who were not-Christians would be going to hell for not subscribing to a belief in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, on the basis of his extensive reading of the scriptures of other faith traditions, he began to see that there was just as much 'good' (and 'bad') to be found in them, as there was in the Bible (and Christianity).
Reviewing his subsequent shift in thinking in God Has Many Names (1980) he writes: 'I have from almost as early as I can remember had a rather strong sense of the reality of God as the personal and loving lord of the universe'. The idea that God is both 'personal' and 'loving', were major influences in the development of his pluralist hypothesis.
Problems with religious exclusivity
In his book God and the Universe of Faiths (1974), Hick began to lay the foundations of what would become his pluralist hypothesis. His initial concern in this book was to explore what he felt was an inherent tension between the idea of a God of love, and the Evangelical Christian attitude towards non-Christians. Within Evangelicalism, the possibility of salvation has traditionally been centred on the belief that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ alone (the incarnate Son of God) has secured salvation for humanity, and that only a personal commitment and belief in this 'fact' would guarantee salvation. This has led to Christian exclusivism, expressed as 'outside Christianity there is no salvation' (aka 'outside the Church there can be no salvation').
However, Hick became concerned that if the Christian God is a God of love, yet Christian salvation is the only true salvation, then we have a dilemma:
'Can we then 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 in fact receive this salvation?'
Taking such a limited approach to the means by which people can be saved (i.e. through literally hearing about Jesus or becoming members of the Christian Church), meant that for Hick most of the world would have to be considered damned:
'It is the weight of this moral contradiction that has driven Christian thinkers in modern times to explore other ways of understanding the human religious situation'.
Accidents of birth
Hick began to argue that a person's religious beliefs were largely decided by where they were born, and that people cannot be held accountable for 'accidentally' being born in a non-Christian environment. For example, if a person is born in India into a Hindu family and leads a devout Hindu life, it seems odd that God should condemn them for this simply because they were not born in a Christian country, or a Christian family, or because a Christian missionary had failed to reach them and tell them about Jesus before they died. In fact, it is obviously going to be the case that a person born in India will most likely grow up with the belief that salvation is achieved through (and by) the many Hindu gods, just as much someone born in Saudi Arabia is most likely going to become a Muslim and follow the teachings of Islam.
Hick believes that one's view of salvation (and the subsequent means to attaining it), is greatly dependent on (and influenced by) where one has been born.
With this insight, Hick felt he had dealt Christian exclusivism a mortal blow:
'Can we be so entirely confident that to have been born in our particular part of the world carries with it the privilege of knowing the full religious truth?'
Orthopraxis, not orthodoxy!
From very early on in his work, Hick sought to challenge the idea that one needs to hear and respond to a specific message in order to be 'saved' (as Evangelicals believe). He also sought to move away from notions of orthodoxy (correct belief) towards orthopraxis (correct living); the latter being required if we want to begin to say, 'All salvation… is the work of God'. Hick also began to see the world's religions as culturally-conditioned contexts, within which people could grow as moral and spiritual beings, and challenged the idea that mission should be an attempt to convert, rather than to understand people. With this in mind, Hick believes that contact between members of other religions should only and always be positive and fruitful ('Not to displace but to deepen and enlarge their relationship with God').
With these early insights, Hick laid the foundations for a revolution to take place in his theology of religion:
'Our next question is this: do we regard the Christian way as the only way, so that salvation is not to be found outside it; or do we regard the other great religions of mankind as other ways of life and salvation?'
Re-interpreting religion (and religions)
With the publication of An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (1989), Hick introduced the most developed version of his religious pluralism (and the one he is most well-known for). Whereas in his earlier work he had tended to see religions as culturally determined landing-pads for God, now he presents religions as particular responses to God by the devotee. In other word's, he has shifted the emphasis from subject (God) to perceiver (humanity). The seeds for this were sown in his early work (as noted above). However Hick's also acknowledges his indebtedness to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), both of whom examined knowledge as something conditioned by our own (limited) way of seeing things (as).
In An Interpretation of Religion, Hick (following Kant) says that there is both the world in itself (noumenal), and the world as we understand and perceive it (phenomenal). We know this because people see things in the world differently, so we all cannot be seeing the world as it really is (otherwise there would be no disagreement). Each person's experience of the way the world is, is therefore an interpretation of it specific to that individual's point-of-view.
When Hick applies this insight to the matter of religious experience, he concludes that all religious experience is simply a particular experience of the divine by the devotee (what he also calls 'experiencing-as').
From this we can see how someone born in India is not only going to naturally be a Hindu, but also consider the Hindu-worldview normative (or normal) and all others wrong. For they simply have no way of seeing things any differently!
In An Interpretation of Religion, Hick radically revised his earlier concept of God, replacing this with the idea of an ineffable Real. In theistic traditions, God is encountered as a personal deity. Judaism, Islam and Christianity (for example) all have a personal God. But what of the non-personal realities, such as Brahman? How can a personal God also be experienced as non-personal? The concept of an ineffable Real alleviates this dilemma. Turning once again to Kant, Hick distinguishes between the Real as it is in itself ('Real an sich') and the Real as it is variously experienced and thought of by the different human communities.
'I want to explore the pluralistic hypothesis that the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real from within the major variant ways of being human; and that within each of them the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness is taking place.'
The idea that we experience the Real in different ways, and this is the reason why there are different faith traditions in the world, also releases an inherent tension in pluralist theologies. Religious diversity does not reveal contradictions, it is simply an expression of the varieties of human experience. In other words, just as there are different styles of art and music, so there are naturally going to be different 'styles' of faith.
People are different - they have been born in different places, have been born into different families, and have been raised in different ways - so we should not be surprised that just as they like and have developed different sorts of music and art, so they are naturally going to like and develop different expressions of religious faith, belief and practice too.
The fact that people are 'experiencing the Real' in different ways, also challenges the idea that only one faith-tradition is true (exclusivism). Furthermore, in saying that the Real is ineffable and unable to be experienced, understood or expressed by human understanding/language, means that Hick can say that the various faith-traditions are contexts for moral and spiritual betterment. This means that the 'truthfulness' of a faith-tradition is not so much to do with whether its beliefs are true, but what sort of believer they are producing!
In An Interpretation of Religion (and subsequent works), Hick seems to ground his pluralist hypothesis more in the idea of salvation as something which transforms people (rather than which saves their 'soul'):
'I suggest that these different conceptions of salvation are specifications of what, in a generic formula, is the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to a new orientation centred in the divine reality'.
Throughout all religions, Hick believes a common teaching can be found - known as the 'Golden Rule'. In the Christian tradition, this is expressed as 'Love your neighbour as you love yourself'. Hick believes the extent to which faith-traditions promote this attitude in its adherents, is the extent to which we can consider it to be an expression of 'true faith'. Now this might immediately imply a sense of moral exclusivity, except that when we compare each of the great world faiths to each other, they all seem to be equally as effective in promoting this attitudes in their devotees as each other:
'We have no good reason to believe that any one of the great religious traditions has shown itself to be more productive of love/compassion than another'.
Although members of a faith may want to suggest that they are morally superior than others (and as such they would be suggesting that they are members of the 'true faith'), any claim to moral superiority cannot be validated by religious history. In each of the great world faiths there has been both evil and good actions performed by its devotees. As Hick himself comments, 'I suggest today that the onus of proof or of argument is upon any who claim that their own tradition produces morally and spiritually better human beings than all the others'.
Initially Hick presented his pluralistic hypothesis as something to hold in tension the idea of a God of love, and a universal plan of salvation. However, in recent years his starting point has shifted to focus more on the idea that each of the religions of the world are various culturally conditioned human responses to what he calls the Real. Yet because the Real is ineffable, the various religions of the world are not there to pass on 'truths' concerning the Real, but to act as contexts in which human salvation (the shift from egocentricism to non-egocentricism) can take place. Although each religious tradition would distinguish itself from the others by seeing itself as superior to them (exclusivism), this claim cannot be validated when we see that religious history reveals no distinguishable difference between each of them, so as to suppose the moral superiority or salvific effectiveness of one above the others.
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