John Hick is known as one of the most influential philosophers of religion in contemporary times. David Cheetham has provided a stimulating and helpful introduction to the work of John Hick, and some of the standard criticisms against his views. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Hick’s career is his intellectual migration from Christian theism to his current views on religious pluralism. While this does represent a change in his beliefs, it is important to notice that the seeds for this change were present in his early approach to such issues as the problem of evil and the nature of faith. This Commentary column takes the opportunity provided by the publication of Cheetham’s book to look at how Kantian epistemology, and assumptions about how problems should be solved, affected Hick’s own theological commitments, and influenced the way he addressed philosophical questions. While the main purpose here is to draw attention to these assumptions, an alternative solution to religious diversity will be offered. Instead of assuming scepticism about the nature of God, historic Christianity has asserted that God’s nature is readily knowable through the creation (general revelation) (see, for example, the Westminster Confession, Chapter 1). Further, rather than assume that humans are seeking to know God as they should, historic Christianity has maintained that no one seeks, and that no one understands as they should (Rom. 3.10–11). Taken together, these offer an alternative to Hick’s position in which humans have rejected the clear general revelation of God, and stand in need of redemption. This addresses Hick’s concerns about religious diversity, and demonstrates that it is not
necessary to make the move, as Hick did, from Christian theism to
religious pluralism in order to successfully address such issues as religious diversity.
Hick began his career professing to be a theist, and addressed some of the standard question in the philosophy of religion, such as the relation of faith and knowledge, and the problem of evil. One of the interesting aspects in the study of Hick is the transformation he made from theism to his current view of pluralism. In one sense this is a significant change, yet the seeds for this change are found in his earlier views. Beginning with Kantian epistemology, Hick makes the standard distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal. All knowledge depends on our phenomenal experience, and so Hick gives religious experience an important epistemological role. Hick believes that when people are reporting religious experience they are reporting legitimate aspects of the phenomenal world. As Hick came into contact with nontheistic traditions it is no surprise that he extended this to their religious experience. His concern is that a person’s religious tradition largely depends on birthplace, and this hardly seems to have anything to do with truth. He thus makes the move to say that religious experiences are legitimate descriptions of the phenomenal world, and represent different phenomenal expressions of the same noumenal reality.
The second concern from Hick’s early years is the problem of evil. He comes to embrace a solution that sees evil as necessary for soul-making. Humans are originally in a kind of immature state, and it is through struggling with evil that maturity is reached. Because this does not seem to happen in this life, Hick postulates an afterlife where the maturing process will continue. Notice that in this solution Hick has abandoned the idea of sin and the requirement for atonement. It is therefore not a great shift to the claim that all religions provide a framework in which soul-making can take place. In this sense he has already abandoned the need for Christ as redeemer before he questions Christology and moves to pluralism.
These early interests, and the direction Hick’s answers take, help to explain his later views. Why does Hick approach these early questions the way he does? He seems to have intuitions about what the correct answer should include. For example, he is uncomfortable with the Augustinian theodicy because it takes Genesis 1–3 literally. Instead, Hick believes that a correct theodicy must take into account evolutionary cosmology. Hick relies on a similar method when approaching questions about the afterlife. While claiming that we cannot know, he follows his intuition that the afterlife is a continued series of lives toward the end of soul-making. But what if others do not share these same intuitions about the correct answer? Why should others accept this approach? There are enough philosophers who disagree with Kantian epistemology to prevent this from serving as an agreed on starting point. While Hick gives one story about the nature of reality,
it’s not clear why he expects others to accept it, especially others with different intuitions about what should be considered important in a solution. Cheetham says that the crucial issue for Hick ‘is not really one of logicality, but a matter of making reference to global religious diver sity’ (p. 152). This is the key factor in Hick’s method. If we place some concern (for instance, my intuitions about how things should be) above the concern for logical consistency, then what becomes of our theory? If we reject other theories because they are not consistent, it seems to follow that we should apply that same logical standard to our own theory.
As Hick encountered non-theistic religions, his concern became to explain how non-theists could apparently have the same kind of moral lives that theists have. If there are no differences in how theists and non-theists live, then in what sense are these views different? And further, it seems that a major factor in which religion a person adheres to is their birthplace. Yet this hardly seems to be a condition for believing in the true religion. These considerations, combined with Hick’s earlier approach to knowledge and the problem of evil, led him to assert that all religions are valid human reactions to the Real. The Real takes the place of the Kantian noumenal, and religions are the phenomenological experiences of humans. The same Real is behind these various experiences, just as the same noumenal ‘table’ is behind the various phenomenological experiences of the table.
While Hick is making an important statement of fact, namely that all religions have some belief about the Real, he continues on to say that all the various human beliefs about the Real are valid responses. Hick claims that ultimately the Real transcends the categories of personal and non-personal. The question is: are there any responses to the Real that are not valid? And if there are, what standard should be used to decide which are valid and which are not? While Hick claims to be making second-order statements about the Real, how can we know that these are true, and that the Real does not transcend such claims the way it does personhood? Aristotle said that ‘the most certain principle of all is that regarding which it is impossible to be mistaken. . . . It is, that the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect (Metaphysics, Book 4, Chapter 3, Section 15). If we use this principle, often called the law of non-contradiction, then what are we to make of Hick’s ‘Real’? While monistic religions say that all that exists is the Real, or eternal, theism says that God only is eternal. The claims ‘all is eternal’ and ‘only some is eternal’ are logical contradictions and so in a basic sense religions are making differing claims about the nature of the Real.
Consistent with his empirical approach to religion, Hick asserts that there will be verification of religious claims in the afterlife. However, if the Real is the noumenal, then there can never be any direct experience of the Real. There is always only the phenomenological experience of the noumenal. This means that there could continue to be different phenomenological responses to the noumenal in the afterlife. Perhaps there is a solution if we use Aristotle’s principle. It cannot be the case that ‘all is eternal’ and ‘only some is eternal’. This use of the law of non-contradiction goes in a very different direction than Hick’s enterprise.
Hick wrestles with important questions, and makes some important observations. What is needed is a way to offer a solution to the problem of diversity in religion without merely giving one’s own intuitions on what a correct answer should take into account. The following is meant to demonstrate how a solution can be given that is consistent with historic Christianity while making sense of religious diversity. Hick’s concern is the arbitrary nature in which some people are born into the ‘true’ religion, while a great portion of the world is born outside of the true religion. If this is the case, then it certainly is a problem. It would raise questions about the justice of God, and the need for atonement. However, what if everyone is born outside of the true religion? That is, what if everyone is born in a state of not wanting to know God? The Apostle Paul says ‘there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God’ (Rom. 3.10–11) and ‘for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3.23). This is a condition into which all are born, not only some. The need is for redemption from this state. But what is this state?
Hick’s concern is the situation where some people are born into a correct religion that has the ‘true’ scriptures. He sees that this would be unfair if some people are lost to falsehood merely because of birth. But instead, Christianity claims that all are born in the state of being lost. Lost from what? The Apostle Paul asserts that ‘since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse’ (Rom. 1.10). That is, all humans, born anywhere at any time, can know God. The knowledge of God is not through special revelation alone, but is available to all humans at all times through general revelation. This means birth plays no part. All humans are born with the ability to know God if they want to, and Paul says that no humans seek to know God as they should. It is in this sense that humans need redemption. Humans are lost in the sense that they have not understood the clear general revelation of God as they should. It is because of this that there is the need for atonement.
This accounts for religious diversity and the fact that not all claims about the Real are true. All humans have invented false views about the Real, and have misrepresented God. Yet at the same time God’s nature is clearly revealed in the creation (for instance, God only is eternal, everything else is created). This is to say that it is clear that God exists, so that there is no excuse for not knowing God. All false views of God are indefensible (for instance, to say of the creation – which is not eternal – that it is eternal). It seems that Hick begins with the assumption that truth about God is not clear. From there the problem of where a person is born becomes very significant. However, if he had begun, like the Apostle Paul, with the assumption that the truth about God is clear, then this problem dries up. Religious pluralism exists precisely because humans have not sought to know God as they should. Division within theism and Christianity exists precisely because of this same thing. This indicates the need for redemption and atonement.
Interestingly, Hick makes ‘redemption’ a very large part of his view of religions. He sees this as a common theme between the religions of the world. But from what are humans being redeemed? Different religions have different views of this. If humans need to be redeemed from failing to know God, then this means that they need to be redeemed from calling something besides God the Real. Yet Hick does not want to say that some claims about the Real are true, and others are not. If any of the diverse claims about the Real are true, then it appears difficult to see how a person can grow in knowledge of the Real. If growth means greater consistency, then this should be applied not only to systems, but also to basic claims about the Real. But then some claims, namely those that are not consistent, would not be true. In the context of the alternative solution offered above, this would mean that those views that claim something besides God is eternal are inconsistent, and therefore not true. Furthermore, the issue does not seem to be merely growth, but redemption. If justice requires that wrongdoing be paid for, then redemption requires atonement. If God is just, this seems to require atonement for sin. The failure to know God, as sin, is not just an immature state out of which a person can grow, but is a rejection of clear general revelation given to all humans by God.
While the above takes issue with Hick’s presuppositions and where they lead him, it is important to reaffirm that the problems Hick is dealing with are crucial. David Cheetham’s book offers a very helpful look at Hick’s philosophy and development, as well as the standard criticisms of Hick. However, most of these criticisms share similar pre suppositions with Hick, either epistemologically, or in terms of what is important in a solution to the problem of evil and religious diversity. The present column is meant to call into question Hick’s approach and solutions, and also to give an example of how the question of religious diversity might be solved in a way that is consistent with historic Christianity. Hick begins with skepticism about ultimate reality inherited from his Kantian epistemology. If instead we begin with the assertion that it is clear that God exists, we will arrive at very different conclusions. The clarity of God’s existence is consistent with the teachings of the Apostle Paul, and historic Christianity. One final question is to what extent does Christianity as it is presently instantiated declare the doctrine of the clarity of God’s existence, versus either scepticism or fideism? Insofar as these latter two are commonly held among Chris tians it should be no surprise that solutions about religious diversity will tend to go the way that Hick has gone. And yet if humans are held accountable for knowing God, then this knowledge must be readily available to them (vs. scepticism and fideism). It seems that only in this context can the need for atonement make sense. The doctrine of the clarity of God’s existence is important not only for Hick, but for Christianity itself.
Owen Anderson teaches philosophy, religious studies, and history at Arizona State University.