Monday, March 9, 2015

An Introduction to John Hick's Pluralist Hypothesis (Part 1)

John Hick (d.2012) was 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 was God's sole revealed Word. However, due to numerous positive encounters with members of other faith traditions, he began to find great difficulty holding onto the belief that one religion 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 conclude that there was just as much 'good' in them as there was in the Bible.

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 of God being both 'personal' and 'loving' were major influences in his development of a more open understanding of the relationship between faith traditions.

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 interest 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, and Christian salvation is the only true salvation, “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. literally by hearing about Jesus or becoming members of the Christian Church), means 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.” (John Hick)
Accidents of birth 

As far as Hick is concerned a person's religious beliefs are largely determined by where they are born, and as such people cannot be held accountable for 'accidentally' not being born into a Christian environment. Thus, it makes no sense to say that a person born in India into a Hindu family, subsequently leading a good life based on Hindu beliefs, should be condemned by God simply because they were not born in a Christian country, or a Christian family, or because a Christian missionary had failed to reach them in time to 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, and therefore will see no reason to convert to another faith tradition.

All this means Hick believes one's view of salvation (and the subsequent means of attaining it), is dependent on (and influenced by) where one has been born, and with this insight he 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?” (John Hick)
Orthopraxis, not orthodoxy

From very early on in his work Hick rejected the Evangelical belief that one needed to hear and respond to a specific message in order to be 'saved'. He also sought to move away from notions of orthodoxy (correct belief) to orthopraxis (correct living); the latter being required if we want to begin to say, “All salvation… is the work of God”. As such, Hick began to interpret the world's religions as culturally-conditioned contexts within which people could grow as moral and spiritual beings, and thus challenged the idea that mission should be about attempting to convert rather than learning from people. Instead, Hick believes 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 foundation 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?”

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