Monday, March 9, 2015

An Introduction to John Hick's Pluralist Hypothesis (Part 2)

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 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 a transcendent Reality. In other words, 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 perceiving things (as).

In An Interpretation of Religion, Hick (following Kant) argues that there is the world in itself (noumenal), and the world as we understand and perceive it (phenomenal). Support for this view of things can be seen in the fact that people often see and perceive the same things 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 experience specific to that individual's point-of-view.

Applying this insight to the matter of religious experience, Hick concludes that all religious experience is simply an expression of a particular experience of a transcendent reality by the devotee (what he also calls 'experiencing-as'). Thus 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!

The Real

In An Interpretation of Religion, Hick radically revised his earlier concept of God, replacing this notion with the idea of an ineffable Real. In theistic traditions (E.g. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) God is encountered as a personal deity, but what of the non-personal encounters such as Brahman in the Hindu tradition? How can a personal God also be experienced as non-personal at the same time? 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 faith traditions:
“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.” (John Hick)
The idea that we experience the Real in different ways, and that this is the reason why there are different faith traditions in the world, releases an inherent tension in pluralist theologies. Religious diversity does not try to avoid contradictions. Diversity and difference are the natural results of the varieties of human experience of the Real. People are different. We have been born in different places, into different families, and have been raised in different ways to each other. We should not be surprised that just as we have developed different sorts of music and art, so we are naturally going to develop different expressions of faith, belief and practice.

Now the fact that people are 'experiencing the Real' in different ways also begins to challenge the idea that only one faith-tradition is true (exclusivism). Also, in saying that the Real is ineffable and unable to be experienced, or understood, or expressed by human understanding/language, means Hick can also argue for the various faith-traditions as contexts for moral and spiritual betterment. Overall, 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.

Re-interpreting salvation

In An Interpretation of Religion (and subsequent writings), Hick grounds his pluralist hypothesis in the idea of salvation as that which is a transformative thing:
“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.” (John Hick)
For example, the Golden Rule can be found in all religions, which in the Christian tradition is expressed as “Treat others as you want them to treat you” (Matthew 7:12). 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 a valid (and true) expression of faith. Now this might immediately imply a sense of moral exclusivity, for if one faith tradition is producing more ‘saints’ (or good people) than others then surely we should be seeking to win people over to that faith in order to make the world a better place. However, when we compare each of the great world faiths to each other they all seem to be equally as effective in promoting this attitude in their devotees:
“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.” (John Hick)
Although members of a faith may want to suggest that they are morally superior to 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 have been both good and evil actions performed by its devotees. As Hick himself notes: “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 which held in tension the idea of a God of love and was based on a universal plan of salvation. However, over the course of his research, this shifted to focus more on the idea that each of the religions of the world is a unique and culturally conditioned human response to what he calls the Real. Furthermore, because Hick argues for the Real’s ineffability, the various religions of the world are not there to pass on 'truths' concerning it but to simply act as contexts in which human salvation (the shift from egocentrism to non-egocentrism) 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 observe that religious history reveals no distinguishable difference between each of them, so as to suppose the moral superiority or salvific effectiveness of one of them above the others.

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