John Hick - philosopher of religion
An explanation, with quotes, of his philosophy, in An Interpretation of Religion
This is an introduction into the philosophy of John Hick a noted religious philosopher using quotes.
Philosophers of religion know John Hick's pluralistic hypothesis for it's daring solution to conflict between religions. The basic idea: religion is based on spiritual experiences - but even in the best of us those experiences are experienced through the lens of our conditionings.
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?
The Pluralistic Hypothesis
I understand the pluralistic hypothesis to be on the one hand a defense of the religious mind, and on the other a way of dealing with religious pluralism.
The main idea is that all religion is the cultural response to spiritual experience. The spiritual experiences of each of us, including people like Jesus and Buddha, is shaped by our cultural framework. At the same time those experiences are testimony of something divine which transcends our limited lives.
The effect of such an experience is to change our perception of life from self-centredness to what Hick calls 'Reality centred'.
Reality centred can be translated as compassionate, realistic, divinely inspired etc. All positive religious values can come into play here, partly dependent on the religious tradition the experience takes place in.
Or quoting John Hick himself:
'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.'
Perhaps the following quote is clearer:
'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'.
Going back to William James?
John Hick owes William James an enormous debt.
While he goes further in a theoretical sense than James does, as far as facts go, John Hick could have built his whole case on William James' Varieties of Religious Experience.
From a Christian perspective
John Hick is a Christian at heart, because that is the tradition he grew up in. While his books are careful attempts to unite the main world religions in one philosophical framework, many of his articles start from the specifically Christian framework.
He asks (and I quote from An Interpretation 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?'
'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?'
'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?'
'Can a world in which sadistic cruelty often has its way, in which selfish lovelessness is so rife, in which there are debilitating diseases, crippling accidents, bodily and metal decay, insanity, and all manner of natural disasters be regarded as the expression of infinite creative goodness? Certainly all this could never by itself lead anyone to believe in the existence of a limitlessly powerful God. And yet even in a world which contains these things innumerable men and women have believed and do believe in the reality of an infinite creative goodness, which they call God.'
From these questions he concludes:
'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'.
About religious experience
The 20th century is one in which religious experience has come to the fore again, partly because of the work of William James and in the realm of mysticism Evelyn Underhill.
Because of such work it has become impossible to deny that people all over the world have basically similar spiritual experiences. It has also become clear that such experiences are to a large extent determined by the cultural background of the person experiencing.
While Zen meditators claim that their training enables them to experience Satori (or enlightenment - The Real in John Hicks terminology) without the fetters of conditioning, John Hick feels that that very training ensures that conditioning IS present (p. 294, 'An Interpretation of Religion').
His main point is:
'Applying a kind of philosophical Golden Rule, it would be unreasonable not to grant to religious experience within other traditions what I affirm of it within my own tradition' (John Hick, "Who or What is God?" p.6)
Or in other words (quoting p. 295 of his 'An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent '):
These observable facts suggest that mystics within the different traditions do not float free from their cultural conditioning. They are still embodied minds, rooted in their time and place. They bring their Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Sikh sets of ideas and expectations with them on the mystical path and are guided by them towards the kind of experience that their tradition recognizes and leads them to expect.'
John Hick quote on compassion
'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'.
Background of John Hick
John Hick has gathered an impressive amount of doctorates. These include: from Oxford (D.Phil) and Edinburgh (D.Litt), honorary doctorates from Uppsala University and Glasgow University. He is also an emiritus professor several universities: Birmingham University UK and the Claremont Graduate University, California. He is still a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham UK, and Vice-President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion and of the World Congress of Faiths.
Long list, but where did he come from?
Born in 1922 in a middle class family, an uncle who worked at a university stimulated him to get into academia. John Hick started out studying Law, but after converting to evangelical Christianity he turned to a different university for study.
World War two intervened and saw John Hick becoming a Conscientious Objector. So he spent the war on an ambulance unit instead of fighting.
After the war John Hick turned to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, which formed the basis of his PhD in 1948.
Religious claims about TRUTH
The hardest pill to swallow in all this is that the specific truth claims in each religion don't matter much. They are but the culturally dependent filter through which we see Reality - because reality itself can't be seen.
Quoting John Hick himself:
'My conclusion, then, is that the differences between the root concepts and experiences of the different religions, their different and often conflicting historical and trans-historical beliefs, their incommensurable mythologies, and the diverse and ramifying belief systems into which all these are built, are compatible with the pluralistic hypothesis that the great world traditions constitute different conceptions and perceptions of, and responses to, the Real from within the different cultural ways of being human.'
(John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, p.375-76.)
More books by John Hick
- Philosophy of Religion
- On the concept of God, grounds for belief in God, ground for disbelief in God, the problem of evil, revelation and faith, problems of religious language, the conflicting falsifiability of religious assertions, the conflicting truth-claims of different religions, human destiny and more.
- John Hick: An Autobiography
- John Hick about himself - his youth, how he came to question orthodox Christianity, his various studies etc.
How did this influential philosopher come to take the position he is famous for?