H is for Hick

John Hick (1922-2012) was a philosopher of religion and theologian. Like many of us, he found that his views grew and changed over time, but he is probably best known for a perspective on religions which is often called pluralism. It’s closely related to the position which Quakers know as universalism. It’s core idea is that all religions are equal: that they have equal access to the Divine or the Real or that they all contain some truth if not the Truth.

(Common and reasonable responses at this point include: “well, obviously”, “equal access to the Divine and containing some truth about the Divine are not the same thing”, “hang about, are the Divine and the Real the same thing?” and “equal access? hah! there isn’t anything to access”.)

Hick himself chooses to talk about the Real to cover all the names used by the many religions of the world. He writes:

Can we really equate the personal Yahweh with the non-personal Brahman, Shiva with the Tao, the Holy Trinity with the Buddhist Trikāya, and all with one another?… Let us then both avoid particular names used within the particular traditions and yet use a term which is consonant with the faith of each of them – Ultimate Reality, or the Real. (Problems of Religious Pluralism, 1985, p39)

It isn’t always clear how much access he thinks we have to the Real – this is a place where Quaker  Universalists, who affirm the possibility of direct access through the practice of waiting, listening worship, might want to disagree with Hick or go further than he does, especially in the earlier academic writing. (Please season that remark about Quaker Universalists with your choice of caveats: for example, they’re a diverse group, they might not all express it that way, etc.)

What really interests me about Hick as a person, rather than a philosopher, is the way that his work is distinctly developed in dialogue with his life and the places he lived. The motivation for developing a pluralist approach to religions is not a dry claim that everyone is equal, although some of the stuff about there being the same number of saints in all religions can sound like that, but rather his experience of living and working in Birmingham, and especially of being involved in interfaith and anti-racist work there. In that context, the need for a philosophy of religion which accepts members of all religions and counters distrust and hatred is alive and obvious. It might not be done perfectly – there are a number of places where Hick’s work is incomplete and others are starting to extend it here and fill gaps there – but the motivation strikes me as one worth respecting.

If you want to know more about Hick, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides an introduction, and Hick’s own work is often academic but not dense or especially difficult to follow.

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