Hick, John. An interpretation of religion: Human responses to the Transcendent. Palgrave Macmillan, 2nd rev. ed., 2004. 448 pages.
Reviewed by Mu-tien Chiou
An interpretation of religion is the culmination of John Hick‘s religious thought. This second edition of this classical work presents an almost identical text to the first edition, but with an expanded bibliography and a fresh 26 page introduction in which he notes fourteen lines of objections that have emerged since the publication of his first edition in 1989.
In the introduction Hick has made his goal clear: to offer an interpretation of religion which is neither reductionistic (reducing all religions to mere projections of human consciousness) nor strictly confessional (interpreting all religions from the perspective of one parochial faith). This project takes the form of a pluralistic hypothesis and reflects two main concerns: first to validate a religious worldview as a legitimate means of understanding a systematically intricate universe, and, second, to justify the ostensibly different often incompatible sets of beliefs in major world religions with a religiously pluralist perspective (13).
The first section of the book is devoted to grappling with the nature of religious experience in its historically diverse (archaic, theistic, mystical) forms. He argues that the great faiths of today (Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) are all concerned with essentially the same salvation plan—namely, the transformation of their believers from self-centeredness to « Reality-centeredness. » By this he defines them as « post-axial religion ».
In the second part, Hick argues that the universe is religiously ambiguous. To Hick none of the traditional logical arguments/proofs for the existence of God will stand, whereas evidence from naturalistic, experiential and moral arguments is inconclusive to deny the universe as having a supernatural origin. Therefore, a religious person and an atheist are both justified in holding to their private opinion as to the world’s true character.
In section three Hick introduces his famous epistemological scheme based on Kant’s analysis of difference between noumenon (the thing itself) and phenomenon (human perception). He carefully shows how meaning is obtained through human perceptive categories and how information is selectively interpreted. By this he tends to solve the fundamental issue concerning the rationality of religious belief. That is, when this scheme is applied to religious traditions, it warrants rationality on the part of those who have thus experienced to believe and live on this basis.
Part four entitled « Religious Pluralism » expounds Hick’s belief—a belief he deems necessary—that beyond the bewildering plurality of forms that in the world history of religion human has took to interpret life and universe there stands an utterly ineffable Real, which is the source and ground of all things yet is variously experienced from culture to culture and situation to situation. Given its cryptic language used and the daunting task Hick undertakes here, we shall later evaluate this book with a focus primarily on this section.
Part five presents Hick’s attempt to establish a possible criteria for adjudicating variant soteriologies and conflicting truth claims across world religions. He raises several various ethical questions and concludes that, despite their shared goals in human liberation/redemption, each of the post-axial traditions in their totalities is a unique mixture of good and evil as records the actual history.
Throughout the book, Professor Hick’s articulation of his influential philosophy of religious pluralism should be warmly commended. The main arguments are presented in well-organized written structure, in lucid terms and richly textured historical account, whereas for points beyond his ken readers can smell an open-minded flavor in his language.
However, this work has invited criticisms from all sides, among which the sharpest ones have been directed against the epistemological flaws in his version of religious pluralism. Much to his advocates’ chagrin, they are neither emended in the main text nor are amended by the fresh yet lean preface, and it is to the exposition/exposure of his crannied epistemology that we now turn.
According to religious pluralism, the profound religious ambiguity in the world is due to the different ways in which the Real is experienced and conceived in human life. But considering present religious diversity and the Real as experienced, it could be either that all religions all equally veridical in depicting the Real or that one religious tradition stands out in its reference to the Real. By noting that each of the major religious traditions seems to have attained moral accomplishments, Hick has switched his earlier Christian pluralist viewpoint toward the equalitarian bent.
Here is the fundamental difficulty: how could Hick apply any criterion for what is to be taken on an equalitarian basis? Hick himself annotates his postulated Real that it is the source/ground of everything but not a direct object of human perception. He then rejects the possibility of obtaining any knowledge about the nature (such as personal or impersonal, good or evil, omnipotent or not…) of the Real, but he does allow some formal properties (such as being transcendent, ineffable, source/ground of everything, etc.) to sneak in.
Whether Hick has noted or not, the statement that « there is the Real » implies cognitive discrimination. This utterance stands true only when the observer contrast it with something less real or unreal. Hick knows at least that something—in this case could be the Holy Trinity— is not the Real an sich and that not everything is the Real (an sich and as experienced).
Then how can you know something is not the Real, unless you possess a formal knowledge about the Real? In the phenomenology of religion, however, it would be paradoxical if the ineffable noumenal Real is the source and ground of everything, for the Real may come to be the source or ground of everything while remaining philosophically transcendent only if either the Real reveals itself in humanly understandable terms, or if it has inserted beforehand in all human consciousness an epistemic machinery upon which the rest of our cognitive activities supervene.
But both of these philosophical solutions, while keeping ‘transcendence’ in the nature in the ‘Ground of being’, cannot save the Real from being effable, because at least we come to possess an essential knowledge about the nature of the Real: the [transcendent] self-revelator. In other words, this Real, if it is really to be the ground of everything, has to distinguish itself from Kant’s noumenon in that it does not cooperate with our perceptive categories but it determines them (c.f. Isa 6).
Hick fails to address this, because he is more keenly concerned about regulating religious diversity. Consequently, this only digs an irreparable hole on his sophisticatedly paved ground.
Applying Structural semiology on the ontological level, it would then be questionable how Hick’s postulated Real as signifying would designate the Real as signified without arbitrariness, unless Hick claims a special revelation of the noumenal Real that none of the earthly saints has ever come up with. Hick certainly does not claim such revelation (logocentrism), and he terms his proposal a ‘hypothesis’. By this he unwittingly downgrades the Real from its level of metaphysical existence to that of semiological existence.
Hence, regardless the fact that his hypothesis still needs substantial modifications in order that it can be logically persuasive, it would be far more rational for one to believe in one’s own religious tradition than in the Hickian hypothesis. In other words, these religious explanations (Taoism and Christianity for example), on the religious level, are warranted by a claim of special revelation, the veridicality of which is denied by neither the Hickian hypothesis (they are ‘somehow in touch with the Real’, in his own words) nor the philosophy of the tradition itself. On the logical level, their interpretation of the world seems to be more coherent within their own systems. On an ethical level, to undergird Hickian hypothesis in one’s own religious belief is yet to be proved a constructive maneuver in building a more harmonious society and people’s true moral character.
MA, DLitt (Edin), DPhil (Oxon), Hon DTheol (Uppsala), Hon DD (Glasgow)
Emeritus Danforth Professor of the Philosophy of Religion, Claremont Graduate University, California
Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham.
- Philosophy of Religion
- Theological Reconstruction
The New Frontier of Religion and Science: religious experience, neuroscience, and the Transcendent, 2006
The Metaphor of God Incarnate, 2nd ed., 2005
An Interpretation of Religion, 2nd ed., 2004
The Fifth Dimension, 2nd ed., 2004
John Hick: an autobiography, 2002
 In chapter 18 « the ethical criterion », Hick argues for « the Real as the basis of the ultimate optimism of post-axial religion » and that « it [the Real] is good not in itself but in relation to the deepest concerns of human beings » (338). Taking this together with his postulated account for the Real, it is extremely difficult not to interpret this passage from the postmodern non-realist pragmatic light.