AN INTERPRETATION OF RELIGION
Human resonses to the Transcendent
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
John Hick is a Christian theologian who takes a very wide-angle view of religion, citing abundantly from Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish,and Muslim sources. His view is that all the world's religions are 'masks' or 'faces' interposed between us and what he calls the 'Real', which can never be known directly. The main religions of the world are different paths to human salvation or transformation.
For secularists, of course, there is no 'Real'; the world is all we have. Hick has an interesting discussion of this important question. His conclusion is that the universe is 'ambiguous'. The facts at our disposal permit belief in a transcendent realm but they also permit non-belief, so either option is reasonable. Which side of the fence you come down on it seems, depends on your own experience and how far you are prepared to accept the assurances of others.
Even if it is rational to believe in the transcendent, there is the problem that all the world religions seem to be saying different things about it. In particular, in some religions God is personal, in others impersonal. Doesn't this diversity suggest that all religions are false? Hick confronts this question unflinchingly. He resolves it by taking Kant's view, which is that we can never know what a thing is in itself but only how it appears to us. This "suggests the hypothesis that the infinite Real, in itself beyond the scope of other than purely formal concepts, is differently conceived, experienced and responded to from within the different cultural ways of being human".
It might seem that Hick is advocating what has been called the perennial philosophy, which claims that all the religious traditions are really based on mystical experience, and that all the mystics have perceived the same Reality though they describe it in different ways. Hick's position is more radical than this, however. He thinks there are genuine differences in what the mystics report and their experiences are always shaped by the religious traditions in which they live. We can never get behind the masks.
Many Christians, as Hick acknowledges in his Epilogue, will find this view of religion disturbing, because it does not accord a privileged place to Christianity. So there is a tension in the mind. "One participates in the liturgy, joins in singing the hymns, is part of the community and its history, and yet at the same time one does not share its still prevailing absolutist and exclusivist assumptions. Hence the tension; and all that we can do, I think, is to continue to live in this tension, accepting the moments of pain and turmoil that it can involve."
This is an unusually open-minded book, which doesn't seem to be trying to convert the reader to a particular point of view. Hick expects that in the future we will move towards a syncretist form of spirituality, with all the religions "pointing to the possibility of a limitlessly better existence and as affirming that the universe is such that this limitlessly better possibility is actually available to us and can begin to be realised in each present moment." I hope he's right.
%T An Interpretation of Religion
%S Human responses to the Transcendent
%A Hick, John
%I The Macmillan Press Ltd
%C Basingstoke and London
%G ISBN 0-333-39488-7
%P xv + 412pp
7 March 2008
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