I recently submitted this as a 6 page paper for my theology class. (Don’t be intimidated by the word “paper”, please!) I am choosing to share it here because I believe that the issue discussed below is highly relevant to our day and age. What follows below in part 1 is a summary of the argument of scholar, John Hick, who is trying to make sense of the fact of world religions and whether Christianity is exclusive to the truth of the way of salvation. In part 2, I will respond to his argument. The summary below is from chapter one of Salvation in a Pluralistic World. I will leave the page #’s included, in case you choose to pick up the book for yourself.
John Hick begins his defense of pluralism with an attempt to relate to and empathize with the conservative evangelical audience he is addressing. He explains how his own conversion helps him connect with the worldview that he now disagrees with, and acknowledges that a “fundamentalist conversion” can still have some good results, provided the Christian matures sufficiently to reject the “intellectually unacceptable” (33).
He then moves to reject and redefine the orthodox view of Scripture as divine and authoritative revelation. This is foundational to his defense and response to evangelicals (53). Hick purports that revelation is simply a human encounter with the divine (34) and Christian theology, particularly that dictated in Scripture, is a human creation (36), a historical and cultural development of human response to God over time (35). This becomes his explanation for the doctrines of Jesus’ divinity and incarnation (53), which he later contends are the foundational theological premises for the exclusivity of Christianity among world religions (51).
Before describing his pluralist perspective, he continues the recounting of his personal journey to pluralism, and his encounter with diverse world religions in a historical time period of racial prejudice (37-38). In this way, he justifies his beliefs – for if theology in general is a development over time in response to specific cultural time period, so then is his pluralist conclusions.
Hick thus explains pluralism as an understanding of all world religions responding to the same “ultimate transcendent reality” (39) and moves to address a common grounding for the exclusivity of Christianity – superior morality. If Christianity truly maintained a closer relationship and connection with God, Christians should therefore evidence a better morality than those of other religions (41). After explaining that world religions hold the same general definition of morality, namely to love others as you love yourself, (40), he responds that in his experience, Christians are equally imperfect as Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and the like – on both the individual and large-scale expressions (41-42). While he acknowledges the impossibility of statistically proving moral superiority, he chooses to believe that there is no sufficient evidence for the moral superiority of Christians (41).
In response to the evangelical explanation of this observable phenomenon, which is the key distinction between salvation and sanctification (42), he suggests a broader definition of salvation that incorporates all major world religious perspectives, namely a transforming liberation from selfishness to centeredness around the “ultimate reality” (44). In this way, the question of the eternal destiny of the human race is no longer relevant (45). Instead, it becomes a question of whether all people, regardless of religion, will arrive at the final “fulfillment in relation to the Divine reality” (45).
Hick proceeds to further justify his pluralist perspective by explaining the grounds for people responding to this ultimate Reality with the diversity evidenced in the multifaceted religions of our world (46). His basis comes from an epistemology best summarized by Thomas Aquinas, who states “things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower,” (46). In other words, our human mind interprets the reality we encounter in “terms of the conceptual system within which we live” (46) and therefore all human knowledge is interpretative in nature (50). Hick continues to recount several known Christian theologians, such as Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Martin Luther, to support his premise that God is so transcendent, He cannot actually and truly be known (47-48). He suggests an important distinction between God as He is in reality and God as He is known in relation to mankind (48-49) and suggests that this distinction exists in all major world religions (49). Thus he states that all human statements about the character and nature of God are simply human and not a reflection of “the Real itself” (p50). In this way, the diversity of world religions are simply different ways of humans experiencing the divine reality (47) but none are the true reflection of it.
Having thus justified his argument for pluralism, Hick proceeds to address its implications for Christianity’s claim for superiority among world religions (51). He begins by his own summary of the argument, namely that the basis for Christianity’s claim is Jesus coming to the world as the Second Person of the Trinity – thus God Himself founding the religion (51). If this is true, Hick says, then it follows that God must want everyone to follow this particular religion.
Hick’s response is that Jesus was not in fact divine. He suggests this previously when discussing how the New Testament description of Jesus as the “son of God” came to be interpreted as a description of Jesus’ divinity by the Gentile followers (35-36). He continues the argument that, contrary to conservative evangelicals, Jesus himself never claimed to be God (52). He suggests that the issue cannot be settled by Scriptural references (53) and, further, that contemporary New Testament scholars and theologians do not themselves believe Jesus ever claimed to be divine (53-54). This, therefore, undergirds the argument that Jesus’s words and deeds imply His divinity (54), and Hick in this way re-explains the common references in Scripture (such as Jesus forgiving sin, or Jesus’ title “Son of Man” from Mark 2:10). His point is that if Jesus didn’t claim to be divine, what gives us the authority to attribute divinity to Him (55)?
His second argument against Jesus’ divinity is the impossibility of explaining how Jesus could be both fully divine and fully human simultaneously (55). After explaining the issue, he acknowledges that the Council of Chalcedon (the response to the historical church struggle to comprehend the paradox) did not serve to elaborate how it is possible (56). Hick acknowledges that several attempts were made by the Church – such as Apollinarias, the two-minds theory of Thomas Morris, and the contemporary kenosis theory – but all failed to “do justice either to Jesus’ deity or His humanity” (56-57).
Having thus concluded the impossibility of Jesus being both fully divine and fully human, Hick concludes with a redefinition of two key Christian tenets – Jesus’ incarnation and the Trinity. He explains that Jesus’ incarnation is metaphorical (58) – He was a “man…so open to God’s presence and so responsive to God’s will that God was able to act on earth through Him and could thus be said to have been ‘incarnate’ in his actions” (57). Hick explains the Trinity similarly – that the three persons are three ways in which God relates to humanity (58).
By thus redefining these basic doctrines of Christianity, Hick believes he has unhinged Christianity’s claim to exclusivity and, further, Christianity can now, in this light, be suitable with believing that no religion can claim exclusivity and all religions are simply various paths and approaches to relating to the ultimate Reality.