Sunday, February 12, 2012

John Hick (1922-2012)

The Prosblogion reports that philosopher of religion John Hick has died.  I knew Hick twenty years ago, during his final semester at the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), when I took the last course he taught there.  He was a kind man and one of the best teachers I ever had.  He was also a good, clear writer, and his work in philosophy of religion was informed by a deep knowledge of the history of Christian theology and of the world religions.  His book Evil and the God of Love is one of the most important works on the problem of evil in recent philosophy and theology, and made a great impression on me when I first read it as a young man.

I agreed with him on very little.  During the brief time I was his student, that was in part because I was in my early atheist phase, and he was a Christian, albeit a highly heterodox one.  I recall earnestly telling him of my interest in Nietzsche and Walter Kaufmann, whereupon he related with a just barely detectable condescension that Nietzsche had been his “delight” too in his own youthful skeptical days, and that Kaufmann no doubt would have been his delight as well had he then known of him.  The unspoken implication was that this was the sort of stuff one grows out of, or ought to anyway.  And of course, he was right.

I argued with Hick vigorously in the classroom and in a term paper I wrote for him -- displaying in the latter “the polemical enthusiasm of youth,” as he put it -- but he was a good sport (and gave me an A anyway).  I never saw him lose his composure, even when a student was asking for it.  (I recall once that Hick had, in his very gentle and philosophically serious way, disagreed with a female student about whether there could really be such a thing as a “contentless experience” of a mystical sort, or some such thing.  Another student later suggested to me that Hick had disagreed with the first student only because she was a woman -- a patently ludicrous suggestion given Hick’s personal kindness and liberal convictions, and given the complete irrelevance of “sexism” to the issue that was under discussion.)

I have always believed, even when I was an atheist, that one’s religion ought to be of the traditional sort if one was going to be religious at all.  Anything else is just made up.  (My atheist readers can spare us the obvious “It’s all made up!” retort.  That’s what I used to think.)  And so I had little time for Hick’s extreme theological liberalism even when I wasn’t a believer anyway.  I have had even less time for it since returning to the Catholic Church about a decade ago.  Hick’s views on Christology, for example, are flatly heretical and completely destructive of Christianity.  (I recall him admitting in private discussion -- perhaps he’s said the same thing in print somewhere -- that a non-believer was less likely to bother converting to the completely watered-down versions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. that Hick’s religious pluralism required.  Hick himself had moved to the theological left only well after his conversion.)

But on some subjects, such as the problem of evil, he made a lasting contribution.  And I learned much from him, for which I will always be grateful.  Requiescat in pace.

29 comments:

Neil Parille said...

I recall reading one of Hick's later pieces in which he defended religious pluralism. He reminded me of Edward Kennedy - reliably liberal, but basically on auto pilot.

-Neil Parille

BeingItself said...

"I have always believed, even when I was an atheist, that one’s religion ought to be of the traditional sort if one was going to be religious at all."

Jaw dropping parochialism.

Whatever the 'traditional sort' happens to be is entirely contingent on the time and place of your birth. Had you been born 30 thousand years ago, the tradition was quite different than what is traditional now. And 30 thousand years in the future the 'traditional' religious beliefs (if there are any) will be unrecognizable.

And so with geographic differences.

Whatever the 'traditional sort' teaches does not track reality.

But anyway.

What religion did you grow up in Dr. Feser?

machinephilosophy said...

Whatever the 'traditional sort' happens to be is entirely contingent on the time and place of your birth.

And is the above statement itself entirely contingent on the time and place of YOUR birth?

Arbitrary self-exempting reductionism rides again!

Crude said...

Had you been born 30 thousand years ago, the tradition was quite different than what is traditional now.

What religion, 30k years ago, do you have in mind here?

And 30 thousand years in the future the 'traditional' religious beliefs (if there are any) will be unrecognizable.

Fascinating. Can you tell me what the political factions will be like in 30k years too? I'm curious.

Crude said...

I'd tack on, Ed didn't say that "you should subscribe to one of these religions, because they're traditional!" but that he thinks one's religion should be of the traditional sort, if one is going to be religious at all.

'Traditional sort' is just picking out the types of religion Ed apparently thought were worth adhering to. Ed's made clear that he thinks Neo-Platonism, etc, were worth taking seriously even when they were 'brand new'. Getting worked up over this is like getting worked up over someone saying "I think Mount Rushmore is really a great sight", on the grounds that Mount Rushmore looked radically different a thousand years ago.

Jinzang said...

"He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth." -- Goethe

TimLambert said...

BeingItself,
If not the "traditional sort" then what sort?

I think Feser is just saying that when he was an atheist if he was going to buy any sort of religion it might as well be steeped in tradition.

What's wrong with that comment?
If religion, (man's way of worshipping his Creator, following his Creator's specific prescriptions for that worship) as the religious believe it, has any worth at all.... why wouldn't it be traditional?

I'm a bit hesitant asking you anything though - from the looks of it you struggle at not throwing out some incredulous response prior to posting anything with a shadow of substance to it.

"jaw dropping parochialism".

So, from the vantage of the religious.... what other "sort"?

Edward Feser said...

BeingItself,

If you'd spend less time dropping your jaw and more time trying to read what I wrote charitably, you'd save us both a lot of time.

Suppose a logical positivist proposed modifying logical positivism by dropping the empiricism from it. Or suppose a Marxist proposed modifying Marxism by dropping from it the idea of class conflict. Such proposals would be absurd -- the "logical positivism" or "Marxism" that resulted would be so watered down that they would not be worthy either of the name or of anyone's attention.

Similarly, when someone proposes modifying Christianity by giving up the literal divinity of Christ, or the literal resurrection of Christ, or some other aspect of Christianity that has traditionally been definitive of it, the result hardly seems worthy of either the name "Christianity" or of anyone's attention. Similar points can be made about other religions -- it would be silly to claim to be a Muslim while denying that Muhammad was really a prophet, silly to claim to accept Judaism while denying that Moses was a true prophet, etc.

I think it's pretty clear that that's what I had in mind, and I fail to see what is "parochial" about it. As I've indicated with the comparison to logical positivism and Marxism, one could make a similar point about any system of thought, religious or otherwise. It has nothing to do with recommending that one go along with whatever has traditionally been accepted in one's culture. It's rather a point about how much of a system of thought one can give up while plausibly claiming to adhere to that system.

Re: your last question, as I implied in the post, I was raised Catholic. No doubt you will regard that as "evidence" of my "parochialism." But I left the Church long before I became an atheist, for the usual Protestant reasons, and for a long time after becoming an atheist I regarded other religions -- such as Judaism (because I then regarded it as having a more practical moral code) and Buddhism (for the same reason, and also because it had, I then thought, more defensible metaphysical commitments) -- as more plausible than any form of Christianity, if one was going to be religious at all. Even my initial attraction to Aristotelianism had nothing to do with Aquinas or Catholicism, but rather with the fact that I thought it provided the most plausible way of developing a secular code of ethics. It took me a long time to think my way back to Catholicism, and it had nothing to do (contrary to what it seems you might suppose) with deciding "Well, this is the religion traditional in my family, so I'll go along with that."

Brian said...

I love telling people, "Yeah, I was lucky enough to be born into the one true religion." People complain about Catholic triumphalism, but I think it's cool and funny as heck.

Anyway, what I took from Dr. Feser's comment is this: the notion of private judgment and religion just do not mix. "So long as I submit to that which I agree, the one to whom I submit is me." When you start to pick and choose from a religion, you are no longer following that religion, but an abstraction of your own making. And if that's the case, why bother with the pretension that you are following that religion at all? That's why liberal Catholics or whatever are such posers.

Bobcat said...

"Similarly, when someone proposes modifying Christianity by giving up the literal divinity of Christ, or the literal resurrection of Christ, or some other aspect of Christianity that has traditionally been definitive of it, the result hardly seems worthy of either the name "Christianity" or of anyone's attention."

It may not be worthy of the name of "Christianity", but I don't know that it's not worthy of anyone's attention. I think Hick's pluralistic view, according to which all religions are false, but all are responses to an underlying reality, is a very interesting claim, and worthy of some people's attention. Now, if he were to call such a view "Christianity", well, that would be odd (and I think he did think of himself as a Christian, even after being a pluralist, at least for a time), but it doesn't mean the pluralistic view itself is uninteresting.

I presume I misunderstood what you're talking about.

Anonymous said...

Apparently someone has never heard of inclusivism or universalism or any of the myriad other soteriological theories besides Protestant-Fundie exclusivism. In fact, I bet this is the first time he's ever seen the word "soteriology."

Edward Feser said...

Hi Bobcat,

Yes, I think you misunderstood. There are two claims here:

(1) There is an ultimate metaphysical reality that all the world religions are equally false attempts to describe.

(2) Christianity should be redefined so as to make it consistent with claim (1).

What I was criticizing was (2), since given (1) (and in particular given the specific Christian claims Hick wanted to chuck out) there's nothing left of Christianity worth the name.

I don't deny that (1) is philosophically interesting, even though I obviously reject it. But even here Hick seems to me to have left his conception of "ultimate reality" so very vague -- precisely so as to avoid implicitly favoring any particular religion -- that I don't know how interesting even that is. It's so vague that I'm not sure it rules out even atheism.

But I can see a purely philosophical theist of some sort putting forward an interesting version of (1). Once he gives some content to his conception of God, though, he's going to end up implying that some of the world religions are at least closer to the truth than others -- e.g. if he takes a classical theist view of God's nature, he'll be implying that the Western religions are at least closer to the truth than the Eastern, while if he takes a pantheist view, he'll end up implying that the Eastern religions are closer.

Hick, it seems to me, wanted to avoid this sort of result, and thus kept his conception of "ultimate reality" extremely vague. This was something I criticized him for 20 years ago, and I don't think he ever gave a good answer. (I once asked him "What religious view does your position rule out?" His answer was "Nazism." I thought this an absurd answer -- since when is Nazism a religion? -- and showed how he was more interested in avoiding having to "leave out" any particular religion than in developing a position that was independently defensible. It was the same with arguments for God's existence -- he wanted to avoid having to admit that any of them worked, lest this force him to concede greater evidential force to some particular conception of God that a particular argument might favor. His evaluation of every issue seemed driven by the imperative to uphold his particular brand of pluralism.)

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous and Anonymous,

He is banned, and his comments and responses to them are always deleted. Please ignore his further ravings.

Bobcat said...

Thanks for clearing that up. I don't agree that (2) is uninteresting, though I can see why someone would find it so. If you think (2) is an utterly hopeless task, then you're likely to find attempts at (2) not to be worth much time. However, I think there are few issues about the practice of religion that (2) brings up that are interesting. One that interests me has to do with the relationship between practicing a religion and believing its metaphysical claims. If you, for instance, find Christian practical commitments extremely appealing, but wonder whether it matters that Jesus physically, as opposed to spiritually, rose from the dead, then (2) may hold some interest for you.

I think that some forms of atheism are consistent with Hick's pluralism -- e.g., Buddhist forms -- but in order to be consistent, you have to endorse some form of "ultimism" (Schellenberg's word), which is "the claim that there is a metaphysically and axiologically ultimate reality (one representing both the deepest fact about the nature of things and the greatest possible value), in relation to which an ultimate good can be attained" (The Will to Imagine, 1).

Boot-lace Frank said...

Feser how much of a role did Ettiene Gilson play in your coming to accept Thomism? I'm reading the autobiography of Thomas Merton (7storey mountain) and Gilson played a large role in his conversion.
I read another book on literary converts and one theme in alot of the converts from the early 20th century is the work of Jacques Maritian and Gilson playing in them viewing belief in God and Catholicism as being highly rational and reasonable.

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Bobcat,

In my understanding pluralism does not say that “all religions are false, but all are responses to an underlying reality”, but rather that “all religions are true in that they are valid responses to the underlying reality”.

I think it all goes back to what one means by “truth”. Now I became a (let’s say) self-aware Christian when as a teenager I read for the first time the. What the Gospels then (as well as now) tell me is a call, a call to a particular *way of being*. Which in Christian terms we describe by the aphorism that “only in following Christ one is saved”, or that “only by becoming like Christ one enters the kingdom of God”. Christianity then is a way. Exactly what dogmatic beliefs one holds seemed to me then and seems to me now to be a secondary intellectual matter. And I notice that Christ in the Gospels puts little emphasis in exactly what metaphysical beliefs one should hold. Trust (“pistis”) is valued more than beliefs, and works are valued as much as trust – but their value is based only in that they help us become like Christ and thus realize the Gospel in our life.

So, what is truth? When Pilate asked that question Christ remained silent, for it was the wrong question. The right question would be “Who is truth?”, and had Pilate asked that question then Christ would have answered “I am”. The idea here is that truth is not a property of beliefs, but a property of a *way of being*. Truth is not an abstract but a personal property. One is true to the degree one resembles Christ, and beliefs are said to be true to the degree they move one to become like Christ.

This then is my understanding of Christianity, and please observe that this understanding comports well with pluralism. John Hick became a pluralist when he saw that people of other great religions were becoming like Christ too. Therefore, he concluded, all religions are true in that fundamental sense. Or, more precisely, all religious belief systems are true to the degree that they move people to become like Christ and are false to the degree they don’t. In my judgment a central saying in the Gospels is John 15:14 where Jesus says “You are my friends if you do what I command you”. Thus, a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist who does Christ’s commands is a “friend of Christ”, a “Christian” in Christ’s mind.

Now Ed mentions the “literal divinity of Christ” and the “literal resurrection of Christ”. I happen to believe in both propositions. First, in the following empirical sense: That if we were to ask God “When Jesus of Nazareth was teaching and walking was it you personally and you alone who was teaching and walking?” then God would answer “yes”. And that if we were to ask God “Was it you who miraculously appeared as the risen Christ to the disciples a few days after Jesus’s crucifixion?” then God would again answer “yes”. As Ed says there is indeed one metaphysical reality, one grounded in God, and all our interactions with God will thus be consistent.

But the above two Christian propositions carry a much stronger sense for me, than the merely empirical/objective one. Namely they help me understand better both God’s loving nature and the structure and end of the world in which I exist. And this better understanding consists in seeing better that structure and end, and thus helps me live better in it. In the same way that my belief “walls are hard” helps me avoid bumping into them.

BeingItself said...

Dr. Feser,

Thanks for clarifying.

Crude,

I'm fairly certain Catholicism was not around 30 thousand years ago. But I'm open to evidence if you have any.

Anonymous said...

BeingItself,

Obviously it wasn't around 30,000 years ago. But what conclusion are you drawing from that?

Crude said...

I'm fairly certain Catholicism was not around 30 thousand years ago. But I'm open to evidence if you have any.

You said, "Had you been born 30 thousand years ago, the tradition was quite different than what is traditional now."

I'm wondering what the religions were back then. But the problem with your reply's been illustrated, and it was a minor point even there - what's to discuss?

BeingItself said...

I conclude that following a religion because it is traditional in a particular time and place is not a reliable method of discovering what is true.

I misunderstood Feser to mean that Catholicism was more likely true since it is more 'traditional' that Hick's religion.

Daniel Smith said...

Dianelos Georgoudis: And I notice that Christ in the Gospels puts little emphasis in exactly what metaphysical beliefs one should hold. Trust (“pistis”) is valued more than beliefs, and works are valued as much as trust – but their value is based only in that they help us become like Christ and thus realize the Gospel in our life.

Christ also said (and Paul and the other writers expanded upon the teaching) that the ability to be "like Christ" only comes from a union with Christ. IOW, it's not "acting like Jesus" but "Jesus acting in us" that makes us more like him.

I think that is THE central dogma of Christianity, and the one, interestingly, that must be left out if you want to make it inclusive of other religions.

Bobcat said...

Hi Dianelos,

I recognize that Hick would say that all religions are true, but I find it very difficult to see how that could possibly be so. For instance, Buddhism says all desire leads to suffering, so you shouldn't have any desires, whereas Christianity says you should love and serve God. It's hard to see how the two recommendations are compatible. (Perhaps they are, but it's hard to see.)

Notice, by the way, that this doesn't apply just to metaphysical claims, but to ways of life. Buddhism and Christianity recommend two different ways of life. Or so it seems to me. It could be that if you practiced either one with great vigor, then you would end up being the same kind of person. In other words, it's possible that they just recommend different means to the same end.

Edward Feser said...

Dianelos and Bobcat,

It's probably been years since I looked at anything Hick wrote on religious pluralism, so I'm not sure offhand what he's said in print about whether all religions can be said to be equally true. I do seem to recall him acknowledging in personal conversation that there is a sense in which one could just as well say that they are equally false, given that their claims are not literally true of ultimate reality as it is in itself.

And then, looking over the typed memo he gave me in 1992 in response to a paper I wrote for him, I see that he wrote the following:

"I do not myself like to speak of a religion being 'true' -- only propositions are true or false. But one can say metaphorically that religion is true if it is salvifically effective. In this sense there can be a number of true religions. But this is not a good way of speaking."

For what it's worth...

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Daniel Smith,

it's not "acting like Jesus" but 'Jesus acting in us' that makes us more like him.

Given the right metaphysics, i.e. given the view that God is the metaphysically ultimate, and that Christ is the active hypostasis of God (through Whom all things were made, and without Whom nothing is possible as John 1:3 says), then what you write above seems to me to be true. No brunch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.

On the other hand language has a power that goes beyond its meaning. It’s not only what you say but how say it. And in my judgment language of the sort “let Christ act in you” may lead one into an unchristian passive attitude. If there is one thing that becomes clear when one reads the Gospels is how Christ calls us to an active life. Leave your cow to be tended by others, leave your dead to be buried by others, and *follow me*. Do this, do that, DO my commands, what’s the point of calling me Lord and not do what I tell you – he repeated over and over again. And notice that it’s the branch which bears the fruit.

I think that is THE central dogma of Christianity, and the one, interestingly, that must be left out if you want to make it inclusive of other religions.

I don’t see that at all. If a Muslim loves others like Christ loved us, isn’t the love filling that Muslim’s heart and guiding that Muslim’s life the same love that Christ embodied? God is love, we say. Do you really think there is love which is not from God?

Dianelos Georgoudis said...

Bobcat,

For instance, Buddhism says all desire leads to suffering, so you shouldn't have any desires, whereas Christianity says you should love and serve God. It's hard to see how the two recommendations are compatible.

Do not desire the world, do not desire riches and honors. Thy will be done, not mine. We are called to surrender our own will to God. And surely to follow one’s desires does ultimately lead to suffering on the Christian view also. I don’t personally have any difficulty understanding how the moral language of both Buddhism and Christianity lead one towards the same way of life.

Buddhism and Christianity recommend two different ways of life.

I disagree. Indeed, that’s an empirical matter. Is there any significant difference between the lives of a Christian saint and of a Buddhist saint? If I told you about a saintly life would you be able to tell me whether that saint was a Christian or a Buddhist? Or a Hindu? Do you see any important difference between the way of life of Martin Luther King and of Mahatma Gandhi?

But if the signposts (and that’s what moral aphorisms are) lead people to the same path then they really mean the same.

DNW said...

"Do you see any important difference between the way of life of Martin Luther King and of Mahatma Gandhi?"



Taking that as an abstract question, the answer would depend on what one (or you) would classify beforehand as an unimportant difference.

Crude said...

"Do you see any important difference between the way of life of Martin Luther King and of Mahatma Gandhi?"

The cynic in me says, "No, they both fooled around with women more or less equally."

Gornahoor said...

Outward forms may alter over time, but not the essence. Quoting St. Augustine:

The thing which is now called the Christian religion existed among the ancients, and has never been lacking since the beginning of the human race.

sunyavadin said...

Sad to hear of his passing - I hadn't read of it elsewhere. I am an admirer of his philosophical analysis of religious questions, from the perspective of a 'perennialist' with Buddhist leanings.