John Hick: a cautionary tale
Professor John Hick died in February at the age of 90.
He leaves a legacy of over 30 books and countless articles. As a philosopher of religion, Hick has had great influence on many thinkers. He supervised evangelical PhD students William Lane Craig and Harold Netland along with those holding to his own more liberal ideas. Always clear and precise as a writer, his academic books are not difficult to read and his name will probably always be associated with what we call ‘religious pluralism’.
Do all the major world religions provide pathways to the same God and salvation? Hick thought so and sought to persuade others too.
But John Hick only gradually grew to hold these radical ideas and his story provides any apologist with a cautionary tale. In childhood he attended a local Anglican church which he described as ‘a matter of infinite boredom’ and did not consider himself a Christian. However, at the age of 18, he describes having an evangelical conversion, particularly through the influence of the Christian Union at Hull University. This conversion influenced his decision to join the Quaker Ambulance service as a pacifist during the Second World War and later be ordained in what would become the United Reformed Church.
However, he only briefly served in local church ministry before entering a lifetime of academic scholarship. This brought to light the first shift in his theological thought. There was opposition when Hick took up a teaching post at Princeton Theological Seminary in America during the 1960s. Technically, to be on the faculty one had to be in agreement with an orthodox confession of faith. Though Hick considered himself orthodox he was unable to assent to doctrines like the virgin birth or infallibility of the Bible. A drift away from evangelicalism was underway.
Myth of God incarnate
Hick returned to England to teach at Birmingham University where he became involved in various inter-faith groups with the laudable aim of promoting tolerance. He came to believe that Jesus was only one saviour figure among many and that Christianity had no unique standing as a path of salvation. This developing view culminated in a book he edited called The Myth of God Incarnate in 1977. Hick and his collaborators argued that Jesus was not to be considered literally unique, but only in some poetic or metaphorical sense. No longer was Christ a barrier or stumbling block to religious harmony. All religions might have their own myths, metaphors, poetry and saviours, but, behind them all, is the same God.
At least, so Hick’s position stood in the 1970s, but his thinking was still drifting further from the shore of orthodoxy. An obvious objection to his position would be to point out that not all religions assent to the existence of God. Zen Buddhism is generally considered atheist. And even many religions that do speak of a God do not mean a personal being. This observation led Hick to abandon the word ‘God’ in favour of what he called the Real or Ultimate Reality. This ‘Real’ was neither personal nor non-personal. Finding no suitable pronoun, Hick referred to the Real as ‘He/She/It’.
Arguably, Hick’s final views were more agnostic than Christian. I met Hick a few times over the years and our last encounter was a debate on Premier Radio last year (you can listen to it as a podcast from February 19 2011 on http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable). Hick’s God had receded to a ‘Real’ beyond any understanding. Jesus Christ, the risen Saviour, had become only a poetic image to describe a man whose bones rotted in the earth long ago. Hick had sought to use philosophy as a tool to make Christianity credible. The rational ‘faith’ he ended up with was devoid of a personal God and empty of miracles. Instead of God-given revelation, Hick offered man-made speculation. Apologetics is the defence of the faith ‘once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3).
Moorlands College, Alderholt Evangelical Church, Dorset