John Hick, English philosopher and theologian died he was 90
John Harwood Hick was a philosopher of religion and theologian born in England who taught in the United States for the larger part of his career. In philosophical theology, he made contributions in the areas of t
John Hick was born on 20 January 1922 to a middle-class family in Scarborough,
England. In his teens, he developed an interest in philosophy and
religion, being encouraged by his uncle, who was an author and teacher
at the University of Manchester. Hick initially pursued a law degree at the University of Hull, but, having converted to Evangelical Christianity, he decided to change his career and he enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in 1941.
After the war, he returned to Edinburgh and became attracted to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, and began to question his fundamentalism. In 1948 he completed his MA thesis, which formed the basis of his book Faith and Knowledge. He went on to complete a D. Phil at Oriel College, Oxford University in 1950 and a DLitt from Edinburgh in 1975. In 1953 he married Joan Hazel Bowers, and the couple had three children. After many years as a member of the United Reformed Church, in October 2009 he was accepted into membership of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain. He died in 2012.
Hick’s academic positions included Danforth Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at the Claremont Graduate University, California (where he taught from 1979 to 1992); H.G. Wood Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham; and Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham.
While at the University of Birmingham Hick played important roles in a
number of organizations centered around community relations.
Non-Christian communities, mostly Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh, had begun to
form in this central England community as immigration from the Caribbean
Islands and Indian subcontinent increased. Due to the influx of peoples
with different religious traditions, organizations focused on
integrating the community became necessary. During his fifteen years at
the University of Birmingham, Hick became a founder, as well as the
first chair, for the group All Faiths for One Race (AFFOR); he served as
a chair on the Religious and Cultural Panel, which was a division of
the Birmingham Community Relations Committee; and he also chaired the
coordinating committee for a 1944 conference convened under the new
Education Act with the aim of creating a new syllabus for religious
instruction in city schools.
He also held teaching positions at Cornell University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Cambridge University.
During his teaching stay at Princeton Seminary, Hick began to depart
from his conservative religious standings as he began to question
“whether belief in the Incarnation required one to believe in the
literal historicity of the Virgin Birth”.
This questioning would open the door for further examination of his own
Christology, which would contribute to Hick’s understanding of
religious pluralism. He was the Vice-President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion, and Vice-President of The World Congress of Faiths.
Hick delivered the 1986–87 Gifford lectures and in 1991 was awarded the prestigious Grawemeyer Award from the University of Louisville and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary for Religion.
Hick was twice the subject of heresy proceedings. In 1961 or 1962, he
was asked whether he took exception to anything in the Westminster
Confession of 1647 and answered that several points were open to
question. Because of this, some of the local ministers appealed against
his reception into the Presbytery. Their appeal was sustained by the
Synod. A year later, a counter-appeal was sustained by the Judicial
Committee of the General Assembly, and Hick became a member of the
Presbytery (see Christian heresy in the 20th century).
Robert Smid states that Hick is regularly cited as “one of the most –
if not simply the most – significant philosopher of religion in the
twentieth century”. Keith Ward once described him as “the greatest living philosopher of global religion.” He is best known for his advocacy of religious pluralism, which is radically different from the traditional Christian teachings that he held when he was younger.
Perhaps because of his heavy involvement with the inter-faith groups
mentioned above under the “Career” heading and his interaction with
people of non-Christian faiths through those groups, Hick began to move
toward his pluralistic outlook on religion. He notes in both “More Than
One Way?” and “God and the Universe of Faiths” that, as he came to know
these people who belonged to non-Christian faiths, he saw in them the
same values and moral actions that he recognized in fellow Christians.
This observation led him to begin questioning how a completely loving
God could possibly sentence non-Christians who clearly espouse values
that are revered in Christianity to an eternity in hell. Hick then began
to attempt to uncover the means by which all those devoted to a
theistic religion might receive salvation.
Hick has notably been criticized by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who now holds the position of Pope Emeritus), when he was head of the Holy Office. Ratzinger had examined the works of several theologians accused of relativism, such as Jacques Dupuis and Roger Haight, and found that many, if not all, were philosophically inspired by Hick. Therefore, the declaration Dominus Iesus was seen by many at the time as a condemnation of Hick’s ideas and theories.
Having begun his career as an evangelical, he moved towards pluralism
as a way of reconciling God’s love with the facts of cultural and
religious diversity. He is primarily influenced by Immanuel Kant in this
regard, who argued that human minds obscure actual reality in favor of
comprehension (see Kant’s theory of perception).
According to Richard Peters, for Hick, “[the] construal of the
relationship of the human mind to God…is much like the relationship
that Kant supposed exists between the human mind and the world”.
It isn’t fair to say that Hick is strictly Kantian, however. Peters notes “the divide between the ‘noumenal‘ and ‘phenomenal‘ realms (so far as nature is concerned) is not nearly so severe for Hick as it was for Kant”. Hick also declares that the Divine Being is what he calls ‘transcategorial’. We can experience God through categories, but God Himself obscures them by his very nature.
In light of his Kantian influences, Hick claims that knowledge of the
Real (his generic term for Transcendent Reality) can only be known as
it is being perceived. For that reason, absolute truth claims about God
(to use Christian language) are really truth claims about perceptions of
God; that is, claims about the phenomenal God and not the noumenal God.
Furthermore, because all knowledge is rooted in experience, which is
then perceived and interpreted into human categories of conception,
cultural and historical contexts which inevitably influence human
perception are necessarily components of knowledge of the Real. This
means that knowledge of God and religious truth claims pertaining
thereof are culturally and historically influenced; and for that reason
should not be considered absolute. This is a significant aspect of
Hick’s argument against Christian exclusivism, which holds that although other religions might contain partial goodness and truth, salvation is provided only in Jesus Christ, and the complete truth of God is contained only in Christianity.
Perhaps the simplest manner in which to understand Hick’s theory of
pluralism of religions is to share the comparison he makes between his
own understanding of religion and the Copernican view of our solar
system. Before Copernicus disseminated his views of the solar centered
universe, the Ptolemaic system ruled in which the stars were painted in
the sky, and the sun rose and set around the earth. In short, the rest
of the universe existed for and was centered around our little planet.
On the other hand, Copernicus asserted that the earth, and other planets
as well, circled the sun, which in fact, did not move, but only
appeared to move due to the revolution of our planet. Copernicus
introduced our world to the understanding that other planets took
similar paths around the sun; while each path differed, all served the
same purpose and generated the same result: every planet makes a full
path around our central star. Rotation of a planet about its axis
creates day and night for that planet, just as day and night occur on
earth. Although the time frames for a full trip around the sun and for a
full day-night cycle differs on a planet-by-planet basis, the concept
remains constant throughout our solar system.
Similarly, Hick draws the metaphor that the Ptolemaic view of
religion would be that Christianity is the only way to true salvation
and knowledge of the one true God. Ptolemaic Christianity would assert
that everything exists and all of history has played out in specific
patterns for the glory of the Christian God, and that there is no other
possible path that will lead to salvation. Hick appears as Copernicus,
offering the belief that perhaps all theistic religions are focused
toward the one true God and simply take different paths to achieve the
A speaker on religious pluralism, Keith E. Johnson, compares Hick’s
pluralistic theology to a tale of three blind men attempting to describe
an elephant, one touching the leg, the second touching the trunk, the
third feeling the elephant’s side. Each man describes the elephant
differently, and, although each is accurate, each is also convinced of
their own correctness and the mistakenness of the other two.
Robert Smid states that Hick believes that the tenets of Christianity
are “no longer feasible in the present age, and must be effectively
Hick’s position is “not an exclusively Christian inclusivism [like
that of Karl Rahner and his ‘Anonymous Christian’], but a plurality of
mutually inclusive inclusivism.” 
Hick contends that the diverse religious expressions (religions) are
the result of diverse historically and culturally influenced responses
to diverse perceptions of the Real. He states that “the different
religious traditions, with their complex internal differentiations, have
developed to meet the needs of the range of mentalities expressed in
the different human cultures.” 
In his “God and the Universe of Faiths”, Hick attempts to pinpoint
the essence of Christianity. He first cites the Sermon on the Mount as
being the basic Christian teaching, as it provides a practical way of
living out the Christian faith. He says that “christian essence is not
to be found in beliefs about God…but in living as the disciples who in
his name feed the hungry, heal the sick and create justice in the
However, all of the teachings, including the Sermon on the Mount, that
form what Hick calls the essence of Christianity, flow directly from
Jesus’ ministry. In turn, this means that the birth, life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus form the permanent basis of the Christian
tradition. Hick continues in this work to examine the manner in which
the deification of Jesus took place in corporate Christianity following
his crucifixion and questions whether or not Jesus actually thought of
himself as the Messiah and the literal Son of God.
In several places (e.g. his contributions to The Metaphor of God Incarnate, and his book The Myth of God Incarnate)
Hick proposes a reinterpretation of traditional
Christology—particularly the doctrine of the Incarnation. Hick contends
“that the historical Jesus of Nazareth did not teach or apparently
believe that he was God, or God the Son, Second Person of a Holy
Trinity, incarnate, or the son of God in a unique sense.”
It is for that reason, and perhaps for the sake of religious pluralism
and peace, Hick proposes a metaphorical approach to incarnation. That
is, Jesus (for example) was not literally God in the flesh (incarnate),
but was metaphorically speaking, the presence of God. “Jesus was so open
to divine inspiration, so responsive to the divine spirit, so obedient
to God’s will, that God was able to act on earth in and through him.
This, I (Hick) believe, is the true Christian doctrine of the
Hick believes that a metaphorical view of the incarnation avoids the
need for faulty Christian paradoxes such as the duality of Christ (fully
God and fully human) and even the Trinity (God is simultaneously one
Neither the intense christological debates of the centuries leading
up to the Council of Chalcedon, nor the renewed christological debates
of the 19th and 20th Centuries, have succeeded in squaring the circle by
making intelligible the claim that one who was genuinely and
unambiguously a man was also genuinely and unambiguously God.
Problem of evil
Hick has identified with a branch of theodicy that he calls “Irenaean theodicy” or the “Soul-Making Defense”.
A simplification of this view states that suffering exists as a means
of spiritual development. In other words, God allows suffering so that
human souls might grow or develop towards maturation. For Hick, God is
ultimately responsible for pain and suffering, but such things are not
truly bad. Perhaps with a greater degree of perception, one can see that
the “evil” we experience through suffering is not ultimately evil but
good, as such is used to “make our souls” better.
Therefore, Hick sees the evils of pain and suffering as serving God’s
good purpose of bringing “imperfect and immature” humanity to itself
“in uncompelled faith and love.” At the same time, Hick acknowledges that this process often fails in our world. However, in the after-life, Hick asserts that “God will eventually succeed in His purpose of winning all men to Himself.”
The discussion of evil in Hick has been challenged by a number of
theologians and moral philosophers including David Griffin and John K.
Roth. Using Hick’s own words, Roth has stated, “Hick’s theodicy is
implausible to me because I am convinced that his claims about God’s
goodness cannot stand the onslaught of what he calls the principal
threat to his own perspective: ‘the sheer amount and intensity of both
moral and natural evil.'” In the book Encountering Evil,
Stephen Davis has stated his four criticisms of Hick, “First, while no
theodicy is free of difficulties, I believe Hick’s is not entirely
convincing in its handling of the amount of evil that exists in the
world… Second, I am dubious about Hick’s hope of a gradual spiritual
evolution till human beings reach a full state of God-consciousness…
Third, I believe Hick also faces what I call the ‘cost-effective’
criticism of the free will defense… My final and most serious
criticism of Hick concerns his commitment to universalism.”
For a list of his books see the referenced footnote.
- Faith and Knowledge, (1st ed. 1957, 2nd ed. 1966)
- Evil and the God of Love, (1966, 1985, reissued 2007)
- The Many Faced Argument with Arthur C. McGill (1967, 2009).
- Philosophy of Religion (1970, 4th ed. 1990)
- Death and the Eternal Life (1st ed. 1976)
- (Editor) The Myth of God Incarnate (1977)
- (Editor with Paul F. Knitter) The Myth of Christian Uniqueness: Toward a Pluralistic Theology of Religions (1987)
- An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (1989, reissued 2004)
- The Metaphor of God Incarnate (1993, 2nd ed. 2005)
- The New Frontier of Religion and Science: Religious Experience, Neuroscience and the Transcendent (2006)
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