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On Religious Pluralism

In Problems with Religious Pluralism, John Hick presents the problem of absolutism in plural societies as one stemming from “tribal loyalties” which inhibit the universal path and weaken the connection to what he refers to as the “ultimate” or the common experience of God through different cultural identities. Hick borrows a term he attributes to Rosemary Reuthers: “Eclesiatal-Ethnicity,” which he defines as unique “religious traditions passed down from generation to generation” as opposed to acquisition via “deliberate comparative judgment and choice.” Among a diverse history of contributors to Christian thought, Hick stands out for his novel approach. In an organization fractured by endless forays into logical debate by rigidly uncompromising proponents of wildly divergent interpretations, Hick promotes a kind of universal concilliarism, underwritten by an arguably well reasoned set of premises, and supported by lucid observations of modern trends away from absolutism.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Hick does not punctuate his assessment of the rigid exclusivity within the many other faith traditions with condemnation or rebuke. Instead, he argues that the theological error which he describes occurs naturally as a function of the human condition. As he notes “Psychologically, then, the sense of the unique sense of superiority of one's own religious tradition may be simply a natural form of pride in an engrained preference for ones own familiar group and ways.” For this, Hick's argument has a strong element of persuasiveness. It does not alienate, and therefore, does not provoke so much instinctive criticism. He presents a refreshing sense of twentieth century optimism, anticipating Star Trek and the fall of the Berlin Wall, both of which played heavily on themes of unity, globalism, and cooperation.

The problem, Hick says, is that “natural pride...becomes harmful...when elevated to the level of absolute truth.” In such cases, he argues, the results include “persecution, coercion, and repression.” A less contentious solution is a “reality-centered” conceptualization of faith in which “another product will serve as an adequate second best.” Tolerance, Hick understands, is extremely becoming of a religion of peace. With a secular world drifting away from traditional values and cultural patterns, the strenuous divisions of faith create a contentious atmosphere of suspicion and resentment, especially as the many groups vie for political influence and carve out there own communities. This process likely does more to sustain secularization than it does to attract new followers. In a sense, what Hick is saying is that the religions of the world have a great deal of incentive to set aside their minor cultural differences in favor of a cooperative and mutually inclusive relationship.

By and large, research indicates that the majority of the faithful in America are more likely to identify more closely with Hick's message of religious equality, but the fringe radical groups are several orders of magnitude more vocal, and therefore, more likely to be heard. However, each group has demonstrated a need to accommodate some particular shift in social evolution in order to survive. In light of the gay riots in New York and gay boycotts in San Francisco, hatemongers like Jerry Falwell and Anita Bryant compromise the benevolent nature of Christian theology to reign in the socially mal-adapted audiences that will consistently vote on religious cues. On the other hand, however warm and inviting Hick's utopian hypothesis might appear, it is also a deliberate and necessary attempt to dial back the eighteen hundred years of failed social principles against which Marx had once taken his humanist stand. He leaves open the question of how to resolve natural conflict between secular and religious authorities. He avoids the Christian and Muslim mandates to convert, evangelize, and proselytize. He dodges the then-half-century-old Arab-Israeli crisis, the conflict between Sharia law and the Cataclysm, and escapes without consideration the many atheists in the middle.

Effectively, because one may assume that John Hick is not widely read in the non-Christian, non-academic world, Hicks message of concilliarism mostly implies a fragile reconciliation between the Lutheran and the Baptist who happen to find themselves co-inhabiting a set of bus seats on occasion. Odds are it will find little meaning or value in a world struggling to decide how to deal with organizations like ISIS and the KKK.

Hick also quietly dodges a more plausible explanation for the emerging trend toward religious pluralism in spite of dogmatic supremacy. In recent years, researchers have demonstrated pretty convincingly that atheists are often more well versed in Christian doctrine than Christians themselves. There is a fascinating engine driving this phenomenon. Christianity itself is a complex matrix of debates, discoveries, decisions, and demands which grew out of centuries of exploration, tradition, inspiration, and reflection. The learning curve for new Christians might as well be a perfect vertical line compared to that of the early church fathers. Each particular denomination is different from the next, and after a generation or two of dogmatic drift, neglected exploration, and artistic license, no religion can confidently hold its adherence to any very unique set of expectations. In short, what people actually know about their religion is in decline, as access to other, more interesting subject matter competes for a progressively greater share of public attention. Conversely, what there is to know about religion in general increases exponentially as more and more theologians examine and discover and publish. It makes sense then, that at some point, these religions would tend to blend together in a grand theocratic wash. Though Hick's approach is novel, in a way, he is just following the logical path of least resistance. The world is secularizing because of science, not sin, and not because of anyone's concept of religious supremacy.

There are few easier subjects for contemplation than a world in which everyone gets along. Or that the subject one has devoted one's life to isn't slowly disintegrating beneath one's feet.

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