The immediate question facing any researcher into this collection is how to communicate their contents concisely? It so happens that in his archived papers, John Hick has bequeathed an unpublished manuscript called ‘Left-Over Thoughts’.3 In the first chapter, he has provided some advice on how to prepare for such an article:
If you are going to expound and criticise a scholar, take great care with your exposition. Make it fair and balanced, so that the scholar would be able to accept it as an accurate account of his thought. And quote with 100% accuracy. Do not be tempted to set up a caricature in order to have something that is easily demolished. Try to see the value in a point of view from which you differ. No thinker who is worth criticising is likely to be wholly wrong. Make the effort to discriminate.4
Then, secondly, he advises:
If possible, a paper, should be built around a central thesis. Be very clear in your own mind what your central thesis is, and then exclude material which is not relevant to it.5
In the effort to create an accurate account of his thought, my central thesis is that Hick will long be remembered as a creatively distinctive, if not definitive, voice of religious pluralism. The archives can help us to piece together his story of how he came to hold a pluralistic position. Indeed, it was while he worked at the University of Birmingham, that Hick encountered the plethora of faiths that belong to Birmingham’s cosmopolitan population. It was through his inter-faith work, in particular with the Community Race Relations Committee, that Hick noticed that, although the external cultural and ritual practices of the faiths may be different, ‘there was a shared dimension to faith that allowed people to open their hearts and minds “upwards” to a higher divine reality’.6 The encounters with the different world faiths was something of a turning point for Hick, after which he dedicated his career to wrestling with the issue of religious pluralism.
In the correspondence, it is clear that both his critics and supporters alike respected Hick for his personal integrity and originality. His arguments are a synthesis of both his academic work, within the field of philosophy of religion, and his personal experience. Such a union between academic interest and personal experience lends an implicit integrity to Hick’s lifetime’s work and makes the collected papers such a worthy avenue of research, since they convey Hick’s personal journey. It is a journey which not only testifies to his stature as a definitive voice within religious pluralism, but also witnesses to his extensive work as a philosopher of religion: who contributed towards the development of the ‘five arguments’ for the existence of God, and who posited the ‘Ireanean theodicy’ in Evil and the God of Love (1966).
1. Hick’s Early Beliefs
The archived collection of John Hick’s papers supports Hick’s own view of a consistent interest in an ineffable ‘transcategorial Real’, and its relation to human knowledge and belief. An invaluable artefact from this time takes the form of a limp red notebook, dated 1940, in which John Hick began to write down his philosophical reflections. In his autobiography, Hick claimed that after reading this notebook, ‘I see how my intellectual development has been surprisingly consistent apart from the interruption of the evangelical years’.7 For instance, in this notebook is a long series of philosophical aphorisms, which, although written by an eighteen-year-old Hick, reflect his later thoughts on ‘The Real’:
Reality is ethical and consists of God, who cannot be regarded as finite or infinite, or as having any or no form, or by any other analogy from the physical universe, but can only be comprehended ‘mystically’, by reason of the divine spark in each of us.8
This paper discusses the view of John Hick on religious pluralism and the arguments presented by Albert Plantinga in support of religious exclusivism. Firstly, it explains in brief the idea of Hick regarding religious pluralism. Secondly, it presents the arguments presented by Plantinga on religious exclusivism, and thirdly, it contrasts the views of the two authors and presents some example situations to explain the conflicting views. Finally, the conclusion presents the view of the author of this paper regarding the arguments presented by Hick and Plantinga.
Religious Pluralism vs. Religious Exclusivism
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In his essay on religious pluralism, John Hick presents the view that different religions have various practices based on people’s ethnical and cultural beliefs of the divine. In the beginning of his essay, he identifies man as a “religious animal”, that humans are predisposed to having a religion or a belief in the divine. This also means that religion has evolved with man, and it continuously changes as man evolves. The earliest existence of religion or belief in the divine can be traced in Mesopotamia and India. It is said that early Indian deities recognized natural forces as destructive and cruel, but at the same time, beneficial to mankind. Early primitive beliefs recognized forces in nature as greater than man, from which transcended the idea of the divine God who is all-powerful and all-knowing.
A certain disparity is established by the author among religions. In particular, in India, the concept of the divine is more associated with a female god which is in contrast with the herdsmen in the Near East who perceived God to be male.
It was in 800 B.C. when personal experience of God through the early prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, etc. was revealed. Finally, evidence of God whom early people worshipped became more evident with the voice of God speaking to the prophets through their dreams. Later on, as if for a certain “divine purpose”, the world came to recognize the different religions, e.g., Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, etc.
The people in these religions, as Hick recognizes, have various personal experiences that are affected by cultural and ethnical elements. These experiences of the divine are bound by one’s culture and geographical location. For instance, there is Confucianism to the Chinese, Christianity to Europeans and Americans, and Buddhism to East Asians. Although these religious beliefs vary from one religion to another, the idea of the divine power is nonetheless the same, thus they all lead to one God. A Christian who believes in Christ sees God as his Creator and Savior; in the same way, a Muslim believes that Allah will rescue him from harm. Moreover, Hick explains that each person’s response to the divine vary only from one’s cultural experience. Thus, Hinduism embodies the response of the Indians, and Islam represents that of the Arabs. Although these responses vary from one culture to another, there are certain truths about God that people from every religion share (e.g., God created the world and mankind).
On the question whether any one of these religions is ultimately true or real, Hick reasons out that God himself is infinite, so is our belief in Him. God is so powerful and there are no boundaries for explanation on the idea of God. In as much as God is infinite, so does each person’s encounter with Him. Additionally, Hick views that although there are differences in the religions due to cultural differences, gradually, these religions will “grow closer together”, that is, they will not necessarily become one as if people will be converted to a specific religion, but these religions will later have a certain degree of “osmosis” or harmony with each other.
In contrast to the belief of religious pluralism, Albert Plantinga presents the view of religious exclusivism. Plantinga retorts that religious exclusivism holds the idea that the tenets of one’s religion are true. In the most part of his essay, Plantinga defends exclusivism against moral and intellectual issues raised against it. According to his opponents, religious exclusivism is “irrational, egotistical, elitist, manifestation of harmful pride, oppressive, and imperialistic.” For Plantinga, exclusivists must not be accused of these because there is nothing immoral in believing that what others believe is false and your own belief is the only thing true. He justifies that by believing in what your religion teaches you, are only taking your stand as those who believe they are right. Moreover, if we are to interpret, he means that by sticking with what one believes in, one is not necessarily stepping on the moral rights of others.
Additionally, in his essay, Plantinga attacks pluralists for not having a stand on certain things or not being able to discern what to believe in. In other sense, there are those who neither believe in something nor denounce it. For example, there are people who cannot take a stand on moral issues such as abortion. They will not say it is immoral nor will they say it moral. They simply cannot take a stand. That is why they are lost in accepting all religious possibilities. To illustrate his point further, Plantinga cites Aristotle’s rationality of man—that man is a rational animal—therefore he possesses reason and he is capable to arrive at a logical reasoning. In this sense, pluralists are attacked for not knowing the truth about their religion and not taking a stand regarding the truth. This sense of knowing the truth is related to the notion of deontological sense. It states that man has a duty or obligation in whatever he believes. He has a duty to infer if those beliefs are true or not, therefore an exclusivist should be able to verify if his beliefs are absolute truths before he believes in them.
Plantinga further illustrates the notion of Zweckrationalist by Weber, which suggests valuing our motives based on our end goal. This means that our actions are governed by our end motif, thus we should make sure that what we do is in congruence with what we believe in. Moreover, Plantinga identifies a way on how we should evaluate our beliefs based on coherence with other beliefs and with beliefs when all false beliefs have been extracted so as to find out why “others do not believe what I do”. This way, he says that we will arrive at the logical reasoning of what we believe in. Furthermore, he illustrates that even if one is born of Christian parents and naturally becomes a Christian at birth, s/he has the obligation to find out if the beliefs s/he is brought up with are true. In the same way, even though a person is born in a nation where there are no pluralists, there is still a possibility that he can be a pluralist. The same is true with exclusivists. At the end, he suggests that although pluralists have a tendency to know and accept all possibilities in religions, it could serve as an advantage if the pluralist would try to discern from the ideas gathered which is true and which is false.
The argument between the notions of religious pluralism and religious exclusivism calls to mind the argument between moral relativists and absolutists, whereas the pluralists share the opinion of the moral relativists and the absolutists for the exclusivists.
Being a pluralist, Hick similarly presents a moral relativist’s view that there can be no right or wrong in religions, that each religion is right in one sense, based on the cultural boundaries where it is practiced. He is telling us that although there are some differences in religious beliefs, due to geographical and cultural reasons, there are also certain truths which these religions share. The important idea presented by Hick is that all religions, whether Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam, Christianity, etc. accept the notion of God and the divine power over mankind. In application, we may say that Hick presents a uniting idea of all religions as opposed to Plantinga’s view of hailing one’s religion and proclaiming it as true and others as false. In connection with this, we may say that what Hick is presenting is a modern view of religion wherein one can acknowledge the other and exist with it even though he does not believe in it. For instance, a Buddhist wife could live harmoniously with a Christian husband although both do not share each one’s beliefs. Similarly, if we apply this in government, an Islam country can accept assistance from a Christian nation without compromising its religious belief. This way, we will create a nation of peace and harmony.
However, for exclusivists like Plantinga, such belief is not acceptable if one is to consider the faculties of man for sound reasoning. He presents a view that is close to that of absolutists that each individual must discern what is true and what is false—nothing in between, nothing relative. He passes on to us the obligation to verify if what we believe in is true, based on logical reasoning and end result.
Having examined the views of Hick and Plantinga, we should consider whose view we should affirm or denounce, but all the more it would be good to assess what could have aroused these arguments in religion. Since religion is our topic here, let us consider, why do we need to stick to certain beliefs? Why do we need the concept of the divine in our lives? Is it not because of salvation? Are Hick and Plantinga not arguing just because of the question of who would be saved and not? Is not the belief in God or religion predominantly concerned with the idea of salvation? Therefore, it is good to ask, who will be saved? Is it the Christians, the Muslims, or the Jews? For pluralists like Hick, everyone is entitled to salvation. No specific religion could say that it is the only way to salvation. However, for exclusivists like Plantinga, the only way to salvation is the religion that has found the truth. All else that negates the said religion will not lead people to salvation.
Although these two authors present differing views of religion, there is something common between them. Both are concerned with harmony. For Hick, harmony can be found by accepting others’ beliefs, while for Plantinga, it is believing in only one truth.
- Plantinga, Alvin Carl. (Year). A Defense of Religious Exclusivism. In Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. (pp. 516-529). Place of Publication: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
- Hick, John. (Year). Religious Pluralism and Ultimate Reality. In Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology. (pp. 509-516). Place of Publication: Wadsworth Publishing Company.