I did a presentation today on a book by Harold Netland, Encountering Religious Pluralism (see post a little below). Much of the book deals with Netland’s doctoral teacher John Hick and responds to his views. Hick, you see, is the preeminent apologist for a full fledged pluralistic philosophy of religions.
In short, Hick sees all major religions as having equal claims and access to “the Real,” the vague notion of ultimate reality that he posits (using the term “God” was too theistic and seemed to give greater weight to theistic religions like Christianity and Islam over and against non-theistic religions like Buddhism. Of course, “the Real” seems to similarly favor Buddhism or Taoism, but I digress). It turns out that ultimate reality is ineffable (meaning it cannot be known, it is so far beyond human understanding that we cannot really access it or describe it at all – it is totally unknowable). Each religion, then, is simply a reflection of the Real played out in different historical and cultural circumstances. Thus, people in each religion can find salvation (or liberation or enlightenment…. guess it’s all the same thing). No one faith is more true than any other.
Of course a major problem with this position is that various religions make completely contradictory truth claims. An easy example has already been mentioned. Is God or Ultimate Reality or whatever personal in nature (as in Christianity) or not (as in the Tao)? It seems that if both of these faiths are expressions of the same Real entity, it would be logically impossible for that entity to be both personal and impersonal. And if the Real really is ineffable (unknowable), then how can Hick or anyone else know about it at all?
The most common way for pluralistic thinkers like Hick to get around the kind of logical inconsistencies being described is to basically redefine the religions in question. They might argue that the Bible is just incorrect on this point or that point. In so doing, of course, they presumptiously redefine an entire faith tradition in order to make it fit into their unified vision of pluralistic faith. In other words, they immasculate biblical Christianity to the point it is unrecognizeable to those who hold a biblical worldview, and then say that this fundamentally altered Christianity is no different than any other religion. Of course, in so doing they are no doubt fundamentally altering Islam and other religions too.
Anyway, a critique of pluralism is not what I had in mind with this post. I wanted to mention that John Hick, in his college years, was deeply involved in evangelical Christian organizations and had the appearance of being a believer in Christ. In contemporary terms – you would probably find John Hick at a Campus Crusade meeting. Over time, he began to question certain doctrines of Christianity (especially the nature of Christ and related issues such as the resurrection and the virgin birth). Then he began to be troubled by the teaching that good people of other faiths are wrong and will spend eternity apart from God unless they trust in Christ. Then he moved to a city (Birmingham, England) that has a huge multi-cultural population and he got to know intelligent, good people of other faiths.
And so it goes until, eventually, he’s talking about “the Real” instead of God. He tends to refer to Jesus as “the mysterious man from Nazareth” and turns his back on pretty much everything related to Christianity. (One critique of his position is that it seems to be too oriented towards Buddhist thinking than a pure pluralistic philosophy. In other words his brand of pluralism looks awfully similar to a strand of Buddhism… maybe that’s another post).
How does such a transformation happen to someone who was once apparently a believer?
(Hint – the use of the word apparently is important!). I think the issue has to do, on one level, with the fact that he moved away from Scripture as his ultimate source of authority. Once you decide that Scripture is not what it claims to be – the Word of God without error – you make yourself the arbiter of all truth. Then you are even more susceptible to being swayed by the winds of culture and the unsteady ground of subjective experience. (I’m not against experience, but without proper grounding you can get into trouble relying on experience alone). It’s a slippery slope from rejecting Scripture to apostasy.
Ultimately, of course, it seems that while Hick may have had the appearance of Christianity, he was not a regenerate follower of Christ. Anyway, I just find in all of this a little lesson to heed the warning of Scripture to guard your doctrine and teaching carefully!