By Joe Winkler, 02/14/2012 5:45 pm
With a deep sadness in my heart, I write of the recently deceased Christian theologian John Hick. I feel utterly unqualified to provide a proper eulogy, or even the requisite encomium for one of the 20th centuries most important religious thinkers. Given his impact on my religious personality and thought I can only express my immense gratitude towards this insightful thinker. Hick, in his books, interviews, articles and essays, not only clarified numerous theological issues including pluralism, eschatology and the truth of scripture, all in the light of modern thinking, but just the way he thought, his methodology: infused with generosity, reason, and a fullness of spirit continues to serve as a model. He taught instead of preached; he lived his life according to a well thought out system of principles, and worked hard to heal the wounds from a breakdown in interfaith communications. Hick freed so many of us from the chains of our dogma to embrace our fellow human beings.
I first stumbled upon Hick, as I floundered, drowning in a sea of swirling existential, philosophical and theological questions that grew from the intersection of a rigorous Judaic studies program coupled with an entrenchment in the leftist leaning, atheistic bent of a strongly liberal literary education. I began to doubt some of the deepest religious certainties of my life. I found little to bridge the gaps between a world suffused with the divine, and the literary world, disenchanted, drained of any trace of transcendence. I sought, in vain, answers from past theologians, regardless of religion, but found little resolution or solace in these writers. Then I found Hick. Hick wrote with a complete transparency as to his methods and assumptions, which allows you to follow the process of his prodigious thought as he struggled with his own religious belief. He sought to merge the never-ending questioning of philosophy with the religious assumptions of theology, an endeavor, in my opinion, in which he achieved important results. Though a consummate academic, Hick shunned dense, prohibitive prose and sought instead to write with clarity on the most complex topics including a trenchant and persistent analysis of theodicy. He did not write from the perch of a sermon, nor did he write from the defensiveness of an apologetic. He simply wrote from a dedicated personal vision, a well thought out sysem that attempted to account for both the aspirations and ambivalence of religion. Hick never shunned controversy, instead he hewed to the truth, regardless of the consequences, unafraid to say, “Even Jesus was fallible.”
Hick, a prolific writer, wrote on immortality, the metaphors of religion, faith and doubt, eschatology, but importantly for me, he wrote extensively on one of the essential problems of religious belief today, the problem of choice. The more I read and experienced, the further I empathized with the lives of other people. I grew more compelled by new and different truths. As another prominent religious thinker, Charles Taylor writes, we live in an era in which religion presents itself as much of a choice as either another religion, or atheism. We no longer feel compelled by the fear of hell, but by the fear of a meaningless existence. Consequently, we are faced with the question of the mutually exclusive truths of particular religions. We all know, intuitively, that each religion must view itself as the true religion, otherwise, it undermines its ability to perpetuate itself. However, in our age of exploration, where every lifestyle presents itself to us as, in the words of Wiliam James, “live options,” we must reconcile the conflicting claims of each religion. Hick, with eloquence and elegance achieves this goal. I hesitate to quote a writer as such great length, but his words speak better of him than anything I could write. Here Hick elucidates his vision of a the need for a pluralistic view of religion:
“Now given that the large majority of human beings are born and live, and always have lived, outside Christianity, does it make sense to think that it is God’s will that ‘Jesus shall reign where’er the sun does his successive journeys run’? … There are saints and sinners in more or less equal proportion within each of the great world faiths.
So I believe we have radically to rethink our understanding of the place of Christianity in the global religious picture. And we have to face the fact that it is one path amongst others, and then reform our belief-system to be compatible with this. This is the big new challenge that theologians and church leaders have yet to face. We have to become consciously what are called religious pluralists… Finally, this is not going to happen from the top down. Change comes from the grassroots. Many of us have friends of other faiths whom we greatly admire. We simply don’t believe that they are religiously disadvantaged, even though our official theologies imply that they must be. And in the end reality will inevitably prevail over traditional dogma — at least for all who are not encased in the impenetrable armour of a rigid fundamentalism. Why does all this matter? We only have to look at the state of the world to see why. The Catholic theologian Hans Kung has said that there will never be peace between the nations until there is peace between the religions. And I would add that there will never be genuine peace between the religions until each comes to recognise the equal validity of the others. Let us all do in our time what we can to bring this about.”
He walked a fine line between embracing the divine in life along with feeling guided by the plain, sensical skepticism we carry around because of life. He saw both sides, but still managed to live a religiously committed, humanistic, sensitive, rationally driven life. His example itself lent viability and relevancy to religion today.
To end on a more playful note, for Hick displayed a healthy sense of playfulness and humor, I recall one small story that makes me smile. Once I began reading Hick, I sought out one of the books he edited entitled “The Existence of God” to which he contributed an introduction and an essay. I searched for the book, to no avail, and I felt compelled to find it without the help of the Internet. Then, one day, traveling in Nowhere, Connecticut, on a camping trip I found a book sale filling a whole parking lot. There, hidden amongst thrown out books of yore, I found his book, beaten up, battered, cost: 50 cents. I brought it back to the woods and sat there reading his introduction in which he proceeds to tear to shreds the whole pretense of proving God through rational means, a slightly curious way to open up a book on the existence of God. But for me, therein lied the greatness of John Hick. Never what you expected, but always what you wanted. Thank you, John Hick. You are loved.