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December 2014 Brief: Volume 21, Number 36

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Religious Pluralism:
John Hick and the Elephant With Every Other Name

 

By Bernard James Mauser, Ph.D., San Diego Christian College

 

 

The famous poem written to illustrate what happens when six blind men try to describe the elephant that none of them have seen has been used to describe religious pluralism. Religious pluralism is actually understood in at least two major ways. Sometimes the words are taken to refer to the fact that there are a plurality of religions in a society. This is unproblematic and everyone recognizes that this is the case. However, according to John Hick’s thesis, religious pluralism’s real significance is that all religions are simply different perspectives of the same reality. This second explanation is much more controversial and, although popular, has some significant problems.

 

Hick sees the characteristic that all religions share – namely, the belief in a higher reality – as significant. Coupled with this belief is that only by having a relation to the higher reality will we reach our highest good. Third, the only way to have a relation to the higher reality is to give oneself freely and totally to it.

 

Hick also wants people to accept a distinction that has been handed to him by Immanuel Kant. As Kant famously said, there is a difference between something as it appears to you and as it is in itself, so too one needs to understand there is a distinction between the Real as it is in itself, and the Real as we experience it.[1] The reason for the variety of religions is basically the Real as it is in itself can be experienced in many ways and described differently.[2] For Hick this is the heart of his hypothesis.[3] For example, when a police officer questions many people who were witnesses to an accident, he writes many different reports about the same event. In the same way, people may experience and describe the same Reality in different ways.

 

One criticism of Hick is that different religions have contradictory truth claims about reality. Hick admits that some say that God is personal and others say that God is non-personal.[4] Now either God is personal or not. It cannot be true that God is both personal and non-personal given the law of excluded middle.

 

The second criticism of Hick’s position is that his account reinterprets a religious belief when it cannot account for contradiction. For example, when discussing what the goal of all religions is, he says that the goal is to move people from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness in order to relate to the Absolute.[5] Further, this goal is reached by giving oneself freely and totally to this One as our final salvation or liberation or enlightenment.[6] Why does Hick equate salvation with liberation and enlightenment? Hick must blur the distinction between certain terms to equate them to such an extent that they are rendered completely different than what they mean to each of the world religions that use them. Thus, Christians believe that salvation describes the fact that they are saved from at least some of the consequences of sin. Yet, liberation often is used to mean that one is freed from thinking there is any such thing as sin. Enlightenment often has different meanings as well and can be used to describe coming to a realization that desire is the primary obstacle to finding a release from suffering.

 

A third criticism is that Hick overlooks the most important difference in the various religions – what are the means to reach the end? Thus, when two religions claim one can have a relationship with God in different ways, Hick focuses instead on the ends that both share instead of the means by which to reach the end. Suppose that the thing in common among the various religions is the end they all want to reach. One religion claims that it is only by doing enough good works that one will be reconciled to God. Another claims that one can never be reconciled to God by doing good works. These are contradictory means given by different religions to reach God.

 

The fourth criticism is that Hick’s analysis presupposes that he has access to the Reality everyone else only partially describes. Hick actually admits his description of religious pluralism is like the one of the elephant and the six blind men.[7] However, he also says that he does not claim to know his description with infallible cognition. But, Hick does not see this as a weakness of his position. The reason is that other religions have no infallible cognition either. The problem that becomes obvious does not relate to whether Hick has infallible cognition, but that he views a reality that all the other world religions miss. Further, by the very nature of his analysis, Hick claims to be in the position that he can view reality as it really is in order to critique all the other religions. Thus, despite his denial, his description puts him in the place that he has the “point of view of someone who can observe both elephant and blind men.”[8]

 

In conclusion, one can see the many areas where Hick’s account is implausible. On the positive side, Hick’s religious pluralism may try to promote tolerance between the different religious systems. Yet, although promoting tolerance is good, tolerance only makes sense if you think the other person’s view is false. I do not tolerate those that I agree with because there is nothing to tolerate. It is important to recognize that each religion holds to beliefs they think are true that others do not. Further, those who say all the contradictory beliefs are true make the very notion of truth meaningless. Thus, because Hick’s account rests on the fallacy of equivocation and cannot deal with the obvious areas of contradiction between different religious systems, one should reject his view.

 

Public Interest Institute’s POLICY STUDY, Religious Pluralism: John Hick and the Elephant with Every Other Name can be viewed at http://www.LimitedGovernment.org/ps-14-7.html.

 

(Endnotes)
[1] John Hick, “Religious Pluralism,” in Philosophy of Religion: Selected Readings. Edited by Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 566.
[2] Ibid. 567.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. 568.
[5] Ibid. 570.
[6] Ibid. 566.
[7] Ibid. 565.
[8] Ibid.

 

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