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D. Is There Such a Thing?

So the view seems to be of dubious coherence. Stated carefully, it isn’t initially incoherent. From Hick’s point of view, however, the most important feature of this alleged being is that it is in some special way associated with religion; this being is what those who serve God, Brahman, and so on are really referring to; in the great world religions, people get into a special relationship to it. And that seems wholly gratuitous; perhaps the Real is really connected with those who serve themselves, or power, or white supremacy. But I come now, finally, to the question what reason Hick has for postulating such a being: why does he think there is a being with no positive properties of which we have a grasp? Hick’s answer:

The Real an sich is postulated by us as a pre-supposition, not of the moral life, but of religious experience and the religious life, whilst the gods, as also the mystically known Brahman, Sunyata and so on, are phenomenal manifestations of the Real occurring within the realm of religious experience. Conflating these two theses one can say that the Real is experienced by human beings, but experienced in a manner analogous to that in which, according to Kant, we experience the world: namely by informational input from external reality being interpreted by the mind in terms of its own categorial scheme and thus coming to consciousness as meaningful phenomenal experience. (243)

Why should we want to postulate such a thing, a thing with no positive properties of which we have any grasp, but which is experienced by human beings in the great religions? More to the point, why does Hick postulate such a being?

The answer, I think, must be explained dialectically. Hick began his spiritual odyssey as a traditional, orthodox Christian, accepting what I have been calling ‘Christian belief’. He was then struck by the fact that there are other religions in which the claims of orthodox Christianity—trinity, incarnation, atonement—are rejected. Furthermore, so far as one can tell from the outside, so to speak, the claims 60of these other religions, taken literally, are as respectable, epistemically speaking, as the claims of Christianity. Still further, according to Jesus himself, “By their fruits you shall know them.” The most important fruits, Hick thinks, are practical: turning away from a life of selfishness to a life of service; on this point, these other religions, he thinks, seem to do as well as Christianity. The conclusion he draws is that where Christianity differs from the others, we can’t properly hold that it is literally true and the others literally false; that would be, he thinks, a sort of intellectual arrogance, a sort of spiritual imperialism, a matter of exalting ourselves and our beliefs at the expense of others. Instead, we must hold that the great religions are all equally valuable and equally true. How do we do this? Here is Hick’s response:

But if the Real in itself is not and cannot be humanly experienced, why postulate such an unknown and unknowable Ding an sich? The answer is that the divine noumenon is a necessary postulate of the pluralistic religious life of humanity. For within each tradition we regard as real the object of our worship or contemplation. If, as I have already argued, it is also proper to regard as real the objects of worship or contemplation within the other traditions, we are led to postulate the Real an sich as the presupposition of the veridical character of this range of forms of religious experience. Without this postulate we should be left with a plurality of personae and impersonae each of which is claimed to be the Ultimate, but no one of which alone can be. We should have either to regard all the reported experiences as illusory or else return to the confessional position in which we affirm the authenticity of our own stream of religious experience whilst dismissing as illusory those occurring within other traditions. But for those to whom neither of these options seems realistic the pluralistic affirmation becomes inevitable, and with it the postulation of the Real an sich, which is variously experienced and thought. . . . (249)

Now this passage is apparently an argument of some kind, an argument for the conclusion that there is a being (the Real) of the sort Hick says there is. The argument seems to proceed from two premises: (1) all the great religions are “veridical,” and (2) none of them is more veridical than the others. How does the argument go? The idea, I think, is that if we suppose there is a being of the sort Hick says there is, then, according to Hick, we can see how (1) and (2) could be true. I’m not sure I see just how that is supposed to go, but let that pass. What isn’t as easily ignored, however, is a sort of incoherence. “Within each tradition,” he says, “we regard as real the object of our worship or contemplation.” So within the Christian tradition, we regard God as real; it is also “proper to regard as real the objects of worship or contemplation within the other traditions.” This, of course, leads to a problem; for some of the personae and impersonae are such that if they are real, and have the properties ascribed to them, then other (im)personae 61are either unreal or do not have the properties ascribed to them. Well, perhaps the idea, as Hick seems to suggest elsewhere, is that we are to regard each of the (im)personae as empirically real, not transcendentally real (not really real); and perhaps we are to understand that as meaning that each being is such that by way of it, the practitioners of the religion in question somehow get in touch with the Real. The essential point, however, is that we are not to think of one or some of these as more valuable or closer to the truth than the others; that would be arbitrary and unwarranted. We should no longer regard as really real (or rather real simpliciter) the objects of worship of our own tradition. We must treat all traditions alike.

Now the way Hick proposes to do this is to declare that all the traditions are actually mistaken; the beliefs in each tradition are mostly false. (“Literally” false, he says; but literal truth and falsehood, as Hick conceives them, are just truth and falsehood.) Still, there is something right or valid in religion—the recognition that there is something beyond the natural world, and the encouragement to live a life in which self-centeredness is overcome. So really, the bottom line is that Hick cannot find it in himself to think one religion—Christianity, say—is true and the others false, or that one is closer to the truth than the others. At bottom, there is a generous desire to avoid the self-aggrandizement and self-exaltation he sees as attaching to the declaration that one’s own religious beliefs are true and those of others false.

Here there are three comments or questions. First, is this posture in fact possible for a human being: can a person accept it, and accept it authentically, without bad faith or doublethink? I am to remain a Christian, to take part in Christian worship, to accept the splendid and powerful doctrines of traditional Christianity. However, I am also to take it that these doctrines are only mythologically true: they are literally false, although accepting them (i.e., accepting them as true, as literally true) puts or tends to put one into the right relation with the Real. And how can I possibly accept them, adopt that attitude toward them, if I think they are only mythologically true—that is, really false? I could, indeed, believe that they are mythologically true; believing that, however, doesn’t move one toward the right kind of life; it is only believing the teachings themselves that allegedly has that salutary effect. Once I am sufficiently enlightened, once I see that those doctrines are not true, I can no longer take the stance with respect to them that leads to the hoped-for practical result. I am left, instead, in the position of a sad and disillusioned Gnostic. I no longer hold Christian belief; I recognize, as I think, that it is in fact false. I also see, of course, that those who do accept it as true are mistaken, deluded; but at any rate they are in the fortunate position of enjoying the comfort and strength and consolation these false beliefs bring; they are also being moved closer to the right kind of life by 62virtue of accepting them. Neither the comfort5454   According to the Heidelberg Catechism (Q. 1), “My only comfort in life and in death is that I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” According to Hick, however, my only comfort in life and in death is that I know the sad truth: believing the great teachings of Christianity has beneficial effects, but those teachings are, in fact, false. and consolation nor the practical efficacy is available to me.

Second, there is something wholly self-defeating, so it seems to me, in Hick’s posture. If we take this position, then we can’t say, for example, that Christianity is right and Buddhism wrong; as Christians, we don’t disagree with the Buddhists; and we take this stance in an effort to avoid self-exultation and imperialism. But we do something from the point of view of intellectual imperialism and self-exaltation that is much worse: we now declare that everyone is mistaken here, everyone except for ourselves and a few other enlightened souls. We and our graduate students know the truth; everyone else is sadly mistaken. Isn’t this to exalt ourselves at the expense of nearly everyone else? Those who think there really is such a person as God are benighted, unsophisticated, unaware of the real truth of the matter, which is that there isn’t any such person (even if thinking there is can lead to practical fruits). We see Christians as deeply mistaken; of course we pay the same compliment to the practitioners of the other great religions; we are equal-opportunity animadverters. We benevolently regard the rest of humanity as misguided; no doubt their hearts are in the right place; still, they are sadly mistaken about what they take to be most important and precious. I find it hard to see how this attitude is a manifestation of tolerance or intellectual humility: it looks more like patronizing condescension.

The basic problem is that, given our actual intellectual and spiritual situation, it simply isn’t possible to avoid serious disagreement with others. If some people believe p and others believe something q incompatible with p, there is no way in which we can avoid serious disagreement. If we affirm p, we disagree with those who affirm q; if we affirm q, we disagree with those who affirm p; if we propose a higher resolution, saying that neither p nor q is true (though perhaps each is ‘mythologically true’), then we disagree with both groups.5555   The same goes if we propose to remain agnostic about p and q; see below, chapter 13. But if it is imperialistic or somehow out of order to affirm p, thus disrespecting the partisans of q, why is it better to disrespect them all by pronouncing them all wrong?

Third, Hick doesn’t, of course, produce an argument for the conclusion that no religion could be closer to the truth than others; it is more like a practical postulate, a benevolent and charitable resolution 63to avoid imperialism and self-aggrandizement. But is this the way to do it? Clearly, in most areas of life, some people are closer to the truth than others. If the nominalists are right, all of us realists are wrong; if the modal skeptics are right, we modal true believers are mistaken; if the white supremacists are right, many of the rest of us, bent as we are on toleration, are wrong, and seriously wrong. Why should it be different in religion? The idea that in religion we must all be equally right and all equally wrong seems no more compelling than the idea that in thinking about religion we must all be equally right and equally wrong. Hick’s reason for thinking all religions equally right seems to be a desire to avoid self-aggrandizement; shouldn’t the same desire lead him to hold that his views about religion—his view, for example, that they are all equally right and equally wrong—really have no more claim to truth than any other view here (for example, the view that Christianity alone, say, is correct)? He doesn’t do that, and rightly so. We can’t properly do so in religious belief either. In religious belief as elsewhere, we must take our chances, recognizing that we could be wrong, dreadfully wrong. There are no guarantees; the religious life is a venture; foolish and debilitating error is a permanent possibility. (If we can be wrong, however, we can also be right.)

Our topic, in this book, is the de jure question with respect to Christian belief—not the question whether Christian belief is true (although, of course, that is the more important question) but whether it is reasonable or rational or rationally justifiable to accept it. We have been examining a preliminary matter: is there really such a question? Is there really such a thing as Christian belief? Or is it rather the case that even if there were such a person as God, we couldn’t refer to and think about him, or predicate positive, nonformal properties of him? Our results, so far, have been that there isn’t the slightest reason to think so. There is no reason at all to think it isn’t possible to think about God; there is no reason at all to think that we cannot predicate such positive, nonformal properties of him as wisdom, knowledge, love, and all the rest. Obviously, there is enormously more to be said; this topic deserves a book in itself. There isn’t room for that in this book; so we shall have to content ourselves with what we have. At any rate, we can rest in the assurance that if there is reason to think our question ill-formed or somehow logically out of order, it is at the least exceedingly well concealed. We can therefore go in reasonable confidence to the next question: what, precisely, is this de jure question?


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