Here’s an article by John Hick (reference below), a philosopher and theologian, that perfectly epitomizes the problems of theology. Hicks takes up a very good question: if you’re a Christian, but realize that the vast majority of religious people, including Jews, Hindus, and Muslims, get their faith from their family rather than from free choice among a menu of faiths, then how do you regard those people? After all, they haven’t been “saved” through acceptance of Jesus, and may either go to hell or be denied heaven. And what about all those people who lived before Christ supposedly came on the scene? Will the Incas and Aztecs also burn in hell? That doesn’t seem fair.
Should we conclude that we who have been born within the reach of the gospel are God’s chosen people, objects of a greater divine love than the rest of the human race? But then, on the other hand, do we not believe that God loves all God’s creatures with an equal and unlimited love?
His article attempts to answer this question. He first disposes of the traditional two answers:
- Evangelize those other faiths into Christianity. He notes that missionary efforts in places like India haven’t worked very well, so proselytizing is out.
- God knows who the “real” Christians would be. That is, God knows exactly which Aztecs, Norsemen, Muslims and Jews who don’t or didn’t know about Jesus would nevertheless accept him if they had known about him, and will reward those folks on Judgment Day. Hick rejects this, properly, as “a horrific suggestion,” for it presumes that God knows what everyone would do in every possible circumstance. (I should add that that kind of God-knowledge also goes against the Christian notion of free will.)
Hick then discusses three more palatable solutions that others have suggested as forms of “inclusivist” Christian theology. All of them, of course, presume that Christianity is the “true” faith and all others are faux faiths.
- There are anonymous Christians—people whom god knows “would respond to the Christian gospel if it were properly presented to them.” Hick says this comes from Catholicism, and was developed by the Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984). This answer seems pretty much identical to solution (2) given above, and is a nonstarter.
- People get the chance to choose Jesus after they die. Hick explains, “Thus the devout Muslim living, let us say, in Pakistan and insulated from the gospel by a powerful Islamic faith, will encounter Christ after or in the moment of death and will thus have an opportunity to receive salvation.” Although this seems extraordinarily stupid (people have to choose instantly?), it has been promulgated by several respected theologians, including Catholic J. A. Dinoia and Protestant George Lindbeck, who dignifies the idea with the pretentious title of “eschatologically futuristic perspective.”
- Christ is actually secretly at work as “the unknown Christ” in other faiths. That poses a problem, of course, because other faiths antedate Christianity. Hick says this: “Since Hinduism and Buddhism (also Taoism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism and Jainism) all long predate Christianity, the Christ who has been at work within them from the beginning cannot be the God-man Jesus, but must be the cosmic Christ or eternal Logos who later became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth.” As Hick notes, this “solution” also fails to consider adherents to nontheisic faiths like Buddhism.
Don’t all these ideas sound silly? Yet they are taken seriously by distinguished theologians!
Hick then offers his solution, “a positive suggestion”. It is this: there is a “Real” (his term for the “divine” or the “transcendent”, which can be conceived us as either a celestial being (Allah, Vishnu, God, etc.) or as a “nonpersonal” transcendent thing, such as Brahman or the Tao. And—the solution—all religions are merely versions of The Real! So there’s no substantive difference!
“The Real in itself lies beyond the range of our entire network of concepts, other than purely formal ones. We therefore cannot experience it as it is in itself but only as we conceptualize it in our human terms, organizing its impact on us in a particular form of religious experience. The religious traditions thus stand between us and the Real, constituting different “lenses” through which we are aware of it. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, in a foreshadowing of the Kantian insight, “Things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower.” And in relation to the Real or Divine the mode of the knower is differently formed within the different religious traditions.”
Hick goes on to answer various questions raised by this idea, like “well, what do we worship, then?, and “how do we know that God is a true manifestation of The Real?” (Answer: because God promotes the “salvific transformation of human life.”)
Well, I suppose that if you have to come up with a solution that sounds good, and is liberal and inclusive, this is the best one. But in the end it doesn’t work, either. Why? First, by using the loaded term “The Real,” (why didn’t he just call it “The Marshmallow”) it implies that there really is something Out There that is simply perceived differently by different faiths. Since that Thing could be impersonal (even The Universe, I suppose) and not necessarily theistic, there can be no evidence for it. Therefore we needn’t take it seriously. This is more of a problem with Hick’s solution than with some traditional religions, for at least the latter claim evidence (miracles, etc.), thin and unconvincing as it is.
Second, The Real won’t convince those people who think that “salvation” lies through their particular faith. Will a fundamentalist Baptist, told that Taoism as “salvific” as well, suddenly realize that every faith offers a path to Jesus (or Something)? I doubt it. That’s why theology like this remains the purview of the academy alone and doesn’t affect most believers. Think of how a fundamentalist Muslim, an Orthodox Jew, or a Southern Baptist would regard this solution? It no longer privileges (sorry for the pomo term) their own faith, something that I think is very important to people. If you’ve believed all your life that you have to go to Confession, and eat the cracker, if you want to be saved, it would seem nearly impossible to think that a Buddhist gets the same privileges without having done the work.
As for the fact that different faiths make different and incompatible faith claims, Hick just says that those claims “are claims about different manifestations of the Real to humanity. As such they do not contradict each other.” Of course they do! Either Jesus was the son of God, and the way to heaven was only through him, as he claimed, then that is incompatible with the Muslim claim that anyone accepting Jesus as the son of God is a blasphemer and deserves death. And claims that you’ll live after death and go to either heaven or hell are incompatible with some faiths’ claims that that doesn’t happen.
But the main problem is that we have no evidence that Hick’s solution is better than any other. It just sounds better to the liberal and inclusivist ear. Why should we believe in The Real rather than the idea that we’re given five minutes after death to accept Jesus or not? There is equal evidence for both of these views: none. Not only will it not work (does Hicks really intend to bring together the world’s faith in comity?), but in it we see the real purview of theology: not to decide whether there is a God, or what he’s like and what he wants, but to cobble together fine-sounding solutions to the many contradictions between faiths and within faiths (i.e., the existence of evil). Theologians don’t really care if they produce knowledge—they care that they can sweep the difficulties of religion under a rhetorical table.
The one advantage of Hick’s solution is that if every religious person really believed it, it might end a lot of the interfaith animus that besets and harms our world. But another solution is just to dispense with religion completely.
Hick, J. 1998. The theological challenge of religious pluralism. In: Introduction to Christian Theology: Contemporary North American Perspectives. (R. A. Badham, ed.) Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville,KY