More sophisticated theology: what do Christians do with all those troublesome other faiths?

July 8, 2011 • 9:49 am

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:

  1. Evangelize those other faiths into Christianity.  He notes that missionary efforts in places like India haven’t worked very well, so proselytizing is out.
  2. 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

149 thoughts on “More sophisticated theology: what do Christians do with all those troublesome other faiths?

  1. It seems to me that the concept of God that many, if not most, people hold involves some sense of being all-powerful and all-knowing. I guess I don’t know enough about free will and religion, but it seems like the average believer would have no problem with the idea that God could simply know who would have been a Christian, if they hadn’t been prevented from having the opportunity during their lifetime. The key here is, of course, as Jerry’s well pointed out, the disconnect between the average believer and the sophisticated theology that supposedly supports those beliefs.

    1. And you get the whole prodigal son problem… what good is it, really, to live a life of servitude to your deity when another person skips all the ritual deprivation and get in just by being a good person? Why not just wait till the end and convert, if Jesus is going to bypass all the irritating ‘gotta have faith’ stuff and just show up after you die? It really wrecks the whole carrot and stick model that Christianity has used for so long.

      1. You can’t get in by just being a good person (see Eph. 2:8-9). All you need, at the very least, is a well-timed deathbed conversion (but it has to be real…remember, God knows your heart). The philanthropic atheist goes to hell, but the child rapist who turned to Christ in prison will go to heaven.

        But then again, see James 2:14-26. So who knows. I seem to have a lot of useless knowledge, having grown up Southern Baptist…

    2. A couple of glitches to dwell on, given the assumption of God as all-powerful and all-knowing:

      1) God is ultimately (if not proximately) responsible for all evil in the world. If God had a choice on the state of the world God made, it chose one in which evil was possible. Hence IS responsible for all evil in the world. If God had no choice in the state of the world God made, then someting or someone even more powerful set the single choice for God, and then God is less than all-powerful.

      2) Prayer in pointless. God already determined all outcomes and will not change course as if, upon listening to a prayer, God “reflected” and then “decided”: Ah, now that you beg with such fervor, I’ll grant your wish. God being all-powerful and all-knowing, already set a course in which some would not pray and get their wish; others would not pray and not get their wish; others would pray and get their wish; and others would pray and not get their wish. If we, ex ante reflect on that, we can exercise our illusory free will and choose to pray (or not) and the outcome God preselected would then be realized.

      Theology and belief in the supernatural is totally an assault on reason and mature existence!

  2. Free will is such a central tenant of Christianity (personal responsibility and part of the lame explanation for why a perfect good allows incredible evil to exist), and yet the Good Book undercuts the theological case for free will.

    If one reads only as far as the second book (Exodus), chapter 4, verse 21, God says, “But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.” The Pharaoh thus was not free to spare himself and all his people the many cruel fates that God had in store for them. With God in charge, free will is an illusion!


    1. It’s allright – the archaeological evidence is pretty much entirely against anything in Exodus having ever happened, so God never actually hardened Pharaoh’s heart; that was just something the Jews came up with later on, like how Americans will tell stories about Paul Bunyan.

      See? Not a problem. No siree.

  3. Does this mean that human sacrifice (seems to have been a central Mayan religious practice) is part of the ‘Real’? How about Satanism?

    The ‘Real’ – a concept so open that anything can be put in it – and everything drops straight through.

    1. Exactly, where does he draw the line? Is Bigfoot part of the Real? Or Loch Ness? Plenty of people believe in aliens and have festivals about them, and await their arrival with religious fervor, but does that mean that they are part of the source of all religion? Or what about Mormonism and Scientology (or going further back, the worship of Roman Emperors and Pharaohs), which were founded specifically to aid the greed and power of their founders?

      You can’t just gather all supernatural things together and pretend they’re all the same… its like gathering all baseball cards together and assuming they’re all the same player, when it comes down to it.

  4. This is hardly a new question – you’d think there’d be a party line answer by this time.

    Somehow all these apologetics remind me of the signs that aren’t all that hard to find out in the country, “Genuine Antiques Made While You Wait”

  5. Without going into great detail, from my research, one of the psychological benefits of religion, for many believers, is the feeling of being right. That is, others have to be wrong and therefore I made the correct choice. So, I’m not going to miss out on something. If everyone is right, then no one is wrong, therefore you take away one of the motivation to believe.

    For some, they need that feeling that someone is being punished for not believing as they do. This is like contingent self-worth. That is, a health self-view is contingent on the belief that I am correct.

    I have to run, will check back later.

  6. Just reading this makes my brain turn to mush.
    I prefer to count the number of angels that can stand on a pin-head.
    (Note: for those who don’t get what I mean, the inanity of trying to explain what theogians mean is mind-numbing.)

  7. Mormonism tries to solve this problem with post-mortal but pre-judgement missionary work.

    However, it’s still not a guarantee that you will get into the highest degree of heaven.

    1. Sounds like you are telling me that if a Mormon finds me in his or her family tree and baptizes me posthumously (being able to do this is the basis of the huge interest in genealogy among Mormons), there is no guarantee that it will suffice to get me through the pearly gates. Darn!

  8. The Mormon faith attempts to salvage the “you get to choose Christ after you are dead” by positing that people won’t go to their respective kingdoms until after Christ returns to Earth — so in the intervening years, everybody will just be living in an Earth-like place doing the same old shit, and everyone will be given a chance to make the right choices then. Some LDS thinkers have even gone so far as to suggest that Mormon missionaries will be just as necessary in the afterlife as they are here, to go out and teach people who did not get a chance to hear the gospel in their earthly life.

    You got that right. Some Mormons are plotting to keep ringing your doorbell even after you both are dead. Egads!

    1. One big problem with the “everyone gets a chance to choose after they die” solution is that people who are presented with Jesus after they die have a serious evidential advantage over people who were presented with a missionary at their door one afternoon. Are both nonbelievers given an equal opportunity here? Seems to me this argument assumes that every single missionary is just as effective as Jesus would be, every single time.

      I suspect a lot of missionaries would secretly doubt that.

      1. One big problem with the “everyone gets a chance to choose after they die” solution is that people who are presented with Jesus after they die have a serious evidential advantage over people who were presented with a missionary at their door one afternoon.

        Which would mean that it’s silly to be a missionary before death, you should wait till after death when it would get more results. Even more basically, why bother to “believe” before death, just wait till after death when you can actually know instead, and still get just as “saved.”

        1. Game Over. Continue?

          I think most of us would go “Oh damn, I didn’t realize I had a continue, sure, sign me up.”

        2. I once suggested to some JW missionaries, in all seriousness, the possibility that they would save many, many more souls by skipping every single door — thus allowing the unsaved the golden opportunity of dying without hearing the gospel and being converted by Jesus Christ … instead of by them, the humble JW. Wouldn’t the record of conversions be something like 100% — particularly given that the afterlife is now a given?

          To my surprise, I was told that no — every single person who failed to respond to the preachings of a Jehovah’s Witness on the doorstep would ALSO be just the sort of person who wouldn’t believe Jesus Himself, even after waking from their deathbed in Paradise. That’s how stubborn nonbelievers are. That’s how willful and unreasonable they are, impervious to the best kind of evidence so the poorest kind is just as good. They’re that sort of person: perverse to the bone.

          That didn’t describe me, or anyone I knew or had heard about outside of a cartoon or fairy tale. Forget that part about not believing what the religious say about God; I couldn’t believe what they were saying about Man.

  9. Hick rejects this, properly, as “a horrific suggestion,” for it presumes that God knows what everyone would do in every possible circumstance. 

    Well, so much for omniscience (and therefore omnipotence). Does Hick realize he’s just dumped two of the three main qualities of the Christian god?

  10. This is extra silly. The fact that people with other religions will suffer eternally was historically considered a feature, not a bug.

    1. Yeah, but forcible conversion of people other than your own children is illegal in most places now, so theologians have to make up a reason why their religion no longer requires it. The really ambitious ones will make up a reason why their religion [i]never[/i] required it and, in fact, never claimed to be the only correct religion. All the historical documentation saying otherwise is, of course, misunderstood by ignorant atheists.

  11. Uh, Miranda’s Holy Rabbit told me that He saves whoever he pleases and we have to like it anyway. Or, the Holy Rabbit would have told me that if He exists, as he surely does, but not in the sense that we are used to….or something like that (insert random babble with phrases taken from thermodynamics and quantum mechanics here)

    1. He saves whoever he pleases and we have to like it anyway.

      I guess the Calvinists were right after all…

  12. How can anyone take this stuff seriously? How is this any different from angels on pinheads? There’s no evidence to support any of it, but people can puzzle over these “new findings” and say, “Yes! That’s the correct theory! We cracked it!”

  13. I haven’t read the work but I assume he, like virtually all other Christian apologists, ignores the fundamental conundrum of a heaven/hell theology. How can I possibly enjoy even a second in heaven knowing that others, including quite possibly family members and others I loved, are suffering eternally? If there is a hell, there can be no heaven for any creature capable of compassion.

    1. I’m pretty sure you’re just supposed to not love them because they didn’t make the cut. Either that or you get some kinda memory-wipe.

      On a side note that’s a major component of a story I’ve been meaning to write, involving a rapture/second coming/etc/etc that even “saved” people find morally repugnant and fight back against.

      1. So on earth, we’re supposed to love our enemies per Jesus’ command, but we get past all that mushy, bleeding-heart, kumbaya crap in heaven. Is hell just a dirty little secret no one talks about in heaven, or is it an actual source of entertainment there? I’m picturing a heavenly version of YouTube (HellTube?) where you can watch compilations of the week’s best suffering, maybe organized by gender, age and of course sexual orientation.

        1. I’ve never discussed the issue at length with any Christian who didn’t equivocate outrageously on Hell. Then again I’m in a super liberal area:

          Friend: “Well, I know YOU are a good person, even though your an atheist, so YOU won’t go to Hell, despite what it says in the bible”

          Me: “Wait, so if the bible isn’t an accurate source of knowledge about who goes to Hell, why would it be accurate on anything at all? For somebody who believes this book ACTUALLY CAME FROM GOD, you don’t seem to take what it says very seriously”

          Friend: “Faith! I don’t know! Works for me! Shut up!”

          1. That’s pretty much what my parents told me when I asked them the same question. In truth, its a real deal breaking problem for liberal people. If good people in other religions don’t go to heaven, the religion seems hopelessly blind to the fact that goodness does not equal Christian, and if they do, its in contradiction to the bible, and what *Jesus of the Gospels* says, and it just seems like a bone thrown to people to keep them in the faith.

          2. The easiest way to deal with the seemingly unfair damnation of those in other faiths is to consider the Damned to be not really like people you know or like. The hell-bound are shadowy-figures with only enough detail in their characters for the contemplative believer to be comfortable with knowing they “belong in Hell” or — even better — “prefer to be in Hell” — which of course entails not contemplating the Damned too deeply, or too much. Change the subject, quick.

            1. Yes, only the very different, preferably foreign (and thus invisible) are going to hell. Of course, as soon as you start trying to characterize the hell-bound by race, religion, ethnicity, sexual persuasion, criminal behavior or political viewpoint, you’re going to find that someone you care about is getting lumped in.

              On another point: My very devout brother once speculated that hell might be like a bad party, where no one’s having fun but they stay anyway.

          3. It’s the take my ball and go home defense. Little kids will get flustered by the game and rather than try to discuss a good solution to their frustration, they get all huffy and storm off. Theists hang out with people who agree with them that their nonsense is real and cannot fathom someone disagreeing with the nonsense. When someone does, they get flustered and quit, arguing that you have not played fairly.

      2. A lot of religious people I’ve read seem to go with a sort of lobotomy/overdose mechanism. You’re so blissed out on Jesus that you wouldn’t even noticed.

    2. Ah but – “The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them.”
      — Thomas Aquinas

      1. I read someone who said that in heaven you’d forget the people who are in hell so you wouldn’t have to be upset about their suffering. I suppose it’s better than peering over the edge into hell and enjoying their cries of pain.

  14. I had a Christian (C of E) friend at school who believed a version of “People get to choose Jesus after they die.” Her theory was that on being confronted with God after death, her non-believer friends would be instantly converted, thus being saved from Hell. From her point of view, it reconciled the idea of a benevolent God with the knowledge that there were good people who were not Christian. *shrugs*

    1. Why would anyone who believed that bother to be a christian? Why go through all the work if there is an escape clause at the end anyway?

    2. Sounds like someone who cannot fathom a God that actually means what he says. She seems distressed, or at least unconvinced, that her God, who loves everyone dearly, would actually banish someone who refuses to accept His word to such a horrible place.

      Of course, we non-believers don’t fret about it too much. We see no particular reason to believe in God, his celestial playground in the clouds, or his dark, hot, fiery basement.

  15. Hicks has discovered the secret. The best way to include as many people as possible into the Christian religion is by re-defining the Christian religion. The amazing powers of the re-definition have been known to sophisticated theologians for centuries!

    Unfortunately, it works both ways. I will now re-define Hick’s “Real” without the mystical transcendent element …. into “Reality.” And I will take out the God and salvation part, too. And then I will look at how people who believe in “Reality” account for other people who also believe or want to believe in reality, and it all gets laughably easy.

    I’ve got the Christians, Aztecs, Norsemen, Muslims and Jews — and the Hindus and Buddhists and New Agers and people who are “spiritual but not religious” — and the atheists! Reality wins! Yay!

    That’s fun.

  16. The irony is that “The Real” suggests that coffee cups, tables, and cats aren’t real, when all of those things are real, and his “The Real” is completely made-up.

    It’s a classic theologian’s move, make words mean the exact opposite of what they mean.

      1. Well, I don’t know about Socrates, but I am arguing against Plato and his ilk. A lot of Christian Theology is nothing more than warmed-over Neoplatonism.

  17. I thought that many Christians didn’t believe in free will. That’s my understanding of Calvinism and pre-destination, and the puritan belief that people can NOT be saved by good works.

      1. The best explanation I’ve heard is that the Universe is like a movie. The characters in a movie don’t have free will, but they can still be “good” or “evil”.

        So suppose you’ve bought a ticket for a murder mystery, and at the end of the opening credits, someone comes up to the detective and says, “I killed those people out of spite, but now I feel kinda guilty about it and I promise never to do it again.” And the detective says, “Well, OK, just as long as you’ve learned your lesson,” and helps him hide all the evidence, and then the closing credits roll really slowly to fill up the last two hours. Even though the characters are following a script, you’d still feel like an injustice had been done. It’s barely acceptable for the killer to have an epiphany and repent, but only if he does it in a heroic or self-sacrificing kind of way.

        (The only thing I don’t get is why the Calvinist God is making the depressing cinéma vérité project that we’re living in. It’s way too violent and a lot of it isn’t appropriate for children. It would be just as easy to design the Universe as a wacky romantic comedy with no villains, where all the conflict is a result of simple misunderstandings and everything works out at the end.)

        1. The movie explanation doesn’t work, because movies represent an external reality. The only reason we think that characters commit injustices is because they represent people whose actions would be in just in real life. If we didn’t think that people could actually be injust, movies couldn’t portray injustice.

          If you saw a movie of an avalanche destroying a house, you wouldn’t think the avalanche was evil or culpable, because in the real world avalanches can’t possess those qualities.

  18. I am surprised the Calvinist solution doesn’t recommend itself to you: Before the creation of the world, God decided who was damned and who as saved entirely irrespective of whether they were good or bad people, or whether they had ever heard of Jesus. The idea was attractive to him because Calvin didn’t believe in Free will. God had worked out every little detail of every human action at the instant of creation.

    1. The problem I have with Calvinism is that if you take it seriously, it isn’t a religion, but more like physics. There is nothing you can personally do to change the laws of physics or your fate in the afterlife, so why worship Maxwell’s Equations or the Calvinist god? Why have churches to such a god?

      If I really believed in Calvinism, I’d actually join some other religion, as that would hedge my bets without impacting on a Calvinist god’s actions at all.

      1. I used to call the Calvinist God “the God of Gravity.” By that I meant that their God was as indifferent to human virtue and vice as gravity is. You get too close to the edge of a cliff, you fall off and die. That’s it. Being a good person or performing a good deed at the time is irrelevant.

        Such a God has the genuine merit of resembling reality the most. It suffers however from the small problem of removing all the praiseworthiness from God, and all the ethical import from religion. Worshiping the God of Gravity is like applauding random rocks for being made of stone.

        1. I also have a grudging respect for Calvinism. They bite bullets most Christians are unwilling to. Calvinism does make calling God ‘good’ nonsensical. They are satisfied with just calling him boss.

          1. Of course, since no one knew whether they were saved or not, they died horrible, frightened deaths. Which is probably why its become significantly blunted since those days.

          2. Yes, they are at least honest about the God described by the Bible. And then they worship him anyway, which is kind of sick.

      2. I spoke with a Calvinist minded individual once who explained that that god made everything and was the boss. You owed him your existence and everything around it, so you might as well be nice to Him, even if you’re damned. It seemed awful bleak to me.

        1. But why be nice if it literally makes no difference to your fate? I honestly don’t understand why Calvinists aren’t absolute libertines, since their behavior can’t impact their salvation. Why not whore, drink, rape, pillage, and murder, since your god has already irrevocably decided your fate?

          1. Calvinists have told me that one of the ways to tell if you’re an Elect is that you have an irresistible, irrational urge to “be nice.” It’s not a guarantee, mind you, but a serious compulsion to obey the Lord is a good sign that your final fate will be a good one.

            I think psychology takes over with that one. Hmmm… do I feel an intense desire to follow and worship God and behave morally? If I DON’T then I’m in trouble. Big trouble. So let me see if maybe I do feel this inner need; it will help me diagnose my state of Grace. Wait … I think maybe I have it! I’ll see how long it lasts, so I can be more sure. Not sure sure, but just a glimmer.

          2. For the same reasons atheists don’t? If it doesn’t matter, intrinsic/extrinsic moral behavior decides.

            1. The difference is that atheists have alternative secular moral principles available to them, whereas Calvinists presumably don’t.

              1. Well, they do…they would just claim they don’t. Or, rather, that there aren’t any secular moral principles.

              2. Actually, I think that a Calvinist might argue that secular moral principles simply do not exist. It is only good if God commands you to do it, and therefore there is nothing secular which is good.

          3. “since your god has already irrevocably decided your fate”
            It has not decided it, it has foreseen all your actions.

            1. That’s not the way I understand it — as a staunch Calvinist explained to me, their god decided at the moment of creation who would be the Elect and who wouldn’t. It has nothing to do with the actions one takes.

        2. I spoke with a Calvinist minded individual once who explained that that god made everything and was the boss.

          I have never understood that reasoning. Just because my parents made me does not mean that they have my eternal gratitude and undying loyalty; if they’re acting like jerks, I’ll still call them out on it.

          If God is the father of the entire world, he sucks at it and should be called out on his neglect.

  19. Here’s another answer I’ve heard… its kind of a variant on rejected answer number 2.

    God knows who will or won’t be capable of accepting Christ, and has therefore gerrymandered the world so that all people incapable of accepting Christ were born in places and times where Christianity had not spread.

    It works as a solution as long as you’re a huge racist, and as long as you’re willing to believe that a person’s proclivity to believe in Christianity can be foretold before their birth.

    But it also follows the classical form of theological reasoning.

    1. Problem X means my religion is wrong.
    2. But my religion isn’t wrong.
    3. So there must be a solution to Problem X.
    4. Y is a solution to Problem X.
    5. It seems better than other alternative solutions.
    6. So Y must be true.

    It doesn’t matter how sophisticated Y is, or how deeply you meditate on Y and its competitor solutions. You’re still engaged in foolishness.

    1. The common pattern I see is,

      1. Problem X means my religion is wrong.

      2. But my religion isn’t wrong.

      3. So there must be a solution to Problem X.

      4. Create an ad hoc explanation Y which is tailor-made to fit X.

      There’s no commitment to Y at all–it doesn’t even matter if Y leads to other, more serious problems. As long as there’s an example of something that could account for X, then X is of no concern. Next talk about how X shows that God is beyond our comprehension, and finish off with a deepity. Problem solved.

      Later, when someone mentions the problem X, say that the person is just ignoring the advances in theology.

  20. Note that you’ll never see that kind of liberal theology being endorsed by organizations such as Biologos due to the various statements of faith to which many of its members must adhere for their employment.

    So whether or not Hick’s ideas are worth considering, some people will get fired if they lend support to them.

    1. Like each and every faculty member at Liberty University, Bob Jones University, Loma Linda University and maybe a thousand other places.

  21. When religious pluralism entered my consciousness, at age 8 or 9, I realized the religion I was being raised in was bollocks.

    That any religious beliefs can be maintained along with the knowledge of religious pluralism has puzzled me ever sense.

    1. That was my mother’s solution. When I came home from school with stories of Adama and Eve (we had “Scripture” classes snuck into our nominally “secular” education system) rather than say they were wrong, she told me about Maori creation myths and Greek mythology. Worked for me. Teach the controversy!

  22. And—the solution—all religions are merely versions of The Real! So there’s no substantive difference!

    If we take that as saying that all theology is made up, there is at least something I can agree with.

  23. You positivist guys are the people who insist on the Reality of Real Things, so let’s call God that Reality or whatever might stand behind that Reality. Christianity is a real tradition and so expressive of God’s nature, as is Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Evolutionary Biology. My commitment to the Christian narrative does not in any way contradict your commitment to the Evolutionary narrative.

    It may help if you don’t conflate empirical claims with ethical commitment, as many on all sides do.

    1. If God is another word for “reality” then absolutely everything is going to be “expressive of God’s nature” — including worms, torture, belief in witchcraft, and a desire to sing the blues. Making a concept vacuous isn’t going to establish it more firmly.

      I think you’re the one conflating empirical claims with ethical commitment. Tell me, does your “commitment to the Christian narrative” in any way depend on any of the Christian narrative actually being … oh, I don’t know … true? Or are you pretty much playacting at fan fiction, and no more care if God exists or Jesus was crucified than you would care if the Little Engine That Could was an actual train, could talk, or ever got to the other side of the mountain before the children awoke?

    2. Hate to break it to you buddy, but if we redefine God to equal “reality”, Christianity is certainly NOT going to qualify as “expressive of reality”.

      1. or, that is, not going to qualify as “expressive of God” since we’ve defined god as reality and Christianity is not expressive of reality.

        That was a lot less eloquent of a burn than I had hoped. Carry on.

    3. Nodody has brought up ethical commitment in this thread. The quoted article does not discuss ethical commitment, and neither does your post. We haven’t conflated any empirical claims with ethical commitment – we aren’t even discussing ethical commitment.

      “You positivist guys are the people who insist on the Reality of Real Things,”

      That’s kind of a tautology. Reality consists of real things by the definition of “real”

      “so let’s call God that Reality or whatever might stand behind that Reality.”

      Do you have any evidence that such a thing exists?

      “Christianity is a real tradition and so expressive of God’s nature,”

      That doesn’t follow. Christianity is a real tradition and is thus expressive of *human* nature.

      “…as is Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Evolutionary Biology”

      Evolutionary Biology isn’t a tradition.

    4. Wow, who would have thought, “positivist” as a insult.

      HINT: Science is just as rationalist as it is empiricist (about half each), so positivism is sterile. However, I’d rather have an unrequited love of science as is typical of positivism than a mushy theology …

      All that to say: what is “commitment”? What is “narrative”? Sounds a lot like “I like this story.” What does the word “real” do in the “Christianity is a real narrative” – of course it is a real story, just like Hamlet and Star Trek: The Next Generations’s “Where Silence Has Lease. Neither is thereby a story with true statements in its key places.

      1. “Positivism” sterile? If it is a sentiment along the lines of “science works well, better than anything else we got”, it is a faithful if worthless sentiment – we know that from observation. And the process the sentiment mentions isn’t sterile.

        Science is just as rationalist as it is empiricist (about half each),

        Is this another sentiment? Because there is no number that says so. Science is by definition all empirical.

        If science practice is in practice heuristic, it is also in principle amenable to automation after the fact. So to make advance you may need reason (as in deriving conclusions from facts), but you can also say that you need none at any specific stage!

        I don’t think it makes sense to describe science as “reason vs empiricism”, if reason is contingent on the empirical process.

        1. I didn’t say “vs.” and the rationalist component are all the theories, ideas, classifications, etc. We make them up! However, we make them up with constraints: each other (for example, a theory of fluid dynamics better be consistent with conservation laws), and *the world* itself. The mistake in rationalism is thinking experience is unnecessary; the mistake in empiricism is thinking it is sufficient. Try to explain (say) even a spring without something transphenomenal – in this case, the force involved. (Or worse, the potential energy.)

    5. Marshall: “Christianity is a real tradition and so expressive of God’s nature, as is Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Evolutionary Biology.”

      I’m sure you believe this to be true but do you have anyway of verifying it to be true? Some evidence perhaps? If I said that I saw a stegosaurus wandering around I’d have to demonstrate that I wasn’t full of it by producing some footprints, a photograph, a video, and/or finding someone who saw the same stegosaurus. Otherwise, I’m just babbling nonsense.

    6. Sastra: “absolutely everything is going to be ‘expressive of God’s nature'”

      So true!

      No, morality does not depend on “truth”. There are no moral facts, no objective “goods” or “evils” but that saying makes them so. Such things as “Human Rights” are a force in the world ONLY because we collectively say they are, which is why we must argue so much about precisely what they are.


      Evidence for the existence of Reality? That‘s a conundrum. … by “what stands behind it” I mean to point to the Laws of Physics or the History of the Big Bang and suchlike. “The Laws of Physics explain everything” … OK, but what explains the Laws of Physics? I’m not saying it’s YHWH; I’m saying whatever it is, it’s fundamentally unknowable.

      “Evolutionary Biology isn’t a tradition” Oh really? Various academic departments will be astonished.

      Keith Douglas: “Wow, who would have thought, ‘positivist’ as an insult”

      Beg pardon, didn’t intend any insult. I do think it’s surprising that you guys are treating “Real” as a stupid. In fact “real” is an intuitive concept that gets nastier as you get close to it. “Reality” the seamless whole is real in that exists independent of observation, but not so clear about concepts, categories, and objects. Just Say No to Platonism!

      “Sounds a lot like ‘I like this story'”

      Yes. It helps me think about my life and the things around me. The thing about the Judeo-Christian narrative, as opposed to say the Star Trek narrative, is that it has been polished and reflected on for a few thousand years: that’s a lot of human experience to just throw in the tank. But I can see where maybe reflecting on Magneto vs. Dr. X could help sharpen choices in the “real” world. Good to go! De gustibus non est disputandum.

      The main thing is, I enjoy and feel my life is enriched by my Sunday mornings with friends for coffee, choir practice, and book club.

      1. “Evidence for the existence of Reality? That‘s a conundrum. … by “what stands behind it” I mean to point to the Laws of Physics or the History of the Big Bang and suchlike. “The Laws of Physics explain everything” … OK, but what explains the Laws of Physics? I’m not saying it’s YHWH; I’m saying whatever it is, it’s fundamentally unknowable.”

        So it certainly doesn’t make sense to worship it, let alone ascribe qualities to it.

  24. “Compare the foolish suggestion that all of us at least agree that God exists, although we disagree about His nature: some say He’s a supernatural person, some say He’s the cosmos in all its glory, some say He’s the triumphal march of history, … . Given /that/ much disagreement about ‘His’ nature, there’s nothing we all believe in.”

    (Lewis, David. On the Plurality of Worlds. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. p. 140)

  25. Another explanation I heard in Lutheran church as a youth was that Aztecs, for example, are considered “Children” in god’s eyes since they were never properly exposed to Jesus. This applies to EVERYONE born before Christ’s death and anyone who did not have a proper exposure to his teachings. Of course this implies one does not have to be baptized to be saved.

    Interestingly, this means Siddhattha Gotama (Supreme Buddah) would be in heaven, but his modern followers would not!

  26. I’d like to ask mr. Hicks if god already knew who “would” accept Jesus, what’s the point of sending Jesus at all?

  27. Trying to bring coherence into any theological system can hardly ever be more than an entertaining pastime. To pretend one is serious about it is to take a page from the fantasies found in Don Qixote, or some such.

  28. IIRC, John Hicks is the theologian best known for the “Soul-Building Theodicy:” God allows pain and suffering on earth so we can learn character and virtuous traits of compassion and endurance. Sort of like a parent allowing teenagers to make their own mistakes, to struggle through problems to become adult.

    It breaks down in several places, not least where the “soul-building” pain and suffering actually breaks down the person, instead of toughening them up and making them all the better for it. It’s not always because they’re wimpy wimps being wimpy.

    1. And it doesn’t explain why some people get so much more ‘soul building’ than others. Do the people of Afghanistan have particularly rickety souls?

    2. See, that’s what I love about theologians – they come up with explanations that even they don’t believe.

      I mean, if that were true, it would mean that rich and entitled people already possessed souls with “character and virtuous traits” – and that poor, desperate people possessed souls without such traits.

      Basically, accepting that theory as true would necessarily imply that people with easy lives are just intrinsically better than people with hard lives.

      I don’t think you could find anyone on the planet willing to accept that.

      1. Lol @ your first sentence!

        As to the following–am I missing some sarcasm? If you’re serious, I’d disagree with you–there’s a long tradition of just that, from our (US’s) Puritan/Calvinist heritage to today’s “Prosperity Gospel.”

  29. You know, if I died and was confronted by Jesus in person, right in front of me, I don’t think I’d need even five minutes to make a decision to follow him; really, who wouldn’t at that point? The fact that I’m standing there at all would mean I’d been wrong about religion.

    It reminds me of one of the things that really bothered me about the movie “The Polar Express” (it wasn’t really an issue in the book). If I were that kid, the second that a magical steam locomotive materialized in front of my house and the conductor said it was headed for the North Pole, all of my doubts about Santa would vanish and I wouldn’t even need to get on board. (I still would, because who wouldn’t? But it would be for the fun and for the thrill of meeting Santa, not because I’d still have doubts.)

  30. 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.”)

    This only makes sense if there aren’t any impostor Reals going around pretending like they’re really Reals in order to trick people. The same goes for all religions too, by the way. (In la-la land we can have whatever we want, so this contingency is probably already covered though.)

  31. Question: How does a theologian get people to believe in an invisible being for which there is not the slightest shred of credible evidence?

    Answer: Rename it from “god” to “real”.

    Yeah…that’ll work.

    Sorta like how Wendy’s got America to love greasy hamburgers by renaming grease as “juice”. As in “hot and juicy hamburgers.”

    Egad, theology is nothing more than marketing.

    1. At least Wendy’s hamburgers actually exist even if the world would be a better place if they didn’t!

  32. I take it Hick has no plans to test any of this? He just thought it up, said “Hmm, sounds good!” and moved on?

  33. And—the solution—all religions are merely versions of The Real! So there’s no substantive difference!

    Yankees, Red Sox… c’mon folks, it’s all just baseball.

    Never mind that we have L.A. Dodger fans killing S.F. Giant fans, because “In relation to the Real or Divine the mode of the fan is differently formed within the different baseball traditions.”

    Let’s play ball!

  34. Also, there are Christians who do not see Christianity as the only way, but as one way of many. They are less vocal, certainly less notorious, but significant, and growing in number. They are found in Interfaith Councils, as former members of Christian superiority who have moved toward human equality.

    In the beginning they honored diversity. Today the move is toward pluralism which may be best stated bu the Pluralism Project at Harvard headed by Diana Eck. What is pluralism. Too long to post here. If interested it’s at

    There are many, people and groups, working to change the idea of religious exclusivity within any religion. It’s a question of whether we want to focus on what’s wrong or what can be done to improve the situation.

    1. But they do that without discarding the parts of their scriptures that say the exact opposite. If you told me there were a bunch of former communists who were now social democrats that I should vote for, and all of them had copies of Mao’s little red book in their pockets, I would be hesitant to take their word on their change in political thought.

  35. Thomas Aquinas wrote, in a foreshadowing of the Kantian insight, “Things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower.”

    This is of course a confession that there is no knowledge in religion, because only personal experience and make-shit-up counts, not external empirical and testable finds of facts.

    How pomo.

  36. I actually like this form of theology, as it pretty much says Christianity == Taoism. So, why not study Taoism instead? Now that theology got to this point of saying the Tao (or the Real (ugh)) exists, but we do not know what it is, well, that is a fundamental part of Taoism already, as it describes the Tao as a concept which I summarise as “The wondrous way that the Universe works.” And it got to this point about 2,500 years before Christian theology caught up 🙂

    The Taoist books are older than Christianity, but have better descriptions and lessons that more accurately match the Universe we live in*. For example, in the Wen-tzu (translated by Thomas Cleary):
    “The natural constant Way [Tao] gives birth to beings but does not possess them; it produces evolution but does not rule it. All beings are born depending on it, yet none know to thank it; all die because of it, yet none can resent it.” Which is a more accurate statement than, “In the beginning, god created… “

    Taoism also has a moral clarity that is more grown up than worshiping a sky daddy that brooks no dissent.

    So, since Christianity == Taoism, and if old religions are your thing for establishing what the world is, and how to live in it, I would recommend studying Taoism instead. The books are shorter and more accurate compared to Christianity, without all that worship nonsense 😉

    * for what it’s worth.

    1. It’s funny that the Chinese translation of the Gospel of John starts with: “In the beginning was Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God.”

  37. The level of sophistication of a given theology is directly proportional to the amount of its holy text which it feels compelled to explain away or ignore.

        1. To the average believer, any sufficiently advanced theology is indistinguishable from atheism.

          With apologies to ACC

          1. And not just the average believer, most of it looks like atheism to me too. I have no idea what Karen Armstrong believes that distinguishes her from an atheist but she insists that she isn’t one.

  38. “God knows who the “real” Christians would be” sounds like CS Lewis, but his chosen ones were those who served their god/s faithfully and honourably. Yes – you either accept that your faith IS exclusive (so predetermining the saved/damned), that all faiths are inclusive (so it does not matter), or that all good people will be saved… in which case why make claims other than deistic ones?

  39. Don’t most atheists believe that all religions ultimately worship the same reality, and that they are different manifestations of the same process?

    Seems to me like most of us could follow Hick almost all the way he wants to go.

    A couple of commentators have picked up on what I think is the interesting part of this article by Hick: what do you have to do to god to follow this theological process, to take pluralism seriously? What does god end up as?

    As something that is barely anything at all. If you want to believe in such a god, the *sum total* of what can be said about such a god is that it is the ‘Real’. God can’t be “The Marshmallow”, not because that would be *less* explicit, but because it would be far far too specific.

    The “real” seems a pretty bleak place to end up.

    Hick, I think, argues these things with a measure of common sense and sensitivity, and ends up where you end up if you take these claims seriously: with nothing but the bare statement of your initial premises.

    For more of Hick’s theological blitzkreig, might I suggest his book “The Myth of God Incarnate”.

    1. I think most atheists believe that all religions are human creations. Whatever is worshiped by religions are fictions concocted by people, mostly men, and these disparate fictions actually obscure the human discovery of reality (which, as far as I know most atheists are interested in and awe-struck by, but do not worship).

      If there is anything “behind” religions it is most likely to be some quirk or tendency in human psychology connected with, among other things, the enforcement of power, obedience and conformity. Not things I’m really interested in worshiping. Religions are not one thing and are not pointing in the same “direction”. Religion’s perception of a god is not like the story of the blind men and the elephant, where each of them having fumbled across a particular elephant bit, thinks that their small bit of elephant is representative of the whole beast. With religion there is no elephant.

      Religions have lost there role of explainig the nature of reality to science which has a demonstrable track record of success unparalleled in human endeavour. “Sophisticated” theology has arisen partly as a response to this failure on the part of religion (the gradual metaphorization of holy writ that was once seen as historical fact) and as a result of advances in secular ethics which have rendered much religious thought and santion as embarassingly cruel and barbaric. Given how much scripture has to be quietly ignored to make the biblically “inspired” traditions remotely palatable to modern, civilized humans, it hardly seems worth the effort. You’d think that there’s only so much retconning and rebranding this stuff will take before the traditions are emptied of any really useful meaning. Somehow I don’t think this is the sort of “emptying” that sophisticated theologians have in mind.

      1. That’s exactly what I was alluding to.

        I think most atheists think that all religions are manifestations of a particular set of psychological and cultural tendencies. Though I suspect we might argue about the degree that those tendencies are inherent or historically contingent.

        I might quibble about some of the details of your analysis.

  40. I’m not sure how a salvific Real fits into the mass-human-sacrificing, beating-heart-extracting religion of the Aztecs.

  41. My favorite counterpoint to the suggestion that: “There are anonymous Christians” is to observe that most people sitting in Christian church pews don’t believe half the bunk they’re fed from the pulpit. They might say they believe. They might want to believe. But they can’t. No more than (a la Carl Sagan) they can believe there is a dragon in my basement.

  42. ‘Sophisticated Theology’ now there’s a saying ready to be packaged up and distributed to all parts of the planet from the Oxymoron Factory.

    Theology; “Here we go ’round the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush, the mulberry bush …..”

  43. It sounds like he’s not really positing a new idea. It sounds like he’s sort of stealing a CS Lewis idea. In ‘The Last Battle’ Lewis has a character who is a worshiper of Tash who is a sort of devil creature. But because the character (Tirian) worshiped in truth and righteousness, he is a true worshiper. And when the Pevensie kids are all headed off and are going “further up and further in” (to heaven) he’s allowed to go with them. When I was a kid and read this (a young believer) this really captured my imagination. I didn’t like the idea of my friends going to hell. I liked that there might be a way out for those good people who didn’t say the right things like those of us who had the proper secrets given to us. But many, many believers struggled with this part of CS Lewis’s book. His reply was that it was simply fiction and that believers should not take it as though it were intended to be god’s word or anything. Just stories for children. But his “stories” they shaped a lot of people and a lot of theology.

  44. A lot of words and they all depend on a ficticious PERSONA called Jesus, a mythical 1/3 god who never existed. As I expected, this guy is from Loooovule, KY.

  45. All religions are just many paths to the same destination, upon which are spread the garden rakes of facts, fear and beer.

  46. If god knows that there are people who would respond to the gospel if presented to them, then he would have presented it to them. A world in which religion is spread through culture, holy books, and missionaries is not a world in which religion makes sense, because revelation is contingent on entirely material factors. But a world in which religion is spread through spontaneous divine revelation is certainly more friendly to the idea of religion. If Columbus had come to America and found that there were already Christians, then it would have been potential evidence for the veracity of Christianity. As it is, theologians have to explain how an entire culture can be denied the “truth” wholesale. And none of those explanations are amenable to the evidence, because they are attempts to explain the facts away rather than account for observation.

  47. Could we please get a recommended reading list for understanding “sophisticated theology” or a full list of the books you are currently reading?


    Apologies, this was also duplicated in another thred

  48. Just call “The Real” = nature or laws of nature = cosmos = multiverse or if it suits your taste = God ala Spinoza. Done this way at least it has meaning though superfluous. Another problem with the so called solution, why not eliminate religious language entirely since it really all points to the same thing – some quasi Joseph Campbellesqe grand myth which is more appealing though silly.

  49. I can’t understand what I would be saved from if I accepted Jesus, or any other. Since to accept religion can’t save me from death or toothache, what does “save” mean? No theology is sophisticated enough to teach how to erase death and pain.

  50. This is precisely what post Vedanta Hinduism postulates that allows for all knowledge that leads to Nirvana or knowledge /experience of GOD as equally valid including idol worship the first step, Scientific knowledge next and the ultimate experience that coalesces the large scale Brahman to small scale Atman. So nothing new. In the end it is always leap of faith that is our final experience is supernatural and hence highly anecdotal. You cannot challenge it, evaluate it or criticize it.
    However it denies the existence of heaven or hell but postulates the merging of individual consciousness with the cosmic consciousness and of course avoids the eternal cycle of rebirths. For them this and now is Hell, this eternal cycle of rebirth from lower forms to higher forms. If as a homo sapiens u take advantage to escape this cycle else continue to next cycle.
    Both the world and Brahman REAL. So are all paths that lead to Cosmic consciousness.
    Clearly it still remains a designer argument without really showing the existence of designer.

  51. This idea of ‘The Real’ seems to reiterate a theological idea of god which (I think) goes back to Aquinas, at least Edward Feser claims it does. That idea being that god IS existence, rather than the first thing to exist/the uncaused cause. But if god is existence then that merges into the Hindu idea of Brahmin as “the one supreme, universal Spirit that is the origin and support of the phenomenal universe”, or the Dao, “the underlying natural order of the universe” which is close to Einsteinian ‘belief’ in/awe for “the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it”. Soon ‘god’ disappears in a glass darkly.
    (Quotes from wikipedia.)

    I seem to recall the Life of Pi by Yann Martell depicts a boy who calls himself a Christian, Muslim and Hindu, seeing them as non-conflicting. The way he explains this to his elders with the logic of a child, who doesn’t see the need to complicate things, is brilliant.

Leave a Reply