John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Axial Age and Development of Religious Traditions

I am beginning a series on John Hick's The Fifth Dimension.  In this book, Hick argues that Transcendent Reality – what various traditions call God, Adonai, Allah, Brahman, the Tao, etc. – is an actual element of reality and that our relation to It, what he calls the "fifth dimension" of our nature (he never explicitly states this, but I believe the first four would be the three dimensions of space and the additional dimension of time), is an essential aspect of our being.

John Hick was a religious philosopher and expounded religious pluralism – the idea that the world's religious traditions point to "the experience of God," but that no particular tradition has a corner on truth.  I believe Hick lived within the Church until his death, interpreting his tradition as a "true myth."  He also wrote significantly about liberal understandings of Christianity, for instance in The Metaphor of God Incarnate

In the Introduction to this book, Hick very briefly traces primal religion through the beginnings of man, for instance noting that Neanderthals seemed to have beliefs in the afterlife as well as ritual burials.  The archaeological evidence from the beginning of man's history have even led some to label homo sapiens as homo religiosus – religious man; we are beings that seem to have "an inbuilt tendency to experience the natural in terms of the super-natural."

After touching on primal religion, Hick turns to the "Axial Age," during which most, if not all, of the world's enduring religious traditions were developed.   

"... around the middle of the first millennium BCE, in a band of time stretching from about 800 to about 200 BCE, remarkable individuals appeared across the world, standing out from their societies and proclaiming momentous new insights. In China there were Confucius, Mencius and Lao-Tzu (or the anonymous writers of the Tao Te Ching) and Mo-Tzu. In India there were Gautama, the Buddha; Mahavira, the founder of the Jain tradition; the writers of the Upanishads and later of the Bhagavad Gita. In Persia there was Zoroaster. In Palestine there were the great Hebrew prophets – Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, the Isaiahs, Ezekiel. In Greece there were Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle. This immensely significant hinge in human thought has come to be known as the axial age. If we see Christianity as presupposing Judaism, and Islam as presupposing both Judaism and Christianity, all of the present major world religions trace their roots to this axial period.

Pre-axial or archaic people generally just accepted the given conditions of their lives. They did not stand back in thought to engage in critical reflection. They did not envisage alternatives that might lead to a fundamental dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs. Life was for them, as one anthropologist puts it, ‘a one-possibility thing’.  But during the axial age, in large areas of the world, there were several mutually reinforcing developments: the formation of cities; the emergence of individual as distinguished from communal consciousness, first in rulers and religious leaders and then increasingly widely; and a sense of the unsatisfactoriness, the felt incompleteness of our ordinary human existence, found somehow lacking in a higher quality that nevertheless stands before us as a real possibility."


In the Axial Age, Hick argues that a growing sense of incompleteness or unsatisfactoriness of life developed in the major traditions.  In the West, this was primarily interpreted through the lens of sin and guilt, while in the East it was interpreted mainly as spiritual misunderstanding or "false consciousness."  In either understanding, the solution was to fundamentally shift our primary concern from fulfilling our self-will – a centeredness on self – to a new grounding or centeredness in The Divine, The Transcendent, The Ultimate.  


"The ‘western’ religions call this general distortion of human life sin, thus identifying guilt as the problem. The ‘eastern’ religions call it spiritual blindness, thus identifying false consciousness as the problem. But whether we regard moral evil as the expression of false consciousness, or false consciousness as the expression of sin, the distortion itself is a manifest reality; and it is from this that the post-axial religions offer to free us. Their function is to be enabling contexts of the transformation of human existence, a transformation from sinful and/or deluded self-centredness to a radically new orientation centred in the Divine, the Transcendent, the Ultimate, thus freeing what they variously call the true or selfless self, the atman, the universal buddha nature, the image of God within us. This radical change is a re-centring which produces an inner peace, serenity, joy, purity of heart, and clarity of moral vision."

Of the Transcendent Reality which we are to find our grounding in, the mystics can only say that It is ineffable – beyond our human understanding to conceive.  God can be experienced, but not fully understood intellectually.  

"The fifth dimension of our nature, the transcendent within us, answers to the fifth dimension of the universe, the transcendent without. In speaking of this, the limitations of language create a problem to which there is unfortunately no satisfactory solution. We want to refer to that which, according to the religions, is the ultimate object of human concern. In a western context we speak of God. And it is possible to use this familiar term with the stipulation that it points to the ultimate reality without however defining it, and so without prejudging whether that reality is personal or non-personal or even such that this duality does not apply. But in practice the long-established associations of the word as referring to an infinite divine Person are generally too strong for this stipulation to be effective. And so we resort to such terms as the Ultimate, Ultimate Reality, Absolute Reality, the Real, the Transcendent, the Divine, the Holy, the Eternal, the Infinite – with or without capitals. I shall use all of these, and even the grammatically improper ‘ultimately Real’, as a reminder that no one of them is entirely adequate. But I shall tend to favour either the Transcendent or the Ultimate or, even more, the Real, because this latter is the rough equivalent of both the Sanskrit sat and the Arabic al-Haqq. However we shall be continually up against the fact that language has developed in our struggle to cope with the material environment and that when we use it to refer to the transcendent it inevitably has non-literal meanings (i.e. not in accordance with the ordinary dictionary meanings of words). It is now allusive, suggestive, metaphorical, poetic, pointing rather than defining. And so we have continually to try to focus, not on the pointing finger of language, but on that to which it points. The mystics of the great traditions affirm almost unanimously that the Real is beyond human conceiving. It is ineffable or, as I prefer to say, transcategorial – outside the scope of the categories with which we think."


In his Introduction, what Hick has basically described as his "Big Picture" for understanding the structure of the universe is The Perennial Philosophy – that there is a Spiritual Ground to our existence, that this Reality can be experienced within the soul of each created being, and that our ultimate good is to align, ground ourselves in, or even "become one with," this Reality.  

Hick will spend the rest of The Fifth Dimension expanding on this idea and arguing that it provides a compelling view of the nature of reality.