John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Profile of a Saint

The saints play a big role in Hick’s understanding of world religion. They are “pointers” toward the Transcendent, and look remarkably similar across traditions. In the following quotation, Hick engages and expands William James’ “Profile of a Saint.”

“William James’ ‘composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions’, is excellent, except that whilst he does not exclude the political form of saintliness he does not sufficiently stress it. This is understandable, for the phenomenon of the political saint has become much more prominent since his time. James lists the four cardinal features of, first, ‘a feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world’s selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power’; second, ‘a sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control’; third, ‘an immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down’; and fourth, ‘a shifting of the emotional center towards loving and harmonious affections, towards “yes, yes,” and away from “no,” where the claims of the non-ego are concerned’.

To these we must add more explicitly, I think, the rare attribute, evident in the greatest saints, of spiritual joy. This is not to be confused with the natural temperamental gaiety and happiness with which some people have the very good fortune to be endowed. As William James said, ‘There are [people] who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champaigne inscribed to their credit.’ They are not necessarily, however, less self-centred or more Real-centred than others with a naturally dourer temperament. But Teresa of Avila is representative of the great mystics of all traditions in having experienced the overwhelming joy of release from the ego as it becomes open to the Transcendent. This, she says, ‘gave me a joy so great that it has never failed me even to this day, and God converted the aridity of my soul into the deepest tenderness. Everything connected with the religious life caused me delight; and it is a fact that sometimes, when I was spending time in sweeping floors which I had previously spent on my own indulgence and adornment, and realized that I was now free from all those things, there came to me a new joy, which amazed me, for I could not understand whence it arose.’ This experience – either a quietly glowing inner peace and serenity or an outwardly manifest radiance of joy – is characteristic of the true mahatmas and saints.

It is this that William James refers to as an ‘immense elation and freedom’. Julian of Norwich, whose awareness of the divine reality took the form of visions and auditions of Christ on the cross, tells how ‘suddenly, as I looked at the same cross he changed to an appearance of joy. The change in his appearance changed mine, and I was as glad and joyful as I could possibly be ... Our Lord showed this to me to make us glad and merry.’ Evelyn Underhill, describing Francis of Assisi, Ruusbroec, Catherine of Siena, Richard Rolle, Catherine of Genoa, and John of the Cross, speaks of the ‘inextinguishable gladness of heart’, the ‘gaiety, freedom, assurance, and joy’, that seems to be a characteristic of the ‘unitive’ state which they reached after a long, arduous, and sometimes painful pilgrimage.

When we turn to the Hindu world we find that the ultimate, Brahman, is spoken of as sat–chit–ananda, being–consciousness–bliss, and that the experience of union with Brahman is an experience of this bliss. ‘I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded. The ocean of Brahman is full of nectar – the joy of the Atman.’ Again Shankara speaks of the goal of mystical practice as ‘the highest bliss’ and declares that in our deepest nature one ‘never ceases to experience infinite joy’. Again, the Buddha taught: ‘He that crushes the great “I am” conceit – this, even this, is happiness supreme.’ One of the perfections of the bodhisattva is joy (mudita). And so the contemporary Buddhist monk Nyanaponika says, ‘Let us teach real joy (mudita) to others. Many have unlearned it. Life, though full of woe, holds also sources of happiness and joy, unknown to most. Let us teach people to seek and to find real joy within themselves and to rejoice with the joy of others! Let us teach them to unfold their joy to ever sublimer heights.’ The Sufis of Islam are full of the joy of living in the divine love, which they describe poetically in ‘a great variety of images, most of them connected with love and wine’. ‘Oh, my spirit is joyful over Thee – may my spirit never be without Thee!’, sings Rumi. 

At the same time, we must not imagine that the mahatmas/saints are perpetually cheerful, never weighed down by the pain and injustice around them. On the contrary, the more involved they are in the life and suffering of the world, the more they share its sorrows. For instance Gandhi, whilst he bubbled over with fun and delight much of the time, was emotionally devastated by the slaughter in the Punjab in the wake of the partition of India. And the more introverted mystics have generally been through their dark night of the soul, enduring a period of mental suffering and doubt from which they only emerged after a long ordeal. Nevertheless, despite its ‘dark nights’, and its agonies of suffering with those who suffer, the saintly or enlightened or awakened life is one that we can see to be intrinsically good and desirable, a state in which we would dearly love to be.

We spontaneously feel that such individuals are incarnating some of the higher possibilities of our common human nature. We sense that they are not only more unselfcentred but also, paradoxically, more truly fulfilled than ourselves. But in order to empathize with them we need to have participated, at least to some small degree, in their experience of the Transcendent, and to have experienced, again in however slight a degree, something like their inner illumination and joy. It is when we have known in some tiny momentary way that of which they speak, that we are entitled to trust their much greater and stronger and more continuous experience of the Divine, the Holy, the Real.”

One figure I think of when I picture the ideal “contemplative,” or saint, is Thomas Keating – largely because of the spiritual joy he seemed to radiate.  Keating was a Trappist monk and was extremely influential in the development of the Centering Prayer movement in America.  He passed away this week.  Carl McColman wrote a nice piece honoring Keating here, and much of Keating’s teaching can be found on the Contemplative Outreach Youtube Channel

Shinzen Young once remarked about contemplatives from various traditions that “they give off the same vibe.”  Perhaps Keating, and others of his ilk, truly do experience the same transforming Reality which is open to us all. 

Here is some brief audio from Keating entitled “What’s Next in Religion”: