John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Religious Meaning of Life

After developing the idea of religious critical realism, Hick goes on to discuss the religious meaning of life. What is the end goal of the religious quest?

This is a difficult question to answer in the abstract, as each world religion has a unique conceptual system (or systems), vocabulary, etc. Nevertheless, Hick believes we can make some generalizations in this regard.

First, Hick notes that the major religions, each in their own way, display some form of “cosmic optimism” – a trust that Reality, often despite present appearances, is benign.

“‘Cosmic optimism’ is not a term that figures in the distinctive vocabulary of any of the world faiths. It is however a generalization of their distinctive affirmations about the Transcendent in its relation to human beings. The great monotheisms affirm that ‘as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is [the God of Israel’s] steadfast love towards those who fear him’; or that the heavenly Father of the New Testament is a limitlessly loving God; or that the Allah self-revealed in the Qur’an is ever gracious and merciful. Most Hindus are also, either ultimately or penultimately, theists; and the Bhagavad Gita says of Vishnu that he is ‘the great Lord of the universe and friend of all beings’. But turning to the non-theistic faiths, advaitic Hinduism affirms that in our deepest nature we already are the infinite reality of Brahman, but have yet to become what we truly are. Again, in a more totally non-theistic faith, in Buddhism it is affirmed that our true nature is one with the universal buddha nature of the universe, and again we have to become what in a sense we already are. In both cases they teach that we can, whether suddenly or gradually, whether on earth or in heaven, whether in this life or through many lives, receive or achieve the salvific transformation into a new relationship to, or a newly discovered identity with, that ultimate reality.

Each tradition draws a radical distinction between the state from which we desire to be saved or released, or out of which we need to awaken, and the limitlessly better state to which it shows a way. There is a deeply pessimistic view of our present predicament, combined with a highly optimistic view of what is ultimately open to us. The pessimism understands ordinary human life to be fallen into sin and guilt, or lived in disobedience and alienation from God, or caught in the unreality of spiritual blindness (avidya) and the consequent round of anxious suffering existence (samsara). But there is also the affirmation of a limitlessly better possibility available to us because the Ultimate is, from our human point of view, benign. By divine grace or divine mercy, or by a gradual transcending of the ego point of view and a realization of our own deepest nature, we can attain or receive our highest good. And in so far as this limitlessly better state is said to be available to everyone, the message of each of the great religions constitutes good news for humankind. I mean by the cosmic optimism of the world faiths then, that in each case, if their conception of the nature of the universe is basically correct, we can be glad to be part of it and can rejoice in and be thankful for our present human existence…

…When we speak of the ultimate goodness of the universe from our human point of view, we are talking about the total character of a reality which far exceeds what we can presently see and the physical sciences can ever discover. For it is clear from the evils that afflict humanity, and from the equally evident fact that the human potential is seldom fulfilled in this present life, that if the creative process is ever to reach its completion it must continue beyond this life. Thus the faith that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’ presupposes a structure of reality which makes this possible.

The great traditions and their sub-traditions have developed different pictures of this structure, and of the final fulfillment, as heaven, paradise, union with God, the beatific vision; or an absorption into Brahman in which separate ego existence has been transcended; or nirvana, or the universal realization of the buddha nature of all things. But it is important to note that the idea of a good outcome of the life process does not require that any one of these specific conceptions will turn out to be accurate. Indeed thoughtful people within each tradition have always been aware that the scriptural accounts of heaven/paradise are painted in a poetic imagery that points beyond our present imaginations; or in the eastern faiths, that the final unity that is sought is, once again, not thinkable in earthly terms.”

Thus the religious traditions, each in their own way, affirm that the reality we find ourselves in is good. Not in the sense that the things we encounter in our day to day lives are all pleasant, but in the sense that, from the religious perspective, our present experience leads, or can lead, to an ultimately good future. As Hick notes, that ultimate future hope is expressed in a variety of ways, even within each religious tradition. But each faith shares that hope and trust in the structure of existence.

To give some type of synthesis in how this final state is conceived, Hick speaks of our transformed relationship with the Divine:

“…we can, whether suddenly or gradually, whether on earth or in heaven, whether in this life or through many lives, receive or achieve the salvific transformation into a new relationship to, or a newly discovered identity with, that ultimate reality. “

In the contemplative streams of each major world religion, this salvific transformation is most often conceived of in terms of union, unity, or one-ness. Hick, in later chapters, gives examples of systems which entail both literal, and metaphorical, one-ness. He begins by discussing mystic thought in general:

“Mysticism has often been defined as the experience of union either with God or with an ultimate non-personal reality. Thus William James says that the ‘overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we are aware of our oneness.’ Likewise Evelyn Underhill says that ‘mysticism is the art of union with Reality’, and R.C. Zaehner says that ‘in Christian terminology mysticism means union with God’. Many other similar statements could be cited. However I shall argue that whilst the final state, far beyond this life, may well be one in which human individuality has finally been transcended, having served its purpose, talk of union with the Ultimate in this life must be understood metaphorically. Most theistic mystics have in fact used ‘union’ or ‘unity’ and/ or ‘deification’ or ‘divinization’ as metaphors for a union of love or an alignment of wills which does not entail literal identity. Others however, usually but not always non-theistic, have intended to speak of a literal numerical identity, a union without distinction. In order to understand where different authors stand on this question we have to be aware of the metaphysical pictures presupposed in their writings. For there are systems which allow for, and even require, a literal union with the Ultimate; others which allow for this but do not require it; and yet others which exclude it. As well as reading the mystics against their metaphysical backgrounds we also have to distinguish between texts describing a union which the writer claims to have experienced, and others referring to a unitive state to which the writer’s philosophy or theology points, but which the mystic does not profess to have experienced personally.”

Hick then cites examples such as Advaita Vedanta (a school of Hinduism displayed in the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita), for the perspective of “literal unity”:

“The Crest-Jewell of Discrimination uses the analogy of the air and the jar. If there are a number of clay jars containing only air, and you break the jars, what remains? The answer is, the air, as an unbounded totality: ‘The air in the jar is one with the air everywhere. In like manner, your Atman is one with Brahman.’ Again Shankara uses the figure, also familiar in Christian and Muslim mystical literature, of a drop of water becoming part of the ocean. Shankara tells of someone who goes into deep meditation:

His mind was completely absorbed in Brahman. After a while, he returned to normal consciousness. Then, out of the fullness of his joy, he spoke: The ego has disappeared. I have realized my identity with Brahman and so all my desires have melted away. I have risen above my ignorance and my knowledge of this seeming universe. What is this joy that I feel? Who shall measure it? I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded! The ocean of Brahman is full of nectar – the joy of the Atman. The treasure I have found there cannot be described in words. The mind cannot conceive of it. My mind fell like a hailstone into the vast expanse of Brahman’s ocean. Touching one drop of it, I melted away and became one with Brahman. And now, though I return to human consciousness, I abide in the joy of the Atman.’

Again Shankara says, ‘I am Reality, without beginning, without equal. I have no part in the illusion of “I” and “You”, “this” and “that”. I am Brahman, one without a second, bliss without end, the eternal, unchanging Truth.’…

… the mystic path is one of purification of the ego and its self-centred desires and concerns in order to find our true nature in unity with the Ultimate. The classic Vedantic saying, tat tvam asi, ‘that art thou’, means that each of us ultimately is Brahman. Catherine of Genoa provides a direct Christian parallel: ‘Once stripped of all its imperfections, the soul rests in God, with no characteristic of its own, since its purification is the stripping away of the lower self in us. Our being is then God.’ Or again, ‘My me is God.’”

And Rumi (as well as Evagrius, Neo-platonism as a whole, Pseudo-Dionysius, John Scotus, Meister Eckhart, Ruusbroec, Theresa of Avila, the Kabbalists, and Eastern Orthodox mystics) for the perspective of “metaphorical unity”:

“Again Rumi writes, ‘No one will find his way to the Court of Magnificence until he is annihilated,’ and again, ‘With God, two I’s cannot find room. You say “I” and He says “I”. Either you die before Him, or let Him die before you.’ Such language is common among the Sufis. However, this ‘death’ of the self is not a ceasing to exist, but its transformation into spiritual union with the divine life. Rumi says, ‘The spirit becomes joyful through the I-less I.’ The self-naughted person lives, and lives in fullness of energy and joy; but it is now the divine life that is being lived in and through the fully surrendered servant of Allah. And as in the case of the Christian mystics, union is often seen as the most appropriate available metaphor.”

Regardless of how it is specifically conceptualized, from the perspective of the contemplative traditions, the religious meaning of life is to experience the joyful transformation “out of ourselves,” or beyond the ego, and into the Divine.