John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Living Within a Religious Tradition

Accepting religious pluralism generally entails seeing each world religion as a relative expression of truth. Instead of one’s home tradition being accepted as the absolute, God-given faith, each faith becomes a “finger pointing to the moon” – a human expression that points to the experience of God.

One question that arises for many people who find themselves in this camp is, “What do I do for religious community?”

Hick, in The Fifth Dimension, advocates a certain way of continuing in traditional religious community – what he calls “living within a true myth.” This naturally entails seeing one’s own religious meta-narrative as a myth – a poetic way of pointing at certain truths of human experience and our relationship to God.

In regards to the “Christian myth,” Hick makes the following observations:

“We have our own narrative of the human story, beginning with creation, continuing through redemption, with the cross of Christ as its pivotal point, and proceeding to the End, God’s grand finale. To say that this is myth, formed by the religious imagination in response to the person of Jesus, is not to say that Jesus never existed, but that the way in which his significance has been understood has been an exercise in mythological thinking. It is certain that there was a Jesus of Nazareth, living in the first third of the first century CE. Some of the stories about what he said and did must be historically true, some partly so, others not at all, and there has long been an academic industry devoted to sorting them into these categories. Such weighing of probabilities is the kind of work that lends itself to keen argument and debate, to the formation of rival schools of thought and to changing fashions of opinion. So the following picture can only reflect what I personally regard as the most reliable New Testament scholarship since the critical rediscovery of the Jewishness of Jesus in the 1970s.

It seems likely that during the two or three years of his public ministry Jesus was one of several itinerant Galilean preachers and healers who stressed God’s fatherly love and were critical of the more legalistic religion of the priesthood at the Jerusalem Temple. He was intensely conscious of God’s holy and loving presence, a presence that was as real to him as the hills and lake of Galilee. To live in this consciousness is already to be in God’s kingdom or rule, and he sought to bring others to share that consciousness and to live the life of the Kingdom in the here and now. He shared the contemporary Jewish apocalyptic sense of existing in a moment of supreme crisis, expecting God soon to intervene decisively in human history, bringing the present phase to an end and instituting the divine kingdom on earth: ‘Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” It seems that he felt called by God to the unique role of the final prophet before the impending Day of the Lord, a role that gave him a central place in God’s providence. It did not however amount to his being God incarnate. Jesus did not think of himself as God, and can have had no conception of the later Christian doctrine according to which he was the second person of a divine Trinity. This would have been impossible to a faithful Jew. ‘Why do you call me good?’ he is reported to have said, ‘No one is good but God alone.’

But did not Jesus make a claim to deity when he said, ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14: 9) and ‘I and the Father are one’ (John 10: 30)? The answer of modern New Testament scholarship is ‘No’. These enormously influential sayings were put into his mouth some sixty or more years later by a Christian writer expressing the developed theology of his part of the church. Even very conservative scholars today agree that the deity-claiming sayings of the fourth gospel should not be attributed to the historical Jesus. But again, was not Jesus the Son of God? Here again, modern historical scholarship has thrown a flood of light. The term ‘son of God’, which seems to the modern mind so momentous, was familiar throughout the ancient world. It was applied to pharaohs and emperors, to great philosophers and great heroes; and within Judaism it was a familiar metaphor for anyone who was a special servant of God. ‘Son of’ meant ‘in the spirit of’ or ‘specially blessed by’. And so Adam was God’s son, the Hebrew people as a whole were God’s son, their ancient kings were enthroned as son of God – hence the enthronement formula, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’; and indeed any truly pious Jew could be called a son of God. But within Judaism the term was always used metaphorically.

Jesus then was wholly human. But he was one of the most remarkable, charismatic and God-filled human beings we know. His intense awareness of God was so powerful that in his presence people began, often for the first time, to be genuinely conscious of God as a living reality. And in his moral teaching he spelled out what it is to live consciously in God’s presence, trusting God’s loving providence and giving oneself freely as an agent of the divine love. But the message that God was about to sweep away all earthly rule – proclaimed by a popular preacher to whom the crowds flocked – was alarming both to the Roman authorities and to their clients, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. This was a volatile period of intermittent revolts which Rome was accustomed to squash without mercy. So when Jesus went up to Jerusalem to challenge the Temple priests in the name of God, they collaborated with the Romans in arresting and trying him, and Roman soldiers executed him by the standard method for insurrectionists, public crucifixion. But the powerful memory of Jesus and his teaching continued to inspire many of his followers, who now constituted a small ‘new religious movement’ within diverse first-century Judaism. They fervently awaited Jesus’ return in glory as God’s agent instituting the kingdom on earth. But as this was delayed year after year the expectation faded, and Jesus was gradually transformed in their thinking from the prophet of a future historical salvation to the agent of a present inner salvation. His spirit within them, the spirit of his life and teachings, was objectified as the Holy Spirit, the third member of a divine Trinity. And the Jesus cult developed into the cult of the risen Christ, transfigured and deified. With this the Christian myth was born.

God had descended in the person of his son to be born on earth as a child, had died to atone for our sins, and had risen to continued life on earth and then up into heaven, to return again in majesty on the last day. In familiar words from the creeds (which date from the fourth century), it is the story of God Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of his only Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who existed before all ages and was born on earth of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified for the remission of sins, rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father, thence to come again to judge the living and the dead. And revolving around this central story are many sub-themes – the revolt of Satan; the fall of Adam and Eve; the work of angels, kings and prophets, saints and martyrs; and the continuing holiness of the church and its hierarchy.”

If one were to accept this understanding of the historical Jesus and the birth of Christianity, they could still live as a religious pluralist within the church, experiencing the sacraments, participating in the liturgy, and being formed by the Christian scriptures, while, at the same time, knowing that they are “entering into a true myth.”

Marcus Borg, from the same understanding of world religion, advocated living within a religious tradition, seeing the tradition and, in the case of the following quotation, the Bible, as a sacrament, a means of grace and transformation.

“Thus one major function of the Bible is the shaping of Christian vision and identity. The Bible has another primary function as well, and it is a further aspect of the relationship between the Bible and God. Namely, the Bible is a sacrament of the sacred. In the Christian tradition, the word ‘sacrament’ often refers to one of the specific sacraments: for Protestants, the two sacraments of baptism and the eucharist; for Catholics, those two plus five more. Central to the definition of ‘sacrament’ in this particular sense is that something that is sacramental is ‘a means of grace.’ The word ‘sacrament’ also has a broader meaning. In the study of religion, a sacrament is commonly defined as a mediator of the sacred, a vehicle by which God becomes present, a means through which the Spirit is experienced. This meaning thus includes the two (or seven) Christian Sacraments even as it is broader. Virtually anything can become sacramental: nature, music, prayer, birth, death, sexuality, poetry, persons, pilgrimage, even participation in sports, and so forth. Things are sacramental when they become occasions for the experience of God, moments when the Spirit becomes present, times when the sacred becomes an experiential reality.

The Bible often functions in this sacramental way in the lives of Christians. It did so, for example, in the conversion experiences of many of the central figures of Christian history. Augustine’s conversion experience happened when he heard a child singing, ‘Take up and read,’ which led him to read a passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans that changed his life. Martin Luther’s breakthrough from anxious striving to the experience of grace, as well as the movement of the Spirit in John Wesley’s heart, happened through immersion in scripture. In each case, they experienced the Bible as a means whereby the Spirit addressed them in the present.

The sacramental use of the Bible is also among the spiritual practices of both Jews and Christians. Meditation upon the Torah is an ancient Jewish practice. In the Christian tradition, a spiritual practice designed by Ignatius of Loyola involves meditating upon the images of a biblical text until they become animated by the Spirit. Another practice, lectio divina, involves entering a contemplative state and listening while a passage of scripture is read aloud a number of times with periods of silence between each reading. In these examples, the purpose of the practice is not to read or hear the Bible for information or content. Rather, the purpose is to listen for the Spirit of God speaking through the words of the biblical text. For many Christians the Bible sometimes becomes sacramental in private devotional reading. As with the practices mentioned above, the purpose of devotional reading is not acquisition of content. Rather, it is openness to the experience of God addressing the reader through a phrase or verse, openness to a sense of the Spirit present within. In such moments the Bible becomes sacramental, a means of grace and mediator of the sacred. God ‘speaks’ through the words of the biblical text.

To see the Bible as a sacrament of the sacred also connects us back to the Bible as a human product. The bread and wine of the Christian sacrament of the eucharist are manifestly human products. Somebody made the bread and somebody made the wine. We do not think of the bread and wine as ‘perfect’ (whatever that might mean). Rather, to use a common eucharistic phrase, we affirm that ‘in, with, and under’ these manifestly human products of bread and wine, Christ becomes present to us. So also ‘in, with, and under’ the human words of the Bible, the Spirit of God addresses us. In the worship services of many denominations, including my own, the following words are spoken after the reading of a passage from the Bible: ‘The Word of the Lord.’ With my emphasis on the Bible as a human product, I sometimes joke that we should say instead, ‘Some thoughts from ancient Israel,’ or ‘Some thoughts from the early Christian movement.’ But when I am being serious rather than flippant, I find the words used in the New Zealand Anglican Book of Common Prayer exactly right: ‘Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.’ The Spirit of God speaks through the human words of these ancient documents: the Bible is a sacrament of the sacred.”

Hick ends his chapter on religious traditions as “true myths” by wondering aloud how this could play out in Christianity.

“…can ‘ordinary believers’ be expected to move from a literal to a metaphorical understanding of some of the central themes of the Christian story? Many have already done so in relation to the biblical creation myth, although the change was originally a matter of profound alarm and bitter controversy. But can Christians now be expected to come to see Jesus, no longer as God incarnate, but as our brother, one of us although far ahead of the rest of us in his openness to God? There are two questions here: ‘Can this happen today?’ and, ‘Can it happen gradually during the next fifty to a hundred years?’ As to the first question, the fact is that some church members can, and others, including most of the church leaders, cannot. But it is very difficult to know what is going on in other people’s minds. It is one thing to join wholeheartedly on Sunday in traditional Christian worship, with the ancient absolutist language still enshrined in sacred liturgy and song, and another thing to hold seriously, so as to be prepared to justify in the broad daylight of ordinary life, the idea that the historical Jesus of Nazareth was literally God. If asked in a survey, many people will say ‘Yes’ to the official formulation; but if pressed to say what this means – whether, for example, Jesus was God’s son in the literal sense that half of his chromosomes came from Mary and half from God the Father – they are likely to have doubts and, if questioned further, to retreat, or advance, through a further series of qualifications which eventually empty the original formulation of its content. But of course very many church members do not ask themselves what the traditional language means, and there are always clergy and theologians ready to assure them that they need not trouble themselves about such questions. So it may be too much to ask the core church members in the present generation to see the Christian story as a true myth. But will Christians in fifty or a hundred years time look back and see that the understanding of divine incarnation as a true myth gradually spread in the same way that the idea of evolution, and hence of the mythic character of many Bible narratives, gradually spread so as to become generally accepted? My guess is that just as the evolution debate left, in effect, two Christianities – one fundamentalist-evangelical and the other liberal-progressive – so the debate about the unique superiority of Christianity as having been founded personally by God will develop and intensify that division. Fundamentalist-evangelical Christianity will continue to appeal strongly to believers who need a simple black-and-white certainty, but liberal-progressive Christianity, if it can reconfigure itself so as to be religiously realistic, has the possibility of appealing to that large section of the secular world that is nevertheless open to the signals of transcendence which are all about us. But as to what will in fact happen, we can only wait and see!”

Hick, from what I understand, lived most of his life within the traditional church, but became a Quaker as he neared death.

Personally, I found it too hard to live within the traditional church after coming to pluralist viewpoint and have edged toward spiritual practice outside of religious structures. But there are many who live within the church, sharing this understanding of the tradition.

I also find Quakerism to be a natural alternative religious structure for those who would rather not live within traditional Christianity, but nevertheless desire to have religious community.