Marcus Borg: The Wisdom Jesus

While Tom Wright is typically the historical Jesus scholar of choice for conservative Christians, I would argue that Marcus Borg is the favorite of progressives.  Borg (1942-2015) taught for most of his career at Oregon State University, lectured widely, and wrote about both the historical Jesus and how the Church could function in light of modern critical biblical scholarship.  His most popular works are Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, Jesus: The Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, and The Heart of Christianity.  During his career, Borg was in dialogue with many of the scholars in this series, including N.T. Wright, Dale Allison, and John Dominic Crossan.  He was also a member of the Jesus Seminar.  To outline Borg's reconstruction of the historical Jesus, I will be using his Jesus: The Life, Teaching, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

To open his book, Borg details what he believes to be the two dominant pictures of Jesus in modern society – what he calls the "popular image" and the "scholarly image."  Ultimately he believes that both of these pictures are mistaken, and sees his own reconstruction as a "third way."  

This is Borg's description of the "popular image" of Jesus:

"The popular image is most familiar to Christian and non-Christian alike: the image of Jesus as a divine or semidivine figure, whose purpose was to die for the sins of the world, and whose life and death open up the possibility of eternal life. Its answers to the three questions of identity, purpose, and message are clear. As the divinely begotten Son of God, he was sent into the world for the purpose of dying on the cross as a means of reconciliation between God and humankind, and his message consisted primarily of inviting his hearers to believe that what he said about himself and his role in salvation was true.

The image is widespread, with degrees of sophistication and elaboration. Billboards and evangelists proclaim, 'Jesus died for your sins,' suggesting that this was his purpose in a nutshell. Much of Christian preaching takes the popular image for granted. The celebration of the major Christian festivals in our culture reinforces the image. Christmas, with wise men and shepherds and angels, a manger and a star and a virgin, tells the story of his wondrous birth and thus calls attention to his divine identity; Easter focuses on his triumph over death.

The popular image has its roots deep in the past, indeed in the language of the New Testament itself. Among the gospels, its primary source is John, probably the most loved and familiar gospel. There Jesus speaks of his identity in the most exalted terms known in his culture, especially in the magnificent series of 'I am' statements: 'I am the light of the world,' 'I am the bread of life,' 'I am the resurrection and the life,' 'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' 'Before Abraham was, I am.' The self-proclamation of his own identity in the 'I am' statements is buttressed by other passages in John: 'The Father is in me and I am in the Father,' 'He who has seen me has seen the Father,' 'I and the Father are one.' In a single verse, the fourth gospel sums up Jesus’ identity, purpose, message, and the proper response to him: 'For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.'"

As Borg notes, this image is highly dependent on the Gospel of John.  It is in the Gospel of John where we find the most exalted conception of Jesus.  Borg then goes on to argue that this image of Jesus has almost unanimously been rejected by modern scholarship, mostly stemming from modern scholars' preference for the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) over John regarding historical information about Jesus.  In the synoptics, Jesus does not overtly and publicly proclaim his Divine Sonship (save, perhaps, a single verse to be discussed later in this series).  In fact, a strong motif in the gospel of Mark is the "messianic secret" – Jesus does not want to publicly declare his messiahship. Borg concludes:

"...once this fundamental contrast between John and Mark was seen, a great historical “either/or” presented itself to scholars. Either the historical Jesus openly proclaimed his divine identity and saving purpose (John), or he did not (Mark). To put the issue most directly, Jesus could not consistently proclaim his identity and at the same time not do so. Thus the question became, 'Which image of Jesus is more likely to be like the historical Jesus, John’s or Mark’s?' The nearly universal answer given by scholars was 'Mark.' With that answer, the popular image’s basis as a historical image disappeared. The image of Jesus as one who taught that he was the Son of God who was to die for the sins of the world is not historically true."

Borg thus dismisses the popular image of Jesus as historically untrue.  He then goes on to discuss the dominant scholarly image of Jesus for the past century – that of an "Apocalyptic Prophet."

"According to the consensus (of 'scholarship'), from such an examination of Jesus’ message and mission we may surmise that he was an 'eschatological prophet' or perhaps even 'the eschatological prophet.' The phrase needs some unpacking. Eschatology is that branch of theology which concerns the 'end time'—the end of the world, last judgment, and the dawning of the everlasting kingdom. An eschatological prophet is one who announces the end. There is some evidence that some in the Jewish tradition near the time of Jesus anticipated such a prophet, 'one like unto Moses' or perhaps even greater than Moses, who would appear immediately before the end of time. To say that Jesus was the eschatological prophet is to say that he saw himself as the prophet of the end who proclaimed the end of the world in his own time and the urgency of repentance before it was too late. That was the core of his message and mission.

The consensus image of Jesus as eschatological prophet was grounded in the claim that the 'Kingdom of God' was at the center of Jesus’ own message. So Mark describes Jesus’ mission in his advance summary at the beginning of his gospel: 'The Kingdom of God is at hand, therefore repent!' However, the consensus image also depends upon a particular interpretation of the phrase 'Kingdom of God,' namely that 'Kingdom of God' is to be understood eschatologically as referring to the 'final' Kingdom which would bring an end to earthly history as we know it, the 'end of the world.'

This eschatological understanding of Jesus and of the Kingdom of God had its origin primarily in the work of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) at the beginning of this century. He is most familiar to us as a world-famed medical missionary, Nobel prize recipient, and a modern 'saint.' But as a young man Schweitzer, prior to going to Africa, wrote two brilliant books that decisively shaped Jesus studies for the rest of the century. Calling attention to the element of crisis running throughout the gospels and the statements about the coming of the 'Kingdom of God' and 'the Son of man' who would bring all earthly history to a close, Schweitzer argued that Jesus expected these events in the immediate future and saw his death as playing a decisive role in bringing about the end. Jesus was mistaken; the end did not come, and he died perhaps realizing his mistake.

Though Schweitzer’s work initially created a sensation and still strikes many as outlandish when they first hear of it, his basic image of Jesus as eschatological prophet gradually became the consensus understanding among scholars. Stripped of some of its details, it became the dominant image in German New Testament scholarship and, through the influential role played by German scholarship, in much of North American scholarship. To be sure, scholars also recognized that Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as present and not only future, but the future imminent Kingdom continued to be emphasized. The image of Jesus as one who proclaimed the end of the world and the urgency of repentance remained."

Like the popular image of Jesus, Borg believes that this scholarly image – that of Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet – is outdated.  In Borg's view, the texts implying that Jesus believed "the end was near" should be assigned to the early church, not the historical Jesus himself.  Excising these texts, and polling the Jesus Seminar allow Borg to conclude that:

"The majority of scholars no longer think that Jesus expected the end of the world in his generation."

That is, the scholarly consensus regarding Jesus as Apocalyptic Prophet is over.  Borg then goes on to detail a "third way" of seeing the historical Jesus.  

Borg's Jesus

After outlining two images of Jesus which he finds unsatisfactory, Borg spends the rest of his book painting his own picture of the historical Jesus.  Borg uses five categories through which to understand the historical Jesus: charismatic (or "mystic"), healer, sage, prophet, and movement-founder.

Charismatic or "Mystic"

Borg's first category for Jesus is that of a "charismatic," "Spirit-filled person," or "mystic."  Drawing from texts in the synoptics which imply that Jesus saw visions, spent long periods in prayer, and declared himself to have a prophetic authority ("the spirit of the Lord is upon me," etc.), Borg believes that Jesus saw himself standing in the line of Jewish prophets (and similar to "holy men" or "spirit-people" from other traditions):

"The cumulative impression created by the synoptic gospels is very strong: Jesus stood in the charismatic tradition of Judaism which reached back to the beginnings of Israel. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all portray him as a Spirit-filled person through whom the power of Spirit flowed. His relationship to Spirit was both the source and energy of the mission which he undertook. According to these earliest portraits, Jesus was one who knew the other world, who stood in a long line of mediators stretching back to Elijah and Moses. Indeed, according to them, he was the climax of that history of mediation. Moreover, as we shall see, Jesus’ relationship to the world of Spirit is also the key for understanding the central dimensions of his ministry: as healer, sage, revitalization movement founder, and prophet."


Flowing from Jesus' experience of the Spirit, Borg's second category is Healer.  The tradition is filled with stories of Jesus performing physical healing and exorcisms.  Although Borg is not certain as to the historicity of these events, he remains open to the possibility.  At a minimum, the stories are symbolic, and encourage the Christian community to view Jesus through this lens.


"Mediators between the two worlds of the primordial tradition often become 'people of power' or miracle-workers, especially healers. To be sure, not all do. In the history of Israel and other cultures, some were primarily mediators of the divine will as prophets and law-givers, or of 'supernatural' knowledge as diviners or clairvoyants. Others were charismatic military leaders, 'spirit warriors.' But some became channels through which healing power flowed from the world of Spirit into the visible world. Such figures of power ('men of deeds,' as they were called in Judaism) were known in first-century Palestine, both in her ancient tradition (notably, Elijah) and in charismatics contemporary with Jesus such as Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the Circle-Drawer. Jesus was one of these 'men of deeds.'"


Borg's third category for the historical Jesus is that of a Sage.  Borg believes that Jesus, as teacher, showed his disciples a path, or a "way."  This "way of Jesus" involved an inner transformation of the heart and was marked by self-sacrifice.  It was a path that was counter-cultural, an "alternative wisdom."

"Jesus was a sage, a teacher of wisdom. Regularly addressed as 'teacher' during his lifetime by followers, opponents, and interested inquirers alike, he has been hailed by subsequent generations of Christians as more than a teacher, as indeed he was. Nevertheless, he was not less than a teacher. But what was he a teacher of? Some have thought that he was primarily a teacher of beliefs; or, more precisely, of what was to be believed in order to be saved, providing 'correct information' in the form of divine revelation about God and Jesus’ own role in salvation. Others have stressed that he was a teacher of a new moral ethic, whether understood as a new moral code consisting of highly specific commands, or as a set of more generalized ideals such as love and justice or the 'golden rule' or the 'brotherhood of man.' But Jesus was not primarily a teacher of either correct beliefs or right morals. Rather, he was a teacher of a way or path, specifically a way of transformation. His teaching involved a radical criticism of the conventional wisdom that lay at the core of the first-century Jewish social world. As teacher of a way and critic of conventional wisdom, he was similar to other great sages who proclaimed a way or path sharply in tension with the culture of their time. Their number outside of Israel included Lao Tzu in sixth-century B.C. China and the Buddha in fifth-century B.C. India. Within Israel, Moses was the great sage without equal, calling his followers out of Egypt, the culture in which they lived, to a radically different way...

Just as Jesus used a multiplicity of images in his diagnosis of the human condition, so he also used many different images to speak of the cure, that is, the path of transformation. Underlying this diversity is a common conceptual understanding which comes to expression most clearly in the first three images we shall treat: a new heart, centering in God, and the way of death. The images intertwine with each other, even as each works separately as well. Each expresses what the 'cure' involves, even as it adds nuances of meaning that may not be captured by the other images."


Borg's fourth category for Jesus is Prophet.  Standing in the line of Israel's prophets, Jesus "spoke truth to power," and radically critiqued the Judaism of his day.  This is especially seen in his critique of Jewish elites (i.e. their treatment of the "holiness code," etc.) and his actions in the Temple.  

"Of all the figures in his tradition, Jesus was most like the classical prophets of Israel. Active from about 750 B.C. to 400 B.C., they are among the most remarkable people who ever lived. Sharing the feature which defines the figure of prophet as known in many cultures, they were 'verbal mediators' or messengers between the two worlds of the primordial tradition. Indeed, the name of the last of them, Malachi, means simply 'my messenger.' Their role as messengers of God flowed out of the intensity of their experiences of the Spirit, among the most vivid in the Spirit-filled tradition of Israel. As mediators of the Spirit, they spoke 'the Word of the Lord,' and the 'I' of the prophetic speeches is most often the divine 'I.' Moreover, their language was vivid, compact, and poetic, surging with extraordinary energy. Especially characteristic of them was their passionate and critical involvement in the historical life of their people in their own day. Speaking in times of historical crisis, they radically criticized their culture in the name of God and became voices of an alternative consciousness challenging their culture’s dominant consciousness."


Finally, Borg sees Jesus as a Movement-Founder.  Although Jesus intended his movement as a revitalization of Judaism, its influence obviously ended up spreading beyond Israel.  Christianity as a separate religion only occurred because of the rejection of most of the Judaism of Jesus's day.  


"We commonly think of Jesus as the founder of Christianity. But, strictly speaking, this is not historically true. Instead, his concern was the renewal of Israel. Toward this end, he created a sectarian revitalization or renewal movement within Israel, now commonly called the 'Jesus movement,' whose purpose was the transformation of the Jewish social world. The relationship between a renewal or revitalization movement and a social world is one of both affirmation and advocacy of change. On the one hand, such movements profess a strong loyalty to an inherited social world or tradition (if they did not, we would speak of them as new movements rather than renewal or revitalization movements). On the other hand, they claim that present circumstances call for a radical response. Spawned by a perceived difference between how things are and how they ought to be, all within the framework of a tradition, they affirm a tradition, even as they seek to revitalize or transform it. The fact that Jesus did not intend to create a new religion but intended the revitalization of his own tradition does not mean that Christianity is a mistake. Rather, Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism came into existence as the result of a historical process which took several decades after his death. Two factors were most important. As a revitalization movement within Judaism after his death, the Jesus movement in an important sense failed. Though most of its early members were Palestinian Jews, it did not capture the allegiance of the majority of the Jewish people. The second factor leading to separation was the success of the Jesus movement in the Mediterranean world outside of Palestine. There it quickly became a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, and the more Gentiles it attracted, the more it seemed distinct from Judaism. Thus, before the end of the first century, Christianity had in effect become a 'new' religion. Henceforth, though Christianity continued to affirm its connection to Judaism, the connection was increasingly to the Old Testament rather than to the Jewish people themselves. In terms of its membership, it was no longer a peculiarly or predominantly Jewish movement."


Borg's historical Jesus is sometimes classified simply as the "Wisdom Jesus."  Although this is probably an oversimplification (Borg himself objected to his work being boiled down to this), it does give a pretty fair image of his reconstruction.  Borg's Jesus is primarily a Spirit-filled teacher, strongly critiquing the Judaism of his day as part of his message.

A few hot button issues.  In regards to Jesus' self-conception, Borg does not believe that Jesus thought himself to be Divine, or a kind of "final prophet" or Messiah.  Borg's Jesus believes that he is called by the Spirit to renew the Judaism of his day and that he has authority to do so because of his experience of the Spirit.  Anything beyond this is a product of the early church. 

In regards to eschatology, Borg's Jesus has nothing (that I can see) to say about a final judgment, or the coming eschatological kingdom of God.  Texts in the synoptics which imply that Jesus does expect this, Borg again treats as products of the early church.  For instance, he doesn't believe that the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13 and parallels) stems from the historical Jesus. 

Finally, in regards to the use of texts, Borg, like virtually all historical Jesus scholars, works only from the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke).  Within the synoptics, Borg seemingly finds a core group of authentic sayings/narratives and forms his picture of Jesus from this selection of texts.  He does not touch on historical method in this book, but I would assume he uses the traditional "criteria of authenticity" (multiple attestation, dissimilarity, embarrassment, coherence).  As far as I can tell he uses the general impression of the synoptic gospels except where Jesus has an exalted self-conception or speaks of a final judgment.  In some cases he lets history slide into the background and is just fine if stories become symbolic or metaphors, for instance with miracle stories and the resurrection narratives.  When Borg does talk about the theme of "the kingdom of God" (which is rare), he emphasizes its present reality over an expected future inbreaking.  

Borg's picture of Jesus – a Spirit-filled man who taught an "alternative path" – is often used in the liberal Church.  I wouldn't hesitate to call Borg's reconstruction "the liberal Jesus."

The following is a lecture from Marcus Borg given at Vanderbilt Divinity School.  In it, Borg discusses the impact of Albert Schweitzer on the discipline, and reasons why his paradigm differs from that of Schweitzer (i.e. why he rejects the "Apocalytpic Jesus").  

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N.T. Wright: The Orthodox Jesus

It is uncontroversial to say that Tom (N.T.) Wright is the favorite modern historical Jesus scholar of most conservative Christians.  This is because Wright's historical reconstruction of Jesus of Nazareth is roughly that of the Council of Nicea.  Although he doesn't like to pigeonhole himself in some of categories of Evangelicalism, Wright's Jesus is, in the end, God's chosen servant, King, Messiah, the Second Member of the Trinity.  He will come again in glory.  Wright's Jesus is an orthodox Jesus who fits into conservative Christianity pretty much perfectly.  

Wright is a theologian, historical scholar, and retired Anglican Bishop.  He writes both scholarly and popular level books, and has commentaries on each book of the New Testament.  He is a prolific author and speaker.  

For this post I will look at his Simply Jesus, a popular level book in which he essentially lays out his view of who Jesus was as a historical figure.  For a very deep dive, check out his The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, and The Resurrection of the Son of God.  

In his Introduction, Wright lays his theological cards on the table:

"...writing about Jesus has never been, for me, a matter simply of 'neutral' historical study (actually, there is no such thing, whatever the topic, but we’ll leave that aside for the moment); the Jesus whom I study historically is the Jesus I worship as part of the threefold unity of the one God. But, likewise, writing about Jesus has never been a matter simply of pastoral and homiletic intent; the Jesus whom I preach is the Jesus who lived and died as a real human being in first-century Palestine. Modern western culture, especially in America, has done its best to keep these two figures, the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith, from ever meeting. I have done my best to resist this trend, despite the howls of protest from both sides."

Again, Wright isn't a pure historian.  He writes self-consciously for the confessing Church.  As he says, there is no such thing as neutral historical study, but knowing that he is first and foremost a churchman at least gives a hint at the flavor of his work.  This doesn't mean he can't be right, but it let's you know where he's coming from.  

Outlining Wright's Jesus isn't overtly straightforward as he often avoids simplified labels and tends toward highly nuanced and poetic descriptions.  In Simply Jesus, Wright begins by overviewing three historical realities and then showing how Jesus' proclamation of the Kingdom of God fits into and addresses those realities.  He ends by discussing Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension as well as addressing how the church ought to live out its call to help "bring the Kingdom" today.  To get a feel for his reconstruction, it is probably best to overview the three major sections of this book.

Part 1: Rome, Judaism, and God

The most obvious political reality of Jesus' time and place was the Roman Empire.  Before Jesus' birth, Rome transformed from a loose republic into a unified state with an emperor.  Julius Caesar led to Augustus Caesar who led to Tiberius Caesar.  Each emperor was considered "divine" and was seen as the bringer of a new age of prosperity to the world.  

"…the new age, for which we have waited for a millennium, is now here at last through the peaceful and joyful rule of Augustus Caesar. The message was carved in stone, on monuments and in inscriptions, around the known world: 'Good news! We have an Emperor! Justice, Peace, Security, and Prosperity are ours forever! The Son of God has become King of the World!'"

The title "Son of God" would have been immediately recognizable to Romans.  Who was the son of God?  The "son" of Julius – whoever was on the throne.  

The second historical reality that Jesus stepped into was that of the Jewish people.  The Jewish people lived in the story of their Scriptures.  They were the people of God – descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  After having their own "golden age" during the time of the Davidic monarchy, Israel had sinned against their God and been led into exile in Babylon as punishment.  Although they had "returned from exile" (as Babylon was conquered by Persia and the Jews were allowed return to their land) and rebuilt their Temple, the Jewish people were still oppressed.  They still lived under foreign, pagan rule, and looked forward to the culmination of their story, when they would once again enter a golden age of independence through the power of their God.  This hope was very alive in the world which Jesus was born into, and sometimes expressed itself as a "messianic hope" – the search for a messiah who would usher in the "rule of God."

Finally, Wright cites the reality and unpredictability of God as the final circumstance of the times.  Although the Jewish people had their own hopes and dreams for the nation, God was not bound to fulfill their expectations, but represented an unexpected Force, a free agent who could surprise.  

"To understand this great cyclone, this tropical hurricane, you have to understand, as I said before, something about the ancient Jewish vision of God. This always was the highly unpredictable element within the Jewish story itself. God remained free and sovereign. Again and again in the past, the way Israel had told its own story was different from the way God was planning things. The people, no doubt, hoped that the way they were telling their own story would fit in comfortably enough with the way God was seeing things, but again and again the prophets had to say that this was not so. Often God’s way of telling the story cut clean against the national narrative. And Jesus believed that this was happening again in his own time. God had promised to come back, to return to his people in power and glory, to establish his kingdom on earth as in heaven. The Jewish people always hoped that this would simply underwrite their national aspirations; he was, after all, their God. They wanted a divine hurricane simply to reinforce their already overheated high-pressure system. But the prophets, up to and including John the Baptist, had always warned that God’s coming in power and in person would be entirely on his own terms, with his own purpose—and that his own people would be as much under judgment as anyone, if their aspirations didn’t coincide with God’s."

Thus, according to Wright, Rome, the hopes of the Jewish people, and the reality of God form the major historical backdrop which Jesus walked into in 1st Century Palestine.  

Part 2: The Kingdom Come

In Part 2, Wright shows how Jesus' message of the Kingdom of God addresses his historical circumstances.  

First, Wright is clear, Jesus' message was summed up in his announcement of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  "The kingdom of God is at hand," Jesus says.  "Repent and believe the good news!"  Wright, paraphrasing Jesus’ message, says:

"So where does the story lead? It leads straight to the announcement that Jesus was making: 'God’s in charge now—and this is what it looks like!'"

Jesus comes announcing the Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is here, and God is now in charge.  Wright then spends much of this section of the book detailing characteristics of the Kingdom, drawing from the synoptic gospels.  

According to Wright, the Kingdom of God includes:

A New Exodus

"But this was the story that sustained the Israelites for the next thousand years and more, up to the time of Jesus—and, of course, sustains the Jewish people to this day. This was the story Jesus knew from boyhood. This was the story—the tyrant, the leader, the victory, the sacrifice, the vocation, the presence of God, the promised inheritance—within which it made sense to talk about God taking charge. This was the story about God becoming king. This was the story Jesus’s hearers would have remembered when they heard him talking about God taking charge at last. Since we have reason to believe that Jesus was one of the greatest communicators of all time, we must assume that this was the story he wanted them to think of. He must have known what he was doing, what pictures he was awakening in people’s minds. When he was talking about God taking charge, he was talking about a new Exodus."



"No point putting the world right if the people are still broken. So broken people will be healed: paralytics, epileptics, demoniacs, people with horrible skin diseases, a servant on the point of death, an old woman with a high fever, blind men, deaf and mute men, a little girl who’s technically already dead, an old woman with a persistent hemorrhage. And so on, and so on. Matthew lets the list build up until we almost take it for granted: yes, here’s a person who’s sick; Jesus will cure her."



"But it wasn’t just healings. It was also parties—celebrations. Jesus, to be sure, often spent long times alone in prayer. But he was also deeply at home where there was a party, a kingdom party, a celebration of the fact that God was at last taking charge. And, as is well enough known but not always fully understood, he seems to have specialized in celebrating God’s kingdom with all the wrong people. Tax-collectors (always disliked; doubly so when they were working for Herod or the Romans or both) were a breed apart, and Jesus went out of his way to meet them, to eat and party with them, to call one of them to be part of his inner team."



"There are many interesting features to the passage—notice, for instance, the way in which Simon, the Pharisee, is mentally criticizing Jesus for not knowing what sort of a woman this is, whereupon Jesus shows that he knows what’s going on, not only in the woman’s heart, but in Simon’s too. But we focus here on forgiveness itself. Jesus, as usual, tells a story to explain what he is doing. This time it’s about a man who had two debtors, one owing him a huge sum and the other a small sum. Neither could pay, so he forgave them both. So, he asks his host, which of the two will love him the more? Clearly, comes the answer, the one for whom he forgave the greater debt. Precisely so, says Jesus, explaining that this is why this woman had poured out love so richly upon him—unlike the host, who hadn’t even begun to show Jesus any love at all. In other words, Jesus is saying, you can tell that this woman has been forgiven, has indeed been forgiven a great deal. She knows, deep inside herself, that she’s been forgiven. That’s why there’s so much love coming out of her. And if she’s a forgiveness person, perhaps that shows that she is already enjoying the fact that God is becoming king, whereas people who aren’t forgiveness people don’t believe it."


Transformed Hearts

"So what is Jesus saying? That some people are simply permanently unclean—namely, all those who find these things bubbling up in their hearts? Hardly. There wouldn’t be too many 'clean' people around if that were his point. No, his point is that when God becomes king, he provides a cure for uncleanness of heart. Again and again it comes, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), on the edge of one remark after another. When God becomes king, he will come with a message of forgiveness and healing, and this is designed not just to remove old guilt or to cure old disease, but to renew the whole person from the inside out."


A Battle Against Satan

"The battle Jesus was fighting was against the satan. Whatever we think of this theme, it was clearly centrally important for all the gospel writers, and we have every reason to suppose it was central for Jesus as well..."


A Redefinition of Temple

"And Jesus, as we have already seen, had been going about saying that this God, Israel’s God, was right now becoming king, was taking charge, was establishing his long-awaited saving and healing rule on earth as in heaven. Heaven and earth were being joined up—but no longer in the Temple in Jerusalem. The joining place was visible where the healings were taking place, where the party was going on (remember the angels celebrating in heaven and people joining in on earth?), where forgiveness was happening. In other words, the joining place, the overlapping circle, was taking place where Jesus was and in what he was doing. Jesus was, as it were, a walking Temple. A living, breathing place-where-Israel’s-God-was-living."


A New Creation, On Earth

" will not do to suppose that Jesus came to teach people 'how to get to heaven.' That view has been immensely popular in Western Christianity for many generations, but it simply won’t do. The whole point of Jesus’s public career was not to tell people that God was in heaven and that, at death, they could leave 'earth’ behind and go to be with him there. It was to tell them that God was now taking charge, right here on 'earth'; that they should pray for this to happen; that they should recognize, in his own work, the signs that it was happening indeed; and that when he completed his work, it would become reality."


Thus Jesus is the King who brings the Kingdom in which God reigns.  For Wright, Jesus embodies what God is supposed to do – set the world right.  

"Jesus not only believed that this was another of those moments where the true, prophetic vision of the divine hurricane would clash with the current national mood. He believed, it seems—the stories he told at the time bear this out quite strikingly—that as he came to Jerusalem he was embodying, incarnating, the return of Israel’s God to his people in power and glory."


In regards to the Roman background, Jesus is King which means Caesar is not.  In regards to the Jewish hope, Jesus is indeed restoring Israel, but in an unexpected way.  Not by defeating the pagans militarily, but by establishing "a spiritual kingdom" around himself.  For those with eyes to see, God is indeed becoming King through the ministry of Jesus.

Wright here also accepts the historical crucifixion, bodily resurrection, and ascension (although he sees this story as highly "metaphorical") of Jesus.  In these events, Jesus' identity is confirmed and he is now "enthroned" (through the resurrection and ascension) as King.  

Part 3: Already, but Not Yet

In Part 3, Wright essentially argues that, although Jesus is already enthroned, it is up to us, the church, to help continue to realize the Kingdom of God on Earth as we wait for his return.

"We can sum it all up like this. We live in the period of Jesus’s sovereign rule over the world—a reign that has not yet been completed, since, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20–28, he must reign until 'he has put all his enemies under his feet,' including death itself. But Paul is clear that we do not have to wait until the second coming to say that Jesus is already reigning. In fact, Paul in that passage says something we might not otherwise have guessed: the reign of Jesus, in its present mode, is strictly temporary. God the father has installed Jesus in power, to act on his behalf; but when his task is complete, 'the son himself will be placed in proper order' under God the father, 'so that God may be all in all.' I do not think that Paul would have quarrelled with the Nicene Creed when it says, of Jesus, that his kingdom 'will have no end.' That, after all, is what the book of Revelation states on page after page. But I stress this point in 1 Corinthians because it makes it very clear that the present age is indeed the age of the reign of Jesus the Messiah. We cannot, in other words, agree with Billy that this reign is postponed to the second coming. That, on the contrary, is when it will be complete. In trying to understand that present reign of Jesus, though, we have seen two apparently quite different strands. On the one hand, we have seen that all the powers and authorities in the universe are now, in some sense or other, subject to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that they all do what he wants all the time, only that Jesus intends that there should be social and political structures of governance. Jesus himself pointed out to Pilate that the authority that the Roman governor had over him had been given to him 'from above' (John 19:11). Once that has been said, we should not be shy about recognizing—however paradoxical it seems to our black-and-white minds!—the God-givenness of structures of authority, even when they are tyrannical and violent. Part of what we say when we say that a structure is God-given is also that God will hold it to account. We have trained ourselves to think of political legitimacy simply in terms of the method or mode of appointment (e.g., if you’ve won an election). The ancient Jews and early Christians were far more interested in holding rulers to account with regard to what they were actually doing. God wants rulers, but God will call them to account. Where does Jesus come into all this? From his own perspective, he was himself both upstaging the power structures of his day and also calling them to account, then and there. That’s what his action in the Temple was all about. But his death, resurrection, and ascension were the demonstration that he was Lord and they were not. The calling to account has, in other words, already begun—and will be completed at the second coming. And the church’s work of speaking the truth to power means what it means because it is based on the first of these and anticipates the second. What the church does, in the power of the Spirit, is rooted in the achievement of Jesus and looks ahead to the final completion of his work."


Wright, treating all material in the synoptic gospels as essentially historically accurate (even if, at times, poetic), finds on their pages the orthodox Jesus.  Jesus is King, the Messiah, he "embodies God" – "doing what God is supposed to do."  He was crucified, buried, raised, and will return again in glory.  And for those who wish to join the Kingdom, he sets us to task to bring the Kingdom to earth today, as a pre-figuring of what is to come at the final consummation.  

The following audio is as good a summary of Wright’s thought as I could find.  In this lecture, you can get a good sense of what he believes about the historical Jesus, as well a taste of his poetic style.  The lecture was given at Calvin College in 2012. 

The Historical Jesus Series

I find myself in the "spiritual but not religious" camp these days.  That wasn't always the case.  I spent roughly ten years as an evangelical Christian.  During this time Jesus was my Lord and Savior.  I worshipped Him, served Him, and gave my life, as best I knew how, to doing His will.  

But, although Jesus of Nazareth has arguably shaped me more significantly than any other historical figure, he no longer plays a huge role in my spirituality.  This is largely because I have come to certain conclusions about his historical identity.  During seminary, primarily through the work of Dale Allison, I became convinced that the historical Jesus is best described as an Apocalyptic Prophet.  That is, Jesus believed that normal history was about to end and would be soon followed by a final judgment in which the righteous would be separated from the unrighteous (cf. Matt 25), the righteous inheriting a new world free of evil, pain, and suffering – the Kingdom of God – the unrighteous destined for eternal punishment.   In my opinion this belief was the driving force of Jesus' ministry.  When Jesus proclaimed that "the kingdom of God is at hand," a phrasing which seems to sum up his message in the minds of the gospel writers, this is primarily what I think he had in mind.  

Not everyone agrees.

The "Quest for the Historical Jesus" has been underway for almost three centuries.  The most famous overview of the Quest comes from Albert Schweitzer in his The Quest of The Historical Jesus.  In it, Schweitzer traces historical Jesus scholarship from Hermann Reimarus (1694-1768) through the end of the 19th Century.  Since Schweitzer's time new scholars have added their work to the field, each with their own take on who Jesus was as a historical figure.

It's a confusing field of study, and the portraits that scholars paint often look very different from one another.  When musing about whether Christian theologians should even be concerned with finding a historical Jesus, Allison remarks:

"If contemporary theology wants to include the historical Jesus in its discourse, it is up against grave obstacles, because his identity is unclear. More than one historical Jesus resides between today's book covers. We indeed have a plethora of them. There is the Jesus of Tom Wright, a Jewish prophet and almost, it seems, orthodox Christian. There is the Jesus of Marcus Borg, a religious mystic who dispensed perennial wisdom. There is the Jesus of E. P. Sanders, a Jewish eschatological prophet a la Albert Schweitzer. There is the Jesus of John Dominic Crossan, a Galilean but Cynic-like peasant whose vision of an egalitarian kingdom and nonviolent violent God stood in stark contrast to the power politics of Roman domination. One could go on. To the outsider, theories about Jesus must seem to crisscross each other to create a maze of contradictions. For the portraits, which serve different constituencies in the marketplace, are to large degree not complementary but contradictory."

– Dale Allison, The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus

There is no one Historical Jesus.  There are only various reconstructions.  

For the layman, I don't blame anyone interested in "the Quest" for throwing their hands up in the air.  If the scholars don't agree, how is the layman to decide?  And isn't it presumptuous to think we can know Jesus better than 2,000 years of Christian Tradition has taught?  

Perhaps.  But for those who have gone down this road of study, their personal conclusions often drastically change (or sometimes confirm) the nature of their faith.  It's a big deal.  

In this series, I'd like to outline several different paradigms for understanding who Jesus of Nazareth was as a historical figure.  In the process, I will use the work of well-known modern scholars as representative of a given paradigm.  The outline will be as follows:

1. N.T. Wright: The Orthodox Jesus
2. Marcus Borg: The Wisdom Jesus
3. Dale Allison: The Apocalyptic Jesus
4. John Dominic Crossan: Jesus the Cynic Philosopher
5. Reza Azlan: Jesus the Political Revolutionary

I will then conclude with some thoughts on several issues surrounding Historical Jesus studies.  

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Final Thoughts

In my opinion, this is John Hick’s tour de force. In The Fifth Dimension, Hick systematically lays out a rational way of understanding how the world religions, and religious experience in general, can fit together from a pluralist perspective. I have quibbles here and there with Hick, but really the only thing I don’t like about this book is the title.

Reading Hick back to back with Marcus Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time would be a great introduction to ideas surrounding religious pluralism. If you’re looking to dig deeper into Hick, I’d recommend The Metaphor of God Incarnate as a next read.

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.

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: What We Don't Need to Know

From a religious pluralist perspective, there is a lot we don’t know. We don’t have Divine Scriptures which give us infallible knowledge. We don’t know why the universe exists. We don’t know how it will be in the end. We can compare and contrast the myths and hopes from the world’s religious traditions, but all we are left with is speculation.

That’s a hard reality for a lot of people, especially traditionally religious people, to live with. For those growing up in conservative strands of their faith, they are used to having something approaching certainty, at least regarding core matters of belief. As I document in The Evangelical Experience, the move away from this type of thinking can be dramatic, a ripping apart of a worldview on which one has built their life.

But from a religious pluralist view, and as Hick argues toward the end of his work, we really don’t need to know these things.

”According to the world religions we exist not only within our familiar natural environment but also within a supra-natural environment. As we saw earlier, because of its value-laden character we are able, as free personal beings, to shut this out of our consciousness. But even when we allow the fifth dimension of reality to enter our experience, much remains utterly mysterious to us. Going beyond questions about the origin and structure of the physical universe, we do not know what happens to us after death. All that we know, if our big picture is basically correct, is that nothing good that has been created in human life will ever be lost. But although we have guesses, hunches, theories about that fulfilment, we are very probably (as the Buddha suggested) incapable at present of conceiving its nature. We do not know how the sufferings and sorrows of life, the agonies and despairs, can become steps on a long journey leading eventually to that fulfilment, as they will if the cosmic optimism of the world religions is justified. We have our theories, but they are only theories. However we do not need at this stage of our existence to know the solution to these mysteries. To become aware of the divine reality here and now by awakening to the fifth dimension of our own being is to begin to live in trust, trust in the (from our human point of view) friendly, serendipitous character of the vast process of the universe. This is not a faith wherein no harm can befall us in this present life, or those we love, but a faith that ultimately, in Lady Julian’s words, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

Notice that the ‘conflicting truth-claims’ of the different religions are concerned with questions to which, if we are entirely honest, we all know that we do not know the answers! Pretending however to knowledge that they cannot have, some traditions and sub-traditions affirm as certain that the universe began through an act of divine creation out of nothing, others that it is a divine emanation, yet others that it is a beginningless and endless process. Again, some affirm that at death we are translated to heaven or hell or purgatory, others that we live again many times on earth or in other spheres of existence. Some affirm the eventual perfecting of the individual ego, others an eventual transcendence of ego-existence in union with the divine reality. Some affirm that all human souls will reach the final fulfilment, others that only a fortunate minority will. But if we can accept that these are speculations, we both allow others to have their own different speculations, and are also freed to apply critical intelligence to them all. This involves a downgrading of religious dogmas to a less than absolute status. Here there is, once again, a thought-provoking teaching of the Buddha, that religious doctrines are not ends in themselves but are ‘skilful means’ (upaya) to aid us on our way to enlightenment. As such they will sooner or later have served their purpose and should be discarded. He told the parable of the raft, in which a traveller comes to a wide stretch of water. The side he is on is dangerous, but the other side is safe. However there is no bridge or boat. So he collects grass, sticks and branches to make a raft, and crosses to the other side. Because the raft has been so useful, he lifts it onto his head and carries it with him. But, says the Buddha, he should leave it behind. It has served its purpose and now can only be a hindrance. ‘You, O monks, who understand the Teaching’s similitude to a raft, you should let go even of good teachings, how much more of false ones.’”

What we really need to know is how to live. And on this, the religions, at least in general principle, seem to all agree.

”What we need to know is how to live here and now. And it is noticeable that whereas the metaphysical questions about which we can only speculate divide the religions, their basic moral principles unite them. I am speaking here of their basic ethical teachings, not of the detailed codes that have been created within different societies at different times and in different cultural, economic, political and climatic circumstances. These inevitably reflect those circumstances and should be allowed to change as the circumstances change. But because these commandments are usually embodied in sacred scriptures, it is very difficult to revise them, and more often they are officially retained whilst being in practice reinterpreted. And even this process of making them mean something other than what they say is usually a generation or more behind the change of moral outlook that has prompted the reinterpretation. In contrast to this, it is the basic teaching of all the world religions that we should behave towards others as we would wish others to behave towards us. This has appealed to the human conscience in every part of the world and in every generation: ‘One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to oneself’ (the Hindu Mahabharata, Anushana parva, 113: 7); One should go about ‘treating all creatures in the world as he himself would be treated’ (the Jain Kritanga Sutra, I, 11: 33); ‘As a mother cares for her son, all her days, so towards all living things a man’s mind should be all-embracing’ (the Buddhist Sutta Nipata, 149); ‘Do not do to others what you would not like yourself’ (the Analects of Confucius, XII: 2); A good man should ‘regard others’ gains as if they were his own, and their losses in the same way’ (the Taoist Thai Shang, 3); ‘That nature only is good when it shall not do to unto another whatever is not good for its own self’ (The Zoroastrian Dadistan-i-dinik, 94: 5); ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise’ (Jesus in Luke 6: 31); ‘What is hateful to yourself do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah’ (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 31a); ‘No man is a true believer unless he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself’ (Muhammad in the Hadith Ibn Madja, Introduction, 9); ‘Lay not on any soul a load which ye would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things ye would not desire for yourselves’ (the Bahá’í Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, 66, 127); and going behind the post-axial faiths to ‘primal’ religion, ‘Grandfather Great Spirit, all over the world the faces of living ones are alike. With tenderness they have come up out of the ground. Give us the strength to understand, and the eyes to see. Teach us to walk the soft Earth as relatives to all that live’ (Sioux prayer, in Roberts, p. 184). This is the common moral outlook of the great traditions.”

I would add that we need methods of becoming people who actually live, naturally and from the deepest place of our being, how we know we are supposed to live. That is, in my view, where the contemplative practices come in.

But if one adopts a religious pluralist perspective, they need to be comfortable not knowing many things.

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”:


John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Criterion of Authentic Religious Experience

One issue that becomes more difficult to deal with on a religious pluralist perspective is determining what is, and is not, an authentic "experience of the Divine."  In conservative circles, this is a somewhat easier distinction to make as experience that aligns with Scripture and/or orthodox theology is generally considered authentic, while experiences which contradict the teaching of the Church (or the synagogue, or the Temple, or the Mosque) are considered inauthentic.  There are also individuals, from all religious traditions, who claim that their spiritual experience has led them to commit acts which harm their neighbors and themselves.    

So how do we determine the genuine from the inauthentic spiritual experience?   

To this question, Hick gives a similar reply to that of Jesus, who, when counseling his followers on how to decipher between true and false prophets, answered, “By their fruits you shall know them.”

“The central criterion can only be the long-term transformative effect on the experiencer. A momentary experience, or an experience lasting minutes or even hours, is only important if its significance is integrated into one’s ongoing life. If, as in the case of the great mystics, their altered states of consciousness have a transforming and energizing effect in their lives, leading to a stronger centring in God, the Holy, the Real, and a greater love and compassion for their fellows, this is the evidence, accepted within each of the great traditions, of their openness to the Transcendent. It is of course the latter element, the love and compassion expressed in their actions, that we are able to observe and for which we therefore rightly look. This has always been evident to the mystics themselves.”

The “hard evidence” of a life changed, of the ongoing display of spiritual fruits – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in Pauline language – is the determiner as to whether one has had an authentic experience of God. For Hick, the saints from each tradition play a major role in helping us understand what is, and is not, authentic religion as they, by their character and display of authentic, natural, spiritual fruit, point us toward God.

Hick cites the example of St. Theresa of Avila, who speaks from her medieval Catholic perspective:

“…within the borders of Christian orthodoxy, as this was understood in late medieval Christendom, Teresa of Avila used the much more universal moral-and-spiritual-fruits criterion. It was accepted within the monasteries and nunneries that false as well as genuine religious experiences occurred, that these were sometimes hard to distinguish, and that one should therefore be constantly on guard against the deceits of the devil. That a revelation has come from God, and not from the devil, is assured for Teresa by its observable continuing effects in the soul. As Rowan Williams says, she ‘makes it very clear that, as far as she is concerned, the criteria of authenticity do not lie in the character of the experience itself but in how it is related to a pattern of concrete behaviour, the development of dispositions and decisions’. At one point she uses the analogy of someone who encounters a stranger who leaves her a gift of jewels. If someone else later suggested that the stranger had been an apparition, the jewels left in her hand would prove otherwise. Likewise, in the case of her visions, ‘I could show [any doubters] these jewels – for all who knew me were well aware how my soul had changed: my confessor himself testified to this, for the difference was very great in every respect, and no fancy, but such as all could clearly see. As I had previously been so wicked, I concluded, I could not believe that, if the devil were doing this to delude me and drag me down to hell, he would make use of means which so completely defeated their own ends by taking away my vices and making me virtuous and strong; for it was quite clear to me that these experiences had immediately made me a different person.’”

Regardless of the specific cultural/religious form it takes, the criteria of authentic religious experience is the spiritual fruit it produces.


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.

Marcus Borg: Seeing Religions Again

This is Marcus Borg giving a lecture on religious pluralism. Both Hick and Borg have been instrumental in my own understanding of world religion and how I understand my own home tradition. I recommend Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time for a written introduction to these ideas and a possible way of understanding the Christian faith from within a pluralist perspective. This lecture is also posted on the Blogcast.

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Religious Critical Realism

We now come to what I believe to be the most important, and unique, aspect of Hick’s thought – that of “religious critical realism.”  This concept is the key to understanding his broader ideas about how the world religions fit together.

 Hick defines critical realism as follows:

”The critical realist principle – that there are realities external to us, but that we are never aware of them as they are in themselves, but always as they appear to us with our particular cognitive machinery and conceptual resources – is thus a vital clue to understanding what is happening in the different forms of religious experience.”

Drawing on the work of Immanuel Kant, Hick begins by showing how critical realism can be understood in the natural world.

“Our awareness of the material world requires physical receptors, the five senses which enable us to see, hear, feel, taste and smell. These reveal our environment to us, but only those selected aspects of it in relation to which we have to act and react. For in selecting, our senses exclude much more than they let in. They have developed to aid our survival as organisms occupying our particular evolutionary niche, and they accordingly function as meshes through which only a certain range of signals can pass. As Brian Magee puts it, ‘If we think in terms of the metaphor of catching things in the network of experience, [the categories of thought] are the meshes of our net. Only what can be caught in them is available to us. Anything that passes through them untouched will not be picked up by us, and neither will whatever falls outside our nets altogether.’ For example, within the known electromagnetic spectrum extending from cosmic rays as short as four ten-thousand-millionths of an inch, to radio waves as long as eighteen miles, our senses only respond to those between sixteen and thirty-two millionths of an inch. We are likewise deaf to a vast range of acoustic stimuli, and insensitive to the great majority of chemical differences. We thus inhabit a humanly selected and simplified version of our environment. If the whole range of light waves affected us we would be unable to distinguish objects affecting our survival. If every sound wave registered in our consciousness, we would be so confused by the universal cacophony as to be unable to react to the sounds that we need to hear. And if, for example, instead of seeing water as the continuous shiny substance that we can drink, we perceived it as a cloud of electrons in rapid swirling motion, and the glass that holds it as a mass of brilliantly coloured crystals, themselves composed of particles in violent activity, we would soon die of thirst. We can only live in the distinctively human environment registered by our sensors, and this differs in many ways from that of other mammals, insects, birds and fishes…

...We have already noted that light waves impacting the retina of the eye are transformed, through a complex process, into our conscious experience of seeing the world as we humans perceive it. Light waves are not themselves coloured, but their impact is transformed within us into the experience of colour vision. Sound waves, which are not themselves noises, are transformed by our receptive apparatus into the experience of hearing noise. In broadcasting, the sound waves that the speaker emits in a studio are transformed into radio waves, which are then translated back by our receiver into sound waves, which we translate into heard sounds. Likewise TV waves are transformed into lines and dots on the screen, which we then transform into the experience of seeing coloured pictures. Consciousness of our environment always involves a continuous transformation of information from one mode into another. Different life forms, with their different sense organs and differently developed structures of consciousness, experience the world differently. For some (including we humans) the dominant sense, providing our normal framework of consciousness, is sight – a larger area of our brain is dedicated to processing visual than other stimuli. But for others (such as the mole) the dominant sense is smell, and for yet others (such as the bat) it is sound. Insects operate in terms of environmental features too small for large animals, such as the elephant, to be aware of them. The ant is not aware of the elephant, and the elephant is not aware of the ant, although both are part of the same vast network of life. And within this network the same virtual infinity of information is reduced in different ways by different selective mechanisms, and transformed into fields of consciousness with different structures and qualities. That the world is perceived in different ways by differently constituted observers is thus well established. To take us a little nearer to the way in which the Transcendent is experienced by some as an all-powerful cosmic Person and by others as an infinite non-personal reality, consider the difference between, say, the table that we experience as a solid, hard, brown, partly shiny, enduring three-dimensional object, and the account of it given by the physicists as mostly empty space in which infinitesimal packages of discharging energy are moving about at a great pace. None of these have any of the properties of the table that we perceive – neither colour, weight, extension, density, nor even fixed position.”

Thus, according to the principle of critical realism, we don’t experience things objectively “as they really are,” but only through the filter of our unique sensory organs and conceptual frameworks.  A bat experiences reality in a much different way than a human.  According to critical realism, we don’t have a “truer” experience of reality than a bat; we just each experience the same reality differently, according to the equipment we are endowed with.  In Hick’s example of the table, the table doesn’t have the objective, fixed attributes of “hardness,” “brownness,” or “shininess,” even though we experience it as such through our unique sensory equipment.  

 I am here reminded of Bertrand Russell’s famous “The Problems of Philosophy” in which he makes similar observations:

“To make our difficulties plain, let us concentrate attention on the table. To the eye it is oblong, brown and shiny, to the touch it is smooth and cool and hard; when I tap it, it gives out a wooden sound. Anyone else who sees and feels and hears the table will agree with this description, so that it might seem as if no difficulty would arise; but as soon as we try to be more precise our troubles begin. Although I believe that the table is 'really' of the same colour all over, the parts that reflect the light look much brighter than the other parts, and some parts look white because of reflected light. I know that, if I move, the parts that reflect the light will be different, so that the apparent distribution of colours on the table will change. It follows that if several people are looking at the table at the same moment, no two of them will see exactly the same distribution of colours, because no two can see it from exactly the same point of view, and any change in the point of view makes some change in the way the light is reflected. For most practical purposes these differences are unimportant, but to the painter they are all-important: the painter has to unlearn the habit of thinking that things seem to have the colour which common sense says they 'really' have, and to learn the habit of seeing things as they appear. Here we have already the beginning of one of the distinctions that cause most trouble in philosophy--the distinction between 'appearance' and 'reality', between what things seem to be and what they are. The painter wants to know what things seem to be, the practical man and the philosopher want to know what they are; but the philosopher's wish to know this is stronger than the practical man's, and is more troubled by knowledge as to the difficulties of answering the question. To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table--it appears to be of different colours from different points of To return to the table. It is evident from what we have found, that there is no colour which pre-eminently appears to be the colour of the table, or even of any one particular part of the table--it appears to be of different colours from different points of view, and there is no reason for regarding some of these as more really its colour than others. And we know that even from a given point of view the colour will seem different by artificial light, or to a colour-blind man, or to a man wearing blue spectacles, while in the dark there will be no colour at all, though to touch and hearing the table will be unchanged. This colour is not something which is inherent in the table, but something depending upon the table and the spectator and the way the light falls on the table. When, in ordinary life, we speak of the colour of the table, we only mean the sort of colour which it will seem to have to a normal spectator from an ordinary point of view under usual conditions of light. But the other colours which appear under other conditions have just as good a right to be considered real; and therefore, to avoid favouritism, we are compelled to deny that, in itself, the table has any one particular colour.”

This idea, that we don’t experience things “as they are,” but only through our particular sensory equipment and conceptual frameworks, is the key to understanding Hick’s view of world religious experience.  According to religious critical realism, when individuals from different traditions experience “the Divine,” we may very well be encountering the same reality, but interpreting it through the lens of our traditions – our given conceptual frameworks.  

“The forms that this awareness takes are human constructions created from material within the inherited imagery of a religious tradition and from each individual’s life story and psychological make-up. If our tradition has conditioned us to think of the Transcendent in personal terms, and to practise I–Thou prayer and worship, we shall be conscious of a personal divine presence, or a divine call, claim, leading or revelation. And so Christian mystics have received visions and/or auditions, seeing and hearing the figure of Christ on the cross, or shining in heavenly glory, or of the Virgin Mary or one of the saints as mediators of God’s presence. Within the neighbouring Islamic world, mystics have their own different visions. Al-Ghazali says of a certain stage of the inner path, ‘The mystics in their waking state now behold angels and the spirits of the prophets; they hear these speaking to them and are instructed by them.’ Devout Hindus sometimes see visions of the gods. For example, one tells how, as a fourteen-year-old walking home one day from school, the lord Krishna met him coming out of a rice field, and embraced him. ‘Since then’, he says, ‘I had no other thought but to serve only Krishna, and I became a sadhu.’ But if, on the other hand, our tradition has taught us to think of the Ultimate in non-personal terms and to practise a non-I–Thou type of meditation, our religious awareness will take one of the quite different forms described in eastern mystical literature.”

Hick ends his discussion of religious critical realism by referring to the concrete example of the experience of Julian of Norwich:

 ”At this point it may be useful to clarify the distinction between non-realism, naive realism and critical realism. If we take as an example (to be described in chapter 14) Julian of Norwich’s visions of Christ and her hearing him speak of the limitless divine love, the non-realist interpretation is that the entire experience was a self-induced hallucination – not in any sense a revelation, not an expression of the ‘impact’ of the Transcendent upon her. The naive realist interpretation – which was probably her own understanding of her experiences – is that the living Christ was personally present to her, producing the visions that she saw, and uttering in Middle English the words that she heard. But the critical realist interpretation, which I believe to be correct, is that she had become so open to the transcendent, within her and beyond her, that it flooded into her consciousness in the particular form provided by her Christian faith. She was aware of the goodness –from our human point of view – of the Real as the unconditional love of a personal God, expressed in the characteristic fourteenth-century form of the bodily agonies of Jesus on the cross. Her experience was thus a genuine contact with the Transcendent, but clothed in her case in a Christian rather than a Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic or other form. In different symbolic worlds, what was for Julian a divine love expressed in the voluntary sufferings of Christ is expressed in other modes. It is known, for example, in the figure of Vishnu who, in the Bhagavad Gita , is ‘as a father with his son, a friend with his friend, a lover with his beloved’.  In Buddhism the ultimate Dharmakaya, in itself beyond human conceiving, is expressed in the infinite compassion of the Buddhas. And the ninety-nine names, or attributes, of Allah in the Qur’an include love, beneficence, mercy, forgiveness, forbearance, generosity, compassion. The mystics of Islam have accordingly been intensely conscious of the divine love. ‘Love is affection without bounds,’ says Rumi. ‘Hence it is said that Love is truly God’s attribute, while it is the attribute of His servants only in a derivative sense ... Know that Love and Affection are Attributes of God.’ In these and many other ways the impact of the transcendent reality upon us receives different ‘faces’ and voices as it is processed by our different religious mentalities. Religious experience, then, occurs in many different forms, and the critical realist interpretation enables us to see how these may nevertheless be different authentic responses to the Real.”

This principle – religious critical realism – drives Hick’s broader understanding of how the world religions fit together from a religious pluralist perspective.  It allows one to respect each tradition as an “authentic experience of the Real,” and account for the variety of forms that that experience can take.

John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Windows on the Transcendent

After arguing that, at a minimum, reality is capable of being interpreted in Theistic terms, in the chapter Windows on the Transcendent, Hick provides what he believes are "windows" that lead to this worldview.  Essentially Hick here is providing arguments for the existence of God.

In the previous chapter, Hick has already alluded to the Teleological Argument for the Existence of God.  Someone promoting the teleological argument looks at the structure of the universe and observes that there are elements that seem to have been designed to reach the telos – the goal – of the creation of intelligent life.  Apologists using this argument often point, as Hick does, to various physical constants such as the "Q ratio," the charge value of an electron, the relation between electron and proton masses, the value of the "strong force" and "weak force" between nuclei, and others.  The values of these physical constants need to be incredibly precise to form a universe capable of life as we know it.  For instance the value of Q must be very close to .00001 for galaxies to even form.  This is also sometimes referred to as the "fine-tuning" argument.  Hick believes the data of seemingly fine-tuned physical constants opens the possibility of an intelligent Creator.

Hick's other "Windows on the Transcendent" include the Window of the Mind, Windows in the Natural World, and Windows in Human Life.

The Window of the Mind

Under the heading The Window of the Mind, Hick argues that the nature of consciousness itself leads us to consider the existence of an encompassing non-physical reality – God/Brahman/Dharmakaya/Tao, etc.  To make his argument, Hick looks at various theories of mind including the mind-brain identity theory and epiphenominalism, both of which he finds unsatisfactory.  The mind-brain theory states that the mind literally is the brain.  That there aren't two "kinds of things" going on during a changing state of mind, one physical and one mental, but that they are somehow, the same, physical, thing.  Hick finds this borderline incoherent.

"Suppose a surgeon has exposed an area of a patient’s brain, and because this contains no pain nerves the patient is conscious and able to report what is going on in her mind. Suppose she is visualizing a seaside bay, the waves sparkling in the sun, a harbour with moored fishing boats at the foot of a grassy cliff, and on top of that a ruined castle. It makes sense – whether true or false – to say that the electrical activity in the brain which the monitors are recording is causing this particular content of the patient’s consciousness (the ‘qualia’ in the philosophical jargon). It also makes sense – again whether true or false – to say that the visualizing could not occur without this particular brain activity. But does it make sense to say that the visualized scene literally is activity in the grey matter which the surgeon can see and touch? Surely this is not even a coherent possibility. There are no pictures or colours, no images of sea and harbour and fishing boats and castles on a hill, in the brain. There are synaptic connections between the millions of neurons, and electricity flowing through a region of these connections in a pattern which somehow either produces or is produced by this particular mental effort of imagination. But the extended and coloured picture which the patient is consciously visualizing is not itself any quantity of neurons or any flow of electricity."

In regards to epiphenomenalism – the belief that consciousness is non-physical, but that it is simply a temporary by-product of the physical activity in the brain and therefore unable to causally influence anything – Hick again finds this unsatisfactory for two reasons.  First, he argues that, if consciousness is simply a by-product of physical events, there is no reason for consciousness to have developed evolutionarily.  On the epiphenomenalist theory, it doesn't really "do anything"; the world would go on just as it would have had consciousness not developed.  There is no survival value.  Second, Hick argues that this theory rules out the possibility of true (i.e. "libertarian") free-will.  

"There is also another anomaly of a different kind involved in any physicalism which involves either mind/brain identity or a purely epiphenomenal non-physical consciousness. For although there can be the illusion of freewill (‘compatibilist’ freewill) in a physically determined world, there can be no genuine (‘non-compatibilist’ or ‘libertarian’) freewill. But in that case, as Epicurus pointed out long ago, ‘He who says that all things happen of necessity cannot criticize another who says that not all things happen of necessity. For he has to admit that the assertion also happens of necessity’. In other words, if someone’s thought, ‘My every thought is physically determined’, is true, that thought itself is not the outcome of a process of free critical thinking but is an event determined by physical causes. Two people discussing together, one arguing for and the other against determinism, would be like two differently programmed computers producing different outcomes. It would require a non-determined programmer, exercising free rational judgment, to know which of them is programmed with the correct premises and the correct method of calculation. But according to determinism there are only the physically determined computers. To try to avoid this dilemma some have suggested that there is subatomic randomness within the causal processes in the brain, and that it is this randomness that makes free will possible. But this does not help. Randomness or chaos are just as incompatible with freewill as rigid causal determination. If every thought is either rigidly or randomly determined, we could never be in a state of rationally believing this to be the case. For rational believing presupposes a degree of intellectual freedom, the freedom to exercise judgment, and if all our thoughts are the result of either physical determination or random chance, we have no such freedom. In short, we cannot rationally believe ourselves to be totally determined entities."


For Hick, consciousness as a true determining agent, which we must assume in order to logically function in the world, is a mystery which should lead us to consider the existence of the ultimate non-physical reality – God.  He concludes:

"...we are left with the mysterious but undeniable fact of consciousness as a non-physical reality, a reality which we have to assume is capable of free self-determining activity. This opens a window onto the possibility of the kind of non-physical reality to which the religions point as God, Brahman, the Dharmakaya and the Tao."


Windows in the Natural World and Human Life

Hick goes on to briefly address other aspects of the world which may be "signals of transcendence" depending on our interpretation.  Hick lists:

(1) our experience of the beauty of the natural world,

"All of this (beauty in the natural world) can induce an awe, a responsiveness, a sense of wonder that is felt as a point of contact between our own spiritual nature and a greater spiritual reality within, around, and beyond us. "

(2) our experience of love among family and community,

"Yet other signals of transcendence come through our human neighbours. Love, not meaning here only sexual attraction, but going beyond this to a deep mutual commitment and caring for one another; or the sense of receiving a great gift and responsibility in the birth of a new life; or an encounter with the mysterious boundary when a loved one dies and yet continues to be loved; or co-operation and unity of spirit in a common cause, motivated by a common faith or ideology; or mutual support in the face of danger (in which even the madness of war can bring out qualities of heroism and altruism); or being part of a community in family, tribe, nation, the human race – all of these can evoke in a mind so disposed a sense of reality transcending our human concerns and yet impinging upon us through them, inscribing in our minds a great question mark that silently invites a response."

and (3) the testimony of "the saints" – those who have been transformed by their experience of the Divine to such a degree that they appear almost tangibly different than the rest of humanity.

"Even more powerful signals of transcendence come through goodness as embodied both in ordinary and in saintly people. In order to get away from the ecclesiastical associations of the word ‘saint’ I shall sometimes speak instead of mahatmas, great souls. A mahatma is a person who has undergone –usually very gradually –a transformation from natural self-centredness to a re-centring in the Transcendent, the Holy, the Divine, the Ultimate. The ego point of view has been very largely transcended and the individual has become ‘transparent’ to a greater reality that is now in varying degrees embodied, or incarnated, in him or her. The saints are crucial for our understanding of the nature of reality, and I am going to say more about them later. Part V could in fact have been incorporated at this point, and if any readers are inclined to read it next they should feel free to do so. As we have seen, humans have always tended to experience the natural in terms of the supra-natural, although of course that distinction would not have occurred to our early ancestors. They did not need any special pointers to the Transcendent because it was for them part of the normal fabric of life. But today most of us do need special pointers. And we can find them above all in the mahatmas, the great spirits of all traditions. It remains possible that the lives of those great spirits are based on delusion. But if we identify, and then discount, the pervasive naturalistic assumption of our culture, it is equally possible that the saints are not mistaken but are in fact more closely in touch with reality than the rest of us. In the end we are taking a cognitive and spiritual risk when we accept them as guides worthy to be followed, and equally so when we dismiss them as self-deceivers. The risk is, on the one hand, that of fooling ourselves by wishful thinking, and on the other hand, that of shutting out of our consciousness, at least for now, an immensely important fifth dimension of reality. "

So Hick ultimately argues that the apparent teleology of the cosmos, the nature of consciousness, anthropology (earlier in the book he referenced man having "an inbuilt tendency to experience the natural in terms of the super-natural"), our experience of natural beauty, the experience of love between individuals and in communities, and the testimony of the saints should lead us to consider the existence of God, a transcendent non-physical reality. 

Other "arguments for the existence of God" which Hick doesn't mention include the cosmological / first mover argument, the argument from objective morality, the difficulty accounting for abiogenesis (the proposed natural explanations for "first life," which is also capable of reproduction), the apparent teleology of genetic code, etc. 

I have long found the argument from the nature of DNA to be intriguing in this regard.  Our DNA is encoded information.  It is hard to imagine coded information that has a teleology of its own (i.e. it has functions it is "designed" to complete) originating from anything other than some kind of intelligent source.  This is part of what caused Anthony Flew, controversially and toward the end of life, to become a theist.  The following quotation is from his There is a God: How the World's Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind


"A third philosophical dimension to the origin of life relates to the origin of the coding and information processing that is central to all life-forms. This is well described by the mathematician David Berlinski, who points out that there is a rich narrative drama surrounding our current understanding of the cell. The genetic message in DNA is duplicated in replication and then copied from DNA to RNA in transcription. Following this there is translation whereby the message from RNA is conveyed to the amino acids, and finally the amino acids are assembled into proteins. The cell’s two fundamentally different structures of information management and chemical activity are coordinated by the universal genetic code. The remarkable nature of this phenomenon becomes apparent when we highlight the word code. Berlinski writes: By itself, a code is familiar enough, an arbitrary mapping or a system of linkages between two discrete combinatorial objects. The Morse code, to take a familiar example, coordinates dashes and dots with letters of the alphabet. To note that codes are arbitrary is to note the distinction between a code and a purely physical connection between two objects. To note that codes embody mappings is to embed the concept of a code in mathematical language. To note that codes reflect a linkage of some sort is to return the concept of a code to its human uses. This in turn leads to the big question: ‘Can the origins of a system of coded chemistry be explained in a way that makes no appeal whatever to the kinds of facts that we otherwise invoke to explain codes and languages, systems of communication, the impress of ordinary words on the world of matter?’ Carl Woese, a leader in origin-of-life studies, draws attention to the philosophically puzzling nature of this phenomenon. Writing in the journal RNA, he says: ‘The coding, mechanistic, and evolutionary facets of the problem now became separate issues. The idea that gene expression, like gene replication, was underlain by some fundamental physical principle was gone.’ Not only is there no underlying physical principle, but the very existence of a code is a mystery. ‘The coding rules (the dictionary of codon assignments) are known. Yet they provide no clue as to why the code exists and why the mechanism of translation is what it is.’ He frankly admits that we do not know anything about the origin of such a system. ‘The origins of translation, that is before it became a true decoding mechanism, are for now lost in the dimness of the past, and I don’t wish to engage here in hand-waving speculations as to what polymerization processes might have preceded and given rise to it, or to speculate on the origins of tRNA, tRNA charging systems or the genetic code.’ Paul Davies highlights the same problem. He observes that most theories of biogenesis have concentrated on the chemistry of life, but ‘life is more than just complex chemical reactions. The cell is also an information storing, processing and replicating system. We need to explain the origin of this information, and the way in which the information processing machinery came to exist.’”


Thomal Nagel, himself not a traditional theist, makes a similar observation in Mind and Cosmos:

“With regard to the origin of life, the problem is much harder, since the option of natural selection as an explanation is not available. And the coming into existence of the genetic code—an arbitrary mapping of nucleotide sequences into amino acids, together with mechanisms that can read the code and carry out its instructions—seems particularly resistant to being revealed as probable given physical law alone.”

There is of course an ongoing philosophical debate between theists, atheists, and all shades in between.  Hick believes that some combination of these arguments should lead us to seriously consider the existence of God.  

To the extent that "logic" leads us to answer the question of God in the affirmative, I think that the cumulative effect of some of these arguments at least opens the door in that direction.  Personally, though, I believe it takes some sort of intuitive experience to lead an individual into "spirituality" or "towards God," an experience which almost forces one to consider those categories. 

Hick will go on to argue that the reality we find ourselves in is capable of being interpreted in a variety of ways in order to preserve our cognitive freedom.  We can choose to respond to God/Spiritual Reality, but are not forced to.  In the process he uses the concept of levels of reality or levels of significance, noting that we often intuitively recognize a "moral level of significance" on top of our physical reality: 

" the personal level of awareness, situations often carry a practical meaning that transcends their purely material character. Suppose I am driving along a country lane and find a crashed car with its occupant severely injured and crying out for help. At the purely physical level of awareness this is a particular configuration of metal, plastic, oil, flesh, blood, and various sounds and smells. As such, it has no moral quality whatever. But as a moral being I am also aware of another level of significance. I am conscious of a claim upon me to try to help the injured person. An ethical meaning thus superimposes itself upon the physical meaning of the situation. In comparable circumstances people anywhere in the world are automatically aware of this, for a moral capacity appears to be part of our nature as social beings."

Just as we sometimes recognize a non-physical, moral, level of significance to reality, we also sometimes recognize a spiritual level of significance to reality.  Hick continues to emphasize the need for our cognitive freedom in relation to both moral and spiritual claims upon us:

"We turn now to the religious awareness which (according to our big picture) is superimposed upon physical and moral awareness. Here our cognitive freedom is at its maximum. Although we seem to have an innate tendency to experience the natural in terms of the supra-natural, we are nevertheless under no compulsion to do so...

...If our big picture is basically correct, the ultimately Real can only enter our consciousness in the range of forms made possible by our own conceptual systems. Because we are persons, much the most common form is deity, a divine Thou with whom a relationship of devotion and mutual love is possible. In terms of the monotheistic traditions first, why should not the personal divine presence be unmistakably evident to us? The answer is that in order for us to exist as autonomous finite persons in God’s presence, God must not be compulsorily evident to us. To make space for human freedom, God must be deus absconditus, a hidden God – hidden and yet readily found by those who are willing to exist in the divine presence, accepting the divine claim on the living of their lives. If we were from the beginning set ‘face to face’ with God we would never be able to make a free response to the Deity. There could be no question of freely loving and choosing to worship One whose very presence utterly overwhelms us. ‘Only because of the intensity of His manifestation is He veiled, and only because of the sublimity of His Light is He hidden from view’, says the Sufi Ibn ‘Ata’Illah. We must, as finite and imperfect creatures, have the freedom partially or wholly to shut God out of our lives as well as to welcome God into them. In the case of non-theistic awareness of the ultimate, the same basic principle holds, although in a different form. According to T.S. Eliot in ‘Burnt Norton’, ‘Humankind [in our ‘fallen’ or pre-enlightened state] cannot bear very much reality’. This is affirmed in the Buddhist Bardo Thodol, where it is said that at the moment of death the soul confronts the clear light of reality. Those few who are able to embrace, or be embraced by, the light are immediately united with the ultimately Real. But the great majority, who are not ready for this, have to continue further round the cycle of rebirths. For generally, both in Buddhist and Hindu thought, enlightenment, liberation, awakening, whilst it may finally occur in a moment of time, only happens at the end of a long process of spiritual growth. It cannot be forced. The readiness has to come from within. This is why religious awareness does not share the compulsory character of sense awareness. Our physical environment must force itself upon our attention if we are to survive within it. But our supra-natural environment, the fifth dimension of the universe, must not be forced upon our attention if we are to exist within it as free spiritual beings."

In the end, Hick argues that his "Windows on The Transcendent" can logically lead us toward the call of God/Spiritual Reality, but that we are nevertheless under no compulsion to respond.  


John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: The Ambiguity of the Universe

Although most in today's academic world begin with an assumption of naturalism/materialism, Hick argues that the Universe is, in fact, ambiguous.  That is, it can be interpreted in a variety of ways including those which presume a God/Spiritual Reality, and those which do not.

In his chapter entitled The Big Bang and the Ambiguity of the Universe, Hick talks about the current scientific understanding of the creation of the Universe – the Big Bang.  In the process he references what some have called the teleological argument for the existence of God – the idea that the Universe shows design or that it leads to a telos, an end goal, which includes the development of intelligent life.  

"We know now that the form that the expansion has taken was determined by basic conditions which, if they had been even slightly different, would not have produced galaxies, including planets, including life, including us. There had to be very precise values for a number of basic constants for the universe as it is to have come about. One example is that in order for a universe of galaxies to develop there had to be just the right degree of non-uniformity in the initial state. The astrophysicists refer to this degree of non-uniformity, consisting in the energy difference between peaks and troughs in the density of matter, as Q. Q has to be very close to 0.00001 in order to account for the present-day galaxies and clusters. To quote Martin Rees,

If Q were much smaller than 0.00001, galactic ‘ecosystems’ would never form: aggregations would take longer to develop, and their gravity would be too weak to retain gas. A very smooth universe would remain forever dark and featureless ... On the other hand, a rougher universe, with Q much larger than 0.00001, would be turbulent and violent. Lumps far bigger than galaxies would condense early in its history. They would not fragment into stars.

Other such conditions include the electric charge of the electron, the ratio of the electron and proton masses, the strength of the strong force between nuclei. These are some – and only some – of the precise conditions needed if the universe as we know it, with ourselves as part of it, was to come about. In fact it looks as though our universe has been precisely designed to produce intelligent life. Martin Rees does not himself believe in a creator God, but he does acknowledge the extraordinary series of coincidences that has been necessary to produce ourselves:

A universe hospitable to life – what we might call a biophilic universe – has to be very special in many ways. The prerequisites for any life – long-lived stable stars, a periodic table of atoms with complex chemistry, and so on – are sensitive to physical laws and could not have emerged from a Big Bang with a recipe that was even slightly different. Many recipes would lead to stillborn universes with no atoms, no chemistry, and no planets; or to universes too short lived or too empty to allow anything to evolve beyond sterile uniformity. This distinctive and special-seeming recipe seems to me a fundamental mystery that should not be brushed aside as merely a brute fact."

Hick's point in this chapter by citing the possible teleology of the cosmos is simply to argue that the Universe can be interpreted theistically.  The reality we find ourselves in is open to a host of explanations, not just explanations that assume materialism.  As Hick notes below, each worldview can be internally consistent while taking into account the other side(s).

"So in the west today religious faith is on the defensive in the public mind. This is a reversal of roles. A couple of hundred years ago it was the naturalistic thinker who had to show the dogmatic religious believer that the universe is ambiguous and does not have to be understood religiously, whereas today it is the other way round. It is now the religious person who has to show the dogmatic naturalistic humanist that the universe does not have to be understood as solely purposeless matter. The reality is that the universe is to us at present ambiguous as between religious and naturalistic interpretations. There can in principle be both complete and consistent naturalistic and also complete and consistent religious accounts of it, each including an account of the other."


John Hick on Transcendent Reality and Religious Pluralism: Naturalism as Today's Starting Point

After presenting "the big picture" of reality as he sees it, Hick acknowledges that his position is a minority one in today's world.  In contrast to any kind of religious outlook, modern society, in Hick's opinion, begins from a starting point of Naturalism.

"Naturalism, then, is the belief that reality consists exclusively in the multiple forms of discharging energy that constitute the physical universe. This includes our earth and the human and other forms of life on it, and hence the multitude of human brains and their functioning, which in turn includes the production of thought, language, feeling, emotion, and action. The status of such supposed non-physical realities as God, Brahman, Dharma, Tao, the soul or spirit, is that of ideas in the human mind, so that before there were human mind/brains to create them, they did not in any sense exist. Naturalism is thus equivalent to the qualified materialism which does not deny the existence of mentality, but holds that it is either identical with, or totally dependent from moment to moment upon, the electro-chemical functioning of the brain. In our western world, beginning around the seventeenth century, the earlier pervasive religious outlook has increasingly been replaced by an equally pervasive naturalistic outlook, and during the twentieth century this replacement has become almost complete. Naturalism has created the ‘consensus reality’ of our culture. It has become so ingrained that we no longer see it, but see everything else through it."

I'm not as convinced as Hick that Naturalism – the belief that physical matter is all that exists – is all-pervasive in society.  Perhaps in more academic circles, and perhaps more in Hick's homeland of Great Britain, but maybe not as much in modern America.  I would argue that, although modern Americans aren't as monolithically orthodox as they used to be, we are still a religious and/or spiritual people.  Regardless, in a more academic setting, you are more likely to have to argue for a non-Naturalist worldview than to assume it.  

To assume Naturalism, for Hick, is to assume a very bleak outlook on the world.  In his chapter Naturalism as Bad News for the Many, Hick quotes Bertrand Russell, who gives a sober summary of this worldview:

"That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins – all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy that rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built."

Although those born is comfortable situations can ignore this depressing "big picture" and take solace in the simple joys of life, they are only for a moment.  And not only that, but the vast majority of humans throughout history have not been born in a time and place that allow them a comfortable and enjoyable existence.  Countless have been born into poverty, disease, slavery, early death.  Naturalism, for Hick, leaves neither the comfortable nor the uncomfortable with any future hope.  It is "bad news for the many."  


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. 

Quantum Physics, Consciousness, and an Observer

After posting Huxley today, I went down the trail of consciousness studies.  The brain as a reduction valve, "cosmic consciousness," the relationship between the mind and the brain – I've never known what to do with it all.  But when you enter into the world of meditation, these are the kinds of topics that come up.  It's a weird world. 

In the process of digging around, I came across an old favorite video of mine about Quantum Physics and the effect of an observer.  In the famous Double Slit Experiment, the simple act of observing actually affects how "matter" acts.  That's crazy.  Like absolutely nuts.  Reality is so weird.  

Aldous Huxley: Who Are We?

This is a somewhat meandering lecture by Aldous Huxley entitled "Who Are We?".  

A few pieces I find interesting:

  • What we think of as "I" is really a small part of what is going on in our "mind-body." Our conscious self is not our total self. Huxley uses the example of raising our hand. We aren't consciously flexing the necessary muscles; we will it, and it just happens. Likewise there are a host of processes our body completes without our explicit effort (digestion, circulation, etc.). He also uses the example of a parrot (5:10), which somehow has the ability to mimic sounds. Huxley refers to these unconscious processes as a "type of intelligence" that we experience, but are not consciously producing. The identity and nature of "the self" is a massive ongoing debate within religion and especially in contemplative forms of religion. A takeaway for me is simply that, when thinking about "who we are," things are not as straightforward as they first seem.

  • (11:20) Huxley here speaks about his famous image of the "brain as a reducing valve," in the sense that its primary function might be to limit the amount of reality we consciously experience, selected for survival value. We simply can't be aware and conscious of all that is going on around us as we would be too overwhelmed. Huxley believes that this reducing valve can be opened, and has been opened, by the great mystics and that similar experiences can be induced by various substances.

  • (21:00) We experience the world in terms of concepts, not direct immediate experience. Right now I think of myself as sitting on my couch and typing on my computer. In fact, I am experiencing a huge variety of sensations including various color impressions, a variety of sounds in my basement and from outside, many touch sensations coming from virtually all parts of my body, etc. When we experience life conceptually, we are actually one step removed from out immediate experience. This is one aspect of reality that vipassana meditation (as well as other forms of meditation) helps us to realize. Language and concepts are always "fingers pointing at the moon" of actual experience.

  • (36:50) "We have to combine relaxation with activity." In art, sport, the intellectual life, the spiritual life, etc. we are at our best when we get out of the way of inspiration. The painting paints itself, the song writes itself, the dance dances itself, the life lives itself. We are at our best when we are passive channels of what might be called "inspiration." In the contemplative/spiritual life, this might be spoken of as "letting God live through you."

  • (44:40) How do we open ourselves to God / The Ultimate? How do we get rid of the "partial, relative, ego-centered view of the world?" At 51:54, Huxley discusses various spiritual exercises including concentration practices, and eventually seems to describe vipassana at 54:00, which he sees leading to "an awareness of consciousness," or "consciousness without thought." I would also posit Centering Prayer as a method of reaching this state. In my mind the practice of Centering Prayer is actually a more natural fit for reaching the state that Huxley describes. Of course one's experience of a particular practice is a personal matter and how each practice uniquely affects the mind is up for debate.

Progressive Christians and Loneliness

From time to time I'll shout out to great blogs out there.  I regularly read Richard Beck who blogs at Experimental Theology.  He recently did a series on post-Evangelicals and the lack of a "tribe" which I really resonated with.  I am post-Evangelical and miss a lot about the communities I grew up in.  I also now feel adrift – a lone wolf without much of a home.

One option for dealing with this that comes to mind is community based purely on spiritual experience, such as Quakerism.  As I've mentioned before, if I land anywhere as far as an official religious structure, it'll probably be there.

This is my favorite post from that series.

I also occasionally read Peter Enns, and resonate with his similar thoughts here.