By John Hick
(Lecture delivered to the Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought, Tehran, in February 2005)
Returning now to history, taken as huge communities of many millions of men and women, neither Christians nor Muslims live up to the divine will as we know it. We all fall short and are in need of God’s mercy. But do the people of one faith, taken as a whole, behave either better or worse than the people of the other? Or are virtues and vices, saints and sinners, to be found, so far as we can tell, equally within both? I think the latter. And what has made me, as a Christian, come to reject the assumption of the unique superiority of my own Christian faith is that these observable fruits are not specially concentrated in the Christian church but, on the contrary, are spread more or less evenly around the world among its different cultures and religions. Obviously this can be argued. I would only say that the onus of proof, or of argument, is upon anyone who claims that the members of his or her religion are in general better human beings, morally and spiritually, than the rest of the human race. But if so, inclusivism, whether Christian or Muslim or any other, is not realistic.
Is there an Islamic form of inclusivism? I suppose that the concept of the People of the Book could be regarded as a limited inclusivism – with the full and final truth being in Islam but with Jews and Christians nevertheless coming close to it, in distinction from the eastern religions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism. But I would invite you to ask whether the moral and spiritual fruits of religion in human life are manifestly better among the People of the Book than among Buddhists, Hindus and the others? I question whether they are. It is very difficult for Muslims, Christians, and Jews to take full and well- informed account of the eastern religions, but I would like to leave the issue with you as one which has one day to be faced. That day may not be yet, but it must come sooner or later.
I now turn to the third option, religious pluralism. In its broadest terms, this is the belief that no one religion has a monopoly of the truth or of the life that leads to salvation. Or in the more poetic words of the great Sufi, Rumi, speaking of the religions of the world, ‘The lamps are different but the Light is the same; it comes from beyond’ (Rumi: Poet and Mystic, trans. R.A. Nicholson, London and Boston: Unwin, p. 166)
Let us at this point ask what we mean by salvation. By salvation, as a generic concept, I mean a process of human transformation in this life from natural self-centeredness to a new orientation centred in the transcendent divine reality, God, and leading to its fulfilment beyond this life. And I hold that so far as we can tell, this salvific process is taking place and also failing to take place, to an equal extent within all the great world religions. A pluralist theology of religions is an attempt to make sense of this situation.
It is developed in a variety of ways by different thinkers. But there are two main approaches, which are not however mutually exclusive.
One is to start from within one’s own faith and work outwards, so to speak, by exploring its resources for an acceptance of the salvific parity of the other world faiths - the acceptance of them, in other words, as equally authentic paths to salvation. For each tradition does in fact have within it strands of thought which can be developed to authorise the pluralist point of view. There is no time to point to these within each of the world faiths. But any reader of the Qur’an is familiar with such verses as: ‘If God had pleased He would surely have made you one people (professing one faith). But He wished to try and test you by that which He gave you. So try to excel in good deeds. To Him you will all return in the end, when He will tell you of what you were at variance’ (5: 48, Ahmed Ali translation), and the many verses which endorse without distinction the long succession of prophets through the ages. But the development of each faith’s resources for a wider understanding can only be done within that faith in its own terms and by its own adherents. And it needs to be done on an ever increasing scale.
The other approach, which has been my own concern as a philosopher of religion, has been to try to understand how it can be that the different religions, with all their manifest differences and undeniable incompatibilities of belief, can be on an equal level as different complexes of belief and practice within which their adherents can find salvation.
So let me very briefly outline my own suggestion. I take my clue from something that is affirmed within all the great traditions. This is that the ultimate reality is in itself beyond the scope of human description and understanding. As the great Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas said, God ‘surpasses every form that our intellect reaches’ (Summa contra Gentiles, I, 14: 3). God in God’s ultimate eternal self-existent being is ineffable, or as I would rather say, transcategorial, beyond the scope of our human conceptual systems. And so we have a distinction between God in God’s infinite self-existent being and God as humanly knowable. We find this in some of the great Christian mystics, such as Meister Eckhart, who distinguished between the Godhead, which is the ultimate ineffable reality, and the known God of the scriptures and of church doctrine and worship, conceived and understood in our limited human terms. We find parallel distinctions within the other great traditions. The Jewish thinker Maimonides expressed it as a distinction between the essence and the manifestation of God. There are also well known Hindu and Buddhist versions of the distinction, although there is no time to go into them now.
In the case of Islam, so far as my knowledge goes, the distinction occurs mainly within the mystical strand. The ultimate ineffability of God is declared by a number of writers. For example, Kwaja Abdullah Ansari says, in prayer to God, ‘You are far from what we imagine you to be’, and ‘The mystery of your reality is not revealed to anyone’. (Intimate Conversations, trans. W. Thackston, New York: Paulist Press, London: SPCK, pp. 183 and 203). Developing the implications of this, Ibn al-’Arabi distinguishes (like Maimonides) between the divine essence, which is ineffable, and God as humanly known. In The Bezels of Wisdom he says, ‘The Essence, as being beyond all these relationships, is not a divinity. . It is we who make Him a divinity by being that through which He knows himself as Divine. Thus he is not known [as Allah] until we are known’ (The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R.W.J. Austin, New York: Paulist Press and London: SPCK, p. 92). Again, he says, ‘In general, most men have, perforce, an individual concept of their Lord, which they ascribe to Him and in which they seek Him. So long as the Reality is presented to them according to it they recognize Him and affirm him, whereas if presented in another form, they deny Him, flee from Him and treat Him improperly, while at the same time imagining they are acting toward Him fittingly. One who believes [in the ordinary way] believes only in the deity he has created for himself, since a deity in “belief” is a [mental] construction’ (Ibid., p. 137)
So we have a distinction between the Ultimate as it is in itself and that same ultimate reality as it impinges upon us and is conceived by our little human minds. Our awareness of the Ultimate is thus a mediated awareness, receiving its form, and indeed its plurality of forms, from the human contribution to our awareness of it. The basic critical realist principle, that in our awareness of anything the very activity of cognition itself affects the form in which we are conscious of it, is well established today in epistemology, in cognitive psychology, and in the sociology of knowledge. But it was well stated centuries ago by Thomas Aquinas in his dictum that ‘Things known are in the knower according to the mode of the knower’ (Summa Theologica, II/II, Q. 1, art 2). In ordinary sense perception the mode of the human knower is much the same throughout the world. But in religious awareness the mode of the knower differs significantly among the different religious traditions, which have been formed and developed within different historical and cultural situations. So my hypothesis is that the world religions are oriented towards the same Ultimate Reality, which is however manifested within their different thought-worlds and forms of experience in different ways. This is the model that seems to me best to make sense of the total situation.
Religious pluralism is emphatically not a form of relativism. That would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the critical realist principle, which requires criteria for distinguishing between perception and delusion. In contrast to this, for relativism anything goes. The religions themselves include essentially the same criteria, which are ethical, distinguishing between, for example, Islam and Christianity, on the one hand, and such movements as, for example, the Aum Shinrikyo sect which put sarin gas in the Tokyo underground system in 1995, or the Order of the Solar Temple in Canada in 1997, and many others, as well of course as the dark places and evil moments within the history of the world religions themselves.
One further point. It is sometimes said that religious pluralism is a product of post-Enlightenment western liberalism. But this is a manifest error, since the basic pluralist idea predates the 18th century European Enlightenment by many centuries. It was taught by such thinkers as Rumi and al-Arabi in the 13th century, and Kabir, Nanak, and many others in 15th century India.
Indeed it occurs in the edicts of the Buddhist emperor Asoka in the 2nd century BCE. So far from its having originated in the modern west, the fact is that the modern west is only now catching up with the ancient east! Indeed even within Christianity itself there were expressions of religious pluralism long before the 18th century Enlightenment. Thus Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th century wrote that ‘there is only one religion in the variety of rites’ (De Pace Fidei, 6). So it is an error, born of ignorance, to think that religious pluralism is a modern western invention.
Let me end now by returning to a point I made at the beginning by asking Why does all this matter? Indeed, does it matter? Well, yes, it does matter a very great deal. We live as part of a worldwide human community that is at war with itself. In many places men, women and even children are killing and being killed in conflicts that are both validated and emotionally intensified by religion. And this is possible because each faith has traditionally made its own absolute claim to be the one and only true faith. Absolutes can justify anything. Today, to insist on the unique superiority of your own faith is to be part of the problem. For how can there be stable peace between rival absolutes?
In the words of the Catholic theologian Hans Kung, ‘There will be no peace among the peoples of this world without peace among the world religions’. And I would add that there will be no real peace among the world religions so long as each thinks of itself as uniquely superior to all the others. Dialogue between the faiths must continue on an ever increasing scale. But the only stable and enduring basis for peace will come about when dialogue leads to a mutual acceptance of the world religions as different but equally valid relationships to the ultimate reality.
c John Hick 2005.