John Hick and Chris Sinkinson interview: One truth or many?
Marking the first anniversary of the death of the celebrated philosopher of religion John Hick, Justin Brierley presents one of his last recorded debates – with Old Testament and apologetics scholar, Chris Sinkinson
In February 2011 I invited Professor John Hick, emeritus professor of theology at Birmingham University, to take part in a radio dialogue about his studies in religious pluralism. Almost exactly a year later, he passed away, aged 90.
At the time we spoke, the intellectual capacities that led to his status as “the greatest living philosopher of global religion” (the words of Keith Ward) were in no way diminished. During his career, Hick set the benchmark for contemporary studies in religious pluralism, publishing seminal books such as More Than One Way? and God and the Universe of Faiths.
His own journey was illustrative of how his thinking developed on the subject. Hick entered ministry in the Presbyterian Church as an evangelical Christian, having been converted as a young adult. That stance began to change during the 1950s as he questioned various key orthodoxies such the deity of Christ, eventually leading to heresy proceedings against him in the 1960s (but overturned soon after). In particular, his developing theological view that Christianity is but one among a number of equally valid religious expressions of God drew criticism from others in the church.
When the Presbyterian Church became part of the United Reformed Church, Hick found his home there for a long time, until the last few years of his life when he transferred his membership to the Quakers. John Hick was never afraid to change his mind, a trait that would come to be respected even by those who disagree with his theology.
Chris Sinkinson is a tutor at Moorlands Bible College, whose doctorate was a detailed critique of Hick’s religious pluralism. In common with Hick, he was converted in late teens to an evangelical faith, but he has never been tempted in the pluralistic direction that Hick’s theological journey took him on.
They joined me for a dialogue on whether all paths lead to God.
Justin Brierley: John, are you a very different believer today from the one you began as?
John Hick: Yes. When I came to Birmingham University I became aware first hand of people of other faiths, because Birmingham is a very multi-faith city. As chair of the city’s community relations committee, part of my job was to visit places of worship – so I was in mosques, synagogues, Sikh gurdwaras and Hindu temples, as well as Christian churches.
The externals are very different, such as the way in which the building was furnished, the language used and the way in which God was thought of and referred to. But it struck me that the same thing was going on in all of them as in the Christian churches – namely human beings coming together under the influence of some ancient tradition which enabled them to open their minds and spirits upwards.
I’ve also spent quite a lot of time in India with Hindus and Sikhs and in Sri Lanka with Theravada Buddhists and in Japan with Zen Buddhists. As a result of all this experience, it became fairly clear to me that there are many paths to God.
JB: Chris, how has your experience as a Christian led you to think about other faiths?
Chris Sinkinson: I was mostly exposed to world religions when I was at university, especially during my doctorate at Bristol where there is a strong inter-religious community. The question of whether all paths lead to God was one I faced as an undergraduate and a student in philosophy and religion. When I came across John Hick it was tremendously helpful, not because of the answers that he gave – I still don’t agree with John – but for the questions he asked. He has always asked the right questions. But my experience of other faiths did not lead me to think we should adopt pluralist views.
JB: Isn’t it arrogant to claim that Jesus is the only way to God?
CS: This assertion is often made – that an evangelical or an orthodox Christian view is arrogant. Firstly, there is moral arrogance, which is wrong. I don’t think Jesus would have encouraged being disrespectful or dismissive. Then there is intellectual arrogance. At that level it would be true that I want to assert my claims with conviction, but so does Professor Hick. John makes a very persuasive claim towards religious pluralism, and at an intellectual level one could even describe it as an “arrogant” claim to make, as it concerns the beliefs of millions of people all across the world down through history.
JB: So John, is it arrogant for you to claim to see the bigger picture, where Chris doesn’t?
JH: I think this whole question of arrogance is an unnecessary one. If you say “two plus two equals four” you are saying that anyone who is saying that this is not the case is mistaken. Really the issue is whether Jesus is the “only way”, based on the quote from John’s gospel, that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” – and I say that it isn’t true and that Jesus didn’t say it. That isn’t to say that it isn’t in John’s gospel. Modern New Testament scholarship has shown that John’s gospel was the latest of the Gospels to be written, and that they were the words of a later Christian being put into Jesus’ mouth some 70 years after his death.
CS: CS Lewis makes the comment that we should be careful of statements along the lines of what scholarship concludes. After all, scholarship is a moving target and grows in its interpretation of the material. There is plenty to show that the Gospels can be trusted and that they are very reliable first century records of eyewitness accounts. Studies clearly show that the earliest strands of the New Testament are in the letters of Paul, who himself quotes earlier traditions. That earlier material has the highest Christology of all about Jesus and who he was.
JB: Chris, you are an “exclusivist” – does that mean you don’t think people of other religions will be saved?
CS: I would certainly want to hold an exclusivist position because I do believe the world religions have to be respected as independent and distinct from the Christian faith and God is not mediating salvation through them. However it does not follow that God cannot in some way make the means of salvation available by general revelation or direct grace into the lives of those who have never heard. So, I would be quite optimistic that clearly those who have never heard – children dying in infancy, those who were sometimes considered Old Testament saints who did not know of Christ directly but who knew him implicitly – are saved. So though I would hold an exclusivist position – salvation comes exclusively through the work of Christ – that could be mediated in some way by God’s revelation and common grace.
JH: That seems to me a very strange thing to believe. If you look around the world, it is true of the majority of human beings that the religion which they adhere to depends on where they were born and by whom they were brought up. So anybody born to a Hindu family in India is extremely likely to become a Hindu, or in a Muslim context is extremely likely to become a Muslim and so on. Now, it would be very odd indeed if salvation is only available in one faith, even though it were in some mysterious, surreptitious way made available in some diluted form to people of other faiths.
JB: That doesn’t strike you as the way that a just and loving God would act?
JH: It seems impossible, or that it is stretching the idea of a loving God very far indeed.
Here is an analogy. Let’s think of God as the sun, at the centre of the universe and the earth and the other planets revolve around it. Now according to exclusivism, the life-giving warmth of the sun falls only directly on the earth and not on the others. Or in a financial analogy, the wealth of divine grace falls only on Christians and trickles down in a diluted form to people of other faiths. This could be the case – but it seems extremely odd.
CS: I can understand why you would see this as an odd position. In many respects the message of Christ can be a scandal, it can cause offense. But the fact of this phenomenological point – that children may have the religion of their parents or culture – doesn’t in itself have any logical effect on whether Christianity or exclusivism is true or not. It’s not a logical point being made is it?
JH: Well, it does put the burden of proof on the exclusivist Christian and that is an uphill task.
JB: John, you have also used the analogy of there being “one light and many lampshades” to describe God’s presence in all religions.
JH: The Sufi poet Rumi said: “The lamps are many but the light is one”, and that is a very good way of expressing the pluralist point of view. There is just one light, which lights many lamps, and those lamps are the religions. Many religious people of every faith affirm that there is an ultimate transcendent reality and our English word for this is “God”. God is the “Ultimate Reality”. But there are different concepts which have formed in the traditions that explore this Ultimate Reality. They have developed on the basis of religious experience, but also all sorts of cultural factors. On the one hand we have this “Ultimate Reality” in itself and on the other hand different human awareness of it.
CS: But John you would say that there are some religions that are essentially atheistic, such as Zen Buddhism. I worry about the use of your term “Ultimate Reality” which, although it speaks of your consistency, is such a lowest common denominator definition of the ultimate object of our worship, that it becomes empty of content. And in the past you have even described this Ultimate Reality as “beyond good and evil, beyond personal and non-personal and beyond loving and hating.”
JH: It is true that the Ultimate Reality is not in itself a loving God but it is expressed in many penultimate realities which are loving, such as the Christian faith. But I think we have to accept that, even as the most profound Christian and other thinkers have said in the past, God in God’s fullness is beyond our understanding. It cannot be limited by any human definition – God is the ultimate mystery, in fact. He is beyond human definition. This means that you cannot even say that God, in God’s ultimacy, is a loving person.
JB: Christianity is about God becoming personal in Jesus Christ. But doesn’t your view make God ultimately rather impersonal?
JH: Christianity is one of these totally valid and very valuable paths to the ultimate, to God. But it isn’t the only one. Also the concept of a loving God was not the only way of appealing to some people in the world. It doesn’t appeal to Buddhists. They do not affirm the ultimate as a person, but as a benign Ultimate Reality in which we can rely and rest. Buddhism is much older than Christianity, and equally as valid and profound.
CS: It is one thing to say we don’t have an exhaustive knowledge of God; it’s another to say that our understanding of God could be compatible with a contradiction. You have been accused of being a “transcendental agnostic” – because the “Ultimate Real” in itself is beyond language, beyond words, so therefore we have to be agnostic about what the Ultimate Real is.
JB: John, Are you saying that the different religions are wrong about their conceptions of God, whereas your definition of an “Ultimate Reality” is right?
JH: They are all right.
JB: Can they all be right?
JH: They all have their authentic paths to the Ultimate that they follow and can lead to their ultimate good. In that way they are all right.
JB: Chris, do you think John’s pluralism is beneficial in terms of practical inter-faith dialogue?
CS: This isn’t a personal comment about John, who has done great work in anti-Semitism in the 1960s, not to mention his work on interfaith relations. But I am concerned that the cash value of the religious pluralist position is that the only way in which we can create a tolerant society is by coming to an agreement at a philosophical level.
JH: No that is not the only way. We have a relatively tolerant society in this country now. What it amounts to in practice is that, if you are living next to a Muslim, you respect their beliefs without enquiring too much into them.
CS: But John, the Muslim friends I know are absolutely persuaded by the truth of Islam and we have some lively chats but we are still friends.
JH: I am not for a moment suggesting that Muslims don’t have very emphatic beliefs, they certainly do. But it seems obvious to me that if you believe all these religions are paths to God, this must make for mutual tolerance.
CS: It’s only tolerant on the grounds that you have reinterpreted those religions within your own framework. I don’t agree with my Muslim friends but I do want to respect them as well as being a good witness in my faith, and I’d humbly admit I may be wrong on various things. Yet all of that comes from the fact that we fundamentally disagree. Your position is to commend living alongside each other by reinterpreting what they are saying or doing to fit with your philosophical position.
JH: No, it’s not. I take them as unitary positions, which have their own validity in that they do lead to salvation, to human ultimate wellbeing. But there are many different kinds of Christian – you are an evangelical and I am a Quaker. Quakers do not emphasise beliefs, they emphasise life; for them, the reality of their faith is in the way they live.
JB: An atheist might see religious diversity as evidence that there is no God at all. Why do you come to the conclusion that there is nevertheless this “Ultimate Reality” John?
JH: Ultimately it is a matter of religious experience. I practice a form of meditation every day; I concentrate on my breathing and sometimes there is an experience of being part of the universe – a universe that is good and benign and that you are free and liberated, or in Christian language you are “saved”. So it is based on experience.
CS: I too practice a form of meditation, although I meditate on the word of God, his breath, his word. I do think that our experience can be deeply misleading. But if our faith is rooted in revelation then our experience should not be responding to what we think or feel, or how we respond to our breathing, but to what God has said and what he has spoken.
Justin Brierley presents the faith discussion show “Unbelievable” on Premier Christian Radio
This article was published in the February 2013 edition of Reform.