Monday, December 08, 2008

The Transcategorial

Prof. John Hick's public lecture last week on Christianity and Other Religions (December 3rd, School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham) began with a series of slides briefly detailing orthodox Christian doctrine, particularly claims to unique revelation by God and therefore access to salvation, truth, etc.
Following the logic of these claims, Hick then asked the room the rhetorical question of whether it then follows that these claims "must show in the lives of Christians generally in distinction from non-Christians." If salvation, truth, God is to have a difference in believers lives (in contrast to non-believers) then Christians must therefore be "better human beings, morally and spiritually" than others. The truth of these claims to unique revelation and special election must therefore be judged by the fruit of believer's lives. Love. Joy. Peace. Patience... However, Hick doubts the superiority of the Christian religion because these fruits are shown in other religions. He concludes that all the world religions are "more or less equally effective and more or less equally ineffective" in changing human beings for the better.
Hick presented three options as philosophical responses to the problem of Christianity and other religions: exclusivism, inclusivism and pluralism. However, exclusivism (truth and salvation are for Christians only) leaves the problem of reconciling this with a loving God, and inclusivism (salvation for all, in principle, through Jesus' atoning death on cross but the Holy Spirit's special presence in the Church of Christ) still leaves the problem that Christians ought to be but are frequently not better than those outside the Church: "saints and sinners seem to be pretty evenly sprinkled among the religions of the world." Hick therefore concludes that both exclusivism and inclusivism cannot be the answer.
Pluralism, on the other hand, which emphaises the ineffability of God or, in Hick's language, the "transcategorial" nature of God. He uses critical realism, which posists that "awareness of reality is mediated through our cognitive capacities and conceptual resources," to argue that God is experienced through our context specific categories but that God as Godself is also obscured by them. We can experience God, and even improve in our knowledge about God, but we can never know God fully or even well. Hick quoted Rumi, a medieval Muslim philosopher, theologian and poet to illustrate pluralism: "the lamps are different, but the Light is the same: it comes from Beyond."
As I wrote in another post, I'm going to use a bit of Hick to flesh out the philosophical implications of the first strand within my data. There is a God, but human finitude prevents us from full knowledge of God, though we have faith in both special and general revelation and might progress towards truth through interaction with others in community, both Christians and non-Christians, without ever knowing God as God knows Godself.
Although the lecture was rather basic, it's given me a bit of an idea as to where to go to explore further the Hickean aspects of this strand:
  • God and the Universe of Faiths ([1973]1993) - which launched the contemporary pluralist understanding of world religions and sees God, or the Ultimate, at the centre of the universe of faiths with Christianity as one of the religions revolving around it.

  • God Has Many Names
    ([1982]2000) - offers a global theory of religious knowledge and offers a philosophy of religious pluralism.

  • The Rainbow of Faiths: A Christian Theology of Religions
    (1995) - a collection of lectures which uses the metaphor of a rainbow to argue that our awareness of the divine Presence is refracted by our human religious cultures.

  • Who or What is God?
    (2007) - a collection of essays centering on the themes of the search for truth (the ultimate reality to which all world religions point) and the search for justice and peace.
The main argument of my thesis attempts to connect the two themes of Hick's Who or What is God?: the search for truth and the search for justice. I'm in the middle of writing my abstract, so more of this anon!!!


Steve Hayes said...

Knitter's No other name said much the same thing several years ago, though I found this thesis, and those more most other so-called "theologians of religion" rather boringly alike and inadequate.

Katharine Moody said...

Hi Steve,

I agree that theologies of religion no longer seem cutting edge. Why do you feel they are inadequate?

Thanks for commenting,

Katharine x