John Hick, RIP
Cambridge, MA. Only recently did I blog on the passing of two venerable figures who helped us to live and think in our religiously diverse world, Franz Josef Van Beeck and Kenneth Morgan, and did not expect to add another such entry so soon. But word reached me the other day that John Hick died on February 9, at the venerable age of 90. Professor Hick, well known to many readers, I am sure, was one of the senior — by age, by reputation – figures in the Christian discussions about religious pluralism in the past 50 years. A prolific writer, he was known for a series of famous books — Evil and God of Love, An Interpretation of Religion, the edited volume The Myth of God Incarnate, and Christ in a Universe of Faiths — and was still writing even in his very old age, with Between Faith and Doubt: Dialogues on Religion and Reason appearing in 2010. His name has for more than a generation been almost synonymous with the pluralistic position in the theology of religions debate and, to those who feared the slipperly slope, with relativism. Many a conversation has begun, “Well, according to John Hick…”
It is relatively rare for the Vatican to name and criticize a non-Catholic thinker, but Joseph Ratzinger, in his 1996 lecture Relativism: The Central Problem For Faith Today, spends a number of paragraphs criticizing Hick’s understanding of religious diversity and his views on pluralism. Professor Hick is said to have wryly lamented the fact that even as a non-Catholic he could not elude the cardinal’s judgments. He was seriously disappointed at what he saw to be misinterpretations of his views — had the cardinal actually read his books? — and at the cardinal’s refusal to follow up by engaging in further conversation as two professors in conversation. One can find a written form of his response to the cardinal — never answered, I think — at the National Catholic Reporter site. I can only regret that this exchange was not continued, perhaps even sharpened, in the back and forth of actual dialogue.
I did not much agree with Professor Hick’s view of religions; my tradition is still that of Karl Rahner and Jacques Dupuis, insofar as I aim to settle down at a theological position. More to the point, my style of engaging religions was very different from Professor Hick's, so that we would rarely have found a common ground on which to agree or argue. Though capable of encountering the small detail, he spelled out large principles with bold strokes, engaged pluralism thematically and across traditions, and vigorously defended the pluralist viewpoint on a grand scale. By contrast, my own work has focused on smaller details, micro-studies, avoided large pronouncements on the meaning of pluralism, pushing theories aside, seeking primarily to understand how I and Christians like me would be transformed in even the simplest of interreligious encounters, or more deeply by years of quiet study of another religion. I have rarely mentioned his work in my own writing, and yet it is still that that like almost everyone of my generation, I found my theological world to be in part defined by John Hick and his lifelong project of understanding pluralism.
I met him only twice, once helping to host his visit to the Catholic Theological Society of America annual meeting, and once in arranging for him to speak at Boston College. He was a lively, engaged, and gracious visitor, and clearly prized theological conversation; even if he was not ready to change his mind on long-considered issues, he was eager to talk, without running away from argument. In an age when we seem to have increasingly short attention spans and are ready to substitute glib impressions and polemics for true inquiry, John Hick made a Christian vocation of thinking seriously and honestly, pursuing his ideas where they led, and never deciding that he was done with the questions that drive Christian theology in our pluralistic age. Even those who have deeply disagreed with him will miss wondering what Hick's next book would be, or how to phrase their rejoinder to Hick’s next idea.