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Francis X. Clooney, S.J.February 12, 2012

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.

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david power
12 years 2 months ago
Every time the Vatican criticizes a theologian said theologian always says "They have completely misunderstood my work".
I find this curious. 
Either the Cardinal has in some way undermined their theological foundations and shown it falls short in some way or else is actually misrepresenting their ideas.In the former case they will just be itching for round two to save face and in the latter well it does not need axplanation.
I have read Cardinal Ratzinger's critiques on many things and usually find them to be devastatingly insightful.The only exception being what he says about Nietzsche which omits too much and is too selective.
Hicks probably fell foul of the same charge as Nietzsche .Relativism.It is a very interesting topic and we need people to  defend their perspectives on pluralism so that they are not just demolished by Cardinal Ratzinger and those who think like him.Can they??Habermas went toe to toe with Ratzinger and it was proved that the Pope was no pushover.Habermas had to concede a lot.   
Vince Killoran
12 years 2 months ago
While he has served in his various positions at the Vatican has Cardinal Ratzinger been considered a theologian per se?  I ask this without rancor or hostility.  I'm an academic, but not a theologian or religious studies scholar so I'm not certain how someone like the Cardinal understood his intellectual role.
PJ Johnston
12 years 2 months ago
High-ranking clerics are promoted for their skills in bureaucracy, administration, and politics, not for their skills in theology.  It is very likely that most of them don't adequately understand the work they criticize.
david power
12 years 2 months ago
To answer Vince's question the answer would probably be no.He worked as an overseer of the Dogma of the church and had no official role in terms of creating theology.Did not stop him doing it though.
There was in fact a certain duplicity to it all as when it suited him he would just say I am a bureaucrat and then spend most of his time writing and studying and publishing stuff.
To PJ , while it is true that most people who work in the Vatican would fit into the terms you describe Ratzinger is a clear exception.He is probably the only credible intellect to pass through the gates in about 40 years with everybody else only passing muster within a very catholic and forgiving description  of intellect.Scola would probably be another.Ratzinger was an emiritus at the council and his "Introduction to Christianity" from 1968 is an incredible effort.
Ratzinger made the critique in this case so he would be more than qualified to do so.The head of the congregation has never written anything apart from a shopping list and so would not be able to persuasively do anything of the sort.But his number 2 is a Spanish Jesuit and a professor of theology and so could do so as well.Maybe I am wrong.
Nevertheless, there is no such thing as bad publicity and John Hicks will probably be more read as a result.      


This is a taste of the Holy Father's writing.Worth a slow  and reflective read.   

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