Saturday, October 23, 2010


When John Hick (1922- ) published a collection of essays entitled God Has Many Names back in 1982, he wasn’t the first writer to adopt the notion that all the religious traditions are, at core, one, and that the differences in religious practices and doctrines are the result of the different locales and cultures in which humans find themselves. There have been others, including the poet and artist William Blake, who, late in the eighteenth century, wrote and illustrated a little book called All Religions Are One.

But it is Hick who has made the fullest argument for this notion. His grand theory is spelled out in great detail in his 1989 tome, An Interpretation of Religion, which is tellingly subtitled Human Responses to the Transcendent.

Who is John Hick?

The first thing he tells us in an autobiographical essay is that as a child, he was taken every Sunday to an Anglican church, where he found the services infinitely boring.

Many of us, Anglican or otherwise, recognize the sentiment. But none of us have spent our lives moving from a brief fling with theosophy, converting to fundamentalism, joining the Presbyterian Church of England, becoming a conscientious objector, joining an ambulance unit during World War II, writing a few theological books before moving to Birmingham, England where, it seems, there were large Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Jewish communities, which provided friends with whom he found common ground. The latter experience led him to see the world religions as just so many responses to the Eternal One, the divine Reality that seeks “to be known and responded to by man, and [seeks] through man’s free responses to create the human animal into (in our Judeo-Christian language) a child of God, or toward a perfected humanity.”

To be brief, this vision bought him trouble with Christian authorities but later led to his selection to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures that became An Interpretation of Religion.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Let’s return to the common interpretation of Pascal’s distinction between (1) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and (2) the God of the philosophers, as the contrast between the God of revelation and the God of reason.

It’s clear that the God of reason is aptly named; for what is that God if not a philosophical entity? What isn’t at all accurate is the interpretation of the God of the Patriarchs as being the God of revelation. If Pascal had thought in those terms, he might better have spoken of the God of Moses, Jesus, and Paul. This is to say that not all the gods “reveal” something to those who venerate them. (Yahweh, the God of the Patriarchs, appeared to all three of them, but these appearances were not revelations in the narrow sense that we say God revealed himself to the founders of Israel and Christianity.)

Better, then, to speak of the god(s) of the religions, consisting of those who worship and adore their deity. Or to speak of the mythological beings who inhabit the world of myth.

Recall my earlier definition of myth as “a story about metaphysical beings that provides a model for human behavior,” etc. A myth, whether told in Israelite, Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Mormon, or other precincts, typically spells out a narrative of a God, or gods, in relation to human beings.

These myths typically assume that there are two worlds: the natural world and a supernatural world above and beyond nature. Furthermore, the supernatural realm provides the model for much of human behavior, i.e., the rituals and moral actions that occur within the visible world of nature.

Monday, October 11, 2010


To speak of the God of the philosophers, as Blaise Pascal does, is to speak in general terms. It is to assume that the philosophers are all part of what we’ve come to call “the Western tradition.” It’s also to assume that “the philosophers” are in agreement on the question of what God is.

These assumptions call for scrutiny.

The question regarding God’s existence, or nonexistence, has no doubt been a major theme in Western philosophy. Both Plato and Aristotle gave reasons to think that some god exists. After Christianity came on the scene, theologians such as Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas set forth arguments for the Judaic and Christian God’s existence. “Pure” philosophers, including Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and, more recently, Charles Hartshorne also entered into the fray.

But what is less known are philosophical theologians from other traditions. Before Aquinas, using Aristotle, came up with his famous “Five Ways” to prove that God exists, the Islamic thinkers Avicenna and Averroes had found benefit in Aristotle’s thought in order to come to the same conclusion. And in early medieval India, Adi Sankara worked with the pan-Indian concept of karma with the same result.

What is God? All kinds of metaphysical compliments have been given to a Higher Being. God has been conceived as omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, all good, and so forth—in other words, the sum of all perfections. Nevertheless, not all philosophers would subscribe to these doctrines. Following Alfred North Whitehead, the twentieth-century process theologian Hartshorne held that God is neither omniscient nor omnipotent: he cannot foretell the future of free-willed human agents, and thus he can’t possibly be in a position to cause humans to act in a predetermined way.

But is this philosophical God the same as the God who is spoken of in many of the religions? Pascal says no. Here we leave the question dangling while we move over to the God, or gods, of those religions.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


The French mathematician, physicist, inventor, bachelor-about-Paris, and theologian Blaise Pascal (1623-62) cryptically, famously, and immediately after an intense religious experience, stitched into the lining of his coat the aphorism: “Feu. Dieu d’Abraham, Dieu d’Isaac, Dieu d’Jacob, non des philosophes et savants....”

This is usually translated as “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the philosophers,” with no mention of either fire or the savants. Nor did Pascal name the philosophers, though a good surmise would be that he was thinking of his older contemporary Rene Descartes as well as such scholastic thinkers as Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas, all of whom devised arguments for the existence of God.

Whatever Pascal meant by this aphorism, interpreters have cited it to distinguish between the God of revelation and the God of reason, and to favor the former God while censuring the latter.

If we want to deal with the God questions, we can’t ignore this distinction. But it has limits. It can hardly apply to the Buddhist tradition or those of the Far East, let alone the smaller traditions. Like the concept of religion itself, it is a construct of Western civilization.

The same can be said for the standard categories used by those born to philosophize.

Here’s a list of these categories, including the date a recent Webster’s marks as their arrival to our common English vocabulary:

Atheism (1546 )
Polytheism (1613)
Monotheism (1660)
Theism (1678)
Deism (1682)
Pantheism (1732)
Panentheism (1828)
Henotheism (1860)
Agnosticism (1869)

To the contemporary scholar of religion, there’s something ancient about this list; ancient, and too neat. Most of these items are not useful for the comparative study of religion.

Four are worth keeping. Monotheism (the belief that there is one God) is useful, as is its polar twin, polytheism (belief in a group of Gods, which may or may not have a leader; if so, it becomes henotheism). The other twins, theism (belief in a personal God who both created the universe and continues to intervene in its daily workings) and atheism, (the denial of this belief), make sense, especially within the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The other categories can be consigned to the sterile, dated debates carried on by philosophers of religion.

Note: Agnosticism (either the statement that one doesn’t know whether or not there is a God, or the claim that it is impossible to know) appears to be a halfway house between theism and atheism, but is often a dodge for the atheist who wants to be accepted in the company of believers.