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To tell the truth: Hick's Pluralistic Hypothesis

When I was a little boy, one of my favorite television programs was “To Tell The Truth.” It involved a contestant who was given some basic information about a character and then allowed to question three panelists to determine which of the three was the real character. At the end of the questioning, the contestant would cast a vote for the person who was telling the truth. Then in a dramatic climax, the three panelists would each motion as if all three would stand. Finally, the “real” person would stand and declare that he/she was the one telling the truth.

Reading Professor Hick’s book reminded me of “To Tell The Truth.” It seems to me that the premise of Mr. Hick’s work is that if we could assemble the major world religions on a stage (excluding “other smaller and other newer religions, as well as ‘primal’ religion, and the great secular faiths of Humanism and Marxism,” p.11), then questioned them about their core beliefs and asked the one who possessed the true God to stand, none of them would be able to. That is because, according to Hick, each of these religions possesses a part of the truth of God but none of them has the whole truth because God (Hick calls him/her “the Real”) is beyond all of them and is not totally present in any single one of them.

Professor Hick calls this premise “The Pluralistic Hypothesis.” It holds that “These traditions involve different human conceptions of the Real, with correspondingly different forms of experience of the Real, and correspondingly different forms of life in response to the Real,” (27). To illustrate his point, Hick relies on “the psychologist Jastrow’s famous ambiguous duck-rabbit picture which Wittgenstein used in his discussion of seeing-as,” (24). The major world religions see the same image but from their own contexts and this leads them to interpret it differently. It is here that the major flaw in Hick’s project is revealed.
Hick would have us believe that the major religions of the world are responses to an encounter with the same Real. He fails to understand that at least for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, who profess to be revealed religions, they didn’t just see a picture. The picture talked! The Real revealed some fundamental truths to them that form the bedrock of their faith. Moses did not just encounter the burning bush, a voice spoke to him out of the bush and commanded Moses to do certain things. Mary did not one day decide to have a virgin birth in response to a vision, a heavenly visitor appeared to her in the form of an angel and spoke to her.
These claims of the revealed religions are far different than those of the primarily Eastern religions that speak of a journey to enlightenment where certain holy men have visions then they go about interpreting them. It is no wonder then that Hick proposes that Christianity will have to do some major overhauling of its faith claims to join the world stage of pluralism.

The Judeo-Christian tradition will have to give up its claims to superiority and to God incarnate in Jesus Christ as a fact. I fail to understand how Hick could entertain such a thought in a serious way. It is clear from a reading of the long history of these faiths that those truth claims are the very things that give these two religions their uniqueness. The battle between God and Pharaoh, the victory of Daniel over Bel and the Dragon—all attest to the claim that the God of Abraham is a living God unlike the rest of the gods on the stage of human history. The man who died on the cross was both God and man and as such he was able to give his life in return for the release of humanity from a death sentence imposed on Adam and Eve and all of their progeny.

How can such fundamental claims be given up without losing the very essence of one’s faith?
I applaud the vision of Professor Hick so far as he instructs us on the universality of God. I celebrate his call for all religious people (though his call is a bit limited) to enter into inter-religious dialogue. I welcome his pointing out that we share more things in common than we think. However, the road he asks us to travel is one too fraught with danger to compel our taking the first step in that direction. To tell the truth, Hick offers us no valid reason to travel any farther than to dialogue with one another about those matters of which we share concern in our civil lives.

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