The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee writes:
THE death of Professor John Hick on 9 February, aged 90, marked the passing of one of the most influential and even, some would say, notorious theologians of the 20th century. His ability to write the nearest thing to a theological page-turner guaranteed best-seller status for successive studies in the philosophy of religion — a rare achievement. Indeed, he has been described as “the baby-boomers’ Philosopher of Religion”, as virtually all theological students formed in the 1960s and since will have had to come to terms with Evil and the God of Love (1966), Death and Eternal Life (1976), and The Myth of God Incarnate, which he edited in 1976.
During his colourful career, he was twice indicted for heresy by the Presbyterian Church in the United States, when he applied for ministerial status. He also found himself effectively persona non grata after 15 years’ teaching at the University of Birmingham, when more conservative colleagues considered his radical views to be increasingly unacceptable. Returning to the US, he was appointed Director of Programs on World Religions and Culture at Claremont Graduate University in California, and his concentration on religious pluralism led to his becoming vice-president of the World Congress of Faiths. Always much in demand as a speaker and writer on the great world faiths, he officially retired in 1992, but kept up a demanding schedule of writing and lecturing around the world well into the new millennium.
John Hick was a Yorkshireman, born in Scarborough in 1922. He left Bootham School in York with few formal qualifications, and seemed destined to follow his father into the legal profession. As an articled clerk, he attended lectures in law at University College, Hull, and to this stage in his life can be traced his sometimes forensic approach to philosophical analysis and argumentation.
Perhaps, however, the greatest influences on him at this time were Professor T. E. Jessop, whose philosophy lectures he attended at Hull, thus sowing the seeds for what became a lifetime’s fascination with philosophical enquiry, and a Welsh evangelist instrumental in his Evangelical conversion. These new-found enthusiasms for philosophy and religion led him to abandon his legal studies and enrol on a philosophy course at Edinburgh University in 1941.
The war intervened, and, as a conscientious objector, he enrolled on the Friends’ Ambulance Unit, and served in Egypt, Italy, and Greece, before returning to Edinburgh and the award of a first-class degree in 1948. This led to a scholarship at Oriel College, Oxford, and a D.Phil. that was published as Faith and Knowledge in 1957.
Meanwhile, he trained for the ordained ministry of the Presbyterian Church at Westminster College, Cambridge, and took up his first ministerial post, in rural Northumberland, in 1953. That same year, he married Joan Hazel Bowers, with whom he had a daughter and three sons (one deceased). His three years at Belford are recalled with affection and respect, but it was almost inevitable that he would pursue an academic career.
His first appointment was as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University in the United States; thence he proceeded to a chair at Princeton Theological Seminary, where Presbyterian ministers were trained. His lectures there were eventually published as Philosophy of Religion in 1963 — a runaway best-seller, which established his reputation as a clear, concise, and engaging communicator of sometimes complex and arcane ideas.
By now his still orthodox but, none the less, liberal doctrinal tendencies were attracting attention and some hostility. The first of two heresy charges was lodged against him by the Presbyterian Church, and it was clear that his days at Princeton were numbered. In the event, he returned to England, to teach first at Cambridge, and then to take the H. G. Wood Chair of Theology at Birmingham University in 1967.
Here began the most fertile phase of his authorship, with those key books on theodicy, eschatology, and Christology; but, besides his teaching and lecturing commitments, he also immersed himself in the worlds of community and interfaith relations in a large multi-cultural conurbation. He became a noted advocate on behalf of poor and persecuted minorities, and it was not only his ever more liberal theological views that attracted attention and courted controversy.
He travelled extensively in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, which reinforced his suspicion of claims for Christian uniqueness, and his commitment to a “Copernican Revolution” in the relationship between Christianity and other faiths. He spent the rest of his life exploring this theme, and, in a 2007 lecture, he reaffirmed his belief that there will only be peace between religions when “each is able to accept the equal validity of the others”.
Hick’s espousal of a pluralistic theology of religions has attracted many followers, but the question remains whether what works at the philosophical level can withstand the challenge of theologies that rely more on revelation than they do on Kantian rationality and liberal appeals to justice and liberation.
This question applies equally to his endorsement of an Irenaean “vale of soul-making” solution to the problem of suffering, and his sympathy for reincarnation as the most likely form of life after death. On balance, it is fair to say that for Hick philosophy is not so much the servant of theology as its master, and there is little to suggest that the great world faiths are going to concede ground on that point any time soon.
But Hick knew that he and we must be patient when it comes to discerning truth. He introduced the idea of “eschatological veri-fication” to underline that the kind of issues he addresses in his many books and lectures cannot be settled this side of the eschaton, thereby confirming, of course, that a plurality of beliefs can be equally false as well as equally valid.
Yet, right to the end, he remained committed to promoting “believable Christianity”, and, although he relinquished ordained ministry and adopted a rather eclectic approach to his personal faith, he lost none of his passion for religious belief as a potential force for good in the world, even at a time when the rise of irrational and illiberal fundamentalisms makes that hard to believe. He made the case for all mainstream religions’ being orientated towards “cosmic optimism”, and those who had the privilege to know him, whether personally or through his writing, are all the better for his positive influence and inspiration.