I have been working through Alvin Plantinga’s excellent (but frustrating) book Warranted Christian Belief, and I am particularly intrigued by his critique of the work of theologian John Hick.
Hick began his spiritual odyssey as a traditional, orthodox Christian, accepting what I have been calling ‘Christian belief’. He was then struck by the fact that there are other religions in which the claims of orthodox Christianity—trinity, incarnation, atonement—are rejected. Furthermore, so far as one can tell from the outside, so to speak, the claims of these other religions, taken literally, are as respectable, epistemically speaking, as the claims of Christianity. Still further, according to Jesus himself, “By their fruits you shall know them.” The most important fruits, Hick thinks, are practical: turning away from a life of selfishness to a life of service; on this point, these other religions, he thinks, seem to do as well as Christianity. The conclusion he draws is that where Christianity differs from the others, we can’t properly hold that it is literally true and the others literally false; that would be, he thinks, a sort of intellectual arrogance, a sort of spiritual imperialism, a matter of exalting ourselves and our beliefs at the expense of others. Instead, we must hold that the great religions are all equally valuable and equally true.
How many of us recognise that spiritual odyssey and how many of us have reached that point in their journey? But as Plantinga carefully argues, it is full of pitfalls. Hick wants to declare that all the traditions are actually false. He says ‘literally’ false, but literal truth and falsehood, as Hick conceives them, are just truth and falsehood. The first problem is that if I am to remain a Christian, I must take part in Christian worship, which requires accepting the doctrines of traditional Christianity (‘I believe in Jesus Christ … who was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead’). But if I accept these doctrines as only mythologically true, i.e. really false, how can I at the same time accept these false doctrines as putting me ‘into the right relation with the Real’? ‘Is this posture in fact possible for a human being: can a person accept it, and accept it authentically, without bad faith or doublethink?’
Two, we want to avoid imperialism and self-exaltation by declaring that everyone is mistaken here (‘except for ourselves and a few other enlightened souls’). But aren’t we now exalting ourselves and a few graduate students over nearly everyone else?
Those who think there really is such a person as God are benighted, unsophisticated, unaware of the real truth of the matter, which is that there isn’t any such person (even if thinking there is can lead to practical fruits). We see Christians as deeply mistaken; of course we pay the same compliment to the practitioners of the other great religions; we are equal-opportunity animadverters. We benevolently regard the rest of humanity as misguided; no doubt their hearts are in the right place; still, they are sadly mistaken about what they take to be most important and precious. I find it hard to see how this attitude is a manifestation of tolerance or intellectual humility: it looks more like patronizing condescension.