One Light, many lamps: John Hick remembered

2012-02-24 00:00

THE eminent British philosopher of religion, John Hick, died on February 9 at the age of 90, after a short illness. Older readers of The Witness and anybody associated with the local University of KwaZulu-Natal campus in 1980, might recall that he was a visiting professor in the former department of religious studies in that year. Hick had been invited to come by the late professor Vic Bredenkamp. His time here proved to be both beneficial, not least for my career, but also controversial for some.

By then, Hick was already a world-class religious thinker, especially for his important new answer to the problem of why there is so much evil in a world governed by a perfect and almighty God, and for his arguments in support of his belief in God.

The controversy about him stemmed from his part in the sensational 1977 book, The Myth of God Incarnate. Written by a team of some of Britain’s leading theologians and biblical experts, it argued, among other things, that the Christian doctrine of Christ as God in human form must be understood symbolically rather than as literally true.

I have heard that the title of the book, which set the cat among the pigeons for many who never actually read the book, let alone countered it with sound argument rather than angry denunciation, was the work of the publisher, not of Hick as editor.

In any case, by the time John and Hazel Hick arrived for their visit, there was no shortage of concern among some local Christians about him. Understandably, they took the word “myth” to mean something that is false or fictional.

In the department, we found Hick as a person to be courteous, friendly, modest and deeply ethical. His strong condemnations of apartheid left no doubt of that. A lasting friendship with Desmond Tutu dates from that time. But perhaps his biggest impact, was the way he encouraged the work of our department. Coming from a scholar of his standing, that was invaluable.

Ahead of Hick, lay what would become his benchmark interpretation of the range of religions in the world. Each, he showed, is equally capable of producing saintliness (and also moral failure), as well as having sophisticated but contradictory doctrines. That meant they could not all be true.

Against secularists who dismiss all religion as false, Hick developed a subtle philosophy in support of religious truth, but without dismissing other faiths than his own as mistaken. This has become known as the pluralist position, which Hick set out in his landmark 1989 book, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent. Many see this as his most important work. The chapter explaining his pluralistic hypothesis begins with the words of Jalal al-Din Rumi in the 13th century: “The lamps are different, but the Light is the same”.

An indication of his stature as a scholar may be had from the fact that he wrote 20 books and edited several more, which between them have been translated into 16 languages, besides writing innumerable academic journal articles. Twenty books have been published about his work.

I like to think that the rich diversity of faiths he saw here in South Africa in 1980 was a factor in the development of his most important, if controversial, work.


• Martin Prozesky is a former staff member of UKZN.


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