Guest post by Prof. Yehuda Gellman
Yehuda (Jerome) Gellman is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. Prof. Gellman’s books include Abraham! Abraham: Kierkegaard and the Hasidim on the Binding of Isaac and Experience of God and the Rationality of Theistic Belief.
On February 9, 2012, John Hick, one of the world’s leading and most famous philosophers of religion, passed away in Birmingham, England. Hick wrote or edited scores of books and for the past 50 years or so was the center of much discussion and controversy in philosophy of religion. Hick, a Christian, defended the meaningfulness of religious language when it was under attack by logical positivists and defended admirably against the problem of evil. Most of all, Hick advanced what he called “religious pluralism,” which he said was the view that there existed a supreme reality, he called it the “Real,” that was beyond our comprehension, but which was accessible by experience under various guises. These various guises were the ways different religions thought of and addressed the Real. He taught that all religions were dedicated to self-transformation away from egoistic orientation to reorientation toward the Real. At the same time, he said, the particular doctrines of a religion were not necessarily to be taken as true, but as ways of conceiving of the Real from different historical and cultural vantage points and varying means for self-transformation.
Hick’s religious pluralism provoked much negative reaction from conservative Christians, while there were other Christians who enthusiastically adopted his way of thinking. As Jews, we should feel indebted to Hick for having done much to undo the tragic damage to religion done by logical positivism, which taught that all religious discourse was–literally–without cognitive meaning. Likewise, Hick should be remembered for his profound theology of evil, which finds some parallels in Judaism. As for his pluralism, an Orthodox Jew will be hard-put to accept it because it would require not believing in the actual truth of Judaism, only in its symbolic efficacy. Yet, Hick’s view does resonate, in a limited way, with esoteric levels of Jewish tradition, which emphasize the unknowability of God and God’s appearing in many guises, as in some interpretations of Kabbalah. In addition, Hick’s insistence on the core of religion being a demand for self-transformation away from egotism is a welcome reminder and detailing of what is a supreme element in Torah Judaism. Putting this goal at the center is a welcome corrective to religious behaviorism.
I first met John Hick many years ago, at a philosophy conference in Austria. After that we met many times at various conferences, and on his visit to Israel. Hick was a friend of Israel and was keenly interested in what was going on here in my country. Whenever I met him, the first thing he would do was make me sit with him and tell him all about Israel and current events there. Also, Hick had a close, lifelong friendship with an Orthodox Jewish philosopher in Birmingham. We should remember him as having a special place in his heart for the Jewish people.