Thursday, January 15, 2004

John Hick: polytheist?

I'm still reading The Philosophical Challenge of Religious Diversity, and am currently working my way through a chapter by George I. Mavrodes called "Polytheism," in which Mavrodes makes the following claim:

Hick is (in my opinion, at least) probably the most important philosophical defender of polytheism in the history of Western philosophy.

I know my blog attracts different people for different reasons: some of you come for the all-too-rare fart and shit humor; some of you are looking for thoughts about Korea; and some of you are looking for a somewhat different perspective on religion. (Or some combination thereof.) For those whose eyes roll up into their heads when I get going about religious matters, this might be a good time to go surf porn, then come back.

It's hard to talk about questions of religious pluralism without mentioning people like John Hick and Raimondo Panikkar-- the big guns in the pluralism camp. Religious Diversity, which I'm almost done with, deals almost exclusively with Hick-- I've seen no mention, so far, of either Panikkar or Hick's young nemesis, S. Mark Heim.

The pluralistic hypothesis Hick proposed back in the mid-70s-- and which he's been defending and clarifying ever since-- is in many ways a "common essence" approach to the question of religious diversity: religions are culturally mediated responses to ultimate reality, or "the Real," as Hick calls it. In some cultures/traditions, the Real is experienced as a personal reality (God, Allah, Siva, Krsna, etc.); in others, as an impersonal absolute (sunyata, nirvana, nirguna brahman, etc.). Hick looks to Immanuel Kant's notions of noumenon and phenomenon to understand the Real, which is subdivided into the noumenal Real (i.e., the Real-in-itself) and the phenomenal Real (i.e., the Real-as-experienced).

Hick has been taken to task on many levels: some question how pluralistic he is if his Real is a numerically singular, unitary reality. Others wonder whether the "noumenal Real," which we can't experience, isn't a completely irrelevant concept since it lies utterly outside human experience. Still others wonder whether Hick's Kantian distinction indicates a correct understanding of Kant: can Kant's noumenon/phenomenon dichotomy, which is relevant to sensory experience, be applied to religious experience?

Mavrodes's claim of Hickian polytheism was initially shocking to me, but now that I'm halfway through his chapter, I think I understand where he's coming from: Hick wants to affirm that people's various experiences of the phenomenal Real are all legitimate, and on this level, Hick could be seen as advocating a kind of polytheism, to the extent that he's granting, as a Christian, a measure of recognition to "other gods" and "other ways."

Mavrodes, however, does seem to belong to the camp that claims Hick has misunderstood Kant. I personally haven't studied enough Kant to have an opinion one way or another about him (Kant, not Hick), but for the moment I find Mavrodes's argument novel and interesting.

Again, I'll be talking more about this book after I'm done with it. In the meantime, your homework is to chew over whether Hick's really a polytheist. And further: if Hick's Real is as ineffable as he claims, chew over whether it's possible to describe such a Real as numerically singular.

Not a bad kong-an for you today.

NB: More on Mavrodes's thought here-- specifically, his discussion of varying interpretations of Kant in terms of the "disguise model" and the "construct model."