So I have decided to embark on a long and arduous journey through John Hick’s, The Fifth Dimension, a book in which Hick makes an extended argument for the reality of a “spiritual dimension to life.” If his argument holds, it would mean that God / “the Transcendent” / “the Divine” (depending on if you use Western, personal categories or Eastern, impersonal categories, is an ontological reality, not simply a projection of humanity’s imagination.
Hick was a leading proponent of religious pluralism, liberal Christianity, and a philosopher at heart. The book consists of an Introduction and then 27 chapters, making this an extended series of posts! But I think there are enough new ideas in each chapter to make it interesting. So without further adieu, let’s go…
Introduction: The Big Picture
In the Introduction, Hick lays out what his core thesis is for the book. I’ll take it section by section…
Alternative Pictures: A thousand different people, a thousand different universes. While we all inhabit the same world, we all have our own unique way of perceiving it. Whether we read up on the issues and consciously accept a particular worldview (theism, pantheism, Christian, Buddhist, etc.) or unconsciously adopt the views of our home culture, we all have some big picture about the nature of the universe that we build our lives on. But worldviews are tentative and always open to change; and we all know, deep down, that we could be wrong. As Hick says:
We are always, whether we realize it or not, living by faith, that is, moving in an immensely important area in which there is no certain knowledge and in which we cannot avoid the risk of being seriously mistaken.
Hick lets us know here that he will be arguing as a religious pluralist. That is, he believes that while the naturalistic worldview (i.e. physical material is all there is) doesn’t fit the evidence, neither does one particular religion. But while he isn’t an Orthodox Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or Hindu, he does believe that all religion at its base, especially as seen in the mystical strands of each tradition, is on the right track. That is, there really does exist an Ultimate Spiritual Reality (God), the experience of which has led to the rise of religion in all of its diverse forms. This choice, he argues, forms a worldview that accounts for the whole of human experience more than any other.
The Fifth Dimension of our Nature: Regardless of what “big picture” one adopts, you have to account for the fact that man self identifies as a “spiritual” being. Hick argues:
…we are religious animals with an inbuilt tendency to experience the natural in terms of the supra-natural. It was the anthropologist R.R. Marett who first suggested that homo sapiens could better be called homo religiosus. For as another anthropologist, Clyde Kluckhohn, wrote, ‘Until the emergence of Communist societies we know of no human groups without religion’ …
The great historian of religion Mircea Eliade puts a commonly accepted view when he says that ‘the “sacred” is an element in the structure of consciousness and not a stage in the history of consciousness’. Rudolf Otto even held that the idea of the holy is a priori, innate within the human mind…As far back as we can trace them we find that humans have done something that no other species does – they have buried or otherwise deliberately disposed of the corpses of their own kind…These practices clearly express some notion of an afterlife, and such ritual behaviours, laer crystallizing into consciously formed beliefs, are the earliest surviving expressions of humanity as a religious animal.
Hick is not arguing here that because man has believed in a spiritual reality from the first that Spiritual Reality really exists. He is simply pointing out that man identifies as a religious animal, which is hard to deny.
Sin or False Consciousness?: After briefly outlining the “axial age” (about 800 BCE to 200 CE) during which most of the world’s sacred religious literature was written (authors such as Confucius, Lae-Tzu, Gautama the Buddha, the writer of the Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita, Zoroaster, the Hebrew Prophets, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc.), Hick makes the claim that the founders of each major religion each give different (although similar) answers to the same fundamental problem – the “unsatisfactory” or “incomplete” nature of life. Each of these writers “proclaimed a limitlessly better possibility for the individual, and thus ultimately for society.”
In the Semitic religions (birthing what most would call “Western thought”), the unsatisfactoryness, incompleteness, or distortion of life is primarily due to guilt and immorality. Man is “fallen” and to achieve happiness must learn to be good.
In Indian and other “Eastern” religious thought the problem is not an issue of morality, but a problem of vision or understanding. Man is incomplete and unhappy because he doesn’t understand his true nature. The true nature of man, from an Eastern perspective, is often summed up in the phrase “Atman is Brahman”, or the human personality (Atman) is one in nature with Spiritual Reality (or God). Once one understands “who he is” and the nature of the universe, he loses his soul-damaging self-concern and finds peace.
Hick sums up the function of religion, whether Western or Eastern, as follows:
But whether we regard moral evil as the expression of false consciousness, or false consciousness as the expression of sin, the distortion itself is a manifest reality; and it is from this that the post-axial religions offer to free us. Their function is to be enabling contexts of the transformation of human existence, a transformation from sinful and/or deluded self-centeredness to a radically new orientation centered in the Divine, the Transcendent, the Ultimate, thus freeing what they variously call the true or selfless self, the atman, the universal buddha nature, the image of God within us. This radical change is a re-centering which produces inner peace, serenity, joy, purity of heart, and clarity of moral vision.
Transcategorical Reality: Finally, Hick makes the claim that, as all the mystics say, this Reality which produces such changes in human individuals is “beyond human conceiving,” “ineffable,” or “transcategorical (outside the scope of the categories in which we think).” Thus the different ways of describing Spiritual Reality and the variety of Theologies that stem from experience of It/Him may all be “authentic responses to the Transcendent”, each being a culturally distinct way of saying the same, or similar, things. This is a fancy way of saying that God exists and each enduring religion is an authentic response to God…i.e. religious pluralism is a, or the, true worldview.
Thoughts: This is just the Intro…Hick lays out his idea of the human condition and his belief in the reality of God, or Spiritual Reality, well. The rest of the book will be an extended, fairly systematic, argument for his thesis. Sound like he’s presenting “The Perennial Philosophy“? He is.
In Chapter 1, we’ll get a look at where Hick thinks modern Western thought has headed…towards Naturalism.