Hick’s Pragmatic Argument against Religious Particularism

Kai-man KWAN

        Hick says, "At the end of the twentieth century Christianity is in deep crisis. The theological structure developed by the Western church has come to seem hollow and irrelevant to the majority of Westerners, and seems foreign and alien, as an extension of Western cultural hegemony, to many Christians in Africa, India, China, and the East generally."[1] One aspect of this crisis is "the widespread realization that Christianity is only one among several great world religions. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism now appear to many as different but, judging by their fruits in human life, equally authentic responses to God, the Divine, the Ultimate, the Real."[2] So we have an urgent need to rethink Christianity's dogmas of superiority. For Hick, only religious pluralism can help us to express an "intellectually honest and realistic Christian faith" Only it can "speak to the deep religious concern that exists as strongly as ever among a Western population that has long since ceased to be captivated by traditional institutional religion."[3] It is shown by the fact that "growing numbers of church members" resort to a metaphorical understanding of the creeds.[4] All in all, Hick thinks that pluralism is not only theoretically superior to particularism, it is also practically necessary for the future survival of Christianity.

        However, the alleged pragmatic advantages of religious pluralism over particularism seem dubious to me:
1)      For the thoroughly secularised Western people, both religious pluralism and exlcusivism are equally nonsensical.
2)      For those Westerners who are alienated by the traditional dogmas of the Church but who are still spiritually minded, pluralism might help them to make peace with the Church but it will not encourage commitment: why can't they find spiritual satisfaction elsewhere?
3)      For those who want a reason for their commitment to Christianity, religious pluralism will only remove their rationales for coming to the Church or believing in Christianity!
4)      In Asia, Africa, etc., Christianity is only one among many other native and non-native religions which have been there for a long time. If the Asian people are told that Christianity cannot offer anything that cannot be obtained from their old options, why then do they need to choose Christianity? As an Asian, I think Hick’s comment on the Asian Christians is wide of the mark. I suspect what he says there is largely based on his reading of the “Asian theologians,” who can hardly represent Asian Christians.

For the above reasons, I doubt that religious pluralism is practically more appealing than particularism to the majority of people, East and West. This view is borne out by the following facts. The crisis of religion Hick mentions is only a localized one if we view the problem globally. It is mainly confined to populations deeply influenced by the secularization trend, i.e., Europeans and intellectuals. Among many other places, there is no such crisis.[5] Even in Europe and the USA, the churches which can hold up to the corrosion of secularization are those which resist religious pluralism or other kinds of non-realism. In UK, the decline of church membership set in after 50's: "by 1990 the total figure was down to 5.6 million (3.4 million Protestant and 2.2 million Catholic) and this amounted to a modest 12% of the adult population. The current figure is about 14%, an increase largely explained by the rise in independent pentecostal and evangelical churches."[6] Michael Green points out, "I cannot help noticing that it is the Bible-believing evangelical and charismatic churches around the world which are growing so fast, and that is as much the case in the Anglican communion as it is in other denominations. The plain truth of the matter is that reductionist 'liberal' reinterpretations of Christianity, based on the sufficiency of human reason, rather than on biblical revelation, have little to offer us, though they are still prevalent in many of our theological institutions and among many senior churchmen."[7] The story of the decline of the mainline churches in the United States is also well-known. Hick seems to be so conditioned by his own academic environment that he is blind to these obvious facts.

[1] Hick, A Christian Theology of Religions, p. ix.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., p. 9.
[5] Kai-man Kwan, “A Critical Appraisal of a Non-Realist Philosophy of Religion: An Asian Perspective.” Philosophia Christi, Series 2 Volume 3, Number 1 (2001), pp. 225-235.
[6] Philip F. Esler, "Introduction: Christianity for the Twenty-First Century," in Christianity for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Philip F. Esler (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1998), pp. 1-2.
[7] "The Scope of the Cosmic Christ," in Grace and Truth in the Secular Age, ed. Timothy Bradshaw (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 1998), p. 11.