John Hick (1922-2012)

The Prosblogion reports that philosopher of religion John Hick has died.  I knew Hick twenty years ago, during his final semester at the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University), when I took the last course he taught there.  He was a kind man and one of the best teachers I ever had.  He was also a good, clear writer, and his work in philosophy of religion was informed by a deep knowledge of the history of Christian theology and of the world religions.  His book Evil and the God of Love is one of the most important works on the problem of evil in recent philosophy and theology, and made a great impression on me when I first read it as a young man.

I agreed with him on very little.  During the brief time I was his student, that was in part because I was in my early atheist phase, and he was a Christian, albeit a highly heterodox one.  I recall earnestly telling him of my interest in Nietzsche and Walter Kaufmann, whereupon he related with a just barely detectable condescension that Nietzsche had been his “delight” too in his own youthful skeptical days, and that Kaufmann no doubt would have been his delight as well had he then known of him.  The unspoken implication was that this was the sort of stuff one grows out of, or ought to anyway.  And of course, he was right.

I argued with Hick vigorously in the classroom and in a term paper I wrote for him -- displaying in the latter “the polemical enthusiasm of youth,” as he put it -- but he was a good sport (and gave me an A anyway).  I never saw him lose his composure, even when a student was asking for it.  (I recall once that Hick had, in his very gentle and philosophically serious way, disagreed with a female student about whether there could really be such a thing as a “contentless experience” of a mystical sort, or some such thing.  Another student later suggested to me that Hick had disagreed with the first student only because she was a woman -- a patently ludicrous suggestion given Hick’s personal kindness and liberal convictions, and given the complete irrelevance of “sexism” to the issue that was under discussion.)

I have always believed, even when I was an atheist, that one’s religion ought to be of the traditional sort if one was going to be religious at all.  Anything else is just made up.  (My atheist readers can spare us the obvious “It’s all made up!” retort.  That’s what I used to think.)  And so I had little time for Hick’s extreme theological liberalism even when I wasn’t a believer anyway.  I have had even less time for it since returning to the Catholic Church about a decade ago.  Hick’s views on Christology, for example, are flatly heretical and completely destructive of Christianity.  (I recall him admitting in private discussion -- perhaps he’s said the same thing in print somewhere -- that a non-believer was less likely to bother converting to the completely watered-down versions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. that Hick’s religious pluralism required.  Hick himself had moved to the theological left only well after his conversion.)

But on some subjects, such as the problem of evil, he made a lasting contribution.  And I learned much from him, for which I will always be grateful.  Requiescat in pace.
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