, Volume 50, Issue 4, pp 701–703

Review of John Hick, Between Faith and Doubt: Dialogues on Religion and Reason



DOI: 10.1007/s11841-011-0262-4

Cite this article as:
Naulty, R. SOPHIA (2011) 50: 701. doi:10.1007/s11841-011-0262-4

The much-published philosopher of religion, John Hick, now aged 88, has written this book in dialogue form. It is between himself and someone who is highly skeptical of religion, but not ready to dismiss religion out of hand. Hick hopes that the book will be useful to those who are ‘somewhere on the spectrum between doubt and faith.’

The argument of the book is that the fundamental difference between the skeptic and Hick is experiential, not intellectual. Which experience is he writing about? It is the experience greatly sought after in Zen, and it was experienced by Hick himself. His physical environment and himself became ‘part of a single indivisible whole. And the totality of which I was part, not just what I could see, was such that there couldn’t possibly be anything to be afraid of or to be anxious about. It was extraordinarily joyous… the awareness of the “friendliness” of the universe was the most important aspect of it’ (49).

And over the page, he wrote ‘So I think the experience which has come to so many people is of a reality, indeed of Reality with a capital R, which both transcends matter and also permeates it and is encountered through it.’

Several things need to be said about this experience. First of all, Hick is not arguing from religious experience to cause. His argument is that ‘those who participate in the realm of religious experience are entitled to trust it’ (54). Secondly, Hick’s own experience was very brief, ‘perhaps less than a minute,’ and there seem to have been no repeats or follow-ups. On the face of it, it is surprising that he hung so much on so fleeting an experience. However, as he says, it is amply testified to by others. It is noteworthy that Hick had the experience when he was coming out of meditation, which is when Zen practitioners have learned to expect it.

Thirdly, Hick’s claim to have encountered Reality is compromised by his introduction of what seems to be a veil of perception doctrine: ‘The [ultimate] is unknowable to us as it is in itself, but knowable by us in its impact upon us, which takes various forms in religious experience’ (70). Hicks employs Kant’s distinction between the unknowable noumenon and its subjective appearance in experience (phenomenon).

Sometimes the distinction is made in recognizably Lockean terms: ‘The transcategorical Real beyond the scope of our human conceptualities, and its humanly knowable forms are not two different realities, but the same reality as it is in itself and in the ways in which it impacts on our consciousness’ (70). In Locke the representative theory of perception, of which the above seems to be a variant, is in force for the material world, but not for what we experience within.

How does Hick know that it holds for experiences of the kind he had? His use of the numenon-phenomenon distinction invites all the old skeptical questions such as ‘how does he know that there is anything beyond the experience?’ and ‘how does he know that the reality is anything like the way we experience it?’After all, he did claim to know something about Reality viz., that it is ‘Friendly.’ What is left of that claim if Reality is unknowable?

On a different point, in an attempt to explain why there are different religious experiences, e.g., in the case of 13 Tibetan Buddhist meditators and a group of Franciscan nuns. At the high point of their ‘meditation,’ though the same neural changes were found in both groups, different experiences were had by each. ‘The Buddhists reported a sense of oneness with the universe and of peace and happiness, while the Christian nuns reported a sense of closeness with God and mingling with him’ (68). However, were the Tibetans and the nuns doing the same things when they meditated? The point is important, because Hick says that the difference must be due to their different conceptual schemes. But if the nuns were not stilling the thought stream and directing their attention inwards, as presumably the Buddhists were, the difference may be due to their different practices. Meditation, in the Buddhist sense, is not a usual part of Catholic practice.

On another point, Hick asks rhetorically, ‘do you not sense a non-physical dimension to life in the awareness of goodness in our fellow human beings?’ (44). That looks like an appeal to conspicuous sanctity. That is important, not so much perhaps in bringing non-believers to belief [they might not have occasion to meet the right people], but in maintaining belief among those who already have it. Unfortunately, the definition Hick gives of sanctity fails to mention the essential point: ‘I mean by a saint – or a mahatma, a great soul, a man or a woman who is living out to an exceptional degree the universally recognized virtues of human goodness, love and concern and self giving for those in need’ (75).

Consequently, over the page, he is obliged to admit the possibility of purely secular saints. He shouldn’t have. Earlier, when giving a criterion for authentic experience of the ‘noumenon,’ he gives a more adequate definition of sanctity ‘It consists in a re-centering in the Ultimate which shows itself in a personal transformation from self – concern, or selfishness, to a concern for others’ (73).

Hick argues persuasively that the kind of world that can be the scene of person making is the kind of world we are now in. He also claims that it has to be a world in which God is not evident. It is surprising to find Hick writing that. After all, he glimpsed God himself. Moreover, there is repeated advice in the book about how to find God: we must rise above a self-centered view of things, or, alternatively, ‘purify the self of egoism’ (112).

Hick argues, with some force, for re-incarnation, on the ground that ‘there must be an opportunity for further moral and spiritual growth beyond this life’ (151). Are you and I re-incarnated, then, on Hick’s showing? Well, not exactly. What is re-incarnated is a ‘dispositional structure.’ We contribute to one of these, as others have done, and others will do. As against that, can a dispositional structure survive, without something to be a dispositional structure of?

Despite the above reservations, this book comes out at the right time. There is a world culture coming. Meditation and its accompaniments are capable of functioning as one of its spiritual supports, so we should be as clear about them as possible.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011