Explain, John Hick once asked me in an undergraduate class, the traditional axiom that my church holds, “There is no salvation outside the Church.” He argued that Catholics officially maintain this teaching while actually saying the opposite because they cannot come to terms with the reality that goodness, truth, and holiness are to be found in other religions. They hold that Christ is the source of all salvation and the Church the means of salvation and then admit that people are saved without Christ and outside the Church.
Hick, who died in mid-February at the age of ninety, urged Christians to move on from this alleged double talk. His arguments were a challenge. A large part of my doctoral dissertation was spent showing that Catholics had come to terms with the problem more ably than had Hick, who in his desire for religious concord eventually provided a solution that only liberals like himself could embrace and proved unhelpful for understanding the differences between religions.
He was a gracious, gentle, and remarkably kind man. He cared deeply about the issues he taught, and he taught with a care and conviction that helped set students like myself on fire. He cared deeply about his students as well, often inviting us to his home for drinks and food with his wife and children. He was tirelessly at work in the city of Birmingham, campaigning against racism, developing good interfaith networks, and advising the schools.
As I spent years of my later life criticizing his work, he was always kind and patient, asking me to explain my argument and trying to explain his side in relation to my concerns. He was a practical, prudent, and visionary scholar, and one whose work had a profound impact upon many theologians and philosophers, Christian and non-Christian.
Hick’s argument moved in three elegant steps. First, he argued to Christians that the God of love revealed by Jesus could not consign most of humankind to hellfire for something they experienced through no fault of their own. If we can only be saved by Christ and most people in human history have never even heard of him, a perverse God is at work in the world.
Second, he then faced the christological implication: The Bible says that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the Father but by him. Hick argued that the Bible was written in the language of lovers, in the poetic expression of a starstruck Romeo writing to his Juliet: “You are the most beautiful woman in the world.” Christians likewise write: “You are my one and only savior.” We don’t think Romeo is making an empirical claim that Juliet’s beauty could never be matched by any other created being. Yet Christians make that kind of claim with the love language generated by commitment to Jesus. It was when such love language was hardened by the steel of Greek metaphysics that things began to go badly wrong.
Third, Hick argued for a revolution in how religions understood their claims. Christians, for example, tend to believe that all religions are in darkness and that their religion is the sun. Some of the more radical hold that Christ is the sun and that non-Christian religions reflect the sun’s light. Hick urged a Copernican revolution: Christians should suppose that the divine reality is at the center of the universe of faiths and that all religions, including Christianity, bask more or less equally in the divine light.
This light is reflected differently: personally or impersonally; as love or wisdom/insight; shining in a Krishna, Jesus, or Qur’an, in very different modes and universally in all hearts. Until we take this Copernican step, the religions are like the famous blind men and the elephant. Religions need to stop making exclusive claims and give world peace a chance.
Many of my students and lots of my secular and liberal religious colleagues are Hickites without ever having read Hick. This is telling. Hick’s thesis reflects a lot of the themes of modernity: Religions have caused strife and hardship, often through their exclusive claims to truth; if religions could shed their exclusive claims and focus on caring for others and the social and natural order, the world would be a better place; and Christianity makes the most untenable claim that God chose just this tiny group to make himself known to all the world.
The construction of modernity provides the context for Hick’s thesis and the conditions for its attractiveness. Kant had paved the way for modernity by making religious truth claims secondary to the moral impulse that was universally accessible.
Descartes followed by showing that the only certainty was the mind’s certainty about itself. Hume called into question the empirical validity of religious claims. Modern science was seen as providing answers to humanity’s greatest problems because it is above the sectarianism of religious groups.
Political and social theorists continue to build up the social constructions that validated these sentiments about religions: Truth is best attained through majorities; no single institution should make absolute claims (except the state?); and the identification of the good is best left to neutral groups like the state.
Though modernity helps explain Hick’s argument and its appeal, his work must still be answered theologically, as he raised real and inescapable questions that Christians have to answer, though when he began to write many did not see the questions at all and others wanted to avoid them. If these issues are not faced, the intellectual respectability of Christianity will suffer and Christians will fail in fidelity to the gospel requirement that we give grounds for Christian faith. The public life and voice of the Church will be diminished, furthering the project of modernity in privatizing religion.
The real task that faces the churches today, thanks to the challenges raised by Hick and like-minded thinkers, is how to justify Christianity’s exclusive claims while explaining the truth, goodness, beauty, and holiness that exist within other religions. From Christianity’s early days, Christians realized that those, especially the holy ones of Israel, who did not know Christ but had sought the good would be granted the means of grace. But soon after the fourth century, Christians assumed that those who were not Christians had chosen schism, apostasy, or heresy.
Things changed in the sixteenth century with the discovery of the “new world.” Christians discovered that there were millions of non-Christians, some of whom were very impressive indeed and none of whom had had a chance to hear about Christ. Theologians like Suárez and de Lugo began to reflect on this problem. They both realized that a good God would not consign the majority of human beings to perdition for an ignorance of Christ they could not help, and they developed a theory that was eventually taught by the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium.
That is, the belief that there is “no salvation outside the Church,” first articulated by St. Cyprian of Carthage in the third century, does not mean that only Catholics are saved but that whoever is saved through the mercy of God is saved through the grace of Christ mediated by the Church. As Lumen Gentium puts it, “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”
The real challenge for Christians is to hold to the scandal of particularity because it is true, even though a scandal to the nations, and from that radiant center of God’s action in the world they developed an account of creation and human culture. This has happened within most Christian denominations in interestingly different ways. Hick’s form of Protestant liberalism has not taken root precisely because his jettisoning of the Incarnation leaves little in Christianity that cannot be found in secularism or liberal theism.
Dominus Iesus, issued over the signature of then Cardinal Ratzinger in 2000, indicates that the Catholic Church is still thinking through this matter. The question has moved from whether non-Christians can be saved (answer: yes) to whether they are saved despite or through their own religions. The answer given by Dominus Iesus is “through,” but not in a sense willed by God as the means of salvation. (The are saved de facto, in other words, not de iure.) To understand more precisely what it means that they are saved by Christ and his Church needs credible and careful theology. Hick has served contemporary Christianity well in his sharp questions and refusal of unconvincing answers.
The languages of poetry and metaphysics operate in the Bible and both are used to address the true God. The problems generated are real but are too quickly dissolved by Hick in his disentangling of the two modes.
This helps answer the first two of Hick’s challenging arguments, but what of the third? Can Christians live with others on an equal footing without denying their own exclusive claims?
Vatican II, for Catholics, signaled that Christian discipleship required living peacefully with other religions and nonreligions. The Church was concerned to preserve religious liberties in all societies and not just for itself. Dignitatis Humanae, the Declaration on Religious Freedom, made it clear that Christians did not have to relinquish religious truth claims to seek the common good in a pluralist society. In fact, those particular religious truth claims require Christians to seek the common good and respect the pluralist nature of their society. Human dignity requires that people enjoy religious freedom, which “means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power.”
John Hick faced the difficult questions dogmatic religions raise in the modern world and addressed them in a visionary, thoughtful, and robust manner. He loved Christianity and wanted to make it credible to its cultured despisers and to challenge them to engage it seriously. Even if we disagree with his answers, he pushed Christians to look at the difficult questions as he provided answers that compel and challenge. For that we should be deeply grateful to him.
Gavin D’Costa is professor of Catholic theology at the University of Bristol.