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C. Religiously Relevant?
Even if the view is not incoherent, it pays another price. For suppose we believe there is a being of that sort. It is for us an empty idea; still, that is not to say that there couldn’t be such a being. I don’t know whether it is possible that there be a being like this, and have no grounds for making a judgment either way as to whether it is possible. Suppose we concede for the moment that it is. The basic question here is this: what reason is there for thinking such a being, if indeed there could be and is such a being, is in any special way connected with religion? According to Hick, “we can say of the postulated Real an sich that it is the noumenal ground of the encountered gods and experienced absolutes witnessed to by the religious traditions” (246). Why should we think so? What reason is there for thinking this being is connected in some way with Christianity or with any other religion? Why say that Christians are in fact referring to or witnessing to this being? Maybe it is, instead, connected with warfare, prostitution, family violence, bigotry, or racism. And why think this being, or contact with it, has anything to do with “transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness” (355)? Perhaps it is especially when human beings are in the grip of self-aggrandizement, hate, selfishness, and the like that they are most in contact with this being. If it has no positive properties of which we have a conception, why is the one assumption the least bit better than the other? The basic problem, here, is that if the Real has no positive properties of which we have a conception, then we have no reason at all to think that it is in religion that human beings get in experiential contact with this being, rather than in any other human activity: war or oppression, for example. This being has none of the properties ascribed by the practitioners of most of the great religions to the beings they worship: it is not good, or loving, or concerned with human beings, or wise, or powerful; it has not created the universe, does not uphold it, and does not pay attention to the universe or the creatures it contains. It is an unknown and unknowable X. But then why associate this unknowable X with religion, as opposed to warfare, violence, bigotry, and the horrifying things human beings often do to each other?
We can put this question another way. Hick suggests that when Christians make their characteristic utterances, saying, for instance, “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself,” what they say cannot be literally true but can be mythologically true. By ‘literal’ truth, he just means truth, ordinary truth: “The literal truth or falsity of a factual assertion . . . consists in its conformity or lack of conformity to fact: ‘it is raining here now’ is literally true if and only if it is raining here now” (348). The mythological truth of a statement is a horse of quite another color: “A statement or set of statements about X is mythologically true if it is not literally true but nevertheless tends to evoke an appropriate dispositional attitude to X” (348). So some dispositional attitudes toward the Real are appropriate and others (presumably) are not; some ways of responding to it are appropriate and others (presumably) not:
Thus although we cannot speak of the Real an sich in literal terms,5353 Recall that we are amending this claim from chapter 19 in the light of chapter 14; we can speak literally of the Real, but only to predicate negative and purely formal properties of it, together with those positive properties entailed by its being such that we human beings are in experiential contact with it. nevertheless we live inescapably in relation to it, and in all that we do and undergo we are having to do with it as well as, and in terms of, our more proximate situations. Our actions are appropriate or inappropriate not only in relation to our physical and social environments but also in relation to our ultimate environment, the Real. True religious myths are accordingly those that evoke in us attitudes and modes of behaviour which are appropriate to our situation vis-à-vis the Real. (351)
And now our question can be put in terms of this suggestion. Why think that “we live in relation to . . . the Real” at all? Either the relation living in relation to is merely formal or it is not. If it is, then it would have no connection with religion. So it isn’t. But if it isn’t, then (1) we have still another positive property had by the Real: the property of being such that we live in relation to it. And (2) (and more poignantly) why think we live in relation to the Real at all? After all, we don’t live in relation to just any old thing—the highest mountain on Mars, for example, or the meanest shark in the Indian Ocean. If the Real has no positive properties of which we have a grasp, what is the reason for thinking we live in relation to it?
Second, why think some ways of behavior are appropriate to the Real and others are not? Again, unless this is a purely formal relationship, not just anything is such that some ways of behaving are appropriate or, for that matter, inappropriate with respect to it. None of my behavior, I think, is either appropriate or inappropriate with respect to the highest mountain on Mars or the meanest shark in the Indian Ocean. If the Real has no positive properties of which we have a grasp, how could we possibly know or have grounds for believing that some ways of behaving with respect to it are more appropriate than others?
Hick, of course, thinks that some ways of behaving with respect to the Real are more appropriate than others, and goes on to specify what those ways are: we are behaving appropriately with respect to the Real when we learn to turn away from self-centeredness and selfishness (“the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness”). But why think that? This would, indeed, make sense if the Real had the attributes of God: if it were, in fact, a person who loves us, and wills that we turn from loving only ourselves to loving him above all and our neighbor as ourselves, and has so designed us that we attain our end and happiness when we do so. But the Real doesn’t have any of those properties (they being positive properties of which we have a conception). And if it has no positive properties of which we have a grasp, why not suppose that hateful and selfish behavior are appropriate with respect to it? Or behaving in that weak, sniveling, envious way that Nietzsche thought characteristic of real Christians? We can’t have it both ways. If this being is really such that we literally know nothing positive about it (if it has no positive properties of which we have a grasp), then there is no reason to think self-centered behavior is less appropriate with respect to it (granting, indeed, that some modes of behavior are more appropriate with respect to it than others) than living a life of love.
We can put the question in still another way. Hick apparently thinks that some religious conceptions or ideas are authentic manifestations (“personae” or “impersonae”) of the Real:
And to the extent that ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ is indeed an authentic persona of the Real, constituting the form in which the Real is validly thought and experienced from within the Christian strand of religious history, to that extent the dispositional response appropriate to this persona constitutes an appropriate response to the Real. . . .
and of the eternal Buddha nature, he says
And to the extent that this is an authentic impersona of the Real, validly thought and experienced from within the Buddhist tradition, life in accordance with the Dharma is likewise an appropriate response to the Real. (353)
Again, the main question here is obvious: if the Real has no positive, nonformal properties of which we have a grasp, how could we possibly know or have reason to believe that any such personae or impersonae are authentic or, for that matter, inauthentic? Authenticity implies a certain fit between the (im)persona in question and the Real; but if we have no positive idea what the Real is like, we have no reason to think some personae or impersonae fit it better than others. Again, Hick thinks not only that some do fit better than others but also that we have some idea what they are: the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for example, and also others from other traditions. But how could we have reason to think a thing like that? If all we know about the Real is what Hick says we know, then for all we can tell, God, Vishnu and the Buddha are inauthentic and it is, for example, Ares, the god of war, Lucifer, and Stalin (or, for that matter, Uriah Heep or Beavis and Butthead) that are the authentic personae of the Real. Again, we can’t have it both ways. If we know nothing about the Real, we have no reason to pick the personae Hick picks as authentic manifestations of it. The main point is that if the Real has no positive nonformal properties of which we have a grasp, then, for all we can see, any department of human life is as revelatory of the Real as any other. We don’t have any way to pick and choose among them, thinking, for example, that the great world religions are where the Real manifests itself or where human beings experience it. For all we know, on this showing, it is in living like a thugee or like a member of the Ku Klux Klan that one is most authentically in touch with the Real.
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