John Hick, an influential theologian and philosopher who died earlier this year, was drawn to issues that transcend any particular tradition—the question of evil, the meaning of suffering, life after death, and religious diversity.
Hick turned from studying law to studying theology and his life followed a course rich with experience. World War II saw Hick take the difficult decision to register as a conscientious objector. Avoiding combat, Hick was involved in an ambulance unit which saw service across the Mediterranean. After the war he trained as a Presbyterian minister and, in the remainder of his life, he taught, wrote, fought racism in 1970s Birmingham, and even underwent a trial for heresy.
On Friday, May 11, I attended a memorial service for Hick in Birmingham. In his later life Hick had become a Quaker and the service was held in the church center he frequented. The gathered sat in the U-shaped rows of the spacious hall, constructed in 1970, with bare white walls and high ceilings. The pipes of an organ dominated one corner of the room. The service followed the Quaker custom of a series of addresses (including video messages from Keith Ward and Desmond Tutu) and then an extended period of silence.
The gathered were then invited to reflect and, if they desired, to share their reflections or to read from religious scripture. (A range of religious scriptures were provided—alongside a bowl of water for the washing of hands in case anybody chose to read from the Qur’an.) The period of silence ended when the five elders mutually agreed to close the session by shaking hands, upon which everyone in the assembly shook hands with one other as well.
The mood was not somber. Family and friends had held a small funeral for Hick some weeks before, and as Hick’s daughter said, “This is not a sad occasion, when anybody who lives until ninety with their marbles still intact it is a celebration.”
And Hick certainly had all his marbles. This was despite a deterioration of his physical strength which saw him wheelchair-bound. At a meeting in Hick’s house of the Open End (a discussion group he had founded in late-1960s Birmingham), I delivered a presentation just three months before his death. It was the last Open End meeting that Hick was to attend, and he was alert, interested, and engaged.
In the standing-room only crowd, there seemed to be genuine interest in the topic of discussion: the impurity (najasah) of non-Muslims (kuffar) in Shi‘a Islamic law and how this might be viewed in the light of Hick’s views on religious diversity. When I later mentioned my topic to a colleague she expressed surprise that I would discuss an issue that might throw notions of interfaith dialogue into doubt.
But as a lifelong student of religion, Hick (and those with him) knew that similar concerns about purity were to be found across religious traditions. Take, for example, the use in Orthodox Judaism of the mikveh—much like the kurr of Islamic law, one use of the mikveh is for the ritual purification of utensils purchased from non-Jews. Hick was never afraid to confront issues in religious teaching that challenge interfaith relations.
Hick was alert, in fact, beyond the seminar, past his ninetieth birthday, and right to the very end. One of the tributes recorded in a booklet distributed at the service included the testimony of a friend who had visited Hick in hospital the day before his death, where the philosopher “conversed as lucidly and intelligently as ever.” The other tributes leave one with the impression that Hick was a man who had affected even students and friends who disagreed with him; he had trained himself to take wisdom from whichever religious tradition he found it in, to be closed to dogmatism, and to be open to experiencing manifestations of that greater reality.
At the service the Rev. Alan Race spoke about two powerful religious experiences, occurring as bookends, at opposite ends of Hick’s adult life. The first was an ‘evangelical conversion’ to fundamentalist Christianity while Hick was a student of law in Hull, a city of the North of England.
From Hick’s autobiography:
For several days I was in a state of intense mental and emotional turmoil, during which I became increasingly aware of a higher truth and greater reality pressing in upon me and claiming my recognition and response. At first this was highly unwelcome, a disturbing and challenging demand for nothing less than a revolution in personal identity. But then the disturbing claim became a liberating invitation. The reality that was pressing in upon me was not only awesomely demanding [...] but also irresistibly attractive, and I entered with great joy and excitement into the world of Christian faith.
The second, many years later, was as a consequence of a Buddhist meditation technique.
Again, from his autobiography:
I was in [an advanced stage of meditation] when eventually I opened my eyes the world was quite different in two ways. Whereas normally I am here and the environment is there, separate from me, there was now no distinction; and more importantly, the total universe of which I was part was friendly, benign, good, so that there could not possibly be anything to fear or worry about. It was a state of profound delight in being. This only lasted a short time, probably not more than two minutes. [...] Even to have tasted this [experience] fleetingly has been to me very significant. And short of that nirvanic state there are other times when meditation leaves me in some indescribable way uplifted, made deeply happy.
The order of service card at the memorial contained a poem by Rumi, a favorite of Hick’s, with the line: The lamps are different, but the Light is the same: it comes from Beyond.