Pastor Terry Jones, John Hick, and ‘Religion of the Devil’
Last week, it was reported in the UK that the world’s favourite pastor, Terry Jones, was denied access to the UK, where he was due to address “England is Ours” because, according to the Home Office, “Coming to the UK is a privilege not a right and we are not willing to allow entry to those whose presence is not conducive to the public good.”
Interviewer: “Are you an extremist?”
TJ: “Definitely not. We are very convinced about our views, when it comes to our Christian views or when it comes to our political views, or our views on Islam. We have always tried to make it very clear that we are not against Muslims… we are not against their rights… we have always spoke out against the radical element of Islam.”
TJ: “We are not against the Muslims or the Muslim community… we believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion… our concern is… the radical element of Islam. […] If you are talking to the Pastor, then of course I believe that the Bible and Christianity are the only way, that means that Islam and all other religions are wrong and of the devil. That is normal Christian doctrine. […] If you are talking to me as an American… we welcome Muslims into this country, they are protected under our constitution…”
TJ: “From a religious aspect, from a Christian aspect, we would consider [Islam] a religion of the devil… so would the Anglican Church… they may not say that…”
Interviewer: “They certainly don’t say that…”
“Well, that’s because none has the real guts to stand up and say what they really believe, because of persecution… because of being called a hate preacher.”
What a delightful man, eh? Well… whilst I don’t agree with this guy on many, many things… I am going to focus now on his belief that it is normal Christian practice to consider other religions, and Islam in particular, as ‘of the devil’.
I am going to take John Hick as my exemplar here… not because he is by any means an exemplar of mainstream Christian thought – although he is a very highly regarded theologian and philosopher of religion, with degrees from Edinburgh and Oxford, and is currently an emeritus professor of both Birmingham University UK and the Claremont Graduate University, California. He is a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences, University of Birmingham UK, and a Vice-President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Religion and of the World Congress of Faiths. See http://www.johnhick.org.uk/jsite/ for more info. He has also spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of religious pluralism… And I would suggest, from my personal experiences, and my conversations with many moderate Christians, that this is a fair representation of the way in which many come to terms with the reality of religious pluralism.
Here, I am referring to the 1988 reissue of Hick’s God and the Universe of Faiths.
Hick begins his discussion by posing an age old problem – “if I had been born in India, I would probably be a Hindu…” (p. 100). There are two standard solutions to this problem: If each religion is true subjectively for its adherents, but not objectively, then we render religion an illusion (this would pretty much be where I stand on this matter), and if one religion is simply true and the others false (in totality or varying degrees) how can this be reconciled with the view of a loving Creator God who wishes continual and universal relationship with his creation?
Hick continues, stating: “it is not appropriate to speak of a religion as being true or false, any more than it is to speak of a civilisation as being true or false” and proceeds to identify what he considers to be the ‘essence’ (that is, that which is most important) of Christianity as “the way of life and salvation which has its origin in the Christ-event (p. 119).” Here, he is using the term “Christ-event” to “refer to the complex of happenings constituting the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the persisting community which was created by its response to him (p. 111).” There then follows a discussion of how the community’s actions and beliefs were ever changing and developing, even during the short period during which the gospels were written, which leads Hick to his conclusion that even though the Christ-event is the single most important thing in Christianity, Christianity “cannot be defined in terms of adherence to any doctrinal standard, for its doctrines are historically and culturally conditioned (p.119).” So far so good…
Hick then sets out what I believe to be his central thesis. Accepting his definition of ‘the essence of Christianity’, “do we regard the Christian way as the only way, so that salvation is not to be found outside it; or do we regard the other great religions of mankind as other ways of life and salvation (p. 120)?” After discussing the traditional Christian position (to answer the former in the affirmative), Hick points to the moral contradiction of a loving God who allows only a small minority of mankind to achieve salvation (p. 122). Hick likens the wavering position of the church, to the controversies surrounding the old Ptolemaic image of the universe. Before abandoning the view that the earth was at the centre of the solar system, astronomers tried valiantly to keep adding extra epicycles to the scheme, until it became increasingly artificial and burdensome to try and maintain this position (p. 125). Likewise, the Church continues to add extra epicycles to its theology to explain the problem of other religions, when it should face up to the reality and “shift from the dogma that Christianity is at the centre to the realisation that it is God who is at the centre, and that all the religions of mankind, including [Christianity], serve and revolve around him (p. 131).”
To me, everything up to this point seems to be good philosophical reasoning, but to the person of faith, this discussion does raise the question “Why should I bother? If every faith in the world will get me to the same place, why should I stick with mine, and what reason do I have to choose another?” The majority of the rest of the book is spent trying to answer these concerns. Hick does this by suggesting, in the words of Irenaeus that “There is but one and the same God who, from the beginning to the end and by various dispensations comes to the rescue of mankind (p. 175).” In other words Mohammed, Gotama Buddha, Moses, Nanak and Jesus of Nazareth all reveal the nature of “God” in their specific geographical, historical, and cultural contexts, and encourage a moral life which is can be in some way considered to be core to all religions. Thus a Christian should stick to being a Christian, even though other religions may be equally right, because this is a way of life which has worked for the past two millennia in the West, and which has grown with and shaped the entire Western existence as it is known today.
This would be my crude summary of Hick’s take on religious pluralism. Personally, I find his final attempts to redeem the practice of individual faiths both belittles his impressive Copernican idea, and the concept of faith. If someone is to make a voluntary decision to place their faith in the “God” revealed through a certain religion, this decision cannot (in my opinion) be an arbitrary choice, but requires some sort of reasoning based on their opinion of the truth or falsehood of that religion’s core beliefs. This is why I always look sceptically upon interfaith work, because I simply don’t know what it can achieve. Don’t get me wrong… I think it is vitally important that people talk to each other, and that religious communities should work together to break down barriers… but I also believe that they should be open about the fact that they fundamentally disagree, and relate to each other simply as human beings, rather than as ‘religious’ human beings. Whatever your take on it, I hope I have demonstrated that it is not ‘normal’ Christian practice to consider other religions ‘of the devil’. Individual believers will react differently to other faiths… and so will the religious leaders and institutions. However, this is one issue particularly where Jones does not speak for the Christian mainstream.
I will end on a positive note, however. For all his ridiculousness, Jones does make one very sensible statement in these interviews:
“The idea isn’t to cause trouble or kick up a stink. These things do need addressing and people do need to speak about them. We shouldn’t be frightened about them.”
Whilst I don’t agree with his methods of ‘addressing’ people’s fear of extremist Islam, I sincerely believe that things are much better out in the open, and that people need to talk about things. I would much rather people engaged in critical dialogue, than stored up unjustified prejudice inside…