Item description for John Hick: An Autobiography by John H. Hick...
John Hick is one of the world's foremost theologians and philosophers of religion: his books feature on many comparative religion and philosophy courses and his theories and work in the field of race relations have earned him international acclaim. In this warm-hearted account, he tells his life story, from his schoolboy days in Yorkshire, through his conversion to evangelical fundamentalism, to his renunciation of this to become a staunch advocate of religious pluralism.
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John Hick is a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Research in Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Birmingham (U.K.) and has held appointments at the Claremont Graduate University, California, the University of Cambridge, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Cornell University. His many previous books include "Disputed Questions in Theology and the Philosophy of Religion," published by Yale University Press.
John H. Hick has an academic affiliation as follows - Claremont Graduate School.
Reviews - What do customers think about John Hick: An Autobiography?
A fascinating look at a fascinating life May 12, 2009
Reviewing an autobiography comes a bit too close to commenting on someone else's life (and their self-assessment of it). Nonetheless, we'll give it a shot here and see how it goes. Happily, John Hick's life is fascinating enough that there's plenty we could comment on!
Hick begins with about 10 pages discussing his family history. Some readers will be intrigued to read of the generations of the Hick family shipping business based out of Scarborough. (Others might grow a bit impatient wading through this preliminary material.) Then after a chapter discussing his childhood, Hick turns in chapter three to discuss his early "religious exploration and conversion." Though Hick was raised in a mostly non-Christian environment, one may be surprised--depending on what one already knows of Hick's background--to hear of the evangelicalnature of Hick's conversion to Christianity. He writes:
"As a law student at University College, Hull, at the age of eighteen, I underwent a powerful evangelical conversion under the impact of the New Testament figure of Jesus. 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" (33).
Hick even states that "Although I have since been a critic of evangelical theology, seeing it as a form of doctrinal (and sometimes also biblical) fundamentalism, . . . I can nevertheless genuinely understand the evangelicals' point of view, having once fully shared it for several years" (35). Indeed, Hick states that he held to largely orthodox Christianity for decades before becoming convinced that his new found pluralistic understanding of religions much change the way he understands Christian theology.
In subsequent chapters Hick describes how as a conscientious objector (a 'conchie') during WWII, he served with the Friends Ambulance Unit in Egypt, Italy and Greece. Then, upon returning from the war, he studied philosophy at Edinburgh before going to Oxford to earn his doctorate in philosophy, from which his thesis later became one of his most important works, Faith and Knowledge. Hick then went to Westminster to study theology so that he could become a Presbyterian minister, which he ended up doing for a few years in the small town of Belford.
I feel at this point that I have moved from offering a review to giving a short biography myself. For the play-by-play of Hick's life, one merely needs to consult the contents page of the book. But picking up where we left off, Hick accepted a professorship at Cornell before moving to Princeton, where he was more or less put on trial by the Presbyterian Church for not affirming (though not necessarily denying) the virgin birth of Christ. Hick later crossed the pond again to teach briefly at Cambridge before taking a longer stint at Birmingham University.
It was at Birmingham that Hick's pluralistic outlook began to take shape, as he spent much of his time outside of class with multifaith / race issues in the city. Hick writes of his experience:
"As I spent time in mosques, synagogues, gurudwaras and temples as well as churches something very important dawned on me. On the one hand all the externals were different. . . . And not only the externals, but also the languages, the concepts, the scriptures, the traditions are all different and distinctive. But at a deeper level it seemed evident to me that essentially the same thing was going on in all these different places of worship, namely men and women were coming together under the auspices of some ancient, highly developed tradition which enables them to open their minds and hearts 'upwards' toward a higher divine reality which makes a claim on the living of their lives" (160).
After coming to this pluralistic realization, Hick subsequently spent time in India studying Hinduism, in Punjab studying Sikhism, and in Sri Lankastudying Buddhism. Hick even describes his religious activities today as a mixture of Buddhist meditation with occasional Christian worship.
Hick rounds out his life story with a discussion of one of his more provocative publications, The Myth of God Incarnate, his time in Botswana and apartheid South Africa, his over a decade teaching in California at Claremont, where his pluralism took a more non-theistic turn due in large measure to his interaction with Buddhist philosopher,Masao Abe, and finally, his return to Birmingham, where he currently resides (now at the age of 85).
Hick concludes with two interesting chapters, the first offering his assessment of "philosophy of religion - the state of the art," and finally, an epilogue, where he writes his own pre-obituary, which is primarily a positive summary of his life's work and influence--he notes that obituaries are "customarily appreciative rather than critical" (320).
Hick states that in writing his autobiography, his "initial motive was to satisfy the curiosity of my grandchildren, when they are quite a bit older, about Grandad John" (viii). However, one gets the impression that somewhere along the way he began to envision a larger audience as well, as parts of the autobiography turn into commentary on the current state of religion, philosophy, the church, and academia. For example, though early in his life Hick identified himself as an evangelical, he is largely critical of evangelicalism--which he often nearly equates with fundamentalism--throughout the book. Interestingly, one notable exception is his former Claremont doctoral student, Harold Netland. Though Netland has actually written two books criticizing Hick's pluralism (Dissonant Voices and Encountering Religious Pluralism), Hick regards Netland as "one of the really civilized and agreeable US evangelicals" and states that they "have always got on well personally" (294). In fact, I would venture to say that one of the reasons for Hick's appreciation of Netland is because Netland takes pluralism seriously enough to offer his careful analyses and critiques of it.
At any rate, how one approaches this book may depend on how knows of Hick and what one's assessment of Hick is: as the philosophical theologian who brought us the Irenaean "soul-making" theodicy; as the heretic who denied the virgin birth and later the literal incarnation of Jesus; as the theologian who championed the notions of religious "myth" and "metaphor"; as one of the greatest living philosophers of religion, who is largely responsible for bringing God back into the philosophical arena during the largely atheistic 50s and 60s; or as one of the leading proponents of religious pluralism in the world today (for better or for worse).
For myself I approached this book largely out of philosophical interest. Though my views are much closer to Netland's than Hick's, I found it interesting to step into Hick's world and view things from his perspective for awhile. And though I may not applaud the direction Hick's religious and theological trajectory has taken him over the years, I did find myself sympathizing with him a number of times in the face of the criticisms and heretic-hunting he endured at the hands of many conservative Christians over the years (though I am sure there are two sides to every story).
Much of this autobiography is drawn from Hick's personal journal, which he kept over the years. Perhaps somewhat ironically, this actually makes much of the book more impersonal than it might otherwise have been. It records events and facts but often without much by way of personal reflection on those events (though there is much by way of philosophical reflection). In this regard, Hick's autobiography is much different than, say, Bertrand Russell's, which comes across as sometimes a bit too personal. There is, for example, surprisingly little mention of Hick's adult family life--how he spent time with his wife and kids, etc. Perhaps he didn't think these ordinary aspects of life where quite as interesting as his transcontinental adventures, but I would have been interested in reading a bit more on the mundane Hick. On the other hand, he discusses some of his favorite books and the fact that he has of late taken up the habit of watching a bit too much t.v., so there are definitely some lighter moments. Also of interest, this may be the only autobiography of which I am aware that contains a full index of names and topics at the end as well as a fair amount of endnotes throughout.
I would recommend Hick's autobiography for (a) the philosopher of religion who wants an inside look at one of the masters of the trade, (b) the intellectual historian or biographile (a word I may have just coined!), (c) the pastor or lay person who wants to better understand the pluralistic worldview, or (d) the secular philosopher, scholar, or anyone else who is curious about what makes us peculiar philosophers of religion tick.
[Originally reviewed at http://cramercomments.blogspot.com]