Saturday, 19 February 2011

The ineffable is thoroughly effed — on Unbelievable?

Premier's Unbelievable? radio show continues to be a "curate's egg" experience. Some episodes are engaging and thought-provoking, but often they can be frustrating, and listening to them can be quite fascinating in a "Can this possibly get any worse?" kind of way. Today's show was like that. Justin Brierley's guests were Chris Sinkinson and John Hick. Here's Justin's introduction from the Unbelievable? website:
In an age of religious pluralism it can seem arrogant for Christians to claim they have "the truth" or the only means to salvation. So when Jesus said "no-one comes to the Father except through me" what did he mean? And what about those who have not heard the Gospel? John Hick is a noted philosopher and theologian who is a proponent of a pluralist view of religion - that there is one light (God) but many lampshades (religious expressions). Chris Sinkinson is a pastor and Bible tutor who has critiqued Hick's work. He says that pluralism empties Christianity of any content and in its own way disrespects other religions more than his own exclusivist stance.
I grant that this might be of interest to theologians, but I wonder how it would have gone down with the average Premier Radio listener. (No doubt we'll discover next week, when Justin reads some of his email — but I don't know how typical the respondents to Unbelievable? are.)

The show is available as mp3 audio here:
http://media.premier.org.uk/unbelievable/780e0b5d-0808-44f6-b9ac-063c3a2fdd31.mp3

In many ways I felt John Hick had the right idea. He was challenging all religions that claim to know the truth, much as an atheist might challenge, but seemed to take the lowest common denominator and opt for the kind of apophatic deity so beloved of the likes of Karen Armstrong and Terry Eagleton: God is a mystery; God is unknowable. So how can these people claim to know anything at all about such a God? John Hick almost, but not quite, went as far as to say that one couldn't know if God actually existed. In the face of such lack of knowledge he seemed to take that last bit on faith; he chose to believe in something called the "Ultimate Real" — presumably given such a name so that it needn't be defined in any substantial manner. Bear in mind that this Ultimate Real isn't a personal God. It has no personality, and it certainly doesn't answer prayers. There is, in fact, no way at all of knowing that it exists.

It's all very cosy, and presumably John Hick finds it reassuring that this Ultimate Real is there somewhere, in some sense. Maybe. Reassuring or not, personally I care whether my beliefs are true, and I'd like to believe something because it's true, rather than for any other reason.
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