The Fifth Dimension: An Exploration of the Spiritual Realm

  • John Hick
  • Jan 1, 2004
  • Series: Volume 7 - 2004

Hick, John The Fifth Dimension: An Exploration of the Spiritual Realm. Oxford: Oneworld. 1999 xii+274pp. $17.95. ISBN 1-85168-191-4.

John Hick, celebrated philosopher of religion and theologian, has written important works concerning Christianity's relationship with other religions (God and the Universe of Faiths, God Has Many Names, A Christian Theology of Religions, An Interpretation of Religion). One of Hick's latest works, The Fifth Dimension (1999), while less academic than the others may prove to be just as significant.

Part one provides the big picture for Hick's thesis. Hick argues that scientific and humanistic interpretations of life are limited. Due to physical, social, and emotional suffering "the human situation is irredeemably bleak and painful for vast numbers of people" (p. 25). Consequently, the human potential will never be achieved during our lifetime. In response to this predicament, Hick contends that we need to be aware of the spiritual realm, "the fifth dimension" (the other four being three dimensions of space and one dimension of time). Hick's epistemological framework has three levels of interpretation (physical, moral, and religious). Each level increases the voluntary nature of interpretation and allows for a greater cognitive freedom than the previous level in interpreting reality. Thus, there exists an 'epistemic distance' between reality and the human interpretation of this reality. Hick maintains that perception is the key to interpreting this reality while also noting that the cognitive freedom in religious awareness is the most complex. Finally, borrowing from Kant's distinction between the noumena and phenomena, Hick highlights "the critical realist principle-that there are realities external to us, but that we are never aware of them as they are in themselves, but always as they appear to us with our particular cognitive machinery and conceptual resources" (p. 41).

What is the meaning of life? In part two, Hick addresses this issue and surveys the cosmic optimism found in Eastern and Western religions. Hindu optimism includes the desire to "identity with the infinite being-consciousness-bliss of Brahman, or loving communion with the infinite Person" (p. 57) while Buddhism leads to "a transcendence both from egoity and to...enlightenment, liberation, awakening, nirvana, sunyata" (p. 62). Moving to the West, Jewish hope "consists in a special covenant relationship between the people and their God, and a faith in the people's future welfare and ultimate fulfilment with the divine kingdom" (p. 64). Christianity highlights "the dominant theme [of] ... the gracious love of God" (p. 69) and Islam provides hope, "in the sense that all- and not only Muslims- can freely live so as to enter paradise" (p. 73). To summarize, cosmic optimism offers us grace and hope in the context of liberation/salvation through identity/communion with the Ultimate Reality/God.

The third section summarizes Hick's theory of religious pluralism. Building on the critical realist principle, the pluralist hypothesis refers "to the idea that the great world religions are different human responses to the same ultimate transcendent reality" (p. 77). Hick illustrates this idea by appealing to Psuedo-Dionysius (the Real experienced as God) and Hinduism and Buddhism (the Real experienced as the Absolute). According to Hick, Psuedo-Dionysius' "affirmation of the transcategorical nature of ultimate reality, of the metaphorical character of human language about that reality, and of the practical function of that language in promoting spiritual the basic elements of modern religious pluralism" (p. 88). Concerning Hinduism and Buddhism, the former support religious pluralism through its nirguna ("Brahman without attributes") and saguna ("that same reality as humanly thought and experienced") distinction (p. 90) and the latter by Dharmakaya/Buddha figures and Shinran's teaching of "dharmakaya-as-suchness and dharmakaya-as-compasion" (p. 95).

Religious experience and mysticism (part four) raises many important issues. First, Hick details how different influences (drugs, one's state of mind, physical setting) can promote altered states of consciousness. Next, he contends that all religious experiences are mediated through one's theological framework. Third, Hick's case study of Julian of Norwich reveals a mystical experience that includes the idea of divine fatherhood and motherhood as well as universalism. Fourth, he addresses the epistemological problem of unitive mysticism: Do human beings literally or metaphorically become united to God/Ultimate Reality? After surveying Hindu advaita Vedanta, Neoplatonism, Pseudo-Dionysius, Jewish Kabbalah, and Sufis of Islam, Hick concludes: "The mystics do not intend a literal numerical unity without distinction, but a self-naughting, a transcending of the ego point of view...Such a unity, beyond separate individuality, may the ultimate state after individuality has finally achieved its perfection in total self-transcendence. But that state does not occur in the present life" (p. 154). In addition, Hick introduces a criterion to "distinguish between veridical and delusory religious experiences" (p. 163). According to Hick, "The central criterion can only be the long-term transformative effect on the experiencer...leading to a stronger centring in God, the Holy, the Real, and a great love and compassion for their fellows" (p. 163). Finally, Hick argues that the "principle of rational credulity," (sense experiences are prima facie trustworthy) should also be extended to religious experience (p. 168).

Part five concerns the saints of other religions and highlights the life of Gandhi as well as sharing insights from Kushdeva Singh (activist saint) and Nyanaponika Mahathera (contemplative saint). Hick's basic premise is that our notion of holiness should expand William James' four traits of experiencing the ultimate reality ("existence of an Ideal Power," "self-surrender to its control," "immense elation and freedom," "a shifting of the emotional center...where the claims of the non-ego are concerned") by introducing and emphasizing the profile of political saints in their quest for achieving dignity, freedom, and human rights for the socially marginized (p. 175). Hick observes that Gandhi's wisdom arises from three beliefs: (1) human beings are identical with the universal atman (soul), (2) all of us possess a divine element, and (3) ahimsa (non-violence) should be practiced against injustice. Moreover, these fundamental ideas produced major ramifications as well: "Gandhi's thinking was ahead of his own time and alive in our time: non-violence in dealing with opponents; non-confrontational politics; ecology and what has been called 'Buddhist economics'; feminism; and the relation between religions" (p. 204).

The last part of Hick's work deals with Buddha's "unanswerable questions", truth claims and myth, and the afterlife. The Buddha's "unanswerable questions" were metaphysical questions dealing with the nature of the universe (eternal/not eternal; infinite/finite), the soul (same/different than the body), and the Tathagatha (the essence of the Buddha) following death (exist/not exist). They are "unanswerable" because answers to these questions are based on pure speculation and according to the Buddha, will not lead one to enlightenment. Following the Buddha's "unanswered questions", Hick suggests that "conflicting truth claims" are similar in nature and consequently there needs to be "a downgrading of religious dogmas to a less than absolute status" (p. 225). In addition, Hick maintains that it is possible to live faithfully in light of a true myth story. For instance, Hick contends that the Christian Christmas story (Jesus is divine and born of the virgin Mary) is not literally true, but it "nevertheless expresses and tends to evoke an appropriate attitude towards the subject of the myth" (p. 229). Finally, Hick is open to "the idea of multiple embodied lives" because "the human potential is destined to be fulfilled and that this present life is therefore an episode within a much longer process" (p. 245, 254).

Without a doubt, The Fifth Dimension has attractive features. First, in a succinct and readable manner, Hick treats a wide range of topics including the meaning of life, religious pluralism, religious experience, the lives of Julian of Norwich and Gandhi, truth claims and myth, and the afterlife. Hick's breadth of knowledge is staggering. Second, Hick accomplishes what he sets out to do. In brief, he demonstrates that skeptics should (re)consider the fifth dimension because of the cosmic optimism and transformed lives found in the world religions. Third, Hick destroys the stereotype that sees religion primarily as a set of beliefs. Religion also concerns itself with deepening an awareness and unity with God/Ultimate Reality and encompasses social and political issues as well.

Despite these strengths, I have some strong reservations. First, Hick gives preference to Hindu and Buddhist themes in depicting the Ultimate Reality. (While it is consistent for any religious follower to support their own religious tradition, Hick's support of Hinduism and Buddhism is inconsistent because his theory of religious pluralism suggests that no one religion should be privileged over another.) For instance, he observes the similarities between the mystical religious experiences of Julian of Norwich and Hinduism: "Again, she speaks of 'our true Mother Jesus' and 'our heavenly Mother.' To think of the divine in female as much as male terms has long been familiar within Hinduism, where female and male deities equally manifest the infinite reality of Brahman" (p. 126). Concerning Julian's parable of the Lord, Hick notes: "There is a further analogy to the spiritual blindness of the servant in the ditch, and to the cloud of unknowing between ourselves and God, in the Hindu concept of maya, the illusoriness of ordinary self-centred existence" (p. 132). Whereas the Judaism, Christianity, and Islam debate conflicting religious truth claims, Hick's appeal to the "unanswered questions" and "skilful means" of Buddhism circumvents their importance. Hick explains: "What we need to know is how to live here and now. And it is noticeable that whereas the metaphysical questions about which we can only speculate divide religions, their basic moral principles unite them" (p. 227). Hick's grappling with these metaphysical "unanswered questions" is unskilful and reflects a Kantian view of religion that sought to establish a true religion based on reason and moral transformation.

Furthermore, Hick's discussion of the afterlife-a reincarnation of "multiple embodied lives" has much in common with the religions of the East rather than their Western counterparts of resurrection and judgment. Hick's inconsistency is readily apparent: one the one hand, he seems supportive of the Buddha's notion of "unanswered question" when dealing with conflicting religious truth claims, but on the other hand, he does not hesitate to offer his own speculations concerning the nature of reality and afterlife.

Second, Hick's criterion for authentic religious experiences (decentring of self and love/compassion for others) is questionable. Similarities to altered states of consciousness (stimulated by drugs, a person's religious mind-set, and/or physical setting) indicate that some religious experiences could be unconsciously fabricated. Furthermore, this criterion leads to the notion of an anonymous saint, a secular good humanitarian and therefore runs the risk of undermining Hick's position. In the context of producing "moral fruit" if there is no difference between a religious follower and a secular good humanitarian, then Hick's criterion for recognizing authentic religious experiences is rendered ineffective. Consequently, this person, who naturally performs acts of mercy and charity, would be unlikely to seek the fifth dimension.

Also, in the afterlife it seems possible that a particular religious worldview will be eschatologically verified as being correct. For instance, if the afterlife conforms more to the description found in Christianity (divine judgment by Christ followed by an eternal state/condition similar to hell and heaven), then the Christian tradition would negate other religious views and experiences thereby demonstrating that other non-Christian religious experiences were mistaken (in so far as representing the ultimate truth of reality).

Third, Hick's interpretation of truth claims and myths is problematic. While it is true that "conflicting truth claims" of different religions are similar to the Buddha's "unanswerable questions," it does not follow that we should abandon our quest for discovering the most plausible solution. Hick, however, seems to confuse certainty with sufficiency. We should use everything at our disposal to crack open the mysteries of the universe. For instance, scientists are working around the clock in attempting to understand the origin of the universe. The answer to this question is significant: If the universe had a beginning, then it was caused, and if it was caused then does this not suggest that it (the cause of the universe) is outside of our time and space?

Having shared my critical remarks, I still recommend Hick's The Fifth Dimension, for two reasons. First, it serves as a basic introduction to the thought of John Hick. Two other works, Christopher Sinkinson's The Universe of Faiths and David Cheetham's John Hick, are also good places to begin. Second, Hick's theory of religious pluralism is arguably the most popular form of religious pluralism and his philosophy and theology has challenged traditional interpretations of the Christian faith. In brief, Christians would thus be better equipped individually and collectively if they became acquainted with Hick's ideas in light of the twin tasks of proclaiming Christ and teaching biblical theology in the midst of a pluralistic world.

Ken Alan Jung
Graduate Student
The University of Bristol