Reality as Freedom from Self-Centeredness

In An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent,[1] John Hick contends that transcendence, which he refers to as “salvation/liberation,” is “the transformation of human existence from self-centeredness to Reality-centeredness” (Hick, 51). Hick describes this transformation, which he considers to be a fundamental theme within each of the major world religions, as “the sudden or gradual change of the individual from an absorbing self-concern to a new centring in the supposed unity-of-reality-and-value that is thought of as God, Brahman, the Dharma, Sunyata or the Tao” (Hick, 36). To Hick, each of the world religions presents this “absorbing self-concern” as a natural yet undesirable human tendency that must be overcome. Self-centeredness is, among other things, thought to be at the source of human anxiety, and the world religions in one way or another endeavor to assist individuals in freeing themselves from this harmful self-centeredness. For the unenlightened and self-centered individual, reality consists of an endless sequence of perceived threats to his/her being, whereas for the adherent of a world religion it is rather the state of freedom from self-centeredness that is truly real. Hence, religious experience can be understood as a response to this idea of a “transcendent” reality.

In his elucidation of the world religions’ common motioning towards a transcendent reality, and by his very use of the term “reality” to describe the object of religious transcendence, Hick, as if to recall Eliade’s ambiguous association of religious meaning with “the real and the significant,” specifically intends to raise the possibility often rejected implicitly or explicitly by modern social science that religious experience might be grounded in something ultimately real. Hick admits the impossibility of refuting the naturalistic interpretation of religion, but also insists on “the equal impossibility of refuting the interpretation of religion as our varied human response to a transcendent reality or realities – the gods, or God, or Brahman, or the Dharmakaya, or the Tao, and so on” (Hick, 1). To Hick, our modern scientific mindset all too easily causes us to dismiss without hesitation the supernatural as a legitimate possibility within our analysis of any religious phenomena, but the “pervasive ambiguity of the universe” (Hick, 1) is such that there is no real, scientific basis to support a definite conclusion either way.

Furthermore, to Hick the standard opposition between naturalistic and religious interpretations of religious phenomena is an over-simplification of the matter: “the alternatives are not that the intentional object of religious worship or contemplation is either entirely illusory or else exactly as described in this or that sacred text” (Hick, 8). While it is clear that human factors have affected the formation or religious concepts throughout history, it does not follow that all religious concepts are purely human fabrications. Indeed, Hick proposes that a modern understanding of the transcendent “must show reason to believe that this vast and multifarious field of human faith is nevertheless not wholly projection and illusion – even though there is much projection and illusion within it – but constitutes our variously transparent and opaque interface with a mysterious transcendent reality” (Hick, 9).

Given this “variously transparent and opaque interface” with the transcendent, in the final analysis it is difficult to conclude on the validity of Hick’s overall thesis with any degree of certainty. For the naturalists, the shear variety of religious beliefs in the world, each with their respective and mutually exclusive claims to the truth, suggests that in fact none of them are ultimately true. Hick successfully demonstrates that this naturalist position vis-à-vis the transcendent is based more on viewpoint than objective proof. To Hick, it is no less rational or scientific to begin one’s analysis with the presupposition that the object of religious thought and experience is real and to proceed from there.  Hick’s understanding of ultimate reality as the transcendence of the ordinary human ego by way of salvation in the case of the Semitic traditions, and by way of liberation in the case of the eastern traditions, is in any case a welcome counterweight to the reductionist accounts, which in their own way pose an equal challenge to human credulity. 

[1] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion : Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven : Yale U.P., 1989).


3 thoughts on “Reality as Freedom from Self-Centeredness”

  1. There aren’t multiple conventional religions, there is God, and one and only God. With ONE bible and purpose. Realize it.

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