John Hick (1922 – 2012) was a world-renowned authority and an advocate of religious pluralism. He is often described as the most significant philosopher of religion in the 20th century. He has taught at Cambridge, Birmingham, Princeton, Cornell, and Claremont Graduate School, and is the author of more than twenty-five books.
His article “The Religious Meaning of Life” (2000) claims that religious meaning concerns itself with the question of the nature of the universe and our part in it, as well as whether the universe is ultimately hostile, benign, or indifferent to our concerns. His hypothesis is that the great world religions are characterized by cosmic optimism. “That is to say, the meaning of life is such that we can have an ultimate trust and confidence, even in life’s darkest moments of suffering and sorrow.”[i]
This cosmic optimism means that our current state can be replaced by a better one and in the limitless good of nirvana, for example, meaning is found. Similar claims can be made for other great religions. The Christian gospels present the good news (the notion of eternal punishment undermines cosmic optimism but is not a biblical doctrine according to Hick), Judaism’s optimism derives from the special relationship between God and his people, Islam affirms that the universe is benign and our lives will be fulfilled in paradise, and Hinduism teaches that we move toward liberation. Cosmic optimism provides the means by which various religions answer the question of life’s meaning. Hick concludes:
the meaning for us of our human life depends upon what we believe to be the nature of the universe in which we find ourselves. The great world religions teach that the process of the universe is good from our human point of view because its ultimate principle…or its governor…is benign…This is basically a very simple and indeed…obvious suggestion—though not necessarily any the worse for that.[ii]
Summary – The world’s religions advocate a cosmic optimism which is characterized by the belief that the universe is benign and thusly meaningful.
[i] John Hick, “The Religious Meaning of Life,” in The Meaning of Life in the World Religions, eds. Joseph Runzo and Nancy M. Martin, (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000), 275.
[ii] John Hick, “The Religious Meaning of Life,” 285-86.