In 1977 I was an assistant pastor in Duluth Minnesota. A theological controversy arose that year when John Hick published a book of articles entitled The Myth of God Incarnate. This book introduced me to some British scholars in theology, philosophy, and Biblical studies. How else would I have known about Dennis Nineham, Michael Goulder, Maurice Wiles, and of course – Don Cupitt.
When the book came out I was asked to write a review of it for the presbytery newsletter. I was positive about the book and it ran along side a review of The Truth of God Incarnate, which came out quickly in response to the Hick volume. I noted then that “A book with a title such as this invites a quick, negative reaction....”
Odd that this book wasn’t radical by today’s measurements. I wrote then "The writers hope to help bring the verbal expression of the Christian faith into the 20th century. A 'myth,' says Maurice Wiles, is a 'poetic way of expressing the significance of Jesus for us.' Frances Young finds the many varieties of belief today and in our tradition to be a 'cloud of witnesses' to the truth of God which is beyon our words. Michael Goulder sees 'the growth of a community of self-giveing love (the church) as the basic thrust of the will of God in human history.' He explores the origin of the idea and language of the incarnation: how the original idea of a 'man approved by God' (Acts 2:22) was replaced by the idea of God-become-man. The language is found to be taken from the Roman emperor worship, an idea quite appropriate for the ancient and medieval world.
"Leslie Houlden notes that the original and more significant lanuage of experience ('I am justified by faith!') was overcome by the language of the creed. Don Cupitt speaks of the 'paganization of Christianity,' whereby devotion shifted from God to a man, a heresy no less than to speak of Mary as 'Mother of God.' Wiles gives a detailed analysis of the word 'myth' and its usage, and says 'What holds Christians together is not the same beliefs but the use of the same myths.' The editor speaks of myt as 'byperbole of the heart.'
"All contributors look for new ways to speak of the mystery of the incarnation; of the human ity of God and the divinity of all that is human. This task I affirm will rid the church of much confusion." Guess I haven't changed much.
Hick was mostly concerned with world religions. The authors were concerned that readers might think them too negative or destructive. Each proclaimed his faith, even Don Cupitt. That makes the book an interesting historical document showing a moment of time in the development of these philosophers and theologians. They were concerned then, as I have been for years, that we needed an upgrade of religious (and spiritual) language.
Hick was a Presbyterian in Britain, and when came to Claremont, he sought membership in San Gabriel Presbytery. He was advised to withdraw lest there be a huge floor fight. I remember that this non-event made the news as a threat to any progressive thinking in our Presbyterian family. Have I mentioned that by elevating education and learning, Calvin and the others who started the Presbyterian project, planted the seeds of its destruction?
The best obituary is, as we might expect, by John Dart.