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John Hick’s Account of Faith in Freedom

Hick’s account of faith as interpretation (in Faith and Knowledge, 1966) necessarily leads us to a discussion on faith as a voluntary act of interpretation. Because interpretation is limited (unevidenceable-indemonstrable), there must be a “margin of freedom” that lets the subject interpret the object in an uncompelled way. No interpretation, inasmuch as it is finite and open to error, has a dogmatic say about the world. Thus, the world is open to various interpretations, and it is this openness to various choices that characterize what Hick calls “cognitive freedom.” The theistic interpretation is just but one among the various interpretations subsidiary to man’s cognitive freedom.

                Epistemic Distance

In the epistemic structure of cognition, the subject is essentially divided from the object. Spatio-temporally, this assertion is evident. The possibility of the subject having an “absolute knowledge” of the object is totally closed off. No amount of human effort could erase this innate dichotomy. But although the subject and the object are essentially divided, they are also essentially related. The subject always thinks of an object and the object is always open for the subject. Thus, the subject is essentially related but is also essentially divided from the object.

The immediate implication of this epistemic distance is the subject’s freedom on how to cognize the object. We must take note however that the freedom implied in here is not absolute. The freedom of cognition must at all times operate within the perimeters of rationality and not simply from one’s caprice. This idea of “cognitive freedom” is a necessary correlate of the primordial distance between the subject and the object in the process of knowing (epistemic distance). For Hick, cognitive freedom and epistemic distance are synonymous concepts.        

Religious Interpretations Presuppose a Margin of Freedom

One of the main points consistently advanced by Hick in his project is the universality of “cognitive freedom” in man’s epistemic proceedings. This insinuates that “cognitive freedom” is not only unique to belief but is also possessed by the other kinds of interpretation.

By “cognitive freedom” or “epistemic distance” Hick means that a subject’s recognition of something significant in a certain situation is not compelled by the force of perception, but is a voluntary act of interpretation. Applying this to the theistic situation, the believer’s recognition of God in his everyday life experiences is not compelled by the force of perception, but is likewise a voluntary act of interpretation. Remember that the believer’s awareness of the divine is “mediated” by his everyday experience of the world. Meaning to say that on the process of interpreting what the cosmos is (recognition) and why it is like that (explanation), the believer does not directly perceive a God who orders the universe but rationalizes out of what he sees – what he “directly sees” mediates what he “truly sees”. It is in contemplating what one “truly sees” from what he “directly sees” that the margin of freedom enters. No one can give an ultimate truth of what he sees or interprets.

The process of religious interpretation is fairly similar to the inductive way of reasoning; it is extrapolating from a common set of data a cogent conclusion which will serve as a guideline for understanding the entire set as well as its individual elements. Religious interpretation is seeing the world as the orderly product of an all-powerful being. It is extrapolating from the common set of everyday worldly data the cogent conclusion that there must be a God who continuously sustains the order of the cosmos. From this context we can have a coherent view of the world as well as its individual elements. Ultimately, like any product of inductive reasoning, the religious standpoint is not absolute; it merely offers a “probable” view of the world. “Choosing” this “probable” stand is rooted in man’s cognitive freedom.  

                   Gradations in Cognitive Freedom

All awareness is interpretative and all interpretation presupposes a margin of freedom. For Hick, the higher the cognitive activity, the greater the freedom of interpretation. In the sensory level, for instance, if a drawn figure comes in contact with our eyes, we will interpret it according to what is perceived by the eyes. The sensory data acquired by the faculty of sight give a “controlled” interpretation of the specific figure. Controlled because there is a constant cognitive exigency on the level of sensation. Freedom of interpretation is limited in this lower level of cognition. But when for example I propose that “the drawn figure is beautiful,” my judgment is clearly uncompelled. Aesthetic judgment after all is a higher level of cognition. “Divorce is immoral” is similarly an interpretation which is freely concocted. It is neither universal nor necessary; like the aesthetic interpretation, it is markedly a free interpretation.

I am free to look at something in this way or that way, but I am also free “not” to look at them in this way or that way. This freedom to willfully refuse that which dawns as significant is also an offshoot of this cognitive freedom. Hick labels this as “willful incognition.” This usually happens in moral situations. Beggars, for example, pose a situation that morally obliges us to help, but more often than not we usually exclude from our mind this unwelcome obligation which dawns in us. Perverse as it may be the possibility of willful moral incognition underscores our cognitive freedom, the distance between occurrence and interpretation.

                Symbols as a Necessary Correlate of Epistemic Distance or Cognitive Freedom   

If there is a subject-object relationship, there is also the subject-subject relationship. Man’s being is not only a being-alongside-entities but also a being-with-other-men. For Hick, there is also an epistemic distance or cognitive freedom in the latter. Although man can have a cognitive and empathetic encounter with the significant other, the encounter still underscores human autonomy and incommunicability. This could further be highlighted by the concept of “Man as a symbolic animal.”

Characteristically symbols have a revealing and concealing principle. Being so, symbols are the cognitive safeguard of human autonomy and incommunicability. Although men can open his self through symbols, he simultaneously distances his self from others. Man’s subjectivity is intersubjectivity, but in intersubjectivity he maintains his identity. Thus by means of language, which is composed of variegated symbols, man is able to reveal at the same time conceal himself. Communication uses symbols with shared meanings through which men are able to commune with one another. The smile for example can be the shared symbol of friendship. However, it can also conceal spite but be pathetically interpreted in goodwill. The recognition of cognitive freedom has then led us to appreciating the crucial role of symbol. It is man as symbolic and symbolizing who can truly enjoy the attributes philosophy has traditionally ascribed him: freedom, autonomy, individuality and incommunicability. Symbol then is a necessary correlate of epistemic distance or cognitive freedom.

                Theistic Interpretation is an Act of Surrender

When the religious man believes, he situates his world, his concerns, even himself within the greater situation of God’s purposes and designs. Every theistic interpretation of reality is concomitantly an act of abdication on the part of man who must yield a position of centrality in the sphere of things to God. In the history of human thinking however, some did not surrender their centrality in the scheme of things. Feuerbach, Marx, and Sartre for example were men who did not accept their subordination to a still more comprehensive scheme of things. For them, non-subordination to a higher reality is the ultimate manifestation of freedom.

But for Hick, the act of surrendering in theistic interpretations is itself a free act. The act of faith is a free human act, for God never compels belief. He communicates himself in symbols. On man’s part this is what we called “mediated awareness,” i.e., in and through the awareness of his physical and human environments, man becomes aware of the presence of God. But a symbol is a proposal. God proposes; man disposes! In a very real sense, even God is helpless before man. Intelligence and freedom were the Creator’s risks.

                Natural Tendencies of Interpretation

More than solipsism and atheism, man has the innate tendency to interpret “realistically” and “theistically.” Solipsists are a rare breed and believing in their arguments is itself debunking them. It is however safe to say that most of us have no doubts about each other’s veridical existence, for if we do there is no reason for reading this paper. Almost all of us, too, recognize moral obligations, although we may not always agree on what these exactly are. There is therefore also a natural propensity to interpret social experiences as ethically significant. Man, finally, is homo religiosus because we find in him a propensity for interpreting the physical as well as the social environment as divinely significant. Religion, after all, is quite a universal occurrence, and atheism has always been the exception to the rule. However just as a person can be willfully insensitive to ethical demands, one can also be oblivious to the possibility of religious interpretation, or suppress it.  

                Faith in Freedom

Using John Wisdom’s allegory of the “invisible” gardener, we could vivify how faith is a product of freedom. The allegory is well-known and does not need of repeating. The point seems to be that theistic language is a different language-game and is used not to convey new information – “all the facts are in” – but alters our apprehension of things. It sets an object or a situation in new light which reveals it as a different object or situation. In summary, a theist (one who insists that an invisible gardener is at work) feels about the world differently from one who does not recognize God.

Faith is manifested in the subject’s free act of interpreting the world theistically. If faith is such, could we say that religious interpretations are merely expressions of a religious man’s subjective disposition? Yes, religious interpretations are expressions of a subject’s disposition but so are other interpretations. Moreover, they are not merely expressions of a subject’s disposition but they are assertions of an ontological fact. It is an assertion about one’s experience of the physical and human environments. Needless to say, what the theist talks about (everyday experience) is the same as that of the atheist’s only that their interpretations differ.

The key idea of the allegory is not that God really exists but that a theistic interpretation is not merely an expression of subjective disposition but the assertion of an ontological fact, an experience, Hick would say, mediated by one’s experience of the physical and human environments.


For Hick, if faith is an interpretative act, it must necessarily be a voluntary act. In the context of John Wisdom’s parable, Faith is “choosing” the believer’s standpoint that there is an “invisible gardener.” There is an act of “choosing” because of epistemic distance or cognitive freedom. There will eternally be a gap between the knower and the known so that variegated interpretations about the object are continually generated. In faith, the believer “chooses” to interpret the world as the product of a Divine Being (invisible gardener). It is at the same time “choosing” to surrender to that higher Being.

 Although the act of faith is an expression of one’s subjective disposition, it is also an objective interpretation, for that which the believer and non-believer interpret is the same. How then can an atheist acquire the stance of the believer if both the theistic and atheistic stances are equally tenable? Well the obvious answer is through the free act of faith, or as Kierkegaard puts it, the subject’s “leap of faith.” Unless the atheist is not open to the theistic stance then he or she will never appreciate and acknowledge the other’s rationality.   

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This entry was posted on January 5, 2008 by in Philosophy of Religion and tagged , , , .




Tuguegarao City, Cagayan Atty. MICHAEL JHON M. TAMAYAO manages this blog. He is currently starting his private law practice. Contact:; Tel. No. 09353343739. PROFILE: Atty. Tamayao is currently teaching law, philosophy and social sciences at the Cagayan State University. He finished his Bachelor of Arts in Philosophy degree at the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Santo Tomas and graduated in 2005, garnering the highest academic honors in that Academic Year. He pursued Licentiate in Philosophy and Master of Arts in Philosophy degrees at the same university, completing them both in 2007. In 2009, he took up Bachelor of Laws and Letter at the Cagayan State University, where he also teaches. He passed the 2013 bar exams, and now currently taking up Master of Laws and Letters at the San Beda Graduate School of Law.

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