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Annual Conference 2019

Theology in the public square - Monday 15th to Wednesday 17th July 2019 at High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, Herts.

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Seeing everything differently - Honest To God

Richard Truss' talk at the Honest to God day conference on 21st September 2013.

How time flies! What then was ‘avant garde’ is now 50 years old, though John Robinson himself said that his ideas would take some hundred years to be assimilated.

I had completely forgotten that the Lady Chatterley trial was some two years before the publication and that Robinson was already famous or notorious. The prosecution’s plea at the trial “Was it the kind of book you would want your wife or your servants to read?” was echoed by Geoffrey Fisher’s attack on Honest to God, the crux of which was that it had upset the simple faith of the average churchgoer. Well I remember at the time. My reaction was “bully for Robinson!” That sort of faith needs upsetting.

Of course it was part and parcel of the 60’s, an age when everything opened up – sex, drugs, pop music etc. It has now become fashionable to debunk the sixties as a decade when everything went wrong. When elderly spinsters ceased cycling to church through the morning mist for 8am Holy Communion.

What did it do for me?  As a Christian from the evangelical fold, for me faith seemed to be  first and foremost the conversion experience., secondly about a relationship with  Jesus, whatever that meant, and thirdly, a belief in some strange transaction between Jesus and God, compounded by an extraordinary sado-masochistic  interest in the precise details of death by crucifixion. All was based in a very literal view of selected biblical passages. Sermons invariably had three points, repeated with slight variation every Sunday.  All of which induced a lot of guilt.  However, having said that I still owe my foundation sense that in the end  all faith must be experiential to that evangelical beginning.

Honest to God was first and foremost about honesty , about being true to oneself, over against a lot of pretence in my faith.  What did I actually believe? What is my faith? This is not identical , of course, to what is my certainty? I left the Christian Union and joined the SCM where faith was more about questions than answers. That makes it very unsatisfactory for some, but for me faith must do justice both to our experience and to whatever we mean by God; it is always beyond, always elusive, always open. It was and is still a battle of incompatibilities between those who have a tidy, clear cut faith, which conservative evangelicals have. They can even show the process of salvation in a simple diagram, and those who realize that we only see at best through a glass darkly.

So, secondly, Honest  to God asked us to see everything differently. Of course he got into trouble for this. It was not really radical. “We don’t really believe in a three-tiered universe”. “You are only swapping one image for another – depth for height”.” But the critics were naïve. Even then I could see that it made a profound difference. For as a start I had been going to Roy Lee’s lectures in Oxford on Freud. I had also, to confuse matters, read a bit of Jung. They were both about depth. Of course that depth was metaphorical, but at the same time it made sense of what was going on inside me and most people of that time. We were psyches to be explored, we had hidden depths to be uncovered, true selves to be unearthed. God as ground of being fitted so well, and still does for me. God of course is beyond space-time as well, but that is not something we can relate to in any personal way. In any case I don’t think John Robinson’s often snide critics, like Eric Mascall, were thinking of the God of the physicists when they suggested that there was nothing wrong with traditional imagery. Quantum physics and the big bang meant nothing to them.

Thirdly, Honest  to God  unveiled the thinking of the great theologians of the twentieth century, for people who had hardly heard of them let alone read them. I had read The Cost of Discipleship but that was it. Bonhoeffer, Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Tillich soon became bestsellers. Now again, Robinson was hauled over the coals for misunderstanding them or quoting out of context. However I don’t think that was so. For him Tillich was central, and Tillich’s platonic understanding tuned in with Robinson’s own.

Of course the one who isn’t mentioned but has dominated English theology ever since is Karl Barth. Barth allows that essentially conservative profession of theology to hold onto traditional understandings without the naivitie of fundamentalism. For Barth, theology was immunised from cultural, historical or any kind of criticism, simply by saying that theology was about God’s self-revelation. Naturally we could know nothing of God and God could only be known through God’s self-revelation in Jesus. Though the later Barth tempered this, it seems to me it has had a pernicious effect on theology as part of public debate. You cannot really argue with someone who says that it is all a matter of revelation and if God has revealed it,  it must be true.

Fourthly, it put debate central. It led to all-night discussions and I think it still could. Again, having been reared in a particular brand of Christianity, this was new to me. My Confirmation class had been delivered to us from the pulpit, and every book recommended was a dogmatic one in the narrowest sense. You fitted the faith or at least struggled to, rather than the faith fitting you. I think that was true of most traditions in the church, though the emphases would be different. But there is no point in having a faith you cannot believe. Here Dawkins ‘et al’ have a very important point, and the attempt to shore up the untenable, makes for a very brittle outlook which in turn lashes out.  I believe we owe a lot of our pub theology, of good debate and dialogue today to the impact of Honest to God.

Next, it unveiled the idea of the new morality , in a way a return to Augustine’s “love and do what you like”, though I think Augustine’s idea of doing what you like differed somewhat from that of many in the 1960’s. As I have said, Robinson added to his fame or notoriety by appearing at the Lady Chatterley trial in defence of publication. He compared sexual intercourse to holy communion. Of course, you can see why it shocked. It seemed to knock traditional belief and now also traditional morality. It is a debate which of course continues, but if you look at the more liberal utterances of the church subsequent to Honest to God, for instance that on divorce with its pragmatic approach, that if there is an irretrievable breakdown, i.e. if love is no more, then the marriage has in effect ceased to exist; in this we see the general influence of Honest to God and situation ethics.

In a fortnight’s time, there is another conference on Honest to God, this time on matters which have come to the fore since but are at least implicit in Robinson’s work. I have no idea what the speakers are going to say, but here are my brief comments on the matters to be covered:-

a) Contemplative prayer and meditation:

To see God as ground of being revolutionises prayer. It moves us from seeing  God as akin to a celestial CIA, watching over our every move, to knowing  God as the one in whom we live, move and have our being.   Intercession is seen as being with, alongside, the one prayed for. Behind Honest to God is his thesis on Buber – on I-Thou as opposed to I-it. God can only be known in relationship and this explains why so often we have problems in knowing where we end and God begins. But that is how it is.

b) Gender:

Since the 1960’s this has consumed, and continues to consume the church. In fact the General Synod seems to have sex on the brain. The first impression for anyone reading  Honest to God today, and that which dates it, is the resolute use of the masculine pronoun, for God and believer. Of course it was inclusive, but no longer. Robinson’s theology was for all people, the priesthood of all believers. There was nothing sexist about what he was saying and it was also democratic. Nor was it was not church-dependent, but sprung from the inner experience of the individual.

c) Multi-faith universe:

Robinson wrote after Honest to God, in Truth is Two-Eyed, “It is certain that any theological revolution that will match our hour cannot be a purely Western product … Christians can no longer indulge in domestic discussion as though the other world-religions scarcely existed … I welcome, rather than fear, the sympathy with which much that I said in Honest to God has been received by many within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.”  Central to this for the Christian is the place of Jesus, and his uniqueness.  For me the traditional understanding of Christianity’s monopoly of religious truth and as a vehicle of salvation hit the rock of the world map of religion, whereby you see that you are twenty times more likely to be  a Christian if you are born in Europe  than in India, and fifty times more likely than if you are born in China. There are two common answers to this. On the evangelical side, it is countered by pronouncing that so-called Christian nations only contain a small minority of real (i.e. born again) Christians, whereas on the catholic side, someone like Karl Rahner, has suggested that Muslims, Hindus etc. can be Christians without knowing it. But there is an imperialistic arrogance about this. How much nearer the truth is Jonathan Sacks’ verdict that God has spoken to humankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, and Islam to Muslims.   But Robinson would go further than this, saying that whilst this may be so, these are not uncrossable frontiers, and that we should learn other languages to understand our own better. In that way we can find more of Christ in understanding Hinduism or Buddhism. In Honest to God the nub is the chapter ‘The Man for Others’. To say Jesus is God in such a way that the two are interchangeable is not there in the Bible. The New Testament says Jesus was the Word of God, it says God was in Christ, it says Jesus is the Son of God; but it does not say that Jesus was God, simply like that. In Jesus we see what God is like, but that can never be an exclusive claim, just the touchstone for the Christian. To me that was a liberating discovery and remains so. I find Jesuolatry very difficult. It seems to me that it is our main hindrance in dialogue, but to see and proclaim Jesus as the one in whom we see God, keeps open the door to those who would also see God in the Koran, or in the Buddha or in Krishna. A vicar’s wife wrote to Robinson after reading Honest to God, “There are many causes for this indebtedness to your book, the greatest being your reconciliation of the divine and human in Christ. The orthodox teaching has always maddened me; so many other humans have sacrificed themselves for us, endured more sustained and prolonged torture, without the comfort of being the ‘favourite son’. If, however, as I have understood from your book, Christ’s divinity lies in his struggle, as a mortal, and his success in emptying himself of self, so that God might shine through, this truly is of God. Any of us knows the impossibility of the struggle; what you have helped me to remove is my constant annoyance that Christ always had an unfair advantage.

d) Ecology:

There is nothing overtly in Honest to God about what must be the greatest challenge of our time, but it is implicit in Robinson’s continual insistence that we take the world seriously. Liturgy is also social action and working with God in the world is what it’s all about. The Church exists for the world. The holy is to be found in the common.

A lot of the flak came Robinson’s way because he was a bishop and seen to be upsetting the faithful, but what a one-sided view of episcopacy! The shepherd may sleep across the door of the fold, but he also leads the flock.  Ever the explorer, Robinson wrote,  “All my deepest concerns find their centre in a single, continuing quest. This is to give expression, embodiment, to the overmastering , yet elusive, conviction of the ‘Thou’ at the heart of everything. It is a quest for the form of the personal as the ultimate reality in life, as the deepest truth about all one’s relationships and commitments” (Exploration into God).

I have spent all my ordained life in a parish, had to do my theology on the hoof or the coal face. I think that’s where it really belongs and here Honest to God and Robinson’s work in general says so much. He started with the world, with action, with Dag Hammarskjold’s dictum “The road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action” and with what he called the human face of God. Though he spent much of his time in an ivory tower, his thought depended on his down-to-earth experience in Bristol and Southwark.

I remember a friend of mine, who had then reached or perhaps passed the age I have reached now, said ‘The older I get, the more I believe about less and less’. In other words faith gets simplified but it acquires depth which may move beyond words. I was reminded of this when I read one of the last things John Robinson wrote when he was dying from pancreatic cancer:

For me the ultimate context in which life is lived is that of an I –Thou relationship with the eternal Thou. That relationship is the umbilical cord of all that one is and all that one does. It seems to me that Jesus lived in the Abba, Father relationship, and that is the ground and basis of all one’s being and of all the other relationships that one enters into. Each of these others is a way through which this other relationship comes, both in grace and demand. One tries – inadequately – to respond to it, but if one is pressed back, then it seems to me that this is the final reality of life, in which and for which one is made. It is not something that begins and ends with what we call time, but it is the framework in which all things of space and time belong and are created and have their being. It is defined in Christ in terms of the love of God and fellowship and grace. It is the centre of everything and it is the context in which one tries to face everything else.

See also:

Was honesty the best policy? Reflections on 50 years of Honest to God

This is the talk John Saxbee gave at the Day Conference in Bristol on 21st September 2013.

7 John Street, Durham City, 9th February 1972

Dear Mr. Harris,
Thank you very much indeed for your letter.  It is clear that we share the same views with regard to the peripheral importance of ritual, the pitfalls of fundamentalism and the attraction of John Robinson!

So began my letter accepting the offer of a curacy in Plymouth over 40 years ago.  Clearly John Robinson and Honest to God (H2G) had assumed the status of a litmus test  when it came to theological opinion, and this simply confirmed the impression given at my interview for a University place to read Theology in 1964:   "What is your opinion of Honest to God?"  Was the first question.

Fifty years on since its publication we find ourselves once again reflecting on its impact and significance.  Books of essays were published to mark the 25th, 30th and 40th Anniversaries, and numerous conferences, symposia and study days have marked its Golden Jubilee.  It is an extraordinary phenomenon given the rather modest nature of the book itself, and its shy and somewhat patrician author who had acquired a positive reputation as a New Testament scholar but had otherwise done little to hint at what was to come.

When considering a book in retrospect, we have four "givens":

  • The text
  • The context
  • The author's intention
  • The reader's response

Let us take each of these in turn:

As it stands, there is little that is noteworthy about what Ulrich Simon describes as "a mean little book".  Barely 140 pages in length it deals in relatively short order with issues in theology, philosophy, ethics and spirituality.  Whilst he never strays far from the New Testament as the source and guarantor of his argument, Robinson was principally concerned to marshal the insights of Rudolph Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and especially Paul Tillich as pointers to new ways of conceptualising and communicating the Christian God in the late 20th Century.  The overall theological dynamic of the book can be summarised as bottom up, joined up, freed up and down-to-earth.  After an important Preface and Introduction setting forth Robinson's reasons for writing the book, chapters two and three explore how depth rather than height is metaphorically more appropriate when it comes to how we talk about God so that theology must be bottom up if it is to connect with modern culture.  Chapter five shows how the Church and its approach to liturgy, prayer and spirituality must closely interact with the world around us, and so must be joined up and relational rather than other-worldly and individual.  Chapter six pleads for ethics and morality to be liberated from enslavement to imposed rules and regulations in order to be freed up to deal with each situation in all its particularity as an opportunity for love to abound.  And at the heart of the book is chapter four where it is shown that what is true for all these aspects of believing, belonging and behaving must also be applicable to Jesus as our "window into God" so that any tenable and communicable Christology must be down-to-earth as befits "The Man for Others".

Eric James, Robinson's biographer and literary executor rightly suggests that "re-reading Honest to God now, it is quite difficult to see what all the fuss was about" and if we take this engaging but ultimately inconclusive and ambiguous book in isolation,  that is a fair assessment.  But that moves us from text to context – the second of our "givens".

First of all, the man himself:  the latest product of a dynasty of Clergy, he grew up in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral and after several false starts in his early years education, he won entry to Marlborough College and then a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge in 1938.  He moved to Trinity College where he was awarded his Ph.D. for a much-lauded thesis on the personalist philosophy of Martin Buber in 1946.  Meanwhile, he had met Ruth, an undergraduate at Newnham, whom he subsequently married and to whom he remained devoted.  Martin Buber's I and Thou is absolutely seminal to Robinson's thinking and, as Alastair Kee has demonstrated in The Roots of Christian Freedom: The Theology of John A.T. Robinson (SPCK 1988) it is essential to understanding H2G even though, frustratingly, Robinson makes little reference to it there or elsewhere.  Ruth herself must also be acknowledged as a key influence on his writings both in terms of her own theological opinions – she was almost certainly more radical than he was – and in terms of her contribution to his understanding of love which became the defining characteristic of God, Christ and Christian discipleship as his theology evolved.

After a Curacy with Mervyn Stockwood – a remarkably successful ministry for such a reserved and intellectual man in a tough working-class parish – he joined the staff of Wells Theological College before becoming Fellow and Dean of Clare College, Cambridge in 1951.  Here he promoted experimental liturgies and exercised a caring pastoral role with students and staff as well as working on his Twelve New Testament Studies published in 1962.  By then Mervyn Stockwood, now Bishop of Southwark, had invited him to re-new their partnership and John was Consecrated as Bishop of Woolwich in 1959.  He continued to write, notwithstanding the demands of the day job, including pioneering work in establishing the Southwark Ordination Course which had a revolutionary effect on theological education in the Church of England.  On Being the Church in the World (SCM 1960) attracted attention as did his contributions to several symposia.  But, of course, it was the Lady Chatterley trial in 1960 which brought him to general notice – and notoriety.

Robinson became the rather unlikely prophet of the so-called "permissive society", and was publically censured by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  This experience was to some extent a godsend as it steeled him for the public exposure consequent upon the publication of H2G.  Less of a godsend, or so it seemed at the time, was the back trouble which laid him low for some months in 1961.  But it did provide the opportunity for him to become better acquainted with Paul Tillich, and especially with The Shaking of the Foundations (SCM 1949), and it was during this period of convalescence that he wrote H2G and, as Ruth put it, life would never be the same again.

Robinson entitled the first chapter "Reluctant Revolution" and to some extent he was a reluctant combatant in the world of theological and philosophical ideas.  But the Lady Chatterley episode had shown him to have something of a taste for being in the public eye, and an impish instinct for provoking people with challenging questions plus a penchant for disturbing the comfortable whose foundations required to be shaken.

H2G was not expected to make waves.  The scheduled initial print run of 6,000 copies was not exceptional, and SCM's Commissioning Editor, David Edwards, saw it as just one in a series of concise paperbacks dealing with issues currently under debate.  However, an article by Robinson in The Observer newspaper headed "Our Image of God Must Go" appeared on the Sunday before the publication date and, indeed, life would never be the same again!

The storm which broke over Robinson's head was as much a product of the zeitgeist – the social, political and cultural spirit of the age – as it was the result of his own intellectual adventures.  After all, he could be caricatured with some justice as just another privileged and cosseted white, anglo-saxon, male protestant leftie promoting white, north European, male protestant theologians out of an academic ivory tower now glossed with episcopal purple and all the accompanying establishment privileges.  But it was as much the mood of the moment as the man himself that gave rise to all that followed.  1963 was a remarkable year by any standards, what with the big freeze, the arrival of Harold Wilson, the Profumo scandal, Martin Luther King's dream and the assassination of President Kennedy.  And it is difficult to avoid quoting yet again Philip Larkin's celebrated cri  de coeur

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

But it was also a crucial period in the evolution of ideas.  Honesty was in the air, Vatican II looked like it could enable the Roman Catholic Church to look honestly at itself in the light of how the world was changing, whilst Alec Vidler had edited Soundings – a collection of adventurous essays in liberal theology – and also Objections to Christian Belief as another expression of radical thinking from the so-called Cambridge School which was to form an alliance of enfant terribles with the protagonists of "South-Bank religion".

Keith Clements has made a study of 20th Century theological controversies in England  (Lovers of Discord).  SPCK 1988, and it is clear that by 1963 the time was ripe for a showdown between those who saw the free-thinking trends of the 1960s as leading inevitably to the death of Christian Britain unless urgent steps were taken to re-cast the mould of religious belief, and those who saw the '60's as challenging the Churches to re-affirm traditional beliefs and values before the tsunami of scepticism, secularism and sexual libertarianism undermined not only Christianity but the foundation of a society based on Christian doctrine and morality.

H2G proved to be the spark igniting a debate which was no less incendiary than those controversies which had periodically arisen since the age of Enlightenment exposed religion and religious belief to deep and sometimes devastating scrutiny.  But is that what Robinson intended?  After all, the author's intention is the third of our "givens" and it deserves to be taken seriously.  Did he intend to set the cat amongst the pigeons to that extent?  Well, it was he himself who, in the Preface to H2G, compared the situation of the Church in the 1960s to that of the Church 100 years earlier when Darwin's Origin of Species, Arnold's poem On Dover Beach and the rise of biblical criticism were conspiring to shake the very foundations of Christendom.  Such an analogy would seem to call for nothing less than a thoroughgoing re-framing of Christian truth claims, and many think that is what he provided in H2G.  Yet by the penultimate page, he is saying that he has "tried simply to be honest, and to be open to certain 'obstinate questionings' which speak to me of the need for what I called earlier a reluctant revolution".  He clearly does not intend a mere translation of traditional doctrines into modern idiom.  Rather, it is about getting back to the roots of Christian belief and for him, as a New Testament scholar, that especially meant the Gospels and Epistles to which he was disposed to attribute conservatively early dates so as to secure their historical reliability.

But it also meant getting back to a time before the influence of Greek metaphysics resulted in an almost exclusive emphasis on God as "out there" apart from the world rather than "down here" and a part of the world.  His intention was to offer a corrective to the trajectory of Christianity so as to make it more able to communicate truth to modern people for whom the age of reason and science had rendered medieval metaphysics unintelligible, and Christian doctrine predicated on such metaphysics all but unbelievable.  It would be a mistake to say that he wanted to replace a transcendent God with an imminent God.  Rather, he wanted to help people to find what is transcendent – and particularly to find transcendental Love - in the realms and realities of everyday life experienced as essentially relational.  God as Love found in the relationship between I and every thou I encounter along life's way.

Steven Shakespeare has expressed the point very succinctly:  "For Robinson, saying the same thing in a different context is to say something different … More radically, it is the troubling of all claims to authority which base themselves on a supposed transcendent entry point for God's truth into the world.  The world becomes potentially revelatory, outside of all ecclesial co-ordinates."  (Modern Believing. April 2013 p. 104).  This presses home Robinson's own prospectus articulated towards the end of H2G: 

"What looks like being required of us, reluctant as we may be for the effort involved, is a radically new mould or meta-morphosis of Christian belief and practice.  Such a re-casting will, I am convinced, leave the fundamental truth of the Gospel unaffected, but it means that we have to be prepared for everything to go into the melting – even our most cherished religious categories and moral absolutes".  (Page 124).

This, it seems to me, conveys the radical seriousness of Robinson's intention and we shall return later to see whether that was a plausible prospectus, an honest intention.  But our fourth and final "given" the reader's response, was not necessarily attuned to that intention at all.

Keith Clements observes that "there seemed to be almost as many Honest to God's as there were readers" (Lovers of Discord. Page 186), because, as David Edwards put it, Robinson was "thinking aloud" and in a highly personal way.  Consequently, readers' responses were likely to be just as personal, whether for or against.  On either side, there was both relief and anger.  Some were relieved that a Bishop was at least prepared to ask the kind of questions they were too diffident to ask themselves, whilst others were relieved that a Bishop was doing their job for them by questioning the received imagery of the Christian God and, in their view, effectively reinforcing the case for atheism.  Some were angry that Robinson had aired his doubts in public when, as a Bishop, he should have kept them to himself;  whilst others were angry that he had moved the goalposts when it came to their attacks on religion and so had made it harder for their sceptical arguments to be considered conclusive.  As Edwards shows in his collection The Honest to God Debate published by SCM only a matter of months after the appearance of H2G itself, many responses were indeed highly personal and emotions ran high in some quarters.

However, we must also note Clements' claim that it was the ambiguous nature of Robinson's argument which resulted in confused and often contradictory responses.  The same point is made by Alastair Kee who has written the most substantial study of Robinson's theology.  Such ambiguity can be attributed partly to Robinson's reliance of Tillich's dialectical theology, and the tantalising and teasing texture of Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison (SCM 1971).  But it might also have something to do with the author's own conflicted nature.  In the Preface to H2G (page 8), he himself acknowledges that the line dividing traditional Christianity from thoughtful humanism "runs right through the middle of myself".  That was not the only tension he exemplified within himself and it is not surprising that some found the tension creative whilst others did not.  One rather whimsical example might be the fact that his favourite hymn, sung on virtually all significant liturgical occasions in his life, was "O Thou who camest from above"!

Responses from leading theologians of the day were equally polarised, with Herbert McCabe making easy meat of Robinson's highly contentious claim at the beginning of chapter two of H2G that "traditional Christian theology has been based on proofs for the existence of God".  Alasdair Macintyre begins his rejoinder with "What is striking about Dr. Robinson's book is first and foremost that he is an atheist".  C. S. Lewis was sniffily dismissive whilst E. L. Mascall was characteristically uncompromising in his condemnation of what he believed to be Robinson's capitulation to secularism.  On the other hand, sympathetic reviews were received from F. W. Dillistone,  Max Warren and, not surprisingly, Rudolph Bultmann himself.  By and large, those siding with Robinson agreed that there was indeed a problem in relating traditional Christian language about God to the modern world, but that the answer was to be found in a re-examination of the resources of that tradition and not in its abandonment.  One senses that on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays Robinson might have found himself agreeing with that assessment, whilst on other days he would have resisted it!

And therein lies the dilemma.  Was he at heart a pioneer or a base-camp keeper?  He knew that Christianity needed base-camp keepers to protect and even enhance traditional sources, and he also knew that one of the main reasons for keeping the base-camp was to allow others to go exploring the truth wherever that might lead.  Christianity needs its pioneers – whether we call them reformers, revolutionaries or radicals – but they can only be effective because they have the re-assurance of knowing that the base-camp is in safe hands.  But is it possible for someone to be simultaneously a pioneer and a base-camp keeper?  Either consciously or unconsciously, Robinson thought he could do that, but the risk of ending up as neither whilst trying to be both was very real.  As Lesslie Newbigin put it:  "It's all very well having an open mind – but not at both ends", which echoes the jibe levelled at Robinson when debating Honest to God by T. J. Hughes:  "I would like to remind the Bishop that a vessel that is open on all sides is incapable of containing anything".  Robinson sought to have an open mind whilst remaining firmly rooted as a radical.  Inevitably, some felt that this resulted in him not being radical enough in H2G – something he himself acknowledged (page 10) – whilst others thought he had been radical to the point of being dis-honest as a person, a Bishop and a theologian.

To this question of Robinson's honesty, and whether it was the best policy, we now turn.

Clearly, when Robinson claimed to be ill-equipped to deal with issues in philosophical theology, he was being somewhat disingenuous or even dishonest.  His Ph.D. thesis required him to acquire and exercise real skill in that discipline, and the fact that he makes only passing reference to it in H2G is curious.  He was not just thinking aloud, he was thinking through ideas which were already well formed in his mind, and his reluctance to show his working in H2G is regrettable.  And then there is the question of whether he was truly honest when it came to the destination to which his theology was leading him.  Should he not have had the courage of his convictions and himself pushed on doors already being leant on by the Death of God theologians in America, Don Cupitt in this country and Liberation theologians in South America?  His wife Ruth was turning out to be more radical than he was, and one senses that his over-arching desire to be loyal to his New Testament sources held him back so that, unusually for philosophers and theologians, he turned out to be right in what he denied, but wrong in what he affirmed.

No doubt, the fact that H2G was not written for the wide-ranging public who subsequently acquired it, contributed to a sense that he was not being honest in relation to either his sources or his readers.  His use of Bultmann, Bonhoeffer and Tillich was opportunistic and, some would argue, attenuated to the point of caricature, whilst Robinson's essay "The Debate Continues" in The Honest to God Debate (pages 232 – 275) is effectively the H2G he would have written if he had known who was going to read it!

However, honesty is a strict mistress and few who venture into the minefield which is popular religion and folk theology are likely to please her entirely.  Perhaps when it came to himself, his sources and his intentions Robinson was not perfectly honest but in a fallen world, some honesty is always better than none.  In the words of Hamlet:  "To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand".

Whether, on balance, honesty was the best policy can be considered from different angles.  For him personally, honesty proved to be costly.  H2G, and the circus which surrounded it, had a serious and severe impact on Robinson, his family and any hopes he may have entertained with regard to preferment in the Church.  Ruth has written movingly about the personal cost of H2G as has Eric James and others who knew him well.  Although Archbishop Michael Ramsey tempered his initial rebuke, it was soon clear that appointment as a Diocesan Bishop was unlikely, and Robinson's return to Cambridge was not without regret.

Of course, questions were raised as to whether it could ever be right for a Bishop to air publicly his struggles with prayer and worship, his openness to a new morality and his doubts about how God has been traditionally and popularly imagined.  Apparently, debate about God's being and God's ways could be carried on in the academy, or between consenting Clergy in private, but when it came to the episcopate honesty, it seemed, was definitely not the best policy.  It is easy, and very tempting, to lampoon this attitude.  But the teaching office of a Bishop does carry clear responsibilities which assume caution when it comes to playing fast and loose with received orthodoxy, and traditional patterns of belief, behaviour, prayer and worship.  However, episcopacy is also a prophetic vocation which cannot and must not shirk from saying what needs to be said before it becomes absolutely necessary to say it.  Also, the leadership dimension of episcopacy must involve creating an environment in which exploring the depth and breadth of God's reality in ways that are attuned to the prevailing culture comes as standard.  My own experience indicates that there are many people hanging on by their fingertips to Christian faith and for them the utterances of a Bishop prepared to share the doubts and questionings thrown up by theological engagement with the ferment of contemporary ideas comes as a positive release and a breath of fresh air.  Many feel the allure of humanism, secularism, pantheism and panentheism but also want to stay in touch with the faith personified in Jesus Christ and lived out by the best of his followers ever since.  John Robinson was a godsend to such people precisely because he was a Bishop, and given that generally speaking Bishops are generally speaking, and are reluctant to deviate from the party line, his brand of honest was the best policy in 1963 and remains so today.

Of course, there are dimensions to the theology of H2G which are not helpful and which might call into question the appropriateness of being honest about traditional beliefs without following through with appropriate alternatives. For example, he sees God as the ground of our being experienced as ultimate concern and characterised by Love.  But for many people the ground of their being, their ultimate concern, is characterised not by love but by pain, cruelty and injustice.  At least a God "up there" or "out there" exists to come to their aid and comfort in their distress.  But the God they are presented with in H2G can only be described as "love" with the aid of a heavy dose of irony.  Indeed, the absence of any meaningful theodicy in H2G is a major omission – and probably inexcusable.

But when all is said and done, H2G provided a crucial corrective to pre-Enlightenment thought forms.  Perhaps Robinson did want to have his cake and eat it at times, but he certainly ensured that theology was once again a subject fit for discussion amongst the chattering classes as well as the mass media, and in the ferment of 1960's Britain, at least God got a look in when so many other compelling distractions were to the fore.

Then there was the question of morality.  Lady Chatterley had stirred things up a bit and the so-called permissive society was in full swing.  In H2G Robinson stuck his neck out in saying that "nothing of itself can always be named as wrong" (page 118) and he appeared to pull the rug out from under any sort of normative morality predicated on revealed truth and supported by supernatural sanctions in this world or the next.  But Robinson was clearly and culpably misrepresented by those determined to damn him.  Although he did embrace Joseph Fletcher's Situation Ethics, he was at pains to say that there remained a place for firm rules, principles and conventions as "dykes of love in a loveless world".  If love is to be truly love, it cannot be merely a matter of slavish obedience to imposed norms and here Robinson bequeathed a legacy which is as important now as it ever was fifty years ago.  So again, in relation to his chapter on ethics in H2G, honesty was the best policy both intellectually and pastorally.

The Church Times contended that Robinson had betrayed his pastoral duty by, in effect, upsetting people unnecessarily.  However, it might be argued that Robinson was, if anything, a little too sensitive to the pastoral impact of his ideas and this caused him to compromise his radicalism and temper his theological winds to the sensitivities of the shorn lamb.  Perhaps he allowed his considerable pastoral heart to rule his theological head.  But need he have worried?  Pastorally, he helped those who were already thinking such thoughts but had kept them to themselves until a Bishop validated them.  Some testify to having woken up to the possibilities of theology for the first time on reading Honest to God, and that is surely a pastoral plus.  Meanwhile, those who dissented simply told him what they thought of him, and stuck to their guns.  So pastorally, as in other respects, honesty was the best policy – and even more honesty might have been even better.

Evangelistically, and from the point of view of apologetics, much the same might be said.  Here is a quotation from the end of Robinson's essay "The Debate Continues" (The Honest to God Debate pages 274 – 5):

I see Honest to God as a piece of missionary theology … it is a venture in evangelism but with a difference.  It is not addressed from inside the Church to those outside – I have not mustered arguments to 'convert' anyone.  It is a dialogue between religious man and secular man.  And secular man is just as much inside the Church as out of it, and just as much inside myself.  Indeed, my book was born of the fact that I knew myself to be a man committed without reservation to Christ and a man committed without possibility of return, to modern Twentieth-Century secular society.  It was written out of belief that both these convictions must be taken with equal seriousness and that they cannot be incompatible.

And this reference to secular society leads us neatly into some closing remarks.

Much of H2G  is predicated upon an assumption that secularisation theory, so prevalent in the '60s and '70s would be proved right.  But that has not been the case.  Indeed, it is arguable that there is more religion in the world now than ever before.  In my recent book No Faith in Religion (O Books 2009) I argued that there is too much religion in the world, and not enough faith, and that begs the question whether the relative retardation of secularism has undermined Robinson's prospectus – or made it even more urgent.

Then there is the matter of religion itself.  Robinson tends to follow Bonhoeffer in seeing religion as about beliefs rather than practices, and religion and faith are used pretty well synonymously.  But in No Faith in Religion I argue that faith is about trust in the reality, reliability and benevolence of the living God – and then religion is simply defined as the formalising of faith with creeds, rituals, ordained personal, institutional structures, sacred sites and symbols and so on.  If Robinson had made this distinction more clearly, and I do think it does basically point to what he was trying to say, then he might have generated more light and considerably less heat than was the case.  He saw law as the servant of morality, and not its master.  Likewise, I see religion as having a role but only as the servant and never as the master of faith.  Many today say they are not religious, but … and then go on to describe something they embrace which is very akin to what we mean by faith.  H2G does help to make the distinction between religion and faith, and to validate the latter as about existential trust in God as Love rather than belief in God as a semi-detached deus ex machina.  But Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" muddies the waters  resulting in lack of clarity, and an opportunity missed.  It is because, traditionally, religion has been what power does to the powerless, wealth does to the dispossessed and men do to women that it needs to be put in its place so that free-range faith rather than factory farm religion becomes the defining dynamic of contemporary Christianity.  Robinson, for a mixture of personal, contextual and pastoral reasons found it difficult to be that radical but he set a train of theological thought in motion which has gained momentum these fifty years – albeit at a pace many of us find frustratingly lethargic and lacking in urgency.

So with the benefit of hindsight, was honesty the best policy?

Peter Selby and, more recently, Sam Wells have suggested that H2G and the debate following it proved to be a distraction from the peace and justice issues which were on the minds of so many at the time.  Instead of engaging with these issues and giving a prophetic voice to campaigns from anti-apartheid to Aldermaston Marches, the Church was seen to be at war with itself on arcane points of theology.  This is true up to a point, and probably does explain why H2G didn't really gain traction amongst the baby-boomers who Robinson believed to be most alienated from God-talk as traditionally articulated.  But those of us baby-boomers who lived through the years after H2G do remember the Churches nationally and internationally being at the forefront of important campaigns for peace and justice, and the fact that in the Thatcher era it was quite plausible to suggest that the Bishops, Robinson included, had effectively become Her Majesty's opposition in the face of rampant free-market assaults on the welfare state does not support the jibe that a shiver ran round the bench of Bishops looking for a spine to run down!

Likewise, Robinson's honesty did provide a platform for those who wanted to find a middle way between colluding with the Enlightenment or colliding with it.  Perhaps he wasn't as radical as he could or should have been, but H2G put down a marker that simply turning up the volume on the old time religion was not the only option in the face of dwindling support for organised religion.  He gave encouragement to those who believed that the tunes of tradition and the melodies of modernity could be held together, and that something might then be heard which transcended what either could convey independently of the other.  At a time when postmodernism is telling us that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you believe it doesn't matter, Robinson confirmed that it does matter what you believe so long as what you believe matters to those with whom we relate day by day in the grime and glory of human existence.

Philip Buckler, the Dean of Lincoln, was a Chaplain at Trinity College, Cambridge, during Robinson's tenure as Dean.  He recalls Robinson and Leslie Houlden as two remarkably different teachers of that period, from whom he learnt so much.  And it was Houlden who wrote in relation to Honest to God that:

Religious honesty is a complex quality not synonymous with speaking one's mind in all circumstances, or with uttering every new thought in a field where criteria of excellence are not always clear or easy to come by, still less with enjoying intellectual excitement;  it's more a matter of weighing all relevant considerations, then combining firmness with tentativeness, strength with provisionality, clarity with scepticism, because of the character of our knowledge of God and our pilgrim-like relationship with him.

Whether Robinson lived up to this ideal of religious honesty remains the subject of debate, but that he attempted with absolute integrity to meet this challenge is beyond question.  

See also:

Honest to God - anniversary sermon

This is the sermon Vanessa Herrick preached on Saturday 21st September 2013 at the service to mark the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Honest to God.

St Paul writes:

By the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God." (2 Cor 4.2b)

I was four years old when 'Honest to God' was first published.  And to me there is a certain irony in being invited to preach at this Commemoration Eucharist.  Not only because I was 'too young' really to have experienced its impact; but because I grew up in a conservative evangelical church in London where even to have a cross on the altar was deemed to be 'Rom-ish' and candles were strictly forbidden.  Yet I can vividly remember, some ten years later, eavesdropping on a conversation in the choir vestry about 'that dreadful Bishop of Woolwich and his appalling 'Honest to God'.

But here I am, and grateful for the opportunity to preach on this day when we both celebrate the Apostle Matthew and remember the publication of probably the most widely read theological book of the twentieth century.

St Paul writes:

by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God." (2 Cor 4.2b)

John Robinson writes:

All I can do is to try and be honest – honest to God and about God – and to follow the argument wherever it leads.

Perhaps I am not the only one to hear the resonance between the two?

We are here today to celebrate the work of someone who sought to make truth heard.  Eric James has described John Robinson as "a scholar, a pastor and a prophet".   And it is this latter that I want to focus on for a few minutes this afternoon.

For prophets are uncomfortable people to have around. They usually don't relish the task they have been given. And prophecy can be both painful and powerful.

Painful for the Church (for whom prophecy almost always means a call to repentance and new life).

Yet powerful for society in making Christian truth known in language which 'connects' with those who have long since stopped worrying about what the truth might be….

In his second letter to Corinth, Paul speaks into a cosmopolitan community that's in something of a state of turmoil. Powerful social and religious influences compete for the attention of its citizens and the Jewish faith seems threatened by new and unacceptable practices.  And into that maelstrom of ideas and influences comes St Paul, 'openly stating the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ', and (as one commentator puts it) commending himself "not by spinning a tale about his own importance but simply by telling the truth" (Barrett p.129)

In 'Honest to God', John Robinson spoke into an increasingly cosmopolitan British society and culture – a society and culture also in something of a state of turmoil. For 1963 was the year of the Profumo Affair, the Great Train Robbery and the Beatles' first album.  West Indians were trying – against a tidal wave of racism - to make their way into British life; and the Church of England, under Michael Ramsey, still retained some place in the conscience and consciousness of the English nation.  And yet… and yet….

So it was into these similar, yet very different, worlds that St Paul and John Robinson came; each seeking to make truth heard.  And the truth declared was, fundamentally, the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But what they each tried to do was to proclaim that good news in a way that could be heard afresh; that could break through the tired religious mores of the past and shake people into a way of thinking and believing that acknowledged the chasm between what was and what is.  For St Paul, that chasm consisted in the apparent incompatibility of Law and Grace.  For John Robinson, it was the fact that the Church and what it stood for no longer made sense in a society where what had once been taken for granted was taken for granted no more.  And the 'open statement of the truth' – whether in the words of St Paul or the Bishop of Woolwich - freed those who heard it to speak and to debate, and ultimately to made Christ known.

But prophecy can be both painful and powerful.

The Feast of St Matthew the Apostle reminds us of another prophet:

  • one who responded to the call of God to follow;
  • one who brought with him the 'outsiders' of society;
  • one who pointed to Jesus as the new Moses;
  • and one who, in his Gospel gives us a treasure chest of the old and the new.

Like the true radical that John Robinson was to become, Matthew was deeply connected to the tradition from which he had come and in which he had been nurtured.  Yet he didn't shy away from interpreting and re-interpreting that tradition in the light of what he now encountered in the person of Jesus Christ.  He sought to make truth heard.

I believe that is what John Robinson felt similarly impelled to do when he wrote 'Honest to God'.  Writing to Archbishop Fisher on 2nd April 1963, he said: "At least my book seems to have touched people at a point where truth really matters to them.  And of this I am glad – even if it has inevitably meant some pain.  For it is at this point that God may be able to become real for them again." It was precisely because he believed that the Church was no longer 'connecting' with the vast majority of people in this nation, that he wrote so 'honestly' and openly.  It took audacity.  It took courage. And it took its toll….

For prophecy can be both painful and powerful.

St Paul writes:

By the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God." (2 Cor 4.2b)

Could 'Honest to God' be written today?  Probably not.

For we can no longer take the Christian 'lingua franca' for granted.  'Honest to God' was a book which had an impact because there remained the residue of a Christian awareness which allowed people to be shocked and allowed people to debate.

Today, our prophets need to speak with a different tongue:

  • yet it must still be a tongue which still speaks fundamentally of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ;
  • a tongue which is an 'open statement of the truth' of God's love for humanity and his desire for all to be drawn into that Love – tax collector and sinner alike.
  • a tongue which is still prepared to take the courageous risk of shocking its hearers into listening and debate.

But we must remember that such prophecy can be both painful and powerful.

Today's Church is woefully short of prophets.  And so, I suggest, is the Academy.  For those who come to mind – like Giles Fraser - have spoken out courageously and been forced to 'move on', apparently no longer welcome in institutions which prefer the safety and stability of the status quo.  But I believe we need to be praying for prophets in the Church who are truly radical.

We need to be praying for prophets who will speak painfully to the Church and powerfully to Society about banking, about the arms trade, about the lack of 'real' equality for women in the Church and in business.

We need prophets who will speak painfully and powerfully into our political life so that those with authority and influence genuinely seek the wellbeing of the poor and the oppressed, rather than using politics for their own ends.

We need prophets  who are so 'rooted' in Scripture and 'rooted' in the Church that – like John Robinson – they can yet speak out - painfully and powerfully - that 'open statement of the truth' which will reveal afresh the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

  • in whom 'old' and 'new' treasures come together;
  • in whom all are welcome;
  • and through whom the whole creation will one day be restored and renewed.

St Matthew, St Paul and John Robinson each in their own way sought to make truth heard; through their witness, their writings and their faithful discipleship. For each of them, the task of prophecy was both painful and powerful.

So may the Church in our own day find again its voice and its courage, that – like them - we may commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God, through our 'open statement of the truth'.

Thanks be to God.

See also:

Honest to God - the background

This is the talk given by Jonathan Clatworthy at the Honest to God day conference at St Ethelburga's, London, on 5th October 2013.
A similar but slightly longer talk, given at St Bride's Liverpool, is available here.

Honest to God - the background

My guess is that if you were to read Honest to God today without knowing its history, you would never expect it to be a best-seller. What was the fuss about? Have we moved on and left it all behind, or do we now need another Honest to God for our own day?

My view is that it marked the end of an era, and a good thing too. However the churches kept that era going within their own circles. There are now signs that even within the churches it is finally giving up.

The 19th century era

I am thinking of an era that began in the 19th century. Church historians still praise the 19th century religious revivals. They set the tone for what church leaders think churches should be like today. In fact they were mainly a fearful reaction against atheism. It seemed that science had disproved or soon would disprove the existence of God and life after death. All morality, value and meaning were errors of the human mind. People flocked to the churches to hear a more acceptable account of reality, and most churches responded with a new version of Christianity that left the physical world to the scientists and instead concentrated on spiritual matters beyond the reach of science.

So what changed? Protestants and Catholics alike expected more divine intervention in their lives. In the first half of the 19th century evangelicals were noted for their campaigns against the slave trade and poor working conditions, but by the end of the century they were arguing that for a Christian to help a non-Christian live a better life it would first be necessary to convert them. They emphasised the individual’s conversion experience, speculated about an imminent second coming and spoke in tongues. A string of papal encyclicals insisted on accepting some most improbable miracles and legends. Catholics revived the monastic orders and insisted that the sacraments produce real benefits. They had more visions of angels, saints and Mary than they had had since the Middle Ages. Everlasting damnation became popular once more, and Protestants and Catholics alike set sail to rescue the heathen from it. In popular culture more people saw ghosts and the modern Spiritualist movement was founded, with its clairvoyants and messages from the dead.(1)

These were innovations. Christianity had not always been like this. What happens when churches fall out with each other? In the seventeenth century they fought wars over how God wants the state to be governed; at the end of the nineteenth they took each other to court over candles on the altar.

People understood that scientists gather facts by studying the world; but how do religious leaders know their truths? Protestants and Catholics alike appealed to divine revelation as an absolute unquestionable authority. The first major protestant work declaring the Bible infallible was Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology. It was published in 1871, just one year after the First Vatican Council had declared the pope infallible. By the end of the nineteenth century the Vatican had redefined the word ‘dogma’ to mean what it means today: something revealed by God, eternally true, and obligatory belief for the faithful.

This meant that for protestants and catholics alike, spiritual truth was all in the past. Whereas science kept discovering new things about the physical world, any new ideas about the spiritual world must by definition be false. Hardly surprisingly, by the end of the 1950s Christian teaching seemed way out of date.

This belief system is still being taught in many churches as traditional Christianity. 150 years ago it was new. Some churches refused to buy into it. Modern Church was founded to argue that Christians have nothing to fear from good science and should be pleased to learn from it. Anti-evolutionists decided that the Bible is a better science text book than the latest theories. These became minority views. Other-worldly dualism dominated the churches.

The book

After two world wars and a depression most people didn’t have much use for such an other-worldly religion. With Honest to God at last a bishop publicly stood out against it. Compared with today, in 1963 far greater numbers were regular churchgoers and church leaders had much more public influence, especially Church of England bishops. What Robinson said about God, Jesus, ethics, prayer and worship all appealed for a less other-worldly faith which relates to people’s real lives.

The pressure for change came largely from sexual ethics. For about a century sexual matters had dominated the moral concerns of the western churches. Today it is hard to imagine how much they had invested in suppressing sex outside marriage.

But far away in Puerto Rico and Haiti, some women were undergoing medical trials. And yes, it proved possible to suppress ovulation. In 1961 the pill was introduced into the UK – for married women only, of course. In 1962 50,000 women were already taking it.

1962 was also the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came within a whisker of World War 3. But the churches didn’t have so much to say about that. They were concentrating on a devastating moral crisis: in the UK alone, 50,000 women were taking the pill. It would only be a matter of time before it got into the hands of unmarried women. Robinson wrote:

There is no need to prove that a revolution is required in morals. It has long since broken out... There are plenty of voices within the Church greeting it with vociferous dismay.(2)

He argued that the way Christianity was being taught, God was a far distant creator and judge, Jesus came to earth from far away and did not really belong on earth, moral rules were laid down as instructions coming from far away, and prayer and worship were impositions which people struggled to fulfil. In other words, the whole structure of church teaching made Christianity feel alien to the kinds of people we actually are. The ethic he offered instead was the love ethic:

Life in Christ Jesus, in the new being, in the Spirit, means having no absolutes but his love, being totally uncommitted in every other respect but totally committed in this.(3)

Three years later another best-selling book was published, Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics. When Robinson wrote Honest to God he was already familiar with Fletcher’s ideas. A friend of mine who teaches ethics in a secondary school tells me that her pupils feel they can relate to situation ethics but find it difficult to relate to other ethical theories.

For a while in the 1960s there was a ferment of new ideas. The churches did move in the direction Robinson was arguing for. The bishops in the House of Lords were more liberal than public opinion. They contributed to the legislation to decriminalise homosexuality and abolish capital punishment.

The ‘God is Dead’ debate

However in the circumstances it was easy for opponents of contraception and divorce to treat Robinson as part of the God is Dead movement. It was probably this more than anything else that provoked the evangelical reaction against his views. Even today many conservative evangelicals still treat liberal Christians as just one step away from atheism. I think this is an important part of the story so I shall step back to describe the issues.

The arguments against the existence of God and the afterlife never were scientific arguments. They were philosophical arguments; but how many of us have ever thought about the philosophies we presuppose? The philosophy in question is positivism, which teaches that everything that exists can be observed by humans. Anything we cannot observe does not exist, or at best is completely irrelevant. Science has produced no evidence for God, heaven, life after death, moral truths or values, so none of these things exist.

By the end of the nineteenth century it was losing its appeal. The exclusive focus on empirical evidence did not work. If you look at what you think is a table, what you see is a brown shape; according to late nineteenth century positivism, to call it a table is to go beyond the evidence. Thus we end up knowing practically nothing.

In the 1920s a new version arose, logical positivism. According to this theory all meaningful statements can be verified in one of two ways: logical deduction or the evidence of the  senses. Any statement that cannot be verified in either of these ways is meaningless. So not only does God not exist, but the very idea of God is meaningless. This is atheism at its most extreme.

For a while philosophers took the theory seriously. The trouble was, it also made rather a lot of other things meaningless as well as God. You may think you remember what you had for breakfast, but you cannot verify it – so any statement about your breakfast is meaningless. Positivists had hoped to show that true knowledge comes from science and only from science, but by the middle of the 20th Century it had become clear that science does not operate the way positivists described. Scientists hypothesise all the time about unobservables, like dark matter and black holes.

However at a popular level logical positivism was at its most influential in the 1950s and 1960s. This was the heyday of atheism. Along came God is Dead theology. This movement had already begun by 1963 and reached its peak a few years later. Many clergy found they could no longer believe in God.

So it is a legitimate question to ask: was Robinson influenced by the God is Dead movement? Honest to God does not discuss logical positivism or Death of God theology. As I understand Robinson, I think he would have criticised it in exactly the same way as he criticised traditional dogmas, by accusing it of treating God as a being ‘out there’. He would then have agreed with atheists for rejecting such a god. Robinson knew there was a long tradition of theologians saying God is greater than we can understand, so all language about God is inadequate and as society changes our language about God changes.

The way I read Honest to God, he was trying to do exactly what the original founders of Modern Church had set out to do back in 1898. In both cases there was a polarisation between two extremes. On the one hand atheists claimed to speak in the name of science and presented reality as determined, pointless and meaningless, but at least it was okay to have sex and you would not be punished in hell when you died. On the other hand religious leaders offered a rich world full of meaning, purpose and value; but if you bought into that, you had to believe what you were told and suppress your sexual libido, or else. Neither alternative was comfortable. There were always people asking: ‘Is there a third way?’ Robinson said ‘Yes there is’ and said it authoritatively, as a bishop. Like the founders of Modern Church, he took the third way to be an open, undogmatic Christianity which was nothing to do with atheism but could develop its understanding of God and our human calling in the light of new scientific and moral insights.

A naturalistic God?

The problem is that other texts invite a different interpretation. Robinson’s critics argued that he was getting rid of God altogether, by redefining the word ‘God’ to mean something different. One such text is:

To say that ‘God is personal’ is to say that ‘reality at its very deepest level is personal’, that personality is of ultimate significance in the constitution of the universe, that in personal relationships we touch the final meaning of existence as nowhere else... To believe in God as love means to believe that in pure personal relationship we encounter, not merely what ought to be, but what is, the deepest, veriest truth about the structure of reality. This, in face of all the evidence, is a tremendous act of faith. But it is not the feat of persuading oneself of the existence of a super-Being beyond this world endowed with personal qualities. Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted’, that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home’.(4)

In the post Don Cupitt age a text like this sounds as if Robinson is being non-realist about God. In the realist/non-realist debate we can ask whether God is a construct of the human mind or whether God would exist anyway even if no minds believed in God. We can also ask: does the word ‘God’ refer to something naturalistic, like nature or the universe, or is there more to God, like a mind, a personality?

I do not think Honest to God was attempting to answer these questions. They became popular later. He was writing at a time of different issues. I think he was presupposing a being with both independent existence and personality, but was struggling to describe God in a way consistent with the science of his day. I therefore think subsequent evangelicals were wrong to link him with 1960s atheism.

After Honest to God

In the 1970s most churches began to swing the pendulum back again. Of course all reactionary movements are selective. The evangelical revival gained support by permitting contraception but retained the sexual emphasis by focusing on homosexuality.

Popular opinion did not follow suit. Over time most people could see that the churches were no longer speaking their language. They gradually gave up on churches and did other things on Sundays. So it is that most church leaders today accept the role of minority reactionaries. Sometimes they band together to oppose changing social attitudes: on gay and lesbian sexuality, women bishops, assisted dying, equal opportunities. In the Church of England the liveliest debates in the last few years have been about women’s ministry and same-sex partnerships. These are non-issues for most churchgoing Christians, let alone the British population as a whole.

In other words most churches today are still operating in that manner that was first developed in the nineteenth century reactions against atheism. From within the churches the 1960s now look like a brief interlude when Christians could think outside the box.

Society as a whole never did go back to the situation before the 1960s. What Robinson feared has indeed come about. Most people have decided that what the churches do and teach is not for them. The evangelical revival, with its endless techniques for church growth, seems to me an artificial attempt to maintain a culture which no longer meets people’s needs. In the November 2012 vote the opponents of women bishops, evangelicals and catholics alike, showed no interest in the spirituality of the nation; they were battening down the hatches, trying to preserve their church clubs from any influence by the world outside.

The big issues have moved on without asking permission from the churches. For a few decades it was quite possible that nearly all of human life would be wiped out by a nuclear war. Scientific research has produced a consensus that human industry is destroying the environment on which human life depends. Church leaders have paid lip service to finding solutions but have bent over backwards not to say anything controversial. The issues have moved on but the real concerns of the churches have not moved on with them. In this way the churches have made themselves more irrelevant than they have been for a thousand years. Not only have they lost their role as moral authorities; they often appear more immoral than secular society.

If 1960s liberal Christianity declined, so did 1960s atheism. Most people in this country now describe themselves as somehow spiritual but emphatically not religious. They believe there is a spiritual dimension to reality, but as soon as you ask them to define what they mean by it, whoa! Hold on! If we try to define it we’re in danger of ending up with religion, with dogmas – and that is something that they definitely do not want.

To some extent this is an inevitable change, over and above the widespread suspicion of dogma and proselytism. In 1963 it was possible for church leaders to think of Christianity as the only credible alternative to atheism. Today it is impossible to ignore the availability of other faiths – not just as errors, or second-rate Christianities, but as well-established traditions of enquiry into spiritual reality, deserving serious attention.


The 19th century package has unravelled. The dogmas which once reassured people that there is a spiritual dimension to reality are the very things that now put people off any informed reflection about what they do believe in.

So how do we compare ourselves with 50 years ago? What is similar is that church leaders have a well-established tradition of being way out of touch with where most people are. They tell us what the Church teaches but Linda Woodhead and the YouGov polls tell us that most people in the church do not believe it.(5)

What is different is that today we are only talking about small minorities. While most people in this country still fill in the census form describing themselves as Christians, they do not go to church and they do not pay any attention to what church leaders think. They decide for themselves. Robinson hoped that the churches might open up so that people could think for themselves within the Church. It did not happen.

I still think it is possible for church leaders to regain the respect they once had, but they will have to earn it. There is a yearning for spiritual guidance. It will be interesting to see what impact the new pope has.  As far as the Church of England is concerned I suspect that 2012 may prove a turning point. The votes on the Anglican Covenant, gay marriage and women bishops all proclaimed loud and clear that church leaders were out of touch. Just like 1963.

There are signs that church leaders are now realising the need for change. Maybe there will be a new mood in the churches, a new attempt to do what John Robinson did, a movement something like the 1960s; but we will need more than just one courageous bishop to make it happen.


  1. These changes are described in many histories of the nineteenth century churches. Especially helpful are Bebbington, D W, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989; and Jodock, Darrell, Ed, Catholicism Contending with Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-Modernism in Historical Context, Cambridge: CUP, 2000.
  2. Robinson, Honest to God, London: SCM, 1963, pp. 106-107.
  3. Honest to God p. 114.
  4. Honest to God pp. 48-49.
  5. This is a reference to the recent Westminster Faith Debates.

See also:

Honest To God - introduction

2013 was the 50th anniversary of the publication of John Robinson’s Honest to God, a best-selling book, announced by a headline in the Observer declaring that ‘Our image of God must go’.

Robinson’s central point was that the way people thought about God did not fit modern science, so it needed to change. A lot else needed to change too: Christianity’s understanding of prayer, worship, ethics and Jesus.

It sold over a million copies and had an immense impact. Some claimed that it undermined their faith, others that it helped them retain their faith.

There were meetings and conferences in many parts of the UK marking the 50th anniversary. Modern Church was involved in events in Bristol, Cambridge, London, Canterbury and Swanwick. They were almost entirely positive.

The 25th and 40th anniversary events were on the whole more critical. On those occasions it had seemed as if Honest to God expressed the mood of a brief phase, the permissive 1960s, and had little lasting value.

Now it looks different.

It may have been a brief phase then, but it is just what we are looking for today: an approach which accepts that if Christianity is to be meaningful today our language and concepts must change in keeping with modern understandings of reality.

Here are some of the talks given at the various anniversary events: