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 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.
Honest to God - the background by Jonathan Clatworthy
Honest to God - anniversary sermon by Vanessa Herrick
Seeing everything differently by Richard Truss