John A. T. Robinson’s Honest to God
by S. M. Hutchens
One of the chief vexations faced by the liberal churchman is the charge that he is not an honest man. His religion is marked, in the name of enlightenment, by dissent and departure from the traditional beliefs of the Church, while his public face uses—it must use—the language of the Church in its public work.
In his mouth the old Christian words refer to a world of meaning quite different from that which Christians have traditionally understood them to signify. Yet he persists in calling himself a Christian, and, through his re-definition of Christianity, privileges himself to believe that he is.
He accepts church administrative and teaching posts and pastorates, with their livings, disbelieving the beliefs that brought the Christian faith into the world. On Easter he speaks of the Resurrection of Christ in firm doubt that Jesus ever, in the fashion alleged by the Gospels, came to life and rose from his grave. He buries the faithful dead whose future life, he believes, is very likely only in the memories of those who loved them. He gives seminarians to believe that the only intelligent course to be taken is the one he is following—that it is honest, creative, loving, and necessary.
Serving the Despisers
In early 1963 an English bishop, when the Bible’s supernaturalism became insupportable to his critical faculties, did not resign his office, but published a little book explaining why it wasn’t necessary. Honesty toward God and man required that he abandon the old orthodoxy. True religion, in order to be true, had to be purged of mythical elements, taking another, more reasonable and scientific course. John A. T. Robinson’s five-shilling paperback Honest to God quickly became a bestseller in England, and later the same year appeared in North America with the same result.
Reviewed not only in the religious press, but in news magazines like Time and Newsweek, its author, the bishop of Woolwich, a winsome and engaging New Testament scholar, quickly became not only a celebrity, but an icon of genial, sophisticated, liberal religion for the masses—well, not exactly the masses, with their conservatism and credulity—but at least those for whom the time was ripe for a transition from an outmoded Christianity (the kind with miracles) to a wiser, better-educated, and cultured sort (the kind without).
Time magazine correctly noted that Robinson was presenting nothing new. What he believed had been taught in the mainline Protestant theological academy for generations, the product of an apologetic orientation toward modernizing culture tracing its roots (as Grover Foley noted in his Christian Century review) back to Schleiermacher—with whom, a candidate for a theological doctorate of my acquaintance remarked, with complete seriousness, theology actually began. Early in its portentous decade, however, Honest to God appeared to answer a need on the part of many who desired to remain Christian but sit very loose to traditional prescriptions about what one must believe and confess to do so.
The ostensible problem of this book echoes that of Schleiermacher’s Speeches on Religion, the question of how the man who has lost his Christianity to the modern point of view (religion’s “cultured despisers”) can recover it, but this belated reviewer (who was 11 when it was published) wonders whether the deeper issue was given in the title—the question of how someone with these beliefs can, before God or anyone else, present himself as any kind of Christian believer. No reasonable definition of Christianity, any definition that makes even simple lexical sense, can “demythologize” the Scriptures and the creeds. Their contents as incarnate, as believed-in history, particularly as concern the life and person of Christ, are of the essence.
But is this book merely a historical artifact, the theological world represented by Bishop Robinson—Protestant liberalism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—having lived its life and been replaced by various others? Or is it even less significant, a fad of the notorious sixties?
Creating the Right Atmosphere
By now, the foundations of which Tillich spoke have been thoroughly shaken, all of the false buttresses of the antiquated Christianity to which Robinson referred in Honest to God have fallen, the fall of each represented by a new theology that claims to terminate in some sort of “Jesus.” The churches led by people of Bishop Robinson’s opinions have now, with the full advent of radical egalitarianism as their running treble, entered a new phase, where the alterations of the wording of Bibles and liturgical texts to support feminist theology have made the studied ambivalence of the liberal gospel toward Scripture and history unnecessary.
What mere liberalism could not do has been deftly done by egalitarianism, Christian doctrine and the life that flows from it having been completely altered in the interest of not frightening the ladies. Attenders-at-church have been brought along since Robinson’s time to the point where they are ready for, and accepting of, an entirely new image of God, a fundamentally revised Christianity.
It would be a mistake, however, to discount the symbolic significance of Robinson’s book, particularly by underestimating liberal religion’s difficulty in penetrating the consciousness of the laity. As J. Gresham Machen observed in the early 1920s, in its undisguised form it is quite clearly not Christianity. It always had to make its appearance under the cover of the ambiguity and dissimulation of an apparently orthodox confession with a double meaning for the advantage of the cognoscenti. It was forced by this necessity to allow people who, for example, did not really wish to regard the Christmas story or the miracles or the Resurrection as myths pregnant with existential meaning, to believe them—or at least to entertain the hope that they might be true.
The echo and stain of the old faith were terribly hard to eradicate under those conditions. The liberal simply could not be straightforward in the churches. He had to pretend he believed more than he actually did to support his work among a constituency that was more conservative than he, and which, desiring peace at almost any cost, was willing to practice self-delusion about its leadership on a large scale.
For more than a hundred years he had labored under the burden of a troubled conscience, particularly troublesome in a religion where ethics had by and large supplanted metaphysics—until sometime in the sixties (in the churches along with many other places) there was some kind of spiritual catch-release that legitimized redefinition of Christianity on a large scale. It opened a Pandora’s box of designer theologies summarized in and predicated upon the death of the old God, and for the greatest success of all with respect to the actual invasion of the churches with non-Christianity, the egalitarian bouleversement in which the symbolic life of the old faith was thoroughly subverted.
I would suggest that heightened levels of “honesty” in the liberal churches were necessary to produce an increasing level of insensitivity toward the fundamental alterations in “Christianity” that followed Honest to God—for creation of the atmosphere required to effect what Tillich thought necessary and Robinson helped to execute. The English bishop’s best-selling manifesto was a significant part of that release in mainline Protestantism in the English-speaking world.
A Full Circle
The new religion of our own day reflects its liberal origin in that it still uses the Bible and the forms of the older liturgies (albeit with neutered wording) and still professes Christianity—in fact, it claims to be a better-informed and more perfect form of the Christian faith than has heretofore been known or practiced. It still presumes to speak for the Christian community, still occupies the properties and livings provided for it by the old faith, still claims to be transparently honest to God in doing so. It has also succeeded in a place the old liberalism failed, establishing firm modernist beachheads in an Evangelicalism whose new egalitarian Bibles are as gloriously authoritative as the old ones.
It does not seem to concern itself very much with whether the miraculous element of Scripture is true, perhaps because those who think this important have long since died or left, or because this has become largely irrelevant in light of the positive message of the New Faith. The essence of this seems to be the ethics of Jesus conceived as a liberal and egalitarian reformer, through whom the mind and will of an androgynous God is expressed.
In a sense, a full circle has been completed, for the old metaphysical God so bothersome to Bishop Robinson seems to be recrudescing, the concern of his worshipers now being less whether that God is better found in the heights of the heavens or the depth of human existence, as whether his/her being and authority are in every appropriate respect diverse and equal. While one may question whether this particular religious form could have been accurately foreseen in the early sixties as a result of the kind of thinking one finds in Honest to God, it is in perfect accord with the quodlibetal character of the theological modernism for which Bishop Robinson was so effective an apologist.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.
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