12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on 10 August 2009
If sex began in 1963 between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP, then "Honest to God" is what happened to the Church of England.
Here, a bishop seemed to be arguing against much of what the Church stood for.
"Our image of God must go," he said, and his clarion call sold 750,000 copies within 9 months, a million copies over the next three years. This was the unlikeliest of overnight sensations that catapulted Liberal Protestant German theology into the centre of English intellectual life.
At the simplest level, I'm convinced that the catchy title and the iconic cover helped. And it's quite wordy: I can't believe that everyone got to the end, even though it's only 140 pages long.
The gist of Robinson's idea is that for too long the Church has talked of God as if he's out there, effectively a God of the gaps. This is a God that modern science has discredited.
Rather, God is the depth at the centre of life.
"The line between those who believe in God and those who do not bears little relation to their profession of the existence or non-existence of such a Being. It is a question, rather, of their openness to the holy, the sacred, in the unfathomable depths of even the most secular relationship."
Now for some, such a God is no God at all, and this Christianity is really humanism. The young Alasdair McIntyre reviewed the book and stated baldly: "What is striking about Dr Robinson's book first and foremost is that he is an atheist."
For others, Robinson's synthesis of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer was much closer to the God they believed in: indeed, it allowed them to believe when traditional church teaching got in the way.
For still others, the trouble was that the hoi polloi were reading it: it might be alright to have this discussion in the academy, but don't tell the plebs. They won't understand.
And indeed, churchgoing suffered a catastrophic drop in the Sixties. For many, this was Robinson's fault, or the fault of people like him. For Robinson, this was because he and people like him hadn't gone far enough.
In retrospect, you can sort of see the Sixties in this book. It's written presuming church attendance in a way you just wouldn't do today, and it's very hippy.
It's also too vague: living with a faith in God is really just taking life seriously and reverently. In short, it's a short step from John Robinson to Don Cupitt.
But then, that's not a necessary step to take, and it's also important to honour Robinson's book at a time when theological conservatism is back in the upswing.
Almost 50 years now, Robinson stated liberal theological truths in a way that few bishops today would dare to do so, even if they did believe it.
This is a brave book and a brilliant one, and it is the last book of theology in the UK ever to have had any sort of impact on the intellectual mainstream.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 9 December 2013
A more disingenuous title can hardly be imagined . So far, by page 46, God hardly seems to figure, him being so obsolete and all, and honesty only seems to mean that he admits to being bewildered by Christianity; yet he refuses to simply resign his job as bishop as an honest man would do. Anglicanism seems to consist for him as something without Christianity. Pictures of him, brow furrowed over his clerical collar, show that early-to-mid 20th century intellectual churchman; one of those who had not yet owned up to their theological bankruptcy. I started to read this book because of an article on the BBC website written by an apostate priest whose brother I once knew .
The most interesting aspect of the book (hence, two stars instead of one) is Robinson's perception of the gap between Christianity and European culture; the gap gleefully described by Stuart Murray as the end of Christendom . That gap is also described by Hans Rookmaaker in the context of art . Robinson correctly identifies the fallacy of the god of the gaps, but does not rise to the philosophical challenge of then understanding just who god is beyond the gaps. He can understand the god of superstition, but not the god of faith. He can see mythological function, but not mythological truth. In this he is an extraordinarily naïve and pedestrian thinker. For Robinson, the lack of consensus within European culture means that Christianity itself, Christ himself, must be lacking; he mistakes cultural perceptions for epistemological absolutes. For this liberal theologian, the fact that many do not believe means that the belief must be wrong, that a new belief must be found that is palatable to the many. This is the tail wagging the dog. To admit that teaching and preaching had failed to communicate the Gospel to a new generation would be a statement of fact; to admit that the church was itself a cultural artefact from the past would be accurate; but neither seems palatable to Robinson. Somehow, he says, the Gospel must be separated from Christianity, or at least for what has passed for Christianity in the past. It is not he or the church that has failed, but God. The idea of Gospel seems deeply entrenched in his psyche, but he seems unaware of just how nonsensical it is to speak of a Gospel apart from God. He does not seem to be using the word generically, as describing a phenomenon of desire or religious experience, but that the Church and the Gospel have an objective existence separate from God and that their role in the New Age must be found as part of new human experience, as if humans had objectively changed. This is pure Darwinian liberalism, and pure anthropology from the point of view of Barth, and puerile theology which I am surprised anyone with any faith or nous took seriously. Ther's nowt so queer as folk. It is an interesting coincidence that when Robinson published this, over in America, the producer and convener of the Righteous Brothers had his own crisis of faith. He too could see the disconnect between Christianity and culture, and subsequently sought to make a church for baby boomers; he was John Wimber. The idiocy of Robinson was that he sought to recreate the gospel without God, but keeping the ordinal and liturgical forms intact; Wimber sought to recreate the church, but keeping the Gospel intact. Robinson's view of deity became of a kind of pantheism. To paraphrase Chesterton, when people stop believing in god, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything.
An interesting stumbling block for Robinson is his apparent inability to understand eternity. He keeps referring to the problem of god being localised or personified as 'up there' or 'out there', and thus of the impossibility of incarnation or any metaphor of god's relationship to earth. He does not describe how to communicate God's separateness from creation without such terms; indeed, he does not seem to want to do this, and his pantheism explains why. The scientific viewpoint which for him overwhelms his understanding does not obviate such language; the universe has limits but they are not described concisely in science. Light seems to move at the speed which limits all transmission, so the observable universe can be theoretically limited by that knowledge . No one has discerned an edge to it though, and no one can confidently describe its overall shape, so these things are mysterious. It is not complex though to make the assertion that if God made the universe and he is not part of it, that somehow he exists outside the universe but can look into it. We cannot see out of the universe, hence God's transcendence, but we can respond to his presence, hence God's immanence. We can observe God acting, and remember it, hence the Scriptures. This has nothing to do with clouds, or medieval world views, or the technologies of any time. The usages of up and down are definitively subjective, as are east and west, but that fact that east and west do not exist as places does not mean they are useless terms, any more than past or present. The great paradox of the knowledge of god is the interrelation of time and eternity; God has put eternity in the hearts of men .
The whole argument of Robinson presupposes that there is no reality to conversion, no spiritual regeneration, no renewal, no sanctification, no work of the Holy Spirit as per the accounts of the Apostles; that these things are simply myths in the base sense; fanciful or unreal stories illustrating desire or fear. A constant dichotomy is the religious as opposed to the ... Christian? This common reference displays dissatisfaction with practice, but does not allow for a genuinely new ideal. The word religion means that which we do, whether in church as such or not; to stigmatise the word creates a need for a new word, but such a word will have an equivalent meaning. The rejection of the word implies a rejection of something, and that something is what Robinson is attempting to define in this book, at the same time as he attempts to find what he does want. My own take is that he needs to be converted in order to discover the truth of the Gospel, and that his dissatisfaction is simply the dissatisfaction of play-acting Christianity without Christ; in other words as an unconverted churchman, in the words of Jesus, an hypocrite. But he dismisses such conversions as merely the lunatic fringe of the church; such folly to the Greeks and stumbling blocks to the Jews as trivialising what the Gospel really is. Once converted, such semantics would cease to be so important, except as rhetoric. His dismissal of conversion would inhibit his ever discovering the truth of it, were it not for the Lord's gracious humility, and willingness to circumvent our stubbornness, and bring us to saving knowledge of himself, redeeming us and healing us, and restoring us to himself. This is the Gospel. Maybe it did happen, by his devoted study of the Apostles teaching .
The conclusion of the book attempts to contradict many of the impressions gained during the reading of it, but in the end the optional buttresses, the lesser commitments as he calls them, are the particular myth of the Incarnation, the particular code of morals are equivalated with a particular pattern of religion. He warns that we must cling to Christ and not to them, and not insist on them being the way to Christ, and that for many they are barriers and not supports.
My response is to ask quite what Christ can be without the scandal of particularity? To be a man, he has to have been born at a time, in a place, as an individual. Without that, the whole Deuteronomistic theme of Scripture is nonsense; that God acts, and that God speaks and demands of us a response; that God has chosen to act in a certain way, in a certain place, in a certain time, and that is his free choice according to His Will; that all this is God's self disclosure; His revelation of Himself by his saving acts. The Christ left behind after the particulars are removed is nothing but a vague idea; a nebulosity; a nothingness. It remains as wishful thinking with no root in reality.
This conclusion still seems to me that he cannot separate the artefact of the church from the church's witness; the message of the Gospel from the culture of its transmission. For him then the invalidity of the artefact describes the invalidity of the message; I would assert that they are completely separate; the artefact may be a product of the message, and if so, and if properly understood in the context of its time, then its message can be still be good. Like any other foreign language, it can be mistranslated or misunderstood. It is interesting to write this at Pentecost, when remembering the reversal of Babel; it also underlines the point that the Gospel is nonsense to the perishing. The Gospel has become incomprehensible to him and to his people. Only by this same Holy Spirit can Salvation be intelligible and experienced. Then it becomes the wisdom of God, the sign of Life.
He speaks of liberal theologians as other than himself, but liberal method with its emphasis upon reason and experience is what he describes, and extraordinarily, he wants to define Christ in terms selected by those who do not know Christ; the idea of a message to proclaim, to be informing those ignorant of the truth, to be spreading Good News is ignored under the assumption that Christ is already known by all, and that we merely articulate what all otherwise know. Quite what we are articulating if the divine self-disclosure is ignored he does not pretend to know; all he knows is that he doesn't know; he is truly agnostic.
In the 2001 printing, Rowan Williams provides an after word. I feel vindicated in that he says almost exactly the same things as I, but nuanced rather differently; likewise a couple of the reviews in Amazon . One says how brilliant this is; verbose and diffident Williams learnedly vacillates, as is his wont. If I lacked confidence in my conclusion before, I do so no longer.