Honest to God and the Salvation Theology of LLF

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This is the opening section of a chapter from the book I’ve nearly completed. Re-reading it this morning, I realised that my theology – my vision of God – is entirely absent from the Living in Love and Faith book. The theology of the book is exclusively Salvation Theology. My theology has evolved over the past sixty years but my roots are still in what I intuited at the age of fifteen, an intuition that was confirmed three years later when Honest to God was published. I offer this as a commentary on the failures of the LLF book and the present College of Bishops, whose theology, based on LLF, is conservatively naive. Read on …

HONEST TO GOD

I was seventeen years old when Honest to God was published in March 1963; before the month was out it had been reprinted three times. I had bought a copy and read it with relief, discovering that all those things I didn’t believe about God weren’t believed by a bishop in my diocese either. I had worked out by the age of fifteen or sixteen that many of the narratives in the Bible simply couldn’t be true and that many other Biblical themes and teachings presented a God who was hostile to human and social health and flourishing. I don’t know where I found the courage to abandon trust in the foundational truths of the Bible and Christian teaching and dogma. Perhaps it was in conversation with the newly-ordained curate, fresh down from Cambridge.

Reading Honest to God didn’t change my commitment to my local church but it did spur me to buy other books – my copies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison and George Macleod’s Only One Way Left date from 1964, to be followed by God’s Frozen People by Gibbs and Morton in 1965 and Guide to the Debate about God by David Jenkins in 1966. The 1960s were a particularly rich period when these and other authors published books that both resonated with my experience and belief system and eventually motivated me to switch from a potential career as an architect to pursue ordination in the Church of England. I made the move in 1975 when Christianity still seemed to be exploring the nature of faith and God with great vigour and adventure.

Honest to God was the book that both confirmed my construction of faith and my disbelief in, as John Robinson puts it in his preface, the idea of God ‘up there’, which still seemed to be the belief system of my church, with a three-decker universe: heaven above, earth beneath, and the waters under the earth or hell somewhere in the depths of the earth. These ideas were combined with a mental image of ‘an old man in the sky’ with a long white beard sitting on a throne above the clouds surrounded by angels. Robinson was convinced there was a growing gulf between the traditional orthodox supernaturalism in which faith had been framed and the categories which the ‘lay’ world found meaningful, by which he meant people both inside and outside the church, those who, like me, found this way of thinking about God, the world and reality quite unbelievable. Robinson said he shared instinctively the inability of humanists to “accept the scheme of thought and mould of religion within which alone . . . faith is being offered to him. I feel he is right to rebel against it, and I am increasingly uncomfortable that ‘orthodoxy’ should be identified with it.” Nearly sixty years later, I wonder how many of our current bishops would risk expressing the same revolutionary thought.

In a BBC TV broadcast on Sunday, November 4, 1962, Dr Alex Vidler, Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, had concluded by saying: “We’ve got a very big leeway to make up, because there’s been so much suppression of real, deep thought and intellectual alertness and integrity in the Church.” For saying this he was bitterly attacked. Robinson commented that what dismays him “is the vehemence – and at bottom the insecurity – of those who feel that the Faith can only be defended by branding as enemies within the camp those who do not find the traditional framework of metaphysics and morals entirely acceptable.”

Robinson’s final paragraph in the preface to Honest to God is worth quoting in full:

“I believe there are all too uncomfortable analogies to the ecclesiastical scene of a hundred years ago [referencing the Colenso trial] when (as we now recognise) the guardians of the traditional orthodoxy all but rendered impossible the true defence of the Gospel. When we consider the distance we have all moved since then, we can see that almost everything said from within the Church at the time has since proved too conservative. What I have tried to say, in a tentative and exploratory way, may seem too radical, and doubtless to many heretical. The one thing of which I am fairly sure is that, in retrospect, it will be seen to have erred in not being nearly radical enough.”

I wrote the first draft of this chapter immediately prior to the January 2017 Anglican Primates’ meeting which was being boycotted by a number of Archbishops who are members of the GAFCON coalition. They were issuing threats to those Provinces which are welcoming LGBTI people into the church with open arms, blessing relationships and celebrating marriage equality. Robinson’s theology would be judged heretical by them as well, I have no doubt. Today the Church of England is still being held to ransom by conservatives who reject the adventurous theology being explored in the century prior to Honest to God and in the decades following its publication. Those inside today’s Church who believe in the kind of theology laid out by John Robinson are almost entirely silent on the nature of their personal belief systems. The institution has effectively abandoned the adventurous, life-giving exploration that Robinson’s ‘little book’ attempted to initiate. Perhaps our bishops still believe in and are able to work with and preach about a God who is spiritually or metaphysically ‘out there’. The idea of God ‘out there’ dies very hard, a God who ‘exists’ above and beyond the world ‘He’ made. The doctrines of the Trinity, Creation, and Salvation rely on this spatial and anthropomorphic imagery. Much thinking about a God ‘out there’ has been crudely metaphysical, located in some physical terra incognita in some extreme part of the cosmos. The advances in our exploration of the dimensions of the cosmos mean that there is now no room for that kind of image of God in the entire physical universe.

RELUCTANT REVOLUTION: UP THERE OR OUT THERE?

The picture of God a ‘out there’ coming to earth like some visitor from outer space underlay every popular presentation of the Christian drama of salvation both in the pulpit and the print media when Robinson wrote Honest to God in 1963,. Those who were most successful in communicating the Christian message – Dorothy L. Sayers, C.S. Lewis and J.B. Phillips – were all boldly anthropomorphic in their use of mythological language about God, referencing a God ‘up there’. But Robinson noted the signs that a point was being reached at which the whole conception of a God ‘out there’ was becoming more of a hindrance than a help. Indeed, he said, the speed of adjustment required is unprecedented. If that was true in 1963, how much more urgent is the need for radical adjustment now.

Some kind of adjustment had already been made by many from the concept of a God ‘up there’ to a God ‘out there’. But the next adjustment, necessitating the abandonment of a God ‘out there’ represents a much more radical break.

“To be asked to give up any idea of a Being ‘out there’ at all [would] appear to be an outright denial of God. To the ordinary way of thinking, to believe in God means to be convinced of the existence of such a supreme and separate Being. ’Theists’ are those who believe that such a Being exists.” (Robinson, 1963)

So what were the radical, possibly heretical, ideas that Robinson explored in Honest to God, ideas that so resonated with me then and continue to resonate now (ideas which others, outside the institutional system mostly, have continued to explore and adventure beyond)? Robinson titled his first chapter Reluctant Revolution.

A radical questioning of the established ‘religious frame’ had been taking place for over two decades. Rudolf Bultmann published his manifesto New Testament and Mythology in 1941, though it wasn’t translated into English until 1953. Robinson says it created “an almost immediate explosion.” I like the phrase ‘almost immediate’. The explosive ripples took some time to reach the shores of the United Kingdom, let alone to impact the consciousness of the Church of England. Bultmann contended that the ‘mythological’ element in the New Testament was unintelligible jargon to ‘modern man’. The use of ‘mythological’ language of pre-existence, incarnation, ascent and descent, miraculous intervention, cosmic catastrophe, and so on by the New Testament writers made sense only on a completely antiquated world view, rendering the message unbelievable. If Bultmann’s programme of ‘demythologising’ the whole question of God ‘out there’ was right, then the entire conception of a supernatural order which invades and ‘perforates’ this one must be abandoned. If so, what do we mean by God, by revelation, and what becomes of Christianity?

The second radical author referenced by Robinson was Paul Tillich, specifically a sermon in his collection The Shaking of the Foundations (1949). The sermon was titled ‘The Depth of Existence’ and opened Robinson’s eyes to the “transformation that seemed to come over so much of the traditional religious symbolism when it was transposed from the heights to the depths.” God, Tillich, was saying, is not a projection ‘out there’, an Other beyond the skies, of whose existence we have to convince ourselves, but the Ground of our very being”, infinite and inexhaustible, the source of our being. This language ‘lit up’ for Robinson and “formed one of the streams below the surface that were to collect into the underground river of which I have since become conscious.”

Thirdly, Robinson registered the impact of the passages about Christianity without religion in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison published in 1952. He thought at once that the Church was not yet ready for what Bonhoeffer was saying, and that it might only properly be understood a hundred years hence.

“Hitherto, Bonheoffer was saying, the Church has based its preaching of the Gospel on the appeal to religious experience, to the fact that deep down every person feels the need for religion in some form, the need for a God to whom to give themselves, a God in terms of whom to explain the world. But suppose people come to feel that they can get along perfectly well without ‘religion’, without any desire for personal salvation, without any sense of sin, without any need of ‘that hypothesis’? Is Christianity to be confined to those who still have this sense of insufficiency, this ‘God-shaped blank’, or who can be induced to have it? Bonhoeffer’s answer was to say that God is deliberately calling us in this twentieth century to a form of Christianity that does not depend on the premise of religion . . .”

What that meant, says Robinson, he hardly began to understand, but he knew it was something we must learn to assimilate: the system could not simply eject it.