JOHN ROBINSON, Bishop of Woolwich, is 44, a ban-the-bomb marcher, member of the Labour party, defender of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, opponent of capital punishment, and campaigner for reform of severe legislation against homosexuality (“a peculiarly odious piece of English hypocrisy”). On his consecration in 1959 he publicly vowed to be “ready with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s Word.”
A few months ago Robinson’s paperback Honest to God hit the market (SCM Press, London; Westminster Press, Philadelphia). Currently at the top of the non-fiction best-seller list in England, sales to date total some 200,000. The effect it has produced is astounding. Despite a boost from the pulpit of Westminster Abbey from a preacher who turned out to be the publisher of the book, it has been denounced by the Archbishop of Canterbury as rejecting the concept of a personal God as expressed in the Bible. An Oxford don complained that the bishop was making it increasingly difficult to be an atheist; a humanist-agnostic acknowledged the bishop’s “gratuitous contribution to our basic standpoint”; a left-wing columnist welcomed the idea of “a non-Christian bishop”; and London’s Daily Herald hailed the “agonising and unusual spectacle—a bishop gasping for truth.”
In a confused opening section Robinson scoffs at what he considers our outdated image of God as “up there” or “out there”—neither the literal nor the symbolic view will do. He suggests the Freudians might be right: that “the God of traditional popular theology is a projection, and perhaps we are being called to live without that projection in any form.… actually the Bible speaks in literal terms of a God whom we have already abandoned.” Does it? Have we? What is not at all clear is what Robinson is putting in place of the view “we” are discarding.
In other sections of the book the argument becomes clearer, but the tone ceases to be speculative and becomes astonishingly dogmatic. Thus pages 118, 119: “The only intrinsic evil is lack of love.… this is the criterion for every form of behaviour, inside marriage or out of it, in sexual ethics or in any other field. For nothing, else makes a thing right or wrong.” Unless words are carefully defined, this is dangerous nonsense. “When we want to read of the deeds that are done for love,” said George Bernard Shaw sixty years ago, “whither do we turn? To the murder column.”
Of the Atonement, Robinson says: “The whole schema of a supernatural Being coming down from heaven to ‘save’ mankind from sin, in the way that a man might put his finger into a glass of water to rescue a struggling insect, is frankly incredible to man ‘come of age’.… the ‘full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world’ supposed to have been ‘made’ on Calvary requires, I believe, for most men today more demythologizing even than the Resurrection” (pp. 78, 79). Apart from such destructive criticism, many will find offensive the impression given that these are the sort of conclusions necessarily arrived at if men are thoughtful about religion, and don’t want to be branded as incorrigibly square. The impression is confirmed when we read page 70 on the Incarnation: “The belief that we are at this point and in this person in touch with God has increasingly been left to the religious minority that can still accept the old mythology as physically or metaphysically true.” But on this subject the bishop goes further. “Jesus was not a man born and bred,” he asserts, “he was God for a limited period taking part in a charade. He looked like a man, but underneath he was God dressed up—like Father Christmas.” Well, he’s got the point across, but many will never forgive him for the way he did it.
At other times Robinson shows an odd pseudo-pragmatic approach. In one section redolent of engaging candor he tells how the whole of the teaching on prayer he received in his theological college meant little: “… it was an impressive roundabout: but one was simply not on it—and, what was worse, had no particular urge to be.” Because what his teachers said here rang no bell with him, that was the end of it—he found then, and confirmed later, that he was not “the praying type,” that he had no “proficiency for it” (pp. 20, 92, 93).
In this book the names of Bonhoeffer and Tillich are freely bandied about, and both are extensively quoted. The latter scholar’s name especially might serve to explain an incredible reference on page 21, where Robinson admits: “I cannot claim to have understood all I am trying to transmit.” He might profess not to know what the message was when it left him, but when it gets to us it seems perilously like a major and determined attack upon Christian orthodoxy—though on occasion the Tillichian big guns are called into service to demolish a pitiable caricature of the faith.
Dr. Ramsey said that he was “specially grieved at the method chosen by the Bishop for presenting his ideas to the public.” Dr. Ramsey is completely right: his words go straight to the heart of the situation. That Robinson realized the potential offense, as any intelligent man would, can be seen from his preface, which forecast that many would consider his book heretical.
After indulging in his little exercise in controversial divinity, Dr. Robinson continues in office as a bishop in the church of Christ. Perhaps on September 30, the fourth anniversary of his consecration, he might read again in the Book of Common Prayer words addressed to him on that occasion: “Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not. Hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcasts, seek the lost. Be so merciful, that ye be not too remiss; so minister discipline, that you forget not mercy: that when the chief Shepherd shall appear ye may receive the never-fading crown of glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
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