Last week I was talking with a brother minister in a nearby town. I found him writing an appreciation of Bishop John Robinson’s book Honest to God because, he said, he had “long been troubled by the out-of-date vocabulary we so often use to describe our faith.” I had three things to suggest to him: the popular picture of the faithful old bishop disturbed by intellectual doubts is a false one; the “new morality” for which the bishop pleads would open the door to gross immorality and make it respectable; the bishop is not putting old truth into new language but is repudiating the basic doctrines by which our church lives.
This colleague of mine is a big, hearty fellow, a powerful preacher, the possessor of a Th.M. degree. Young enough to have been thoroughly exposed to “contemporary theological thinking” in recent seminary years, he has survived all that. He is typical of so many fine men in the church, a healthy-minded soul who finds it next to impossible to believe anything but the best about anyone. Least of all would it occur to him to doubt the bona fides of a bishop.
Men like my friend easily accept the picture emerging from the veritable welter of reviews of Honest to God—a picture of the good bishop as an honest laborer toiling away in his vineyard beside the Thames, while beset with gnawing doubts as to God’s whereabouts, whether to look up, down, or within. (The bishop seems to have ended halfway between “down” and “within,” without shedding any particular light on the problem of how to express the idea of transcendence.)
The real trouble is that this simply is not a true picture. It fails to do justice to the scope of Dr. Robinson’s rather considerable abilities. Dr. Michael Ramsey, whose office as Archbishop of Canterbury would remind him to think three times before rushing into print (especially to attack the motives of one of his own bishops), seemed to find Dr. Robinson somewhat less innocent and ingenuous than he is painted to be by most reviewers on this side of the Atlantic.
The Church Times (May 10, 1963) quotes Archbishop Ramsey as saying:
We are asked to think that the enterprise [of presenting these ideas] was a matter of being “tentative,” “thinking aloud,” “raising questions,” and the like. But the initial method chosen was a newspaper article, crystal clear in its argument and provocative in its shape and statement, to tell the public that the concept of a personal God as held both in popular Christianity and in orthodox doctrines is outmoded and that atheists and agnostics are right to reject it.
Dr. J. D. Douglas, British editorial director of CHRISTIANITY TODAY, did refer in an early article (see Current Religious Thought, June 21, 1963) to the archbishop’s strictures, quoting Dr. Ramsey’s statement that he was “specially grieved at the method chosen by the Bishop for presenting his ideas to the public.” Subsequent reviewers, however, seem to have paid little heed to this aspect of the matter.
We cannot understand the background of the archbishop’s strong words without knowing more about the activities and ideas of a whole group of men who have been in one way or another associated with Bishop Robinson. This, incidentally, is not the first time that the bishop has fallen afoul of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1961 Dr. Robinson was rebuked by Dr. Geoffrey Fisher, then Primate, for giving evidence in the trial arising out of the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and thus becoming “a stumbling block and a cause of offence to many ordinary Christians.” In his defense of this book Robinson had used the phrase “a kind of holy communion” to describe an adulterous relationship of Lady Chatterley.
One of the seven chapters in Honest to God is entitled “The New Morality.” This phrase, already well known, has become a sort of trademark of this whole group of men of whom Bishop Robinson is one. The central conception of Christian ethics that runs through all the various expressions of the “new morality” is a complete rejection of any divine sanction for any specific law, rule, or regulation. This idea is not, of course, original with these men. A good many modern theologians have been deeply impressed with the contrast between law and grace and have tried to reconstruct all of Christian ethics in terms of grace, without any law. In one form or another they end up with some variation on the theme that the only test for any action is whether or not it is inspired by love.
Nothing ‘Wrong’ Per Se
Archbishop Ramsey discusses all this in his recent booklet, Images Old and New, and concludes: “It is on a deductive theory from the concept of love, and not upon a full examination of Christ’s teaching, that the conclusion is being drawn that ‘nothing of itself can be labelled as wrong.’ ” This agape-act morality has thus been taken up by these men around Dr. Robinson. What distinguishes the “new morality” group is the drastic way they have pushed application of the idea to its limits, especially in regard to sexual morality.
In his chapter on the subject Robinson refers to an article by H. A. Williams in Soundings, a symposium edited by A. R. Vidler and published by the Cambridge University Press in 1962 (see the CHRISTIANITY TODAY book review, January 18, 1963). Williams is dean of Trinity College, and Vidler is dean of King’s College. Inasmuch as Robinson was formerly dean of Clare College, a sort of “Cambridge Group” is suggested.
The article by Williams that Robinson cites gives a sample of what is meant by the “new morality.” “Sexual intercourse outside marriage,” he says, “may be often, perhaps almost always, an exploitation, unilateral or mutual. But there are cases where it need not be and is not.” He takes examples from two recent films. The first portrays how a nervous sailor acquires confidence in himself through the way a prostitute gives herself to him. “What is seen is an act of charity which proclaims the glory of God,” says Williams. “He [the sailor] goes away a deeper, fuller person than when he came in.” The second film shows how a man strongly attracted by small girls finds the courage to go to bed with an older woman. He does it, and “they sleep together, and he has been made whole,” Williams concludes, adding: “and where there is healing, there is Christ, whatever the Church may say about fornication. And the proper response is—Glory to God in the Highest” (pp. 81, 82).
It is little wonder that Mr. Williams refused to accept the challenge of the Archbishop of Wales, in correspondence in the Church Times, to state categorically that fornication is wrong. He obviously believes that it is right—sometimes.
Another member of the group who has repeatedly made the headlines on the “new morality” is Douglas Rhymes, canon of Southwark Cathedral, seat of the very diocese in which Robinson is a suffragan bishop. Rhymes preached a sermon in the cathedral last March that attracted considerable notice. Time magazine (July 26, 1963) quotes him as saying: “Christ nowhere suggested that marriage was the only place where sexual relationships could take place.” Also in that sermon he declared: “A great deal of the prejudice against homosexuality is on the grounds that it is unnatural. But for whom? Certainly not for the homosexual.” What Rhymes makes of Paul’s remarks in Romans 1:26 and 27 was not stated, but he evidently does not consider Paul an authority.
The extent and spread of the cult of the homosexual in our times is hard to grasp for those who do not meet the force of its drive. The New York Times of December 17, 1963, carried a report covering almost a full page on the alarming spread of “overt homosexuality” in New York. A book written by a homosexual under a pseudonym pleads for acceptance of homosexuality as normal and right in Britain. The writer names many well-known men as homosexuals and claims there are at least two million of them in his country. The British public is more aware of this problem than the American, and in the popular mind the “new morality” group is considered the champion and one of the great hopes of these deviates in their campaign to win popular acceptance. They want to become respectable. This is the door we are helping to open when we accept Bishop Robinson as a guide in faith and morals.
My minister friend is not alone in supposing that Bishop Robinson has performed a service to the Church in suggesting an overhaul of our Christian vocabulary. Typical of this soft-headed thinking was the item in the Presbyterian Outlook editorial on the highlights of 1963 that said: “Bishop Robinson called the Christian community to re-examine the language it uses in expressing its faith and to new efforts to relate this to the real world” (issue of December 23, 1963).
Making Truth Fit
This idea, however, calls for further examination. Every thinking Christian wants to translate the expression of his faith into language that can be understood by his hearers. On that we all agree. But when we adopt a system of thought that will admit no room at all for a personal God who exists as a Being in his own right, then the translation of our knowledge of God into that language becomes meaningless. It is like undertaking to describe a cube to a being whose whole universe contains only two dimensions. Bishop Robinson’s language does not represent a translation of an old conviction into a new idiom. It is rather the complete attenuation or distortion of the truth in an attempt to fit it into an idiom that offers no possible place for such truth.
Many of us have been content to go on about our business as pastors, while allowing the theologians to play around with their complicated cerebrations, as if it were a sort of game. We knew that Paul Tillich’s ideas of a non-theistic God would have been utterly destructive of faith if people had understood what he was saying. But we did not lose sufficient sleep over it, for we were sure his ideas would never be understood by more than a very few of his fellow theologians. Now Robinson has done what Tillich failed to do. He has made these ideas popular, and even to a certain extent understandable. Instead of shouting “Heresy!” now, we should have fought that battle energetically at its source in our theological faculties.
Canon Theodore O. Wedel, reviewing Honest to God in The Episcopalian (August, 1963) puts it thus:
The Bishop is not committing a crime in revealing to a wider public what has been going on for a generation and longer in the world of advanced theological learning.… Honest to God is simply a bold, and as some theologians may say, premature opening of a Pandora’s box of theological novelties under debate among doctors of the schools behind the scenes.
But Canon Wedel seems ready to accept these ideas himself, and wishes that people could be anesthetized before being exposed to them so that they could be absorbed less painfully. Indeed, few say simply and clearly that this is heresy, and we will have none of it.
The ordinary Christian reader feels himself swamped under the avalanche of words that greeted this volume. Most church papers were not content to review it in the ordinary way, but assigned a whole squad of reviewers to produce a symposium. Thus, even though perhaps the majority of the reviews reject or partially reject the basic premises of the bishop’s heretical attack on theism, the rejection is all done so tentatively and tactfully that the reader is left with the impression that here is an epochal book. The God about whom Robinson is talking is not the God the Bible reveals. It is not the God of the creeds of the Church. It is not God.
The question of the part in all this taken by Westminster Press, the American publisher of a paperback edition of Honest to God, needs asking and answering. The clearly heretical character of the teaching of the book prompts an enquiry about the function of a denominational press. In the case of a volume assured of a whirlwind sale, is it enough to argue, “If we don’t publish it, someone else will”? Is there no responsibility to see beyond commercial opportunism and to be alert to the forces of evil at large in the world?
And now the sequel is out, also published in this country by Westminster Press: The Honest to God Debate (see Current Religious Thought, January 31, 1964). Among the essayists who contributed to it is Alasdair MacIntyre, fellow of University College, Oxford, whose short chapter begins: “What is striking about Dr. Robinson’s book is first and foremost that he is an atheist.” Yet the bishop is given the last word, and he smooths over the cracks and rough places so that a general euphoria prevails. Both books will make money. But useful though money is, that money would burn a hole in my pocket.
Freedom That Really Frees
“Freedom” is a much used and abused word, as is “imprisonment.” A man can be imprisoned and yet be free. Or he can be free and yet imprisoned. Man is imprisoned only when he is imprisoned within himself.
Bars of past failure, regret, and self-pity cage more men than do bars of steel. Prisoners do not become free when their keepers release them into a so-called free society. They become free only when they have found peace within themselves.
In prison you find many hopeful men. However, many of them were once hopeless. Suffering for their past mistakes, they needed something to free them from their guilt and shame, something to fill the void in their lives. They searched the prison over, trying all kinds of physical things to satisfy their need; but no wordly thing could satisfy. They went to psychologists and educators in order to fill the void; but mortal words would not suffice. Their need could be met and their void filled only by the Word of God.
Most prisoners realize that there is something better in life than greed, violence, passion, and prison. When brought in contact with the Bible, many find that to be good, to be respectable, to lead worthwhile lives, is what they have really wanted all the time. The Bible points the way. Daily Bible reading can give prisoners the strength to overcome the evil influences of their environment. Often their longings for the good things in life are buried under layers of evil thoughts and deeds, but the Word of God can bring these longings to the surface.
In God lies the Perfect Rehabilitation. Outward rehabilitation is often brought about through educational, vocational, or recreational programs, but this type of rehabilitation always leaves room for doubt. If education, vocational skills, or athletic prowess is the answer to the problem of criminality in man, why then do college graduates, skilled tradesmen, or athletes come to prison? No, these things can only improve man, not reform him. True rehabilitation can come only through the heart, and only the Eternal Word of God is capable of piercing man’s tough skin.
Men who have found God through his Holy Word are free. No prison regulation, no legislative act, can make them more free. When prisoners have found God, his guiding presence pierces the gray specter of meaninglessness and gives them dignity, meaning, and hope.
When a man has found God, he walks in freedom within prison walls.—Dr. H. Park Tucker, chaplain, Atlanta Penitentiary, Atlanta, Georgia.
Howard Carson Blake is pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Weslaco, Texas. He is a graduate of Princeton University with highest honors in classics and membership in Phi Beta Kappa and has also studied at Princeton Theological Seminary and Oxford University.
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