Bishop John A. T. Robinson’s book, Honest to God, has now sold about half a million copies, a remarkable record for any book having to do with theology. It has stirred up a storm hardly expected by the bishop, who has followed it with a kind of retractatio—properly translated “reconsideration”—entitled Christian Morals Today, in which he takes a look at the row his first book created. Whatever else may be said about these books, it cannot be denied that the author has aroused interests that needed to be aroused. And there may be something to be gained from this kind of theological liberalism that at long last brings out into the open theological views that needed to be brought out.

Simply put, Robinson’s thesis is that it is high time the Christian recognized and accepted the full significance of the secularity of modern man and rejected the traditional model of a reality that distinguishes God from this world for a frankly secular and non-supernaturalistic model of reality. For the new model, so-called, God is “the beyond in our midst”—to use Bonhoeffer’s words. It rejects the distinction between the eternal and the perishable. God, or whatever one wishes to call the divine, becomes a quality of human experience, a something we discover in our midst that is not other-worldly but transcendent in Tillich’s special non-supernatural sense of the term. What the bishop says seems to derive from a conviction that the objectivity of God need not be that of a Personal Being as such; it may be that of a quality of interpersonal experience that is literally Christ in our midst.

Robinson’s thesis is better reflected in the title which he originally intended for his book but which his publisher replaced with “Honest to God.” The original title was a question, “A New Mutation in Christianity?,” by which he intended “to draw attention to the contribution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from which,” he says, “I began and on which I intended the emphasis to fall.” His thesis, which he has not substantially altered, is that no particular conception of God is the right or wrong one, but that conceptions having their home in the traditional two-fold world are uncongenial to modern minds and are increasingly unable to attract new believers or hold old ones. The idea of man as created in God’s image is incommensurate, he argues, with modern secular man’s conception of himself as man come of age. Therefore the whole stance of Christianity, so far as it deals with God or with man, must be reshaped if it is to speak to a world for whom the traditional God has become an anachronism. For most people, the bishop argues, this traditional God “has no connection with what really concerns them day by day.” In a subsequent discussion of the storm his book created, he freely acknowledged that Honest to God was “a piece of missionary theology” directed to the “secular man,” who, the bishop insists, “is just as much inside the Church as out of it.”

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A Burden Released

All this seems to indicate that the bishop’s purpose was to speak to those who have, by and large, wanted to believe but presumably cannot. It is the release of their great burden—and possibly the bishop’s as well—to discover that what they had been expected to believe was not really what Christianity was all about after all.

But for those who believe and, as they confess, believe with God’s help, Robinson’s reinterpretations are a rightful cause for perplexity and alarm. His accommodations to the non-believer stretch out of all recognition the collective witness of historic Christianity. They stretch this witness into propositions about God, acceptance of which would put into the Christian community those who both reject and resent being included as well as those who want to be included but presumably cannot believe. It is interesting that Robinson’s “new mutation” of Christianity is no more palatable to the Julian Huxleys and Bertrand Russells than the old Christianity. Indeed, it is less palatable, if only because it is not so clear as the old about just what it is that believers are supposed to believe or about what it is that believers are supposed to believe that non-believers do not.

Lament Of The Atheist

Writing in the Observer, Julian Huxley spoke of the new language of Tillich used by Robinson as a kind of “semantic cheating [that is] so vague as to be effectively meaningless.” As far as the atheism of Huxley and Russell is concerned, if there is no God, then there is no God of any kind anywhere. These men lament that in Robinson the honest atheist is no longer able to recognize as his own the doctrines that were supposed to make him an atheist. For now he must sing with the saints whether he chooses to or not. If he acknowledges that there is such as thing as ultimate reality, and ultimate concern, or a depth of human relationships called love—and he can hardly avoid doing so—he cannot be let off as being the old-fashioned humanist he prefers to be; he must acknowledge that he is with Christ and Christ is with him. To the bona fide secularist or atheist, Robinson appears to be operating a kind of theological fifth column.

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But there is a sense in which what Robinson says is what classical Christian writers have always said. One does not need Robinson or Tillich to tell him that God is in or at the depth of his being. Nor does one need Bonhoeffer to speak of the Christ who is found in the warp and woof of everyday life. We have always been told this, and in rare and precious moments we have discovered this for ourselves. But Robinson is not satisfied merely to restate old truths. He wants us to give up old ways of thinking—if not for our own sake, then for the sake of others for whom the old images are a snare and a delusion. Even if we understand biblical language, we should alter it for the sake of those who do not.

To oppose this kind of argument is difficult, because the Christian knows very well that he should yield all for Christ’s sake. And there is something terribly true about the dangers of idolatrous imagery and dogma. Yet there is also something logically odd about trading on ideas whose truth becomes a condition of their rejection. “Where,” the philosopher asks, “does Bishop Robinson get his criteria for establishing the character of the Gospel? Who speaks for the Gospel? for Christianity?”

Let us frankly acknowledge, as we must, that there is a bewildering variety of interpretations of the kerygma. But does this state of affairs justify a claim to priority for still another proposal concerning it—this time from outside the historic community? Are not Christians themselves the proper source of data for any consensus on the Gospel or what the Scriptures have to say about it? Robinson displays an almost callous disregard for the language and beliefs of the worshiping and witnessing Christian.

Bertrand Russell once complained that he no longer knew what it meant to be a Christian, since those beliefs that were supposed to identify Christians were often held with greater conviction by non-Christians. No doubt Russell’s concern was something less than Christian missionary zeal; yet he was nonetheless justified in demanding definitive characteristics for the Christian God, the Gospel, and other Christian truths. Now, Bishop Robinson may speak of God in any way he chooses, so long as what he says better portrays what the Scriptures and the Christian community have to say. But has what he says done this? Yes and no. Yes, if some believers and non-believers have put God somewhere out there in space and need to bring him down into the depths of their spiritual and social lives. Here Robinson’s statements would serve primarily to remind us of the common misunderstandings of Christians everywhere. As such they would not introduce competing rules of use for Christian language, as the linguistic philosopher might put it. But the answer is No, if “better portrays what the Scriptures and the Christian community have to say” means getting rid of the imagery and reality of a personal God.

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Robinson says he does not intend to deprive the Christian of his two-world image with its personal God. But at the same time he says that this image ought to be superseded by Tillichian imagery. How can Robinson justify his recommendation other than by showing that Tillichian imagery better portrays what believers have believed all along? And he cannot justify his new model solely on grounds of missionary expediency; for even if this were a good reason, it by no means follows that the new model would appeal to non-believers as, for example, in the case of Julian Huxley above.

Neither does it follow that the old model would not appeal to some non-believers. That many moderns are rejecting the Gospel does not make a case for Robinson, because there have always been rejections of the Gospel. This has never been a good reason for putting the Gospel through a “new mutation”—although restorations of it have been necessary. On the contrary, the Christian is thankfully and joyfully amazed at the knowledge of the continuing power of the Gospel wherever and whenever it has been proclaimed.

The Divine Initiative

One important idea that is nowhere discussed in Robinson’s book or in the subsequent retractatio is the notion of God’s initiative. So intent is the bishop on avoiding what he believes to be the superstitious impression that God took a space trip to earth and appeared in the baby Jesus at Christmas that he completely ignores the idea of a divine initiative of any kind. The idea that God cares for us and has taken the initiative on our behalf, however conceived or interpreted, has given comfort and content to two thousand years of Christian witness. But it finds no place in Robinson’s writing. This is because it is not to the Christian community at large to which the bishop turns for his doctrine of God. Honesty, he says, compels him to turn elsewhere. Yet if the Christian community is what it is supposed to be, a body of believers responding in joy and thanksgiving to the good news in Christ, it would seem that this response (whatever it is and however inconsistent it may appear to be, particularly in respect to its New Testament sources) would be the source from which the bishop ought to derive his doctrine of God. Instead he turns to theologians whom most Christians seldom read or understand.

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Again, the argument that historic Christianity no longer finds a hearing among modern men fails for the reason that the Gospel never did enjoy an altogether universal response. Christ himself graphically portrayed the variety of responses his word would receive. Despite the lamentations of the bishop, there is no particular reason why the Gospel should be any more or any less acceptable today than it ever has been and therefore no reason for anyone to be particularly surprised at its rejection by so many. The problem is not one of outmoded world views but of the receptivity of men’s hearts and minds. Even Hume recognized that belief could occur only, as he says, as the result of a miracle wrought by God in the human heart, and I do not think he was being facetious at this point. Contemporary secular man is no more of age today than he imagined he was during the Enlightenment or the age of the rational Romans—many of whom were just as sincerely puzzled and repelled by the witness of the Christians of the catacombs. Every society and age believes it has reached the pinnacle of understanding. The Christian knows that only God has this kind of understanding.

Also, “Can a man by searching find out God?” And if not, then what exactly does it mean for a “depth of being” or “ground of being”—whatever these terms mean—to take the initiative? In ordinary language, taking the initiative is what a person does. Who or what is it, then, for Robinson that does all those things Christians say get done? Can a “ground of being” love, care, or speak to anyone in the way that Christians have always said God does? Can any God who is not also a person initiate anything, to say nothing of “serving as an agent for redemption”? And if God is not really a Person but only something of a personal character, as Robinson says, then what sense is there to a Gospel that speaks of a God who “comes in mercy to the wandering sinner and brings him to righteousness”—to use Professor Robert Paul Roth’s words (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, Nov. 20, 1964)?

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Christianity is radical not only because the “beyond is in our midst,” as Bonhoeffer says, but also because the God who is beyond takes the initiative to put himself there. If, as Robinson says, theological statements are only statements about the quality of human life, then what happens to the “mighty act of God in Christ”? Hasn’t Robinson, like Feuerbach, for example, translated theology into anthropology? He agrees with Feuerbach that the “true atheist is not the man who denies God, the subject; he is the man for whom the attributes of divinity, such as love, wisdom and justice are nothing” (Feuerbach, Essence of Christianity).

Theology Translated

In Feuerbach’s humanism, the attributes of God find their way into the life of men who have come of age and no longer need to project their ideals into some God of wishful thinking. Here there is remarkable agreement in the ideas of Feuerbach, Marx, Freud, and Bishop Robinson. Even if this particular theory were correct, it could not possibly describe the biblical God; for it is the biblical God who takes the initiative in Christ and who speaks through the Scriptures to those who have ears to hear and through the witness of his children.

While it is surely true that the god whom man sinfully creates in his own image exists only in the imagination, yet the God who does exist, exists not by filling some particular bit of time or space but for the perfectly good philosophical reason most Christians give: He is a Spirit. Happily for man, this God who is a Spirit is also a Person who is, in Luther’s words, “an abyss of eternal love.”

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