Honest to God (by Bishop John A T Robinson)

I would never have heard of Bishop John Robinson or his work, had it not been for Susan Howatch's Starbridge trilogy, and in particular Scandalous Risks, which I am planning to re-read shortly.

Apparently 'Honest to God' was a best-seller in the 1960s when it was written, and caused an uproar in church circles. It's the subject of much discussion in Susan Howatch's book, and the reason for one of the clergymen in it to make some rather dubious moral choices. So I was pleased to find a copy of the book in a charity shop some years ago; it's taken me this long to get around to actually reading it, but I finally did so in the past week.

I can see why it was so controversial, coming as it did in a period of cultural revolution, and change within the church as well as society in general. Robinson criticises the idea of God being 'out there', saying that he is in fact the ground of our being. That much would have been all right - indeed, these days we do tend to think of God as being immanent as well as transcendent - but Robinson goes further: he claims that God is not 'out there' at all. In other words, that God as a separate Being - as Creator, for instance - does not exist. Instead, Robinson suggests, the idea of God is just a religious way of talking about the depths of human nature, in particular our capacity to love. He says that if 'God is love' then it follows that 'love is God'. A strange logical leap, but evidently one he took seriously.

Robinson then proposes that Jesus was not divine, in the sense we understand the word, but that he did represent love (or Love) in its most divine form - and that we should be seeking to follow that selfless, all-giving love that Jesus showed so well. And he proposes a 'new morality' which is based primarily on love. Robinson says that Biblical commands are not intended for all time, or for all people - they're just suggestions.

He uses Jesus' instructions to the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions and give to the poor as an example. Clearly this isn't meant for everyone; it was a specific thing that would have showed supreme love, in the case of the rich man who apparently cared more about his wealth than anything else. So, Robinson tells us, when Jesus said that divorce was not allowable, he was speaking in ideal terms - but that of course there are times when to stay married is unloving, and in that case a divorce is not only possible, but right.

The whole book was something of a nightmare for many Christians, and would probably be thrown out wholesale by strict evangelicals today. Yet, at the time it was written, it evidently did ask some useful questions, and proposed new ways of thinking about God, and about morality. Had Robinson not rejected the idea of God 'out there' as a separate being, much of what he said would have been helpful.

Certainly thought-provoking for someone who's fairly sure of their faith, but not really recommended. The style is formal and a bit heavy; it's not as readable as CS Lewis, who wrote in the same period, nor anywhere near as helpful.

But still, I'm glad I've finally read it, so at least I know what it said.


Steve Hayes said...

I read "Hones to God" when it first came out, and met Bishop Robinson on the night I arrived in England, very weary, as a semi-refugee, and arrived it my host's house halfway through dinner at which John Robinson was the guest. I hadn't been impressed with his, and I wasn't much impressed by him, and he gave me a jaundiced view of English theology, which probably prejudiced me for the rest of my stay there (2 & a half years), and a long time after as well.

He was one of the theologians I had in mind in this post on my blog: Notes from underground: Christianity, North and South

carl_barimore said...

"...Robinson suggests, the idea of God is just a religious way of talking about the depths of human nature, in particular our capacity to love. He says that if 'God is love' then it follows that 'love is God'."

Except that Robinson spends several paragraphs of chapter 3 denying exactly that.

"It is not enough to say that 'religion is about human fellowship and community', any more than one can simply reverse the Biblical statement and say that 'love is God'.

He goes on to point out the significance of St John not saying 'love is God'.

shael said...

The main views presented in ‘Honest to God’ is greatly responsible for the theological conception of the notion of secularization. Robinson contributes because he naturalizes our concept of God. This means the Bible should be a natural book that applies to a natural world. Anything spiritual applies to the primitive man that is caught up in enchantment of nature. But somehow I’m convinced that
God is spiritual and for us to meet him we have to reach beyond natural selves.