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.