Honest to God: 50 years on, has the Church still got its head in the sand?

Talk given in November 2013 at St Brides Liverpool to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Honest to God.


The era I am speaking of began in the 19th century. Church history books praise the 19th century religious revivals. Apparently they were the high point from which we have declined. The reason is the number of people who attended church services. This was when voluntary churchgoing reached its peak. In fact the main reason for all that churchgoing was a negative one, the fear of atheism. It seemed that science had disproved or soon would disprove the existence of God and life after death. We are nothing but atoms pushing each other in accordance with eternal laws of nature. Nothing has purpose or meaning. All morality, value and meaning are errors of the human mind. Today we handle these issues differently. What happened then was that people flocked to the churches to hear a more acceptable account of reality.

The churches responded in different ways. Some believed that Christians have nothing to fear from good science and should be pleased to learn from it. Among them were the founders of Modern Church, the organisation I work for. But we became a minority and got labelled as liberals. A different group, the anti-evolutionists, defied science on the ground that the Bible is a better science text book than the latest theories. But most churches reaffirmed an older theory that divided reality into two: on the one hand the physical universe which could be left to the scientists and on the other the spiritual realm where the human soul relates to God. These churches saw it as their job to leave the physical world to the scientists and instead concentrate on spiritual matters beyond the reach of science. It is this version of Christianity that Robinson reacted against. Many people today still think of it as traditional Christianity. 150 years ago it was new.

So what made that era different? Protestants and Catholics alike changed. In the first half of the 19th century evangelicals were noted for their campaigns against the slave trade and poor working conditions, but by the end of the century they were arguing that for a Christian to help a non-Christian live a better life it would first be necessary to convert them. They emphasised the individual’s conversion experience, speculated about an imminent second coming and spoke in tongues. Catholics revived the monastic orders and insisted that the sacraments produce real benefits. They had more visions of angels, saints and Mary than they had had since the Middle Ages. A string of papal encyclicals insisted on accepting some most improbable miracles and legends. Everlasting damnation became popular once more, and Protestants and Catholics alike set sail to rescue the heathen from it. In popular culture more people saw ghosts and the modern Spiritualist movement was founded, with its clairvoyants and messages from the dead.

These were innovations. Christianity had not always been like this. You can appreciate the difference if you ask what happens when churches fall out with each other. In the seventeenth century they fought wars over how God wants the state to be governed; at the end of the nineteenth century they took each other to court over candles on the altar. That’s a big change. I’m sorry to say this very church was one of them. It took St Margaret’s Toxteth to court.

Suppose you buy into that other-worldly theory. People understood that scientists gather facts by studying the world; but how do religious leaders know their truths? Protestants and Catholics alike appealed to divine revelation as an absolute unquestionable authority. The first major protestant work declaring the Bible infallible was Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology. It was published in 1871, just one year after the First Vatican Council had declared the pope infallible. By the end of the nineteenth century the Vatican had redefined the word ‘dogma’ to mean what it means today: something revealed by God, eternally true, and obligatory belief for the faithful. Originally the word comes from a Greek word meaning ‘it seems’.

This meant that for protestants and catholics alike, spiritual truth was all in the past. Whereas science kept discovering new things about the physical world, any new ideas about the spiritual world must by definition be false. If you wanted to be an upright loyal Christian you would have to believe what you were told. If you didn’t you might spend eternity being punished in hell. If that was the incentive, it didn’t matter whether these beliefs made any sense to you; you just had to assent to them. Today I still hear Christians talking about ‘what we are supposed to believe’, as though we just have to assent to these dogmas without worrying about whether they are true or even whether we can understand them.

One result of this reactionary phase was that by separating religion from the physical world they made Christianity seem irrelevant. Another result was that by insisting that Christian teaching comes from a divine revelation given in the past, they had no way to change it. By the end of the 1950s Christian teaching seemed way out of date.

The book

After two world wars and a depression most people didn’t have much use for a religion like that. With Honest to God at last a bishop publicly stood out against it. Compared with today, in 1963 far greater numbers went to church regularly and church leaders had much more public influence, especially Church of England bishops. What Robinson said about God, Jesus, ethics, prayer and worship all appealed for a faith which isn’t so other-worldly but instead relates to people’s real lives.

The pressure for change came largely from sexual ethics. For about a century sexual matters had dominated the moral concerns of the western churches. Today it is hard to imagine how much they had invested in forbidding sex outside marriage and contraception for married couples.

But far away in Puerto Rico and Haiti, some women were undergoing medical trials. And yes, it proved possible to suppress ovulation. In 1961 the pill was introduced into the UK – for married women only, of course. In 1962 50,000 women were already taking it.

1962 was also the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we came within a whisker of World War 3. But the churches didn’t have so much to say about that. They were concentrating on a devastating moral crisis. Get this: in the UK alone, 50,000 women were taking the pill. It would only be a matter of time before it got into the hands of unmarried women. Moral crisis. Robinson wrote in Honest to God:

There is no need to prove that a revolution is required in morals. It has long since broken out… There are plenty of voices within the Church greeting it with vociferous dismay.

Robinson argued that the way Christianity was being taught, God was a far distant creator and judge, Jesus came to earth from far away and didn’t really belong on earth, moral rules were laid down as instructions coming from far away, and prayer and worship were impositions which people struggled to fulfil. In other words, the whole structure of church teaching made Christianity feel alien to the kinds of people we actually are. He writes:

It will doubtless seem to some that I have by implication abandoned the Christian faith and practice altogether. On the contrary, I believe that unless we are prepared for the kind of revolution of which I have spoken it will come to be abandoned. And that will be because it is moulded, in the form we know it, by a cast of thought that belongs to a past age.

The ethic he offered instead was the love ethic:

Life in Christ Jesus, in the new being, in the Spirit, means having no absolutes but his love, being totally uncommitted in every other respect but totally committed in this.

Love alone, because, as it were, it has a built-in moral compass, enabling it to ‘home’ intuitively upon the deepest need of the other, can allow itself to be directed completely by the situation. It alone can afford to be utterly open to the situation, or rather to the person in the situation, uniquely and for his own sake.

Three years later another best-selling book was published, Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics. When Robinson wrote Honest to God he was already familiar with Fletcher’s ideas.

So when Honest to God talked about ‘the new morality’ in 1963, looking back it seems that the changes had only just begun.

God

What Robinson said about ethics was important, but what he said about God was more so.

Spatial images

His overall point was that churches were still describing God using outdated concepts. The bible speaks of a three-level universe with the heavens above, the earth below and the waters under the earth. From that perspective God is above us, ‘up there’. Once people believed that literally. Later, science rejected the three-decker universe and people pictured God as being beyond the universe, ‘out there’. This picture was acceptable for a long time, but it is still a picture, an analogy, and now is also often inadequate. Instead Robinson borrowed from Paul Tillich the description of God as ‘the ground of our being’. He wrote:

Though we shall not of course be able to do it, I can at least understand what those mean who urge that we should do well to give up using the word ‘God’ for a generation, so impregnated has it become with a way of thinking we may have to discard if the Gospel is to signify anything.

He wanted to resist the idea that God was living in some remote part of the universe. However he didn’t want to deny it either. His point was that our language about God should reflect to the way we relate to God, and this is about ultimate significance, what matters most, not about someone far away.

God is Dead theology

In the circumstances it was easy for opponents to treat Robinson as part of the God is Dead movement. It was probably this more than anything else that provoked the evangelical reaction against his views. Even today many conservative evangelicals still treat liberal Christians as just one step away from atheism. I think this is an important part of the story so I shall step back to describe the issues.

The arguments against the existence of God and the afterlife never were scientific arguments. They were philosophical arguments; but, hey, how many of us ever think about our philosophies? The philosophy in question is positivism, which teaches that everything that exists can be observed by humans. Anything we can’t observe does not exist, or at best is completely irrelevant. Science has produced no evidence for God, heaven, life after death, moral truths or values, so none of these things exist.

This is positivism. By the end of the nineteenth century it was losing its appeal. The exclusive focus on empirical evidence didn’t work. You may think I am standing at a lectern, but all you see a brown shape. To call it a lectern is to go beyond the empirical evidence. That’s how positivism ended up at the end of the 19th century. We find ourselves knowing practically nothing.

In the 1920s a new version arose, logical positivism. According to this theory all meaningful statements can be verified in one of two ways: logical deduction or the evidence of the senses. Any statement that cannot be verified in either of these ways is meaningless. So not only does God not exist, but the very idea of God is meaningless. Atheism at its most extreme.

For a while philosophers took this theory seriously. The trouble was, it also made rather a lot of other things meaningless as well as God. You may think you remember what you had for breakfast, but you can’t verify it, so any statement you make about your breakfast is meaningless. The same applies to all statements about the past, the axioms of science and mathematics, your mind, other minds, and causation. Positivists had hoped to show that true knowledge comes from science and only from science, but by the middle of the 20th Century it had become clear that science does not operate the way positivists described. Scientists hypothesise all the time about unobservables – dark matter, black holes, all sorts.

But at a popular level logical positivism was at its most influential in the 1950s and 1960s. This was the heyday of atheism. Along came God is Dead theology. This movement had already begun by 1963 and reached its peak a few years later. Many clergy found they could no longer believe in God.

So it’s a legitimate question to ask: was Robinson influenced by the God is Dead movement? Honest to God does not discuss logical positivism or Death of God theology. As I understand Robinson, I think he would have criticised it in exactly the same way as he criticised traditional dogmas, by accusing it of treating God as a being ‘out there’. He would then have agreed with atheists for rejecting such a god. Robinson knew there was a long tradition of theologians saying God is greater than we can understand, so all language about God is inadequate and as society changes our language about God changes.

The way I read Honest to God, he was trying to do exactly what the original founders of Modern Church had set out to do back in 1898. In both cases there was a polarisation between two extremes. On the one hand atheists claimed to speak in the name of science and presented reality as determined, pointless and meaningless, but at least it was okay to have sex and you wouldn’t be punished in hell when you died. On the other hand religious leaders offered a rich world full of meaning, purpose and value; but if you bought into that, you had to believe what you were told and probably suppress your sexual libido, or else. Neither alternative was comfortable. There were always people asking: ‘Is there a third way?’ Robinson said ‘Yes there is’, and said it authoritatively, as a bishop. Like the founders of Modern Church, he took the third way to be an open, undogmatic Christianity which was nothing to do with atheism but could develop its understanding of God and our human calling in the light of new scientific and moral insights.

Naturalistic God

The problem is that other texts invite a different interpretation. Robinson’s critics argued that he was getting rid of God altogether, by redefining the word ‘God’ to mean something different. Here’s one such text:

To say that ‘God is personal’ is to say that ‘reality at its very deepest level is personal’, that personality is of ultimate significance in the constitution of the universe, that in personal relationships we touch the final meaning of existence as nowhere else… To believe in God as love means to believe that in pure personal relationship we encounter, not merely what ought to be, but what is, the deepest, veriest truth about the structure of reality. This, in face of all the evidence, is a tremendous act of faith. But it is not the feat of persuading oneself of the existence of a super-Being beyond this world endowed with personal qualities. Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted’, that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home’.

In the post Don Cupitt age a text like this sounds as if Robinson is being non-realist about God. In the realist/non-realist debate you can ask whether God is a construct of the human mind or whether God would exist anyway even if no minds believed in God. You can also ask: does the word ‘God’ refer to something naturalistic, like nature or the universe, or is there more to God, like a mind, a personality?

I don’t think Honest to God was attempting to answer these questions. They became popular later on. I think he was presupposing a being with both independent existence and personality, but was struggling to describe God in a way consistent with the science of his day. I therefore think subsequent evangelicals were wrong to link him with 1960s atheism.

Prayer & worship

Honest to God also shocked people with what Robinson was saying about prayer, worship and Jesus. On personal prayer and church services he made the same basic point that God is depicted as a distant being a long way away, so the activities of praying and worshipping become quite separate and different from all our other activities. Instead they should be rooted in ordinary day-to-day life, because that is where we meet God. He says the Communion service is

the assertion of ‘the “beyond” in the midst of our life’, the holy in the common. The Holy Communion is the point at which the common, the communal, becomes the carrier of the unconditional, as the Christ makes himself known in the breaking and sharing of bread.

It’s the same basic theme: we need to get away from a religion which is all about the distant and other-worldly, and root our faith in the physical world and ordinary life.

Jesus

The chapter on Jesus calls him ‘The man for others’. If any chapter seems out of date it is this one, because he could not have foreseen the immense progress in Jesus studies since his time. Nevertheless his argument was moving in the right direction.

If you read the four gospels carefully you can find lots of conflicting statements about Jesus. It was not till the nineteenth century that scholars examined the issues carefully and created biographies of Jesus. At this time theological scholarship was being led by Germans, and in the first half of the twentieth century these Germans had a problem. They really really didn’t want to know that Jesus was a Jew. Many of them reached the conclusion that we can’t really know anything about the Jesus of history, but never mind, what matters is the Christ of faith.

Robinson could see that this wouldn’t do. When the New Testament authors described Jesus as Christ and gave Christ titles, everybody knew that they were applying these titles to the man Jesus. That was the whole point of talking about Christ.

Although he could not have foreseen later scholarship about Jesus, he could see that a modern faith with Jesus at the centre must conceive of Jesus as a real person focused on the big issues, and engaging with them in his own day and age.

Post-1963

Positive initial impact

Honest to God sold over a million copies. Then what happened? During the 1960s the churches did move in the direction Robinson was arguing for. The bishops in the House of Lords made major liberalising contributions to legislation, for example to decriminalise homosexuality and abolish capital punishment. They were ahead of public opinion.

Evangelical reaction

However since the 1970s there has been a reaction against it. Most churches have reverted to dogmatic positions. Recently, the issues on which religious leaders have come together to put effective pressure on the Government have been matters of individual behaviour and in each case they have resisted change: on assisted dying, on equal opportunities for gays and lesbians, and on equal opportunities for women. In the Church of England the liveliest debates in the last few years have been about women’s ministry and same-sex partnerships, non-issues for most churchgoing Christians let alone the British population as a whole. This time last year the Church of England’s General Synod voted on women bishops, and an alliance of evangelicals and catholics got just enough votes to prevent them. Those opponents were not addressing the spirituality of the nation; they were battening down the hatches, trying to preserve their church clubs from any influence by the world outside. In the letters published in the Church Times today this is still the most common argument.

In other words most churches today are still operating in that manner that was first developed in the nineteenth century reactions against atheism. The 1960s now look like a brief interlude when Christians could think outside the box.

Society as a whole never did go back to the situation before the 1960s. What Robinson feared has indeed come about. Most people have decided that the dogmatic Christianity of the churches was not for them. They also rejected the empty universe of the positivists. There began a variety of spiritual movements: the new age movement, western interest in Buddhism, various Indian gurus, today the list of spiritual practices is endless. Most people in this country now describe themselves as somehow spiritual, but emphatically not religious. What this usually means is that they are not atheists. They believe there is a spiritual dimension to reality, but as soon as you ask them to define what they mean by it, whoa! Hold on! If we try to define it we’re in danger of ending up with religion, with dogmas, and that is something most people definitely don’t want.

The package has unravelled. The dogmas which in the nineteenth century reassured people that there is a spiritual dimension to reality are the very things that now put people off any informed reflection about any spiritual reality they do believe in.

Conclusion

I think there are signs that the dogmatic era is finally coming to an end and that the door opened by Honest to God is opening once again. Increasingly, church leaders know they cannot carry on indefinitely just being reactionaries. They know there is a yearning for spiritual guidance, and that people are lookng elsewhere because churches seem so reactionary. It will be interesting to see what impact the new pope has. It is already clear that a lot of people are hopeful, not only Roman Catholics.

As far as the Church of England is concerned I suspect that last year may prove to have been a turning point. Three times church leaders formally adopted a position on a public issue which the overwhelming majority of churchgoers rejected, let alone the rest of the population. The first was on the Anglican Covenant, which was about gay bishops. The second was on women bishops and the third was on gay marriage. What really drove home just how out of touch they were was last November’s vote in General Synod on women bishops. Right up to the day of the vote they were agonising about how to accommodate the opponents. They were not thinking abut all the Christians who don’t go to church because their local church is too reactionary. They just didn’t foresee the strength of public reaction when the motion was defeated. Now they know.

I have described Honest to God as an opening-up after a dogmatic era in the history of Christianity. In the churches the opening up didn’t last; the dogmatism re-established itself, but there are now signs that it is at last coming to an end. In that era, Christian practice was about attending church services. Christian ethics was about sexual repression. Christian philosophy was about the other-worldly. Christian spirituality was about the non-physical.

If that era is coming to an end, what I hope for is a return to a more holistic Christianity, a Christianity integrated into the whole of life.

Christian philosophy will still include the other-worldly – the divine and life after death – but it will relate them much more closely to the worldly and life before death. First we value and reflect on what we have got now, and only then is it appropriate to reflect on what else there may be.

Christian spirituality will still include the non-physical, but will no longer separate it from the physical as though the two were opposites. Because we are physical beings, a realistic spirituality begins with the physical. It is through the physical that we come to appreciate the non-physical.

Christian practice will still include church services, but they will no longer be the supreme yardstick for measuring Christian influence. Instead Christian influence will be expressed in a wide range of activities expressing whatever Christians think life is about, all the way from donating a tin of beans to the food bank to taking part in government.

Christian ethics will still include a concern for sexuality, but its concern will be more constructive, and just one issue among many. In the grand scheme of things, public ethical discourse does not need to spend much time on whether gays have sex; it does need to address climate change, the bedroom tax and military engagement in Syria.

Honest to God argued that Christianity should not be seen as an alien system imposed on us contrary to our nature by a distant God. Instead it should express, and be expressed by, ordinary life as we know it. The change Robinson hoped for began, flourished for a while and was then suppressed. There are signs that it is reappearing again now. I hope it is, but it will take more than one courageous bishop to make it succeed.

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