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The ‘Honest to God’ Debate and Friends

The paperback Honest to God, by John A. T. Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich in England, has apparently sold more quickly than any new book of serious theology in the history of the world. Already over 350,000 copies have been published in English, with printing also in other languages. In Great Britain the book has stirred up television and radio broadcasts, newspaper and magazine reviews, cartoons, and, last but not least, condemnation and debate in the Bishop’s own denomination, the Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury has given his comment in a pamphlet, Image—Old and New; a reply entitled “For Christ’s Sake” has been written by O. Fielding Clarke; and the publishers of the controversial paperback have now issued a sequel entitled The Honest to God Debate, containing for the most part excerpts from the reviews of Honest to God.

What is the Bishop saying and of what interest is it to Friends, traditionally unconcerned as we think we are with theology?

Initially, a word should be said about he sociological background of he Bishop’s thinking. He lives in a country where no more than ten percent of the population go to church (any church), and even some of these turn up only for the special Holy Days, or for baptism, marriage, and burial. There is in his country, or for that matter anywhere on the Continent, nothing of the popularity of religion which Americans take for granted, with the flourishing building of churches and with churchgoing an important part of suburban convention. Even before the Honest to God debate, the low ebb in church life had alreadystirred up new thinking and radical experiments within the Church. Americans would do well to watch these stirrings, because we cannot by any means be certain that popularity of attendance proves either that the churches are relevant to the important personal and social decision s being made or that the Christian gospel, where it is being preached, is being understood.

The Bishop of Woolwich believes that in our generation there must be more than a restating of Christian orthodoxy in modern terms. What is called for is a “radical recasting” or religious through, in the process of which our most fundamental categories of thinking—of God, of the supernatural, of religion itself—must go into the melting. Robinson even dares to suggest that, in order to make the new transpositions in thinking, we may have to give up using the word “God” for a generation.

In questioning the established religious frames of reference, he attacks particularly the traditional Christian belief in God as a supernatural being. He recognizes that many modern‐day Christians have rejected the original “three‐decker” thinking of God “up there” (with earth and hell the other levels) for a spiritualized “out there” theology. But his is still dissatisfied, because both conceptions have one thing in common: they see God and the world and think of God as a separate entity. The Bishop believes that modern man is right in recognizing the unreality of this conception, no matter how much it is spiritualized.

Where, then, does he turn for his structures of thought, and what does he believe?

He is a disciple of three thinkers whose ideas have been in circulation within the small world of theologians for many years. First, there is Paul Tillich. Some Tillich quotations, as found in Honest to God, will best present his point of view:

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning of you, translate it, and speak of the depth of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeleiver. For you cannot thing or say: Life has no depth! Life is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God.

The Bishop explains in what way this God is personal:

For this way of thinking, to say that “God is personal” is to say that “reality 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 the face of all 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.”

Secondly, John Robinson draws heavily upon the thinking of Rudolf Bultmann, who believes that “in order to express the ‘trans‐historical’ character of the historical event of Jesus of Nazareth, the New Testament writers used the ‘mythological’ language of pre‐existence, incarnation, ascent and descent, miraculous intervention, cosmic catastrophe, and so on, which … makes sense only on a now antiquated world view.” Christianity, therefore, must be “demythologized” in order to to get at the essence of the Gospel.

Finally, the Bishop looks to the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the World War II German martyr, who felt that the presentation of the Christian gospel cannot be based any longer on “the premise of religion.” Man in the 20th century increasingly doubts that religion is necessary. He has no sense of sin. no desire for personal salvation. Bonhoeffer, and Robinson with him, feels that this state of affairs can lead us (indeed, must lead us, if we are to save anything of the essence of the Christianity) to a new understanding of what we mean by “secular” and “religious.” God will disappear if he is simply the explanation for the currently unexplainable, or if religious activities mean those activities exclusively related to the church.

These theologians lead John Robinson to some very challenging conclusions, and these admitteldy tentative conclusions coincide with or enrich most of the traditional Quaker interpretations of Christianity. In fact, it is said that Jhon Robinson was told by angry Anglicans to go and join the Quakers. Yes, he is speaking to Friends, and is one of us in spirit, because we are part of what one clergyman has called the Honest to God public:

They are anti‐authoritarian.… They are ready to accept the responsibility of their own search for meaning and truth. They suspect the motives of all modern persuaders, but are open to an honest examination of any moral situation, including an examination of their own motives and attitudes. In Jung’s words, “They have heard enough about guilt and sin … and want to learn to reconcile themselves with their own nature and to love the enemy in their own hearts.” They want to say “yes” to life as a whole. They question all religious and moral absolutes, not in the name of a laissez‐fair relativity, but in the name of the freedom of the human spirit. They accept the essential mystery of human experience, but most of the symbols in which the churches clothe this mystery have no longer any meaning or power for them.

It is important to note that Robinson is not a humanist or naturalist. God is not man and nature. God is the beyond in the midst, is transcendent depth and ground. And God as ground of our being “cannot but be represented at one and the same time as removed from the shallow, sinful surface of our lives by infinite distance and depth, and yet as nearer to us than ourselves,” admittedly a paradoxical relationship. Furthermore, “the deep things of God” cannot be plumbed and understood simply by searching the depths of one’s own soul.

God, since he is Love, is encountered in his fullness only “between man and man.” And this is the burden of the whole Prophetic tradition—that it is only in response and obedience to the neighbor that the claims of God can be met and known.… Whether one has “known” God is tested by one question only, “How deeply have you loved?”—for “He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.”

Robinson here strikes a note that should have profound significance for Friends for a better understanding of the roots and nature of pacifism.

The Bishop is not happy with traditional Christology. “… As long as God and man are thought of as two ‘beings,’ each with distinct natures, … it is impossible to create out of them more than a God‐man, a divine visitant from ‘out there’ who chooses in every repsent to live like the natives. The supernaturalist view of the Incarnation can never really rid itself of the idea of the prince who appeared in the guise of a beggar.” Nevertheless, Jesus is not just another prophet. Jesus is the “man for others,” the person in whom Love, which is the ground of being, has completely taken over. Jesus, who himself never claims to be God but who does claim to bring God completely, reveal God by being utterly transparent to him. Jesus is the completely transparent window, and “in his utter self‐surrender to others in love … he discloses and lays bare the Ground of man’s being as love.”

Robinson’s bold assertions about “worldly holiness,” which should ring true for many Friends, derive from the problem of man’s estrangement or separation from this Ground of his being. In answering the question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” Bonhoeffer is quoted:

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of ascenticism (as a sinner, a penitent, or a saint), but to be a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.

The Bishop, therefore, rejects the idea of worship being simply what takes place in a consecrated building and what appeals to those who are “religious.” He challenges the assumption that the heart of prayer is withdrawal, claiming that Christian prayer is to be defined in terms of penetration through the world to God. For him the moments of revelation have often been the moments of engagement when he has wrestled through problems and difficulties with people, He says:

My own experience is that I am really praying for people, agonizing with God for them, precisely as I meet them an really give my soul to them.… Perhaps this is the starting point for a “non‐religious” understanding of prayer. We may begin from the fact that people do give themselves to people. There is nothing “religious” about this. But to open oneself to another unconditionally in love is to be with him in the presence of God, and that is the heart of intercession. To pray for another is to expose both oneself and him to the common ground of our being; it is to see one’s concern for him in therms of ultimate concern, to let God into the relationship. Intercession is to be with another at that depth, whether in silence or compassion or action.

While the Bishop himself has not found much help in withdrawal, he recognizes that periods of disengagement are vital, he uses the phrase “waiting upon the Lord,” but the engagement is for him the important thing. “The test of worship is how far it makes us more sensitive to the ‘beyond in our midst,’ to the Christ in the hungry, the naked, the homeless, and the prisoner.” This is the vital test, not because Jesus or the church or even our consciences say we should go out into the world in this manner, but because it is precisely in engagement that we will find God. “The holy is the ‘depth’ of the common.” This concept should definitely commend itself to Friends, making our traditions of worship and service more meaningful.

A recent article in The Friend (London) has rightly pointed out the basis of morality being called for by Robinson in Honest to God is similar to what the English Friends who wrote Towards a Quaker View of Sex are calling for. They all say that the morality of behavior cannot be expressed in proscriptive rules, but must be worked out in terms of the demands of love in any particular situation. As Robinson says, “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.” Every moment must be seen as a fresh creation “demanding its own and perhaps wholly unprecedented response.… The only intrinsic evil is the lack of love.” And it is here that Robinson returns to his favorite Biblical quotation, a favorite also for Friends (I John 4:8): “He who does not love does not know God: for God is love.”

An Honest to God debate within the Society of Friends would be healthy and constructive. The Bishop is laying the ground for a new Christian radicalism, one that should appeal both to those with a strong Christian identification and to those with a radical bent of mind. As David Edwards has pointed out in The Honest to God Debate, the radical, in contrast to the reformer or the revolutionary, goes to the roots of his own tradition in the search for truth. “Indeed the essence of the radical protest, could be summed up in the statement of Jesus that ‘the Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.’ And this means that the radical himself must be a man of roots.

There are many questions Friends and others will have regarding the thinking of John Robinson. The book, Honest to God Debate, points out real problems in respect to worship based on a God in the depths, ethics without law, and God as personal but not as Person. But if Friends can see Honest to God as primarily a devotional book, as has one critic in England, this could provide the basis for personal growth and fruitful dialogue. As the Bishop himself says, “… we are still only at the beginning of our task. But the beginning is to try to be honest—and to go on from there.”

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