Honest to Pete!
an essay on
Honest to God
Rt. Rev. John A. T. Robinson
Honest to God is the work that catapulted Bishop John A. T. Robinson from the ranks of obscure Anglican scholar to theological fame in Great Britain and throughout the Anglican communion. Its shocking premise that the age-old expressions of Christian thought (as in the Bible) are outmoded and incapable of being transmitted to members of present-day Western culture are the starting point for an analysis that leads to a substantial revision of not merely the language but the content of the Christian evangel and faith. His conclusions are that these new assertions of faith must displace the old ones in the Christian church, or one risks having a religion with no adherents. The book as a whole owes much to the "demythologizing" premise suggested by Bultmann and others.
My father read Honest to God when it was new some thirty-seven years ago (1963) and very popular, considered at the time to be a rather daring challenge to "fundamentalism" in the Anglican Church. In the course of reading it he picked out a couple of really brilliant quotations from Bishop Robinson for his notebook, suggesting to my mind that the book as a whole might be quite exciting and full of good insights. He found the only two things worth quoting in the whole book, it turns out. Very well done, Dad.
The fact is that, for all its claims to a modern, scientific outlook, this quaint little book spends ninety percent of the time dabbling with sophistries that wouldn't stop a real thinker for a minute. Much of this centers on a critique of classical theological ideas, such as, the "three-tier universe" of what the writer terms "medieval" thought.
For example, the notion that the phrase, "Christ's ascension", meant that He or the one who wrote the story could not understand that the world is round and that therefore His ascension was not in a definable direction (and therefore did not happen as reported) is absurd. It is true that considering a spherical earth, "up" has only a local meaning, but its meaning is perfectly definite in that context. This is just silly.
In his attempt to represent the results of modern or scientific thought, and its supposed implications for theology, Bishop Robinson demonstrates over and over again that his grasp of scientific thought and analysis is quite superficial and often flawed.
The arguments become increasingly deep and hard to follow as the book progresses through one skeptical reflection after another. The "doubting" argument ("the ground of our being", Tillich) of Descartes is revisited for the umpteenth time. The author struggles and writhes in his quest for a non-all-powerful god, so that he won't have to think about miracles. He flails for a non-supernatural ethic and a paradigm of religion that is not grounded in faith but in rationality, in order to escape the supposed superstition of his Victorian parents.
Now at this point I have to admit that I am probably not fit to critique the fine points of Bishop Robinson's arguments, especially when it comes to the support he draws from such writers as Emil Brunner and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I find it troubling that Bishop Robinson can draw such humanist conclusions from writers who, in my reading, so profoundly affirm the reality, sovereignty, and authority of God, and His revelation in Jesus Christ, especially Bonhoeffer, whose book, Life Together, expresses so deep a love for Jesus. (The answer to this dilemma is, by the way, the notion that one has to read Bonhoeffer in a special way, according to Martin Marty.)
But the good bishop has written a book that popularizes these strange views, mostly derived from Tillich and Bultmann. So, at least, I can critique the conclusion, however "popularized". And the conclusion is, that we need to throw out, discard, all our traditional thought about God, Jesus, salvation, creation, the cosmos, Christian ethics, etc., because (1) these ideas have become corrupted with medieval theological concepts, (2) the plain sense of the Scriptures are no longer credible in large part because of the progress society has made in thinking, scholarship, and science, and (3) a revolution is needed to sweep all the superstitious elements out of church doctrine and institute a new regime of free thought and more enlightened theological inquiry.
So, my critique is as follows: pfooey. God is good (no other universe is tolerable), and He has revealed Himself to us in His Son (no other explanation of Jesus is tenable), in the light of the Holy Spirit (no other source of conviction is credible). If Bishop Robinson is so blind that God's revelation cannot penetrate him, then he should go off and invent a new religion and leave the rest of us alone to follow Christ under the leading of the Holy Spirit. C. S. Lewis was right: much of modern criticism is based on ideas so shallow and speculations so far-fetched that in real life, no one would bet a cup of coffee on them. I am reminded of G. I. Bonner, who wrote, "A certain group of scholars... has rushed to abandon positions before they were attacked, and to demythologize the Gospel message when there was no clear evidence that intelligent minds outside the Church were any more frightened by her mystery than by her morals."
As to the main premise of Honest to God, namely, the necessity of changing the language of the Gospel, E. L. Mascall, in his book, The Secularization of Christianity, offers the following devastating critique:
Restatement of the faith once delivered to the saints, however fresh, intelligent, and contemporary the language in which it might be expressed, has already been rejected as insufficiently radical to meet the situation. One might be pardoned for supposing that [Bishop John A. T.] Robinson had despaired of trying to convert the world to Christianity and had decided instead to try to convert Christianity to the world. And this is what, as far as I can see, he would be committing himself to doing if he saw the full implication of his words.
Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of Honest to God: within sixteen years of its publication, the 39 Articles of the Episcopal Church in the United States had been moved from their position in the 1928 prayer book, as a definitive statement of doctrine of the church, to an appendix of historical documents, in the 1979 prayer book. While the heresy of Honest to God may have been a mere exploration, solely intended to vent the author's frustration with the outmoded expressions of orthodoxy, it is clear that it was welcomed as mother's milk by the theological liberals in America. In the long run, its "honesty" is less significant than its (lack of) truth.
Many of the conclusions of Bishop Robinson have found their way into the writing of Bishop John Spong, whose gnostic declarations have made him notorious and popular with a certain segment of Episcopalianism. The passage of time has not ripened these ideas, and it is one of the ironies that Bishop Spong is not able to move past the foolish sophistries that Robinson expends so much effort over. It does no credit to the theological liberal cause that its most articulate representative can think of nothing new.
Truly, this is a dismal book, and I do not recommend the reading of it for anything but background. If your taste runs to Bultmann redux or amateur relativity, be my guest, but don't say I didn't warn you.
RMA, May, 2000
Robinson, John A. T., Bp., Honest to God, Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1963
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