It was in January of 1963 that a bishop in the Anglican Church of England by the name of John A.T. Robinson published a book under the title “Honest to God,” It was a small book, and expectations were that it would receive but a small circulation, mostly among the clergy and serious students of theology. There was something about this book, however, which immediately struck the attention of the public, and its sales soon soared into the tens of thousands. Reviews of this book have been given in many of the principal theological journals of our day and also through the media of mass communication: newspapers, radio, and television. It has become one of the greatest best-sellers of the modern religious market, reaching a total circulation of well over 350,000 copies. To this day it may still be difficult to find a bookstore that has not sold out its stock. The reason fox this amazing popularity is to be found, no doubt, in the shocking nature of its contents.
The book opens with the statement, “The Bible speaks of God up there.” No doubt its picture of a three-decker universe of ‘heaven above, the earth beneath and the waters under the earth,’ was once taken quite literally” (p. 11). From this he goes on to establish the point that after the Copernican revolution this became impossible. Once it was established that the earth was but one small planet circulating around the sun in a universe consisting of many other planets and many other suns, man could no longer conceive of God as being “up there” even if he continued to use that language. In his mind he began to think of God as being ‘out there’ in some far distant part of the universe among the distant stars. This type of conception has continued until the present day, except that with modern developments in optical and radio telescopes as well as in rocketry, even this is becoming impossible. The distant spaces of the universe have been searched, and there is no room left for God; there are no vacant places. This has brought a crisis to the Christian Church. The informed mind of modern man is finding it increasingly difficult to conceive of God at all and cannot take Him seriously. The result is that the Church is swiftly losing its influence and respect in the modern world. Unless a new type of reference to God is found which people can understand and believe, it may well mean the end of the Christian Church. The effort of this book is to do just that.
The suggestion of Bishop Robinson is that all reference to God in terms of “up there” or “out there” should be dispensed with. These terms, even though they are found in Scripture and in historical theology, no longer have meaning for the modern mind. Rather God should be found and described in terms of depth, that is in the depth of human existence. God is in man. He is the “depth” or the “ground of our existence.” This, he claims, is the deepest reality of the universe and therefore identifies it with God. By this “ground of our existence” he seemingly means the principle or purpose out of which man must live if this world or life y is to have any meaning at all. In the end he identifies it with love, a love which accepts others and gives itself in concern for them. This is God because “God is love.”
This is a radical departure from historical theology, and the Bishop acknowledges its far-reaching implications. It means, in the first place, that God cannot be considered a transcendent Being who rules this world and affects it with supernatural power. With his approach to God, all super naturalistic ideas must go, for only that can be acknowledged which is in accord with the nature of man and of the world itself. Even more, it means, in the second place, that God is not a person. Although he would maintain that God is personal because love is a personal relationship, nevertheless God is not an individual and distinct person in Himself as the Scriptures present Him. He is rather “the ground of existence” for those who are personal. It means, finally, that all of the old, accepted terminology for God must be done away with. It is “mythical” and an offense to the modern mind. It is all meaningless jargon and must go even if it includes our image of God himself.
As the book proceeds it applies this view of God to some of the basic principles of the Christian religion.
The first of these applications is made to the doctrine of Jesus Christ. The traditional view of Christ is dismissed with a sarcastic parody. “The traditional super naturalistic way of describing the Incarnation almost inevitably suggests that Jesus was really God almighty walking about on earth, dressed up as a man. Jesus was not a man born and bred, he was God for a limited period taking part in a charade. He looked like a man, he talked like a man, he felt like a man, but underneath he was God dressed up like Father Christmas. However guardedly it may be stated, the traditional view leaves the impression that God took a space trip and arrived on this planet in the form of a man” (p. 66). This super naturalistic and mythological framework must now be abandoned. Jesus was not God; but God was in him. The importance of Jesus is that he is the window through whom we see God. In him we see the “ground of our existence,” namely love. In his life he emptied himself and surrendered his own self so that others might be accepted. He gave himself for others even when it required his own death. “Jesus is the man for others;: the one in whom Love has completely taken over, the one who is utterly open to, and united with, the Ground of his being” (Pm 76).
Continuing from there, Bishop Robinson applies his views to Christian worship and prayer. The long established practices of Christian worship which are found in the church he feels are a form of withdrawal from the world which is no longer acceptable in our day. They no longer speak to “the man who has comeof age.” If this is religion, then religion must be abandoned; and the Bishop expresses great sympathy for those who have done just this by ceasing to frequent the Christian Church. True Christianity has no necessary tie to such practices. It is to be found among those who are reconciled to “the ground of their existence,” that is, those who give themselves in love for others whether they any longer observe the conventionalities of Christianity or not. Accordingly he proceeds to reconstruct what the true practice of Christianity should be. “The Holy Communion,” he says, is the proclamation to the Church and to the world that the presence of Christ with his people is tied to a right receiving of the common, to a right relationship with one’s neighbor” (p. 88). In turn, his views on prayer are even more radical. In his own life he acknowledges that the setting apart of a certain time to speak personally to God has proved almost completely meaningless. Besides he feels that this practice usually reflects an unhealthy withdrawal from the world and life. He would rather reconstruct prayer as nothing more than a thinking upon the needs of others. So he writes, “My own experience is that I am really praying for people, agonizing with God for them, precisely as I meet them and really give my soul to them. It is then if ever; in this incarnational relationship, that deep speaks to deep and the Spirit of God is able to take up our inarticulate groans and turn them into prayer . . . 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 terms of ultimate concern, to let God into the relationship” (p. 99).
Finally, the Bishop applies his views to the sphere of morality. He firmly rejects any thought of an authoritative law or standard of morality which stipulates things which are right or wrong in themselves. Such he would identify with the legalism which Paul so-strongly condemned. Even such things as divorce and sexual relationships outside of marriage he is not ready to say are necessarily wrong. There is only one precept which he will recognize, that is the command to love, to give oneself in concern for others. As long as one does what he does in love, he is bound to be right. Anything beyond this is but a remnant of the super naturalistic ethics which must now be abandoned.
Thus having presented his thesis, the Bishop in his concluding chapter states, “But I have a great deal of sympathy also with those who call themselves atheists. For the God they are tilting against, the God they honestly feel they cannot believe in, is so often an image of God instead of God, a way of conceiving ‘him which has become an idol” (p. 136). And again, in another part of the conclusion he states, “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 . . . . But it means that we have to be prepared for everything to go into the melting—even our most cherished religious categories and moral absolutes. And the first thing we must be ready to let go is our image of God himself” (pp. 123, 124). This is what Bishop Robinson means by being ‘honest to God.’
There is little question, of course, that this all is extremely radical and shocking. It is an outright rejection and denunciation of God and of all that God has revealed to us in the Scriptures. For this is substituted the philosophy of man; and this is done in the pretense of recognizing God and under the name of Christianity. It deserves the strongest terms of Christian condemnation.
As amazing as the book itself, though, are the reactions which it has received especially from the religious press. A few have gone so far as to question the right of the bishop to retain his office in the Church, while others have only questioned his discretion in stating such radical views so bluntly even if they be true. Generally, however, the reaction has been enthusiastic, if not always for the conclusions of the book, at least for its thought-provoking and honest presentation.
In a sense, perhaps, it is true that there is a certain honesty to be found in this book, not indeed a complete honesty, and surely not an honesty to God or to the Word of God, but an honesty which is at least greater than one usually finds in our day.
The fact is that the views expressed in this book are not really new or original with Bishop Robinson. In their inception they go back a good century or more. Particularly since the theory of evolution has become generally accepted as the true explanation for the origin of the universe both by the world and by the greater part of the Christian Church, it has been felt necessary by many to make some qualifications as to the accuracy of the statement of Scripture. Through the years the most generally accepted way of doing this has become to reject the Scriptures as an infallible revelation of God and to. consider them merely to be a collection of ancient religious myths which can not be considered literally true even though they may have implied morals which are worthy of note. In fact, so popular has this approach become that it has been expanded to cover not only the account of creation, but also the flood and all of the Old Testament Scriptures, together with the New Testament Scriptures, including the life of Jesus Christ. Thus it has become quite common for theologians to speak of “demythologizing the Bible,” by which they mean casting aside whatever is offensive to their minds and scientific theories while retaining certain favored moral teachings which they choose. In this, of course, is implied all of the principles which Bishop Robinson brings to such a shocking conclusion. It is just that in the past this has been done more or less in secret. It has been presented in vague, theological works which the ordinary person is not able to read; while before the public great care has been taken to retain the terminology of Scripture even though it has been redefined so as to deny the original meaning of Scripture. Now Bishop Robinson in the name of “honesty” has expressed these views very bluntly in a work which most people can understand. He states openly what has been going on for a long time behind the scenes.
In the end, however, also Bishop Robinson’s “honesty” breaks down. Although he affirms his willingness to discard the concepts and terminology received from the Scriptures, he fails to do it. He is not yet willing to make a free and clean break with the historical Christian Church. He reveals no willingness at all to renounce his right to a place in the Christian Church, to say nothing of the office of Bishop which he holds. He makes repeated, even though superficial and perverted, appeals to passages of the very Scriptures whose concepts and authority he would reject. He can not resist playing the theological game of taking certain fundamental terminology of Scripture to twist it and turn it, redefine and pervert it so that it might be made to fit within his scheme. He would still maintain that he is a Christian, in fact the true Christian, even after he has denied God and rejected God’s Son Jesus Christ. Bishop Robinson’s “honesty” is not true honesty at all, but only a boldness that dares to speak with strange winds of doctrine which deny the fundamental faith of the Word of God.
There are certain facts which may be able to explain this unusual boldness on the part of the Anglican Bishop.
In the first place, he appears to be moved by a certain feeling of desperation. He has found in his own experience within the modern church that the church as he knows it has lost its respect and significance with the common man. He suspects, and perhaps rightly so, that people have come to realize that when the modern preacher of the day makes repeated use of the language of Scripture and of historical Christian doctrine, he no longer believes himself what he says. Therefore the Bishop suggests his radical revolution. He feels that the respect of the people can be regained only if he tells them exactly what he thinks, even if it stands in radical contradiction to that which historical Christianity has maintained. One, can not help but think how much better it would be if the Bishop would maintain the historical concepts and language of Scripture which his position as preacher and bishop in the Church demands, and that he would only take care to mean what he really says.
In the second place, the boldness of this book appears to stem from a sense of safety. The bishop realizes full well that what he has to say will be highly offensive to those who still have a feeling for the historical Christian faith; but this provides little cause for fear. After all, in our day nothing is considered more precious than the right of complete freedom of speech, the right of everyone to say exactly what he thinks. The reviews of this book bear out how completely, protected by this feeling the Bishop is. Again and again, even by those who disagree with him, appreciation is expressed for the boldness with which the Bishop has expressed himself, and his right to do so is maintained. In the modern church-world Christian discipline is dead, even against those who in contradiction to the duties and vows of their offices in the church deny the reality of God and of His Son Jesus Christ.
Finally, however, the motivation behind this book must be found in Bishop Robinson’s utter lack of faith. He very evidently does not have that spiritual power which is able to recognize the Scriptures for what they are, the personal speech of the living God to His people in Jesus Christ. To him theology is nothing more than the wrestling of the human mind with the problems of reality, just as are all of the other philosophies of man. He cannot recognize God; he cannot recognize true and ultimate authority; he cannot see the difference between right and wrong, truth and the lie; he cannot pray; he cannot worship; he cannot believe. And then, when we, consider in addition how broadly and enthusiastically this book has been welcomed, we can only conclude that there are many more like him in the same state. Countless numbers of them who would go under the name Christian cannot as much as recognize the reality of the living God who has revealed Himself in Christ. This is a generation devoid of faith.
It is in this latter fact, perhaps, that the chief significance of this book is to be found. To us it must appear as a strange, repulsive, godless book, embracing atheism while it mockingly rejects all that is dear to our hearts. But we are far removed from the main-stream of that which calls itself Christian, and we form but a small, minority group. The time has come when those who would oppose and destroy the truth of God’s Word dare to speak out without reserve; and no one among men is able and willing to stop them. They are working for a “Christian Church” which has no God and no true Christ, and does not want them. They have begun to speak with a, marked success, and we may .expect, if it is possible, that more radical and repulsive works will soon follow. It is a sign of the times; and we may well remember the warning of John, “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son” (I John 2:22).