Saturday, 27 June 2009

Honest to John

I've just finished the first draft of the next In Depth contribution (in July) about Honest to God (1963) and a few afterwards. It is one of the Anglican theological controversies. Next comes the not so Anglican controversy of Presbyterian John Hick's The Myth of God Incarnate, after that Cupitt and Taking Leave of God (and his phases) and then it's a case of reactions/ reactionary movements (e.g. Evangelical) and traditions (e.g Thomism) and then a variety of theologies (so in effect covering the ground - Liberation, Feminist, etc.). That's the plan anyway.

The first draft was a little different this time in that I used a Zen Writer (!) as recommended by a Unitarian Christian minister blogger. I think he is right too - seeing nothing but black screen and text means all the surroundings are lost and its the words and yourself. I even added in the typewriting sounds and went from green neon to pink neon text.

Honest to God is of particular interest to me because it was my way into Christianity. I saw that its language and that of the local church (Methodist) was quite different. When I decided to test the book out on some of the local people there that I socialised with - I was starting my Ph.D at the time - it got me thrown out of the church on the grounds according to the minister that a) my theology creates too many doubts and b) it is old hat. In those days my theology consisted pretty much of Honest to God and as best as I could see and understand Paul Tillich. The youth leader at the time wasn't having it and said I could still attend his youth club, and so I did.

Thus started a church career that was forever on the edges. I did get confirmed at the University Chaplaincy in 1984, though not long after I discovered the Unitarians and eventually it was with them that I discovered how to be a heretic even among them while training for ministry.

Honest to God framed my religious insight, and the further I have got into theology the more that has become clearer. I, like Robinson, aquired a Jesucentric faith where the issue was less about this human than what to do about God. So God was demythologised and God was the main issue. The Jesus-centred nature of faith morphed later into a material-humanist focus. Thus, in a denomination that was God first and Jesus or others second, I felt I was the other way around. I had as much trouble with God in the Unitarians as I had in the Anglicans: indeed it was exercising my freedom that the denomination is supposed to give that got me thrown out of ministry training on the basis of incompatibility with congregations as they are, on the whole, in Britain. A report wondered where I would go. So I had exchanged up front creeds for behind the body armtwist creeds. When I drifted back to the Unitarians in 1994 I was continuously uncomfortable until events (nothing directly to do with me) caused me to leave in 2004.

Well it is a long time since my 1983/ 1984 encounter with Honest to God and a lot of theologican water under the bridge. Now I can return to the book with different and better informed eyes.

Basically the book was an argument that the 'up there' version of God could not be believed, but neither can the 'out there' vesion of God. Tillich was brought in to discuss what matters ultimately, Being (as a verb) and depth. As for Jesus, there was a lot of starting at the other end, and much to emphasise his humanity and once you get his full humanity right and in his service that you get the divinity flowing out.

[There now follows a gap of writing this of some half an hour as I look for some old writing.]

As I write this blog I have now discovered that I read Honest to God in 1983 and have extensive responses on 29th October (but I knew of it just before I acquired and read it properly). Even then I realised that Robinson makes a big leap from his constructing of God (as I saw it then) in that I'd rightly perceived that he asserts (in my words) 'Jesus our Lord had showed his Ground of Being by his acts and dying.' That I understood and took, but it seemed far more was being claimed than (my interpretation of) his: 'I with the thou in fellowship & worship reveal ultimate reality.' Actually I'm impressed that I seem to understand more than I might have, being so green to such a book and to such form of writing! I wrote, 'The difficulty seems to be that Robinson wants to say God is love without saying love is God.' I further wrote, 'He wants to remove religious rules but keep Christianity and remove the "man in the sky" God image.' And later, 'The problem with the Robinson scheme is that anyone, if they can go far enough, can be like Christ. All can reveal Christ as Christ can reveal God, all have God within.'

Hey, I'm rather impressed with my old self when I was 24! Remember that this was without any of the theological absorption I have undergone since and with only limited experience of worship services. This was before confirmation classes, confimation, seeking ministry, and any of that.

What I did not know then, and could not, was that of the big three, Tillich, Bonhoeffer and Bultmann, Robinson was closest to Bultmann - the one he used the least. Tillich was basically reused (as were Bonhoeffer's fragmented thoughts). I now understand Tillich (I sort of did then - after this book I've seen that I was reading Tillich sections out of an Epworth published Tinsley book), and Tillich was an ontologist whereas Robinson had a personalist biblical theology. Here is the point: that Robinson thought the biblical faith was for everybody, and needed demythologising. But the 'up there' that needed changing was made even worse (this not obvious in Honest to God) by the 'out there' of Thomism (and I knew nothing at all of Aristotelian theology then!!). Robinson was a panentheist, but stressed God's outpouring in the ultimate service that Jesus gave. Those who recognise Alistair Kee overviewing Robinson here are quite right, and I largely agree given the background to Robinson.

The point is, and it is the point Kee goes on to make, and I'd got straight away (apparently) was that there is no exclusivity of Jesus here, and in the end he says (Kee, 1988, 119) only ontology or faith (and revelation) can do that job. For Robinson, it came down to simple assertion, and a posthumous publication has him saying the Church has to learn how to assert this exclusivity. For that read he had the difficulty as the Church remained dogmatic. When Robinson faced those 'liberals' who could not assert the exclusive centrality of Christ, he criticised them, though in seeing the problem in the Colenso controversy a hundred years earlier (as was in 1963, see the preface of Honest to God, 9-10) Robinson thinks the solutions since have been too conservative and his own potentially seen as heretical/ radical solutions not radical enough. But he, Robinson, I say (Kee doesn't) went in for his own form of dogmatics, simply to assert that Christ was this decisive demonstrator of God. He simply doesn't pass my "unknown Fred Bloggs test", who is never tempted and gives himself up in extraordinary service to others, and has the same full (and not just appearing to be) humanity that Robinson insisted Jesus had (including two parents). Also being fully human means you learn, and a Jesus who learns only reveals God out of him in full when he has learnt and wholly served: for Robinson, God is fully revealed precisely at the point of most weakness, and this is his criticism of Thomism (and ought to be a criticism of Tillich who provides parallel systemic Christian answers to existential questions).

I see that my 1983 writing (only for my consumption) goes on to say, 'It's like making buildings out of jelly.' So what did I go on to write then? Crumbs...

So the only way out is to show how I see it. We start with two or more in fellowship or social action or worship, they see that there is love, feelings of love, of the 'spiritual' unexplainable by Freud etc.* {* according to Tillich, that is. [side note]} There is a direct contact with that which is the very cause of why they love rather than hate. This cannot be located in the body, just like you can't [locate] your mind. The murderer when he shows no remorse (nobody in 'humanism' need show no remorse, incidentally [a false double negative there]) is cut off from this groung [typo.] of all being. The Being as it is is transcendent because it is beyond control, it is universal. Jesus showed in the extreme this Ground of our Being, he is a pointer for the rest. There can be others, I do not regard him as unique although was filled with 'God'. Jesus revealed this - a revelation. This allows Theism as well as * [underlined] Deism. {Should be 'rather than' except it is deistic [side note]}. Men have images, feelings, a sense of uplift, joyfulness and a sense of well being. That also gives transcendence. It does follow that the opposite is the devil, that is a whole new can of worms of cause. The sadist is devil-run, the ground of his being is not with God, but most peoples' is. Now then; in comes biology, sociology and psychology who - I insist - must be able to analyse both God and devil and why one is there and not the other. However it is my belief that as a mother shows love for a baby instinctively so love is dominating. That is a belief but it is demonstrable by science. * {e.g. Hiroshima & Nagasaki film recently).

Struth! I don't know why the Church of England didn't snap me up when I approached them! Actually I told a Methodist minister about my ideas, who was soon to chuck me out.

This goes on a bit but ends:

But secular Christianity [what I'm calling it] is no more moral than successful and intended good humanism, it's [grammar error] importance is arrived at through logical sequence that says, in the end, oy look at me.

Good grief: I even rate this Christianity above humanism, not allowing humanists selfless service! These days I'm not convinced about the supremacy of good even if most of us are ethically trained. Just as devil-talk is just that, and God-talk is, well so God talk is just that, and I suppose I go now with signals of transcendence and the possibility of transcendence that is not always linked to the ethical. The artistic (I see in writings days later) remains important in these pointers. Interesting then that the Jesucentrism obviously made some kind of deposit as the God issue was always the bigger one, and whereas Jesus was never unique the God issue continued to plague me wherever I was.

But gosh I was fast when I was 24. Those were the days, eh?


Anonymous said...

Being ten years older than you I encountered Robinson's book in the year of publication (1963) and still await the C of E to catch up with it !For most of the time since then I have hoped to find a church that will take on the implications of what he wrote - It initially led me to Unitarians but I soon tired of their constant obsession with their own history to the exclusion to their own future. Recently I've returned to the Unitarians to find them mostly in the same position they were a quarter century ago - endlessly bickering about what they are about ; nevertheless I feel nearest to 'home' with them for all their faults, one of which was sadly rejecting you for ministry.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The faults go on and on. It's a real shame. Recently I have used more of their history, the theology of Martineau, but only to show how he links to objective-subjective collapsing postmodernism and liberal-radicalism. He needs reviving, but wallowing in history won't do. History that turns into theology will work, so long as it involves looking ahead.

JayV said...

Well, I was a member of a University Christian Fellowhip (at Univ of Hartford, CT) back in 1966. The UCC chaplain was big on Robinson and we'd have discussions about Honest to God at Fellowship Coffee House (also popular in the 1960s).