This is the talk given by Jonathan Clatworthy at the Honest to God day conference at St Ethelburga's, London, on 5th October 2013.
A similar but slightly longer talk, given at St Bride's Liverpool, is available here.

Honest to God - the background

My guess is that if you were to read Honest to God today without knowing its history, you would never expect it to be a best-seller. What was the fuss about? Have we moved on and left it all behind, or do we now need another Honest to God for our own day?

My view is that it marked the end of an era, and a good thing too. However the churches kept that era going within their own circles. There are now signs that even within the churches it is finally giving up.

The 19th century era

I am thinking of an era that began in the 19th century. Church historians still praise the 19th century religious revivals. They set the tone for what church leaders think churches should be like today. In fact they were mainly a fearful reaction against atheism. It seemed that science had disproved or soon would disprove the existence of God and life after death. All morality, value and meaning were errors of the human mind. People flocked to the churches to hear a more acceptable account of reality, and most churches responded with a new version of Christianity that left the physical world to the scientists and instead concentrated on spiritual matters beyond the reach of science.

So what changed? Protestants and Catholics alike expected more divine intervention in their lives. 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. A string of papal encyclicals insisted on accepting some most improbable miracles and legends. 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. 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.(1)

These were innovations. Christianity had not always been like this. 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 they took each other to court over candles on the altar.

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.

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. Hardly surprisingly, by the end of the 1950s Christian teaching seemed way out of date.

This belief system is still being taught in many churches as traditional Christianity. 150 years ago it was new. Some churches refused to buy into it. Modern Church was founded to argue that Christians have nothing to fear from good science and should be pleased to learn from it. Anti-evolutionists decided that the Bible is a better science text book than the latest theories. These became minority views. Other-worldly dualism dominated the churches.

The book

After two world wars and a depression most people didn’t have much use for such an other-worldly religion. With Honest to God at last a bishop publicly stood out against it. Compared with today, in 1963 far greater numbers were regular churchgoers 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 less other-worldly faith which 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 suppressing sex outside marriage.

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: 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. Robinson wrote:

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.(2)

He argued that the way Christianity was being taught, God was a far distant creator and judge, Jesus came to earth from far away and did not 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. 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.(3)

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. A friend of mine who teaches ethics in a secondary school tells me that her pupils feel they can relate to situation ethics but find it difficult to relate to other ethical theories.

For a while in the 1960s there was a ferment of new ideas. The churches did move in the direction Robinson was arguing for. The bishops in the House of Lords were more liberal than public opinion. They contributed to the legislation to decriminalise homosexuality and abolish capital punishment.

The ‘God is Dead’ debate

However in the circumstances it was easy for opponents of contraception and divorce 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 how many of us have ever thought about the philosophies we presuppose? The philosophy in question is positivism, which teaches that everything that exists can be observed by humans. Anything we cannot 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.

By the end of the nineteenth century it was losing its appeal. The exclusive focus on empirical evidence did not work. If you look at what you think is a table, what you see is a brown shape; according to late nineteenth century positivism, to call it a table is to go beyond the evidence. Thus we end up 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. This is atheism at its most extreme.

For a while philosophers took the 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 cannot verify it – so any statement about your breakfast is meaningless. 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, like dark matter and black holes.

However 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 is 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 would not 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 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.

A 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. One such text is:

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’.(4)

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 we can ask whether God is a construct of the human mind or whether God would exist anyway even if no minds believed in God. We 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 do not think Honest to God was attempting to answer these questions. They became popular later. He was writing at a time of different issues. 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.

After Honest to God

In the 1970s most churches began to swing the pendulum back again. Of course all reactionary movements are selective. The evangelical revival gained support by permitting contraception but retained the sexual emphasis by focusing on homosexuality.

Popular opinion did not follow suit. Over time most people could see that the churches were no longer speaking their language. They gradually gave up on churches and did other things on Sundays. So it is that most church leaders today accept the role of minority reactionaries. Sometimes they band together to oppose changing social attitudes: on gay and lesbian sexuality, women bishops, assisted dying, equal opportunities. In the Church of England the liveliest debates in the last few years have been about women’s ministry and same-sex partnerships. These are non-issues for most churchgoing Christians, let alone the British population as a whole.

In other words most churches today are still operating in that manner that was first developed in the nineteenth century reactions against atheism. From within the churches 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 what the churches do and teach is not for them. The evangelical revival, with its endless techniques for church growth, seems to me an artificial attempt to maintain a culture which no longer meets people’s needs. In the November 2012 vote the opponents of women bishops, evangelicals and catholics alike, showed no interest in the spirituality of the nation; they were battening down the hatches, trying to preserve their church clubs from any influence by the world outside.

The big issues have moved on without asking permission from the churches. For a few decades it was quite possible that nearly all of human life would be wiped out by a nuclear war. Scientific research has produced a consensus that human industry is destroying the environment on which human life depends. Church leaders have paid lip service to finding solutions but have bent over backwards not to say anything controversial. The issues have moved on but the real concerns of the churches have not moved on with them. In this way the churches have made themselves more irrelevant than they have been for a thousand years. Not only have they lost their role as moral authorities; they often appear more immoral than secular society.

If 1960s liberal Christianity declined, so did 1960s atheism. Most people in this country now describe themselves as somehow spiritual but emphatically not religious. 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 that they definitely do not want.

To some extent this is an inevitable change, over and above the widespread suspicion of dogma and proselytism. In 1963 it was possible for church leaders to think of Christianity as the only credible alternative to atheism. Today it is impossible to ignore the availability of other faiths – not just as errors, or second-rate Christianities, but as well-established traditions of enquiry into spiritual reality, deserving serious attention.

Conclusion

The 19th century package has unravelled. The dogmas which once reassured people that there is a spiritual dimension to reality are the very things that now put people off any informed reflection about what they do believe in.

So how do we compare ourselves with 50 years ago? What is similar is that church leaders have a well-established tradition of being way out of touch with where most people are. They tell us what the Church teaches but Linda Woodhead and the YouGov polls tell us that most people in the church do not believe it.(5)

What is different is that today we are only talking about small minorities. While most people in this country still fill in the census form describing themselves as Christians, they do not go to church and they do not pay any attention to what church leaders think. They decide for themselves. Robinson hoped that the churches might open up so that people could think for themselves within the Church. It did not happen.

I still think it is possible for church leaders to regain the respect they once had, but they will have to earn it. There is a yearning for spiritual guidance. It will be interesting to see what impact the new pope has.  As far as the Church of England is concerned I suspect that 2012 may prove a turning point. The votes on the Anglican Covenant, gay marriage and women bishops all proclaimed loud and clear that church leaders were out of touch. Just like 1963.

There are signs that church leaders are now realising the need for change. Maybe there will be a new mood in the churches, a new attempt to do what John Robinson did, a movement something like the 1960s; but we will need more than just one courageous bishop to make it happen.


Notes:

  1. These changes are described in many histories of the nineteenth century churches. Especially helpful are Bebbington, D W, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1989; and Jodock, Darrell, Ed, Catholicism Contending with Modernity: Roman Catholic Modernism and Anti-Modernism in Historical Context, Cambridge: CUP, 2000.
  2. Robinson, Honest to God, London: SCM, 1963, pp. 106-107.
  3. Honest to God p. 114.
  4. Honest to God pp. 48-49.
  5. This is a reference to the recent Westminster Faith Debates.

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