Honest to God cover

This was the title of the Liverpool session held on Monday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of John Robinson’s Honest to God.

About 60-70 people attended, mostly older people who could remember when it first came out. For that many to turn up, in a city with Liverpool’s history, was a surprise. The book must have meant a lot to those people, and judging from the discussions it did. Lively memories of 50 years ago emerged. For a certain generation it was, clearly, a life-changing time. Why?

At times of depression and war, questioning our images of God and salvation through Christ were not at the top of ordinary people’s agendas. In the 1920s there had been lively public debate between ‘modernists’ (led by Modern Church, then known as The Modern Churchmen’s Union) and ‘fundamentalists’ best known for biblical literalism. By the end of the 1920s there was no doubt in the public mind that we had won the arguments. Fundamentalism went into decline, in both the UK and the USA, until the 1970s. From then to the 1960s the main British proponents of a more dogmatic ‘conservative’ Christianity were of a more Catholic persuasion, whether Roman or Anglican.

After the Second World War, however, the welfare state was set up, with universal schooling. Educational levels rose. The beneficiaries, teenagers in the 1960s, challenged the status quo – in politics, culture, the arts and religion.

In the history of Christianity there have been other times like this, when a revolution in thought took place. Christianity began as a Jewish sect, but by the end of the 2nd century European Christianity (the part that was to survive after the Islamic conquests) had taken seriously the challenge to explain itself in terms of Greek philosophy. If it had not done so, we do not know whether it would have survived. In the fourth century, under Constantine, it adjusted again to become the religion of the political establishment, and this again meant changes of doctrine, changes in the way people understood God, Jesus, scripture, the Church and salvation. In the thirteenth century it changed again with the challenge of Aristotelian thought; led by Thomas Aquinas, scholars redescribed Christian teaching to make it consistent with the new understandings of the world. Another major change took place in the seventeenth century, this time provoked by internal contradictions: the relationship of divine revelation to human reason needed rethinking in order to solve otherwise irresolvable disputes. Again, how we understood God, Christ and central doctrines changed.

You may want to add to the list or subtract from it, but there is a list. Looking back we can see that there were times when it seemed okay to accept inherited teachings, and there were times when it didn’t. Characteristically, the big changes took place when educational standards were rising after a period of stagnation. Or at least, they began then. Another characteristic of the list is that we’re thinking in terms of centuries, not years or even decades: for example, Thomas Aquinas’ teachings were condemned in 1277 but well and truly rehabilitated 300 years later when the Council of Trent considered them the best defence against Protestantism.

Given this timescale, we should not be too despondent. If the Church poked its head out of the sand for a few years in the 1960s, then stuck it back in, and is now anxiously wondering whether to venture out again, that’s not slow by the standards of religious history.

We keep going three steps forward and two steps back, and this means that some people end their lives seeing a Church more backward that it was in their youth; but society as a whole has not gone back to the belief-system that prevailed before the 1960s, and the churches, try as they may to hang onto the past, will sooner or later have to hear the voice of God calling them to move on.