Last weekend we had our weekend conference on Honest to God, organised jointly by the Progressive Christianity Network and Modern Church. It was held at the conference centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire where I made a new friend, pictured here. He was stuck in a field on his own and presumably feeling pretty bored.

The 50th anniversary events were almost entirely positive. Not much was said in any of them that was critical of Robinson or his famous book. I wasn’t at the 25th or 40th anniversary events, but I’m told that they were more critical. On both those occasions it seemed as if Honest to God expressed the mood of a brief phase, the permissive 1960s, and had little lasting value. Now it looks different. It may have been a brief phase then, but it is just what we are looking for today. I have written at length on that elsewhere.

After so many of these conferences and meetings one wondered whether there was anything still left to say; but there was rather a lot, too much to include in one blog post so I’m afraid this will be the first of a series.

Elaine Graham chaired the conference and Christine Alker supervised the planning, so we knew that all would run smoothly. Elaine reminded us of Robinson’s distinction between the reformer, the revolutionary and the reactionary. Robinson saw himself as a radical – reformers by contrast can be superficial – and his radicalism meant a close connection between his calls for change and talk about God. In his day there was much debate about whether God exists and whether it can be proved; Robinson replied that God is not about what you can prove but about what you can open yourself out to.

The theme was picked up by Simon Barrow in his talk. Simon reflected on the impact of language on who we are and how we think, and listed some requirements of honesty about ourselves. Honesty about ourselves requires conversion, change of heart, not aggrandisement; to find truth in truthful lives rather than truthful statements; rooted radicalism to enable us to face the challenge of change. He quoted Nicholas Lash’s argument that as instrumental reason came to dominate with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, God came to be thought of in terms of being one more thing rather than in terms of relationships. We need to rediscover the sense that we come to God in relationship rather than by calculating analysis.

If this is true, then Robinson was right to say that God is about not what we can prove but what we can open ourselves out to. The key point here, I think, is something that critics of western society often make: that we treat our minds – what ‘we’ know, what ‘our’ science has established – as the supreme judge of what exists. As such it cannot succeed, firstly because ‘our’ science has shown that the universe is far too complicated and secondly because our minds have evolved to perform certain specific tasks, of which complete knowledge is not one. Our minds do not stand outside the universe, independently passing judgement on it and deciding what to do with it; they are part of it, designed to cooperate with our instincts and emotions in living good human lives.

What matters about God is not whether we with our puny minds can establish God’s existence but whether living in relationship with God helps us live better lives. Robinson believed in a God who makes it possible. I think he was right.