Richard Truss' talk at the Honest to God day conference on 21st September 2013.

How time flies! What then was ‘avant garde’ is now 50 years old, though John Robinson himself said that his ideas would take some hundred years to be assimilated.

I had completely forgotten that the Lady Chatterley trial was some two years before the publication and that Robinson was already famous or notorious. The prosecution’s plea at the trial “Was it the kind of book you would want your wife or your servants to read?” was echoed by Geoffrey Fisher’s attack on Honest to God, the crux of which was that it had upset the simple faith of the average churchgoer. Well I remember at the time. My reaction was “bully for Robinson!” That sort of faith needs upsetting.

Of course it was part and parcel of the 60’s, an age when everything opened up – sex, drugs, pop music etc. It has now become fashionable to debunk the sixties as a decade when everything went wrong. When elderly spinsters ceased cycling to church through the morning mist for 8am Holy Communion.

What did it do for me?  As a Christian from the evangelical fold, for me faith seemed to be  first and foremost the conversion experience., secondly about a relationship with  Jesus, whatever that meant, and thirdly, a belief in some strange transaction between Jesus and God, compounded by an extraordinary sado-masochistic  interest in the precise details of death by crucifixion. All was based in a very literal view of selected biblical passages. Sermons invariably had three points, repeated with slight variation every Sunday.  All of which induced a lot of guilt.  However, having said that I still owe my foundation sense that in the end  all faith must be experiential to that evangelical beginning.

Honest to God was first and foremost about honesty , about being true to oneself, over against a lot of pretence in my faith.  What did I actually believe? What is my faith? This is not identical , of course, to what is my certainty? I left the Christian Union and joined the SCM where faith was more about questions than answers. That makes it very unsatisfactory for some, but for me faith must do justice both to our experience and to whatever we mean by God; it is always beyond, always elusive, always open. It was and is still a battle of incompatibilities between those who have a tidy, clear cut faith, which conservative evangelicals have. They can even show the process of salvation in a simple diagram, and those who realize that we only see at best through a glass darkly.

So, secondly, Honest  to God asked us to see everything differently. Of course he got into trouble for this. It was not really radical. “We don’t really believe in a three-tiered universe”. “You are only swapping one image for another – depth for height”.” But the critics were naïve. Even then I could see that it made a profound difference. For as a start I had been going to Roy Lee’s lectures in Oxford on Freud. I had also, to confuse matters, read a bit of Jung. They were both about depth. Of course that depth was metaphorical, but at the same time it made sense of what was going on inside me and most people of that time. We were psyches to be explored, we had hidden depths to be uncovered, true selves to be unearthed. God as ground of being fitted so well, and still does for me. God of course is beyond space-time as well, but that is not something we can relate to in any personal way. In any case I don’t think John Robinson’s often snide critics, like Eric Mascall, were thinking of the God of the physicists when they suggested that there was nothing wrong with traditional imagery. Quantum physics and the big bang meant nothing to them.

Thirdly, Honest  to God  unveiled the thinking of the great theologians of the twentieth century, for people who had hardly heard of them let alone read them. I had read The Cost of Discipleship but that was it. Bonhoeffer, Barth, Brunner, Bultmann, Tillich soon became bestsellers. Now again, Robinson was hauled over the coals for misunderstanding them or quoting out of context. However I don’t think that was so. For him Tillich was central, and Tillich’s platonic understanding tuned in with Robinson’s own.

Of course the one who isn’t mentioned but has dominated English theology ever since is Karl Barth. Barth allows that essentially conservative profession of theology to hold onto traditional understandings without the naivitie of fundamentalism. For Barth, theology was immunised from cultural, historical or any kind of criticism, simply by saying that theology was about God’s self-revelation. Naturally we could know nothing of God and God could only be known through God’s self-revelation in Jesus. Though the later Barth tempered this, it seems to me it has had a pernicious effect on theology as part of public debate. You cannot really argue with someone who says that it is all a matter of revelation and if God has revealed it,  it must be true.

Fourthly, it put debate central. It led to all-night discussions and I think it still could. Again, having been reared in a particular brand of Christianity, this was new to me. My Confirmation class had been delivered to us from the pulpit, and every book recommended was a dogmatic one in the narrowest sense. You fitted the faith or at least struggled to, rather than the faith fitting you. I think that was true of most traditions in the church, though the emphases would be different. But there is no point in having a faith you cannot believe. Here Dawkins ‘et al’ have a very important point, and the attempt to shore up the untenable, makes for a very brittle outlook which in turn lashes out.  I believe we owe a lot of our pub theology, of good debate and dialogue today to the impact of Honest to God.

Next, it unveiled the idea of the new morality , in a way a return to Augustine’s “love and do what you like”, though I think Augustine’s idea of doing what you like differed somewhat from that of many in the 1960’s. As I have said, Robinson added to his fame or notoriety by appearing at the Lady Chatterley trial in defence of publication. He compared sexual intercourse to holy communion. Of course, you can see why it shocked. It seemed to knock traditional belief and now also traditional morality. It is a debate which of course continues, but if you look at the more liberal utterances of the church subsequent to Honest to God, for instance that on divorce with its pragmatic approach, that if there is an irretrievable breakdown, i.e. if love is no more, then the marriage has in effect ceased to exist; in this we see the general influence of Honest to God and situation ethics.

In a fortnight’s time, there is another conference on Honest to God, this time on matters which have come to the fore since but are at least implicit in Robinson’s work. I have no idea what the speakers are going to say, but here are my brief comments on the matters to be covered:-

a) Contemplative prayer and meditation:

To see God as ground of being revolutionises prayer. It moves us from seeing  God as akin to a celestial CIA, watching over our every move, to knowing  God as the one in whom we live, move and have our being.   Intercession is seen as being with, alongside, the one prayed for. Behind Honest to God is his thesis on Buber – on I-Thou as opposed to I-it. God can only be known in relationship and this explains why so often we have problems in knowing where we end and God begins. But that is how it is.

b) Gender:

Since the 1960’s this has consumed, and continues to consume the church. In fact the General Synod seems to have sex on the brain. The first impression for anyone reading  Honest to God today, and that which dates it, is the resolute use of the masculine pronoun, for God and believer. Of course it was inclusive, but no longer. Robinson’s theology was for all people, the priesthood of all believers. There was nothing sexist about what he was saying and it was also democratic. Nor was it was not church-dependent, but sprung from the inner experience of the individual.

c) Multi-faith universe:

Robinson wrote after Honest to God, in Truth is Two-Eyed, “It is certain that any theological revolution that will match our hour cannot be a purely Western product … Christians can no longer indulge in domestic discussion as though the other world-religions scarcely existed … I welcome, rather than fear, the sympathy with which much that I said in Honest to God has been received by many within the Hindu and Buddhist traditions.”  Central to this for the Christian is the place of Jesus, and his uniqueness.  For me the traditional understanding of Christianity’s monopoly of religious truth and as a vehicle of salvation hit the rock of the world map of religion, whereby you see that you are twenty times more likely to be  a Christian if you are born in Europe  than in India, and fifty times more likely than if you are born in China. There are two common answers to this. On the evangelical side, it is countered by pronouncing that so-called Christian nations only contain a small minority of real (i.e. born again) Christians, whereas on the catholic side, someone like Karl Rahner, has suggested that Muslims, Hindus etc. can be Christians without knowing it. But there is an imperialistic arrogance about this. How much nearer the truth is Jonathan Sacks’ verdict that God has spoken to humankind in many languages: through Judaism to Jews, Christianity to Christians, and Islam to Muslims.   But Robinson would go further than this, saying that whilst this may be so, these are not uncrossable frontiers, and that we should learn other languages to understand our own better. In that way we can find more of Christ in understanding Hinduism or Buddhism. In Honest to God the nub is the chapter ‘The Man for Others’. To say Jesus is God in such a way that the two are interchangeable is not there in the Bible. The New Testament says Jesus was the Word of God, it says God was in Christ, it says Jesus is the Son of God; but it does not say that Jesus was God, simply like that. In Jesus we see what God is like, but that can never be an exclusive claim, just the touchstone for the Christian. To me that was a liberating discovery and remains so. I find Jesuolatry very difficult. It seems to me that it is our main hindrance in dialogue, but to see and proclaim Jesus as the one in whom we see God, keeps open the door to those who would also see God in the Koran, or in the Buddha or in Krishna. A vicar’s wife wrote to Robinson after reading Honest to God, “There are many causes for this indebtedness to your book, the greatest being your reconciliation of the divine and human in Christ. The orthodox teaching has always maddened me; so many other humans have sacrificed themselves for us, endured more sustained and prolonged torture, without the comfort of being the ‘favourite son’. If, however, as I have understood from your book, Christ’s divinity lies in his struggle, as a mortal, and his success in emptying himself of self, so that God might shine through, this truly is of God. Any of us knows the impossibility of the struggle; what you have helped me to remove is my constant annoyance that Christ always had an unfair advantage.

d) Ecology:

There is nothing overtly in Honest to God about what must be the greatest challenge of our time, but it is implicit in Robinson’s continual insistence that we take the world seriously. Liturgy is also social action and working with God in the world is what it’s all about. The Church exists for the world. The holy is to be found in the common.

A lot of the flak came Robinson’s way because he was a bishop and seen to be upsetting the faithful, but what a one-sided view of episcopacy! The shepherd may sleep across the door of the fold, but he also leads the flock.  Ever the explorer, Robinson wrote,  “All my deepest concerns find their centre in a single, continuing quest. This is to give expression, embodiment, to the overmastering , yet elusive, conviction of the ‘Thou’ at the heart of everything. It is a quest for the form of the personal as the ultimate reality in life, as the deepest truth about all one’s relationships and commitments” (Exploration into God).

I have spent all my ordained life in a parish, had to do my theology on the hoof or the coal face. I think that’s where it really belongs and here Honest to God and Robinson’s work in general says so much. He started with the world, with action, with Dag Hammarskjold’s dictum “The road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action” and with what he called the human face of God. Though he spent much of his time in an ivory tower, his thought depended on his down-to-earth experience in Bristol and Southwark.

I remember a friend of mine, who had then reached or perhaps passed the age I have reached now, said ‘The older I get, the more I believe about less and less’. In other words faith gets simplified but it acquires depth which may move beyond words. I was reminded of this when I read one of the last things John Robinson wrote when he was dying from pancreatic cancer:

For me the ultimate context in which life is lived is that of an I –Thou relationship with the eternal Thou. That relationship is the umbilical cord of all that one is and all that one does. It seems to me that Jesus lived in the Abba, Father relationship, and that is the ground and basis of all one’s being and of all the other relationships that one enters into. Each of these others is a way through which this other relationship comes, both in grace and demand. One tries – inadequately – to respond to it, but if one is pressed back, then it seems to me that this is the final reality of life, in which and for which one is made. It is not something that begins and ends with what we call time, but it is the framework in which all things of space and time belong and are created and have their being. It is defined in Christ in terms of the love of God and fellowship and grace. It is the centre of everything and it is the context in which one tries to face everything else.

See also: