The ‘Honest to God’ Debate

Demythologizing Bishop Robinson
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Bishop Robinson and 'Honest to God'

YOU PROBABLY remember the minister in one of Evelyn Waugh’s novels: I think it is Decline and Fall. After a life of humdrum and secure devotion, he wakes up one morning with the awful thought that perhaps he does not really know "what it is all for." He rouses his wife and makes this doubt known to her. She brightly replies "Well, if you have such doubts, the only thing to do is resign." This he immediately does.

     I know it is unkind to think of this in connection with the much discussed book of the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, J. A. T. Robinson, but really Honest to God, in its agonized sincerity and its profoundly concerned confusions, makes me think of Waugh’s picture of the naive minister, deliberately intended to be typological.

     So now the Bishop has discovered that God is not a God "out there," not seated on a throne in the empyrean heaven, not overseeing an earth-centered universe. I should have thought it was about time. And the Bishop is now faced with the task of "thinking what to put in the place (of this mythical image)." With Bultmann he will demythologize, and for this I am not so sure that he deserves to be "trampled to death by Geese" (Kierkegaard). I for one am perfectly at home with the idea that mythical and poetic statements about God are not adequate representations of Him, but I am also used to thinking that no conceptual knowledge of God is perfectly adequate, and therefore when I see the Bishop busy with "framing new concepts" I would be inclined to say he still had not grasped the extent of the problem. His anguish should perhaps be greater and more existential than it actually is. He quotes Tillich and Bonhoeffer, he protests with them against "conditioning the unconditional," and yet I cannot help feeling that his book is, more than anything else, a job of "reconditioning." With profound conviction and unquestionable truth, Dr. Robinson declares that the Christian image has become inadequate in the modern world. He even goes so far as to say that we ought to be able to get along without any image at all, and this is a form of iconoclasm which I would be quite willing to take seriously, at least with certain theological clarifications. Yet the whole purpose of the book seems in the end to be the presentation of a new and more acceptable "image" of the Christian: the fully modern, concerned, committed "secular" Christian, in the world and of it, emancipated from religious myth, and able to travel along with existentialism and practice the new morality without guilt feelings. But is it so important to create this image? Is it not an idol like any other?

     I wonder if after all this is not another, more sophisticated, better documented, manual of Christian salesmanship. Is it a declaration of Christian insecurity in a world where Christianity is no longer popular or even acceptable? Is it simply a desperate attempt to escape a religious shipwreck and find security in fellowship, any fellowship? The Bishop is aware that such questions are raised by his book, and he defends himself. How convincingly?

THESE QUESTIONS concern us all. If I write about Honest to God at all it is because I belong to the Bishop’s world, sympathize with his problems, recognize them as being in some way my own. But that is precisely why I think the book does not say enough, or say the right things. And, in fact, it is saying something other than it seems to say. To begin with, this is not the kind of book that can be judged purely and simply by its theological propositions, and it is not with these propositions that I am concerned (except to say that I find Bishop Robinson’s Christology impossible). The book appears to be chiefly concerned with theology, indeed with a complete "restatement" of Anglican theology, a "theological revolution." In actual fact it looks more like an abdication from theology, an evasion of the theologian’s hard and unrewarding task. It seems that the way to make theology comprehensible to modern man is to get rid of it. Is this the theological message of Honest to God? And yet Dr. Robinson is deeply, sincerely, "honestly" concerned with faith in God-a fact which some of his critics have overlooked. He really believes that theology has become an obstacle between man and God rather than a way to God. He wants to liberate faith from a dead language. But is this not a semantic problem first of all? Should it not be treated as such?

     Bishop Robinson grew up at Canterbury, which I knew at least briefly in my childhood, and he went to the same college as I at Cambridge. I do not think we were both at Clare at the same time. We might have been. It is clear that he was always a churchy type, and at that time I was not. I believe I showed up in chapel at Clare just once (it was a charming Caroline place with deep choir stalls in which we sat in surplices). When I was at Cambridge I was precisely the kind of person who, as this book complains, finds the (Anglican) Church unintelligible. My attitude was a common Cambridge attitude of total indifference to religion, and the Bishop’s Anglicanism is a Cambridge-like response to this kind of problem.

     In the collection of reviews and letters called The Honest to God Debate (Ed. David L. Edwards, Westminster Press $1.85), which must be read in connection with the book itself, a Cambridge man of my time (not identified) has this to say: "Had such thinking as has led to Honest to God been the case in my Cambridge days (some thirty years ago now) I might well have found my way into the Church . . . But at Cambridge I just couldn’t face the dreariness and impracticability of this Church image . . ."

     These are not my own feelings. I would agree that I was not impressed by the image of the Anglican Church or of any other. But I am not sure I would have been led to any Church by Bishop Robinson’s book. Yet in all fairness I must admit that I think that I discovered the meaning of Christian faith when I found out that the usual mythological and anthropomorphic picture of God was not the true God of Christians. That is to say that, radically, my experience was close to that which I think underlies Dr. Robinson’s book: the direct and existential discovery of God beyond concepts and beyond myths, in His inexpressible reality. Whether one speaks of Him ens a se and pure act, (which are the notions that gave me a certain amount of light) or whether one accepts Tillich’s idea of God as the "pure ground of all being" (as Bishop Robinson does), the important thing is a spiritual awareness of the supreme reality of God. God is in some sense beyond all apologetic proof because all argumentation that goes from beings to His Being still leaves one with the impression that He is "a being" among other beings, "an essence" like other essences (though of course "above them all"), "a nature" in the midst and at the source of all other natures. This does not do justice to transcendence.

It seems to me that the Bishop has really not answered the question his book has raised.

I DISAGREE with Bishop Robinson in his conviction that his thesis and his problem are utterly new. They are not new, they are perfectly traditional. When Honest to God speaks disparagingly of the via negativa in traditional theology, the author seems to be under the misapprehension that this was nothing but an ascetic rejection of the wicked world. In fact it was a passing beyond positive concepts, a direct flight to God "without concepts" or by negative concepts (He is not "this," not "that"). Those who are so intent on de-mythologizing should not forget the real import of the Thomist doctrine of analogy (not so fashionable these days). In any case, Dr. Robinson ought to re-read Pseudo-Dionysius, or perhaps Eckhart’s sermon on Beati Pauperes Spiritu. From the very beginning Christians have been aware that the New Testament revelation of God was entirely revolutionary: the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ is not "a God" among others, even the highest God. He is the Father dwelling in light inaccessible, and seen only in the Son. He is seen in Christ precisely as Son of Man, and when the Risen Lord ascends (this upsets Bishop Robinson), then the invisible God is manifest in the Church through the Spirit of Christ and through the love which makes men one in Christ. I think that in this confession of faith (apart from the supposedly "mythical" character of some expressions) Bishop Robinson and I would substantially agree.

      What then is his problem? It is a very real one. Stated in Bonhoeffer’s terms (and the full statement of the problem must be sought in the Letters from Prison, written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Evangelical minister who was one of Hitler’s victims) it is the fact that the usual language of religion has apparently ceased to have a meaning for modern man.

     It is not so much that the symbolic and “mythical” statements of revealed truth are "false" but that they very often convey the opposite to what they are intended to convey. Hence, says Bishop Robinson, with Bonhoeffer, to try to force "outmoded and irrelevant concepts" of God on modem man is an affront, an "attack on the adulthood of the world." It means, in effect, a foolish attempt to frighten the modern skeptic into thinking he has problems which he has become incapable of having, and then producing a Deus ex machina to rescue him from his supposed plight.

     But it seems to me that the Bishop has really not answered the question his book has raised. He has so accentuated the division between natural and "supranatural" (his term), "religious" and "secular," that he is caught in the division and ends by committing himself to one half of it, to the exclusion of the other. Abandoning an unqualified commitment to the "religious myth" and to God as a Deus ex machina, he firmly lays hold on the world because "God is in the world" and nowhere else. So the more secular one is, the more one discards the trappings of religion, the more one is united to God-in-the-world. One must in this way reinterpret the Christian obligation to suffer with God in His world: by resolutely abandoning the consolations of "religion" and plunging into a seemingly godless secularism out of love for God’s world and of the people in it.

     IT IS EASY to see how shocking this message sounds to conservative Anglicans, and there have been not a few who, like the minister’s wife in Decline and Fall, suggested that the time had come for the Bishop of Woolwich to resign his see and turn his attention to something more in harmony with his thesis-bartending, for example. But I am still not certain that this courageous, indeed despairing attempt to enter into fellowship with the godless is really calculated to establish communication with them.

     If there is to be communication, then there is presumably something to communicate. But as E. I. Mascall has pertinently remarked, in a review of Honest to God: "If Dr. Robinson is right in saying that ‘God is teaching us that we must live as men who can get on very well without Him’, then the Church has no need to say anything whatever to secularized man, for that is precisely what secularized man already believes."

     I should say, as a rough guess, that at least a million people have read this book and doubtless many more are acquainted with the controversy about it through the newspapers, magazines and TV. Who are all these people? Are they the godless weaklings who have long since dismissed religion from their mind and who are incapable of "having a religious problem"? Remember, one of the ideas the Bishop takes from Bonhoeffer and makes axiomatic is that Christianity is trying to awaken problems in the mind of the man who no longer has any religious difficulties. What Honest to God may do, instead, for readers who are troubled about the viability of Christian ideas, is make them more comfortable with a religionless religion, that is nevertheless sincerely "Christian." To judge by the letters reprinted in the Honest to God Debate the people who have been most "helped" by the Bishop’s book are those who, having a Christian background of some sort and then fallen into doubt, have drawn comfort from the fact that there was a Bishop who understood their difficulty because he shared it. A large number were clergymen, university dons and students, or professional people: all of them very conscious of the lack of rapport between Christianity and secular society. All agreed that it was both subjectively and objectively dishonest for the Church (of England) to go on pretending to be completely convinced by the language of traditional theology. Presented with a choice of "where to stand" they have elected to stand rather with the secular and godless world (believing that this is really "where God is") than with the religious and theological culture of their Fathers. As Bishop Robinson says very beautifully: "For Christianity the holy is in the depth of the common." Taken as it stands, this statement is pure Gospel gold. But in its context it becomes rather more drossy.

WHAT is the worldly, the secular, the common? The Bishop of Woolwich makes no distinctions, no qualifications. But surely, ff he remembers the existentialist background of his mentors, he must have some sense of the verfehltes Dasein, the forfeited and unredeemed "givenness" that constitutes "the world" for the Christian existentialist. Surely, a passive and uncritical acceptance of whatever "is there" is no way to find "God in the world." A naive enthusiasm and ill-considered commitment to the latest secular optimism is surely not enough to constitute that "true religion" which "consists in harmonizing oneself with the evolutionary process as it develops ever higher forms of self-consciousness." If it is, then the Bishop of Woolwich, for all the refinement of his thought and sophistication of his reading, is giving us little more than the old amalgam of agnosticism, laissez faire and bourgeois hopefulness which has been the stock in trade of religious liberalism for the last hundred years. This may be some comfort to the religiously confused who have still not made the total break with religion. But I have small difficulty imagining what a convinced Marxist might have to say about it.

     This is not a book for unbelievers, as the Bishop hopes. Speaking from my own experience, I would say that thirty years ago I would hardly have read the first ten pages. For the complete unbeliever, the very question of religion and Christianity is irrelevant, and the fact that a Christian Bishop happens to admit that he sees its irrelevance is of no interest whatever. That is the Bishop’s business.

     The strange thing is that today, being by the grace of God a believer, a monk and a priest, I have read the book with real interest. Its problem, which is of no concern to an unbeliever, is very real to a believer. We all realize that as Christians we have to make up our minds about our position in an unchristian world, a "diaspora." Whether we like it or not, we have to accept the diaspora situation if we want to be honest. In this I agree, as Karl Rahner would, with Bonhoeffer, the Bishop of Woolwich, and so many others, including also Karl Barth. It would be absurd to try to convince ourselves, with the triumphalists, that the Catholicism of the Council of Trent (or the Anglicanism of Cranmer) is about to make a victorious comeback and sweep all godless philosophies from the scene.

     I for my part am not disturbed at being one of a minority, and if it ends up with my being a minority of one, then, by God’s grace, I will accept the fact with equanimity and hold to my theology which is that of Catholic tradition. This will not prevent my loving those who disagree. If occasion arises, I will certainly try to make that theology comprehensible to those who do not hold it with me. I will do this not because I want to be officially correct, or to be approved by a curia which may (let us suppose) have been blown off the face of the earth by an H bomb. I will do it not because I think the concepts are fashionable and acceptable to twentieth century man. I will do it because it is my way of being "honest to God" and loyal to the grace which has, as I believe, brought me to the awareness of the unknowable and unspeakable One who is present to me, (I gladly agree here with Tillich and the Bishop) in the pure ground of my being. I will do it in my own terms, which may have something of St. John of the Cross, something of St. Thomas, something of the Greek and Latin Fathers, something also of Tattler and Co., of Christian existentialism, and something even of Zen. I think that if the Bishop of Woolwich were a little more aware of these traditional expressions of honesty to God, his book would be more viable than it is.

     As it is, however, I think that Honest to God is an expression of sincere but misdirected concern: a concern to find "fellowship" with modern secular man on a level that is still ambiguous and superficial because it still attempts, though with all decency and much tact, to "sell" a reconditioned image of a Christianity that is "worldly," "religionless," and free of myths. This may be all very well, but the unconditional character of the Christian concern, to use the Bishop’s own language, demands that at some point one confront "the world" with a refusal. We know, in fact, that Bonhoeffer did just this. He certainly did not pretend to find God in Nazism. He gave his life in protest against such an illusion. Yet this, in conclusion, leaves us with one sobering reflection. It was Bonhoeffer the "religionless," Bonhoeffer who sought "God in the world," who died protesting against Nazi worldliness when the vast majority of the religious, the orthodox, the officially other-worldly and impeccably Christian, lined up behind Hitler’s armies and marched in the godless military parade even when they knew they were supporting a government that was resolutely determined to destroy their Churches.

     No matter what one may say about Honest to God, there is something of this intransigent sincerity in it: something that cannot be belittled or ignored. It is more than mere good will. I have seen some privately circulated lectures of the Bishop of Woolwich which are far more important and more exciting than Honest to God and theologically much deeper. There is something stirring here and the noise over one book must not make us inattentive to what is to come.

Thomas Merton was the author of "Man in the Divided Sea," and many other books. He was a member of the Trappist Community at Gethsemani, KY. He died December 10, 1968.

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