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.