“Our Image of God Must Go.”

That was the title of an essay in The Observer in March 1963, an excerpt from Honest to God by New Testament scholar John A. T. Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich in the Church of England. The book took the religious publishing world by storm, selling over a million copies, stimulating all sorts of conversations about the future of the church, and stirring up controversy and calls for Robinson’s resignation.

For a long time, I’ve heard about Honest to God. People point to the publication as an inflection point in the history of Christianity in Great Britain and in mainline Protestant circles in the United States, claiming it as either a bold step toward progress in bringing Christianity into conversation with the modern world or as a radical departure from historic Christianity that has ended in theological disaster.

In light of this influential work turning 60 this year, I found an old, discolored paperback edition, the cover barely clinging to the book, and marked up my way through the text. It’s a short proposal that casts a long shadow.

It’s Time for Something Radical

The book begins and ends with Robinson casting himself as a reluctant revolutionary. He assumes the role of a wise and reasonable church leader pressed upon by the current moment to do whatever it takes to save Christianity and stave off church decline.

What’s necessary is something far more radical than “a restating of traditional orthodoxy in modern terms” (7), he says, something that diverges from the path taken by Dorothy Sayers, C. S. Lewis, and J. B. Phillips (15). The moment demands more than mere translation of traditional Christian teaching. If the church is to avoid shrinking into “a tiny religious remnant,” we need “a much more radical recasting” whereby “the most fundamental categories of our theology—of God, of the supernatural, and of religion itself—must go into the melting” (7).

Sights on the Supernatural

Throughout the book, Robinson appeals to the work of Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rudolf Bultmann. They’re his conversation partners, the German philosopher theologians at the vanguard of a new kind of Christianity, whose proposals look most promising. The survival of Christianity is at stake, he says. “There is no time to lose” in seeking to “recapture ‘secular’ man.” The way forward is to adopt a new conception of God that, in the end, is more faithful to Christianity than the traditional formulas so often misunderstood in modern times (43).

Robinson takes issue with the God of popular imagination—the old man upstairs who intervenes in human affairs much like a doting grandfather or absent caretaker. Rather than correct these misconceptions of God with a deeper exploration of Scripture or by interrogating the therapeutic and deistic assumptions that lead to such a vision, or by challenging dualistic readings of the biblical text, Robinson sets his sights on “supernaturalism” and “the miraculous.” The church should heed the naturalist critique of supernaturalism because it exposes many of Christianity’s cherished beliefs as “an idol” we must no longer cling to. At the same time, he insists, the Christian faith has a word for thoroughgoing naturalists, lest God become little more than “a redundant name for nature or for humanity” (54).

Robinson embraces Tillich’s description of God as “the ground of our being,” claiming it to be a “great contribution” to the project of reinterpreting transcendence in a way that “preserves its reality while detaching it from the projection of supernaturalism” (56). He celebrates this move toward the abstract—away, it seems, from the covenantal faithfulness of Yahweh, seen in the gritty life of Israel. (Much more could be said about the flattening of Old and New Testament particularity here, but I digress.)

Christianity for a New Day

Robinson’s new image of God leads to a consistent redefining of traditional Christian doctrine, with both God and his works morphing into something less personal and less concrete (and if I’m honest, much less interesting).

Robinson dismisses arguments for the divinity of Christ that appeal to Jesus’s self-conception or speech, such as Lewis’s famous trilemma of Jesus being either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. Jesus never claimed to be God personally, he tells us, only the One who brings God completely (72). Traditional theologies of the atonement are set to the side. The kenotic theory of Christ’s incarnation is preferred. Gone are the New Testament’s frightening images of hellfire; eternal judgment gets recast for a modern age as “union-in-estrangement with the Ground of our being,” following Paul Althaus’s description of “inescapable godlessness in inescapable relationship to God” (80).

Christian morality gets altered also, with Joseph Fletcher’s “situational ethics” put forth as the only option for “a man come of age” (116–17). “Life in the Spirit” means living with “no absolutes but his love” (114), which “will find . . . its own particular way in every individual situation” (112). Actions once considered wrong or sinful (such as sex before marriage) are not necessarily so, once love becomes the standard that renders moral laws irrelevant.

Love alone, because, as it were, it has a built-in moral compass, enabling it to ‘home’ intuitively upon the deepest need of the other, can allow itself to be directed completely by the situation. It alone can afford to be utterly open to the situation, or rather to the person in the situation, uniquely and for his own sake, without losing its direction or unconditionality. It is able to embrace an ethic of radical responsiveness, meeting every situation on its own merits, with no prescriptive laws. (115)

Here’s the way Robinson’s proposal works. He adopts, almost without question, the assumptions of his sophisticated contemporaries but then pushes back gently at some of the more far-reaching implications of modern views. Christianity comes across less like an authority heralding the truths of divine revelation and more like a quiet conversation partner meekly lifting a hand every now and then from over in the corner, hoping to be heard. Enlightenment naturalistic views are assumed; traditional Christianity gets interrogated.

In the end, as the reluctant revolutionary, Robinson calls the church to overcome her obstinate opposition to radical change and embrace a “metamorphosis of Christian belief and practice”—a recasting that will “leave the fundamental truth of the Gospel unaffected” yet still require “everything to go into the melting—even our most cherished religious categories and moral absolutes” (124).

Successful Disaster

It’s been 60 years since this book appeared on the scene and rocked the church world. Looking over the landscape, you could interpret the results as either a stunning success or an unmitigated disaster. And there’s a sense in which both takes are true.

As far as success goes, Robinson was followed by bishops and leaders who pushed positions far more radical than his. Millions of secular and barely religious people today might shrug at Robinson’s proposal, so commonplace has his take on Christianity become. In some Protestant circles, the willingness to dispense with markers of historic Christianity is now so pervasive that controversy is stirred up not by heresy but by someone daring to insist on a moral absolute or hold to historic Christian teaching.

As far as the disaster goes, the sophisticated makeover Robinson sought to give the church has resulted in the emptying of churches at a historic rate. Ironically, the “tiny remnant” of faithful churchgoers in England today are more likely to be the Christians who still read Sayers, Lewis, and Phillips, the writers Robinson thought passé. Those who’ve followed the path of Honest to God don’t bother with church at all.

Now that postmodern waves have crashed upon modernity’s shore, many of the abstractions, assumptions, and sophistications of a 1960s English aristocracy come across as quaint. Robinson’s “recasting” looks like little more than an outdated attempt to curry favor with people who have “come of age” according to good old-fashioned Enlightenment arrogance.

Honestly out of Date

The project of liberal Christianity seems to make headway in every generation, usually through sounding an alarm about the survival of the faith or painting a dire picture that assumes only a tiny remnant will remain in church, yet always claiming the latest fad or fashion is the key to renewal. We’re told to take as our foundation the assumptions of our current cultural moment, and then remake Christianity—put it through the melting fires—into something more acceptable to the modern mind. Unfortunately, the “modern mind” is a moving target. That’s the problem with fads and fashions—they’re fleeting. They don’t last.

Honest to God isn’t just a faded paperback, its words barely clinging to some semblance of historic Christianity. The proposal in these pages is musty, while so many other books written before and around the same time still feel fresh, drawing sustenance from roots in an ancient faith.

Sixty years on, what the church needs most isn’t another proposal that interrogates Christianity from the vantage point of our contemporary sensibilities but leaders who interrogate our current moment from the vantage point of historic Christianity. And, honest to God, that’s what the world needs too.

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