Bishop Wright on Bishop Robinson

RobinsonIn recent days, I’ve been lecturing on Christianity without God and the Nihilism of the Secular. We’ve mainly been looking at Mr Feuerbach and his children Karl (Marx), Sigmund (Freud), Don (Cupitt), Lloyd (Geering), Karen (Armstrong) and Alain (de Botton), as well as their much-abused and massively-misunderstood neighbours, especially Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. After I’d written my lectures – isn’t that so often the way these things go! – I came across a very helpful article by Tom Wright. Doubts about Doubt: Honest to God Forty Years On’ (published in the Journal of Anglican Studies in 2005) is Wright’s insightful reading of John Robinson’s most controversial (and, in some ways, his least interesting) book Honest to God and the theo-cultural milieu which gave rise to it and which goes a significant way to explaining its popularity and ongoing incarnations. Wright’s concluding paragraph provides what I think is a tempting taster to the whole essay:

Robinson had his finger on a real problem in postwar UK church life and, in a measure, theology. I believe the problem was mostly or largely caused not by the New Testament and historic Christianity itself, but by the way in which the post-Enlightenment world had assimilated and re-expressed the Christian faith. What Robinson referred to when speaking of supra- or supernaturalism belonged within an essentially deist or Epicurean framework, and he was struggling with the unwelcome consequences of people being unable to relate to their absentee landlord, and simultaneously puzzling over the fact that some people did not find this a problem. The huge popularity of his book shows that he struck a chord with a great many people. The tragedy of Honest to God, as I perceive it, is that Robinson did not see that what he was rejecting was a form of supernaturalism pressed upon Christianity by the Enlightenment; that he did not therefore go looking for help in finding other ways of holding together what the classic Christian tradition has claimed about God, the world, and Jesus; that in addressing these ontological questions he never laid out the parallel moral ones, or explored the ways in which, centrally, the Christian Scriptures and tradition address them; and that in consequence his high modernist construct now looks very shaky in the cold light of a postmodern dawn, as well as in the warmer light of the mainstream Christian alternative. The good news is that, precisely once the postmodern critique has done its work, we can see that there are other ways of retrieving the ancient Jewish and early Christian witness and faith – a daunting and difficult task, no doubt, but one still full of promise and possibility. In honouring John A.T. Robinson, we should perhaps evoke the famous saying of his seventeenth-century namesake: God has yet more light to break out of his holy word.

There is always, of course, much more that Wright could have said; he has a habit of stopping one or two stations short of the station with the best coffee (i.e., he’s theologically undercooked). But I found his article very helpful in framing some of the larger and social contexts of Robinson’s book. I’ve uploaded a copy of the article here.


  1. It always surprised me that a man who wrote such a helpful (though short) commentary on Romans could write Honest to God. But perhaps his intention in writing the book was misunderstood. Must have a look at the Wright article when I get a minute (from fixing up all my proofreading problems! LOL)


  2. When I first encountered Robinson I recall thinking, “He’s rejecting a God I don’t believe in.” Perhaps that is part of what he was trying to accomplish, a popular apologetic challenging some very simplistic notions of God. I was half a generation removed from it’s arrival, but I thought “what’s the fuss.” But I think to some people he gave permission to let go of this god, liberating them in ways it is hard for us to appreciate today. And I agree he doesn’t belong in the pantheon of the despisers.


  3. Have you come across Rowan Williams’ essay on Honest to God, Jason? It’s quite appreciative in some ways, but he points to one of the central problems of Robinson’s book, namely the appeal to a kind of earnest sincerity. Williams draws the parallels with Tillich’s depiction of faith as ‘ultimate concern’. In a way, it’s a kind of an intensification of the subject, which you can contrast with, say, Augustine’s suspicion about the subject’s ability to actually stay in control of things. Also, do you know Alasdair MacIntyre’s response to Robinson in Encounter? Quite different from Williams’, but he is also bothered by a kind of earnestness.


  4. @ Andre: Yes, I’ve read Williams’ piece on HtG. It’s a generous (even for Williams) critique, isn’t it. Did you know that Williams first read HtG in Sydney, of all places!? I also recently re-read Williams’ masterful essay on Cupitt – ‘”Religious Realism”: On Not Quite Agreeing with Don Cupitt’. (I love his comment about rather than following Cupitt and cutting ‘the Gordian knot of the “objectivity” of God’ one can go tracing on the Gordian knot’s several strands and try to see why it has taken particular contours.) I’ve not seen the MacIntyre piece though. Thanks for the heads up on that. Must look out for a copy.


  5. André’s comparison of Robinson and Augustine has me concerned. Which to choose: the former’s “perfectly custardly confection of Jungian-Reichian soma mysticism swimming in a soupy caramel of Tillichic, Jasperian, Bultmannish blather”, or the latter’s fantasy of pure origins and their subsequent loss (simultaneous elements of the same fantasy), based – at least in part – on his comparison of his hand with his alternately impotent and involuntary erect penis. I see pros and cons in each.

    I wonder if the intensification of the subject evident in the title Honest to God hung over the German translation in the same way, the title of which was the more apophatic Gott ist anders?

    Are you still here in New Zealand, Jason?


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