John Robinson

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.

Two poems

Two of my favourite places in Dunedin are the aviaries at the Dunedin Botanical Gardens and the Presbyterian Church’s Archives Research Centre. Weird birds seem to dominate both places. Yesterday, I visited the latter, a place from which it seems I rarely depart empty handed. I left with the following two poems. They were amusing enough to share:

‘The Ecumenicist’, by James Forrest

I caught an Ecumenicist
And kept him in a yard.
I fed him up on sugar-beet
With olive oil and lard.
I kept him effervescent
With the aid of sherbert-fizzers,
And snipped his budding principles
With ecumeniscissors.

In ecumenisentiments
His training was intense;
With ecumeniscience
And ecumenisense;
As he greedily devoured
All the Acts of Convocation
To stimulate the art
Of ecumeniquivocation.

I loved my Ecumenicist
And firmly hoped that he
Would one day ecumenicise
My darling C of E;
But every time I turned, occurred
Another cataclysm –
My Ecumenicist had bred
An ecumeniSCHISM!

Discouraged by experience
I felt it rather vain
An ecumenisysphus
For ever to remain;
My fervant ecumenical
Experiments had failed
And ecumenicynicism
Finally prevailed.

‘Little John Robinson’

Little boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on his little hands little gold head.
Hush, hush, whisper who dares –
Little John Robinson’s saying his prayers.

“God bless Daddy – I hope that’s right.
Hadn’t we fun with his book tonight?
The words are long, and the theme’s so odd,
But the title’s lovely – Honest to God!

If I open the pages a little bit more
I can see Alec Vidler just round the door.
He’s a beautiful beard, but I doubt if he should …
Oh, God bless Tillich and make him good.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer just writes in red
That the notion of ‘God out there’ is dead.
And John Wren Lewis finds God in all
Though Bultmann doubts if that’s true at all.

They’re so clever, and I’m just me;
And what it’s about I can’t quite see.
I said, ‘Bless Daddy, and Tillich and …’ oh!
While I remember, the Publishers too!”

Little boy kneels at the foot of the bed,
Droops on his little hands little gold head.
Hush, hush, whisper who dares –
Honest to God, he’s just saying his prayers!

(‘Little John Robinson’ appeared in The British Weekly, June, 1963)

Eschatology and the doctrine of God

‘Every statement of Christian eschatology … is an inference from some basic truth in its doctrine of God, and must be judged and tested accordingly … Every truth about eschatology is ipso facto a truth about God … What God is, is what in history He asserts Himself to be’. – John Arthur Thomas Robinson, In the End, God: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things (London: James Clarke & Co., 1950), 31, 36, 37.

April Book Notes – 2

This is my second list of book notes for this month. The first can be read here. It’s been a month of reading around themes of hope. To that end, few are better friends to turn to than Jürgen Moltmann, whose writings grow on me more every year. He seeks to give voice to many of the questions of existential bite that I wrestle with, and along the way creates the invitation for the kind of open and informed conversation that I believe theology ought to be having much more often. So, to the list of highlights:

Richard Bauckham, ed., God Will Be All in All: The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).

This is a valuable collection of 6 critical reflections on Jürgen Moltmann’s eschatology (and 8 responses by Moltmann) that arose from a conversation at St Andrews some years back between Richard Bauckham, Trevor Hart, Timothy Gorringe and Moltmann (there’s also a essay by Miroslav Volf, who was not present). Who would not have loved to have been a fly on the wall in that room! Anyone who wants to engage with Moltmann’s impressive vision – and contemporary theology more generally – could do little better than familiarise themselves with these indispensable interactions. I reckon it’s worth buying just to read Moltmann’s brilliant 5-page essay on ‘The Logic of Hell’. The main drawback is that Bauckham (who is the editor after all) spills more than his fair share of ink and it may have been preferable to have some other voices included, or just a shorter book. ♦♦♦½

Brian Hebblethwaite, The Christian Hope (Basingstoke: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1984).

In this study, Brian Hebblethwaite provides the reader with a helpful survey of the tradition of Christian hope in both its classical and modern dialects. While sometimes his brevity leads him to so simplify the facts that he distorts them, this book is a useful introduction to some of the key names and issues that have informed Roman and Protestant eschatological discourse. ♦♦♦

Jürgen Moltmann, In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope (trans. Margaret Kohl; Philadelphia: Fortress, 2004).

This was a re-read for me, and not for the last time. One of Moltmann’s best. ♦♦♦♦

Geoffrey Rowell, Hell and the Victorians: A Study of the Nineteenth-Century Theological Controversies concerning Eternal Punishment and the Future Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974).

I am aware of no more comprehensive – or important – study on nineteenth-century thinking concerning questions of heaven and hell than this one. That Rowell’s work remains a standard text after 30 years is testimony in itself to its abiding value. (The more-recent work by Michael Wheeler, Death and the Future Life in Victorian Literature and Theology (along with its popular-level version, Heaven, Hell, and the Victorians (1994)) is also very valuable.) While Rowell’s study (too) largely neglects non-conformist voices and, to a lesser extent, voices from within evangelicalism (Anglican or otherwise), the treatment remains a valuable and encyclopaedic study! ♦♦♦♦

John Arthur Thomas Robinson, In the End, God.: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things (London: James Clarke & Co., 1950).

Though pushing close to 60 years old (Forsyth did encourage us to ‘think in centuries’, after all!), and in parts showing its age, this short treatment remains a useful study, not least for the fact that herein Robinson outlines some critical contours in which the conversation regarding eschatology should take place. I found the chapters on the resurrection of the Body, and ‘The End of the Lord’, to be the most fruitful. Here’s a few tasters:

‘Indeed, every statement of Christian eschatology, whether of the end of the person or of the world, is an inference from some basic truth in its doctrine of God, and must be judged and tested accordingly. False ideas of the last things are direct reflections of inadequate views of the nature of God’. (p. 31)

‘The hope of immortality is a corollary of faith, but yet of a faith which knows no personal God. In consequence, it is a hope that can hold out no guarantee of the future as a life of personal communion’. (p. 79)

‘The sole basis for such a doctrine [of universalism], as more than wishful thinking, is the work of God in Christ’. (p. 108)

‘The recovered awareness is the “the Christian lives not at the End of Time, but rather from the End and in the End of Time” (Lambert). [The Christian] sees everything from an eschatological perspective. The Biblical world-view is not obtained by regarding all things under the form of a timeless eternity, nor as ideally they might be, but as they are already in Christ, the End’. (p. 125).

Covers an impressive amount of material in an easily accessible way. ♦♦♦♦

Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004).

It is impossible for me to do justice to this book in a wee book note. Suffice it to say that there is a sense that in this book all that this great teacher has been saying previously – about God, creation, ecclesiology, hope, justice, christology, pneumatology, soteriology, mission, Sabbath, shekinah …everything – reaches its head. Like the best of muscats, this one is to drink slowly, and often. Here’s Moltmann on the fullness of God:

In order to grasp the fulness of God, we are at liberty to leave moral and ontological concepts behind, and to avail ourselves of aesthetic dimensions. The fulness of God is the rapturous fullness of the divine life; a life that communicates itself with inexhaustible creativity; an overbrimming life that makes what is dead and withered live; a life from which everything that lives receives it vital energies and its zest for living; a source of life to which everything that has been made alive responds with deepest joy and ringing exultation. The fulness of God is radiant light, light reflected in the thousand brilliant colours of created things. The glory of God expresses itself, not in self-glorying majesty, but in the prodigal communication of God’s own fullness of life. The glory of God is not to be found, either, in his laborious self-realization by way of his self-emptying, but follows upon that of the eternal day of resurrection (p. 336).

Amen, and Amen. ♦♦♦♦½

James Baldwin Brown, The Doctrine of Annihilation in the Light of the Gospel of Love (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1875).

J. Baldwin Brown was PT Forsyth’s pastor, and his influence on the young Forsyth is obvious in a number of areas, eschatology among them. This series of lectures was penned and presented at a time when conditional immortality was an even more richly debated topic than it is today in the post-Fudge world. While much of what Brown has to say in his critique of annihilationism is inadequately developed, his instincts remain valuable, and his pointing us to towards the broader scope of God’s redemptive purposes as the overflow of his own community of love puts the discussion at least on the right page. ♦♦♦½

The view from here

‘The recovered awareness is that “the Christian lives not at the End of Time, but rather from the End and in the End of Time” (Lambert). [The Christian] sees everything from an eschatological perspective. The Biblical world-view is not obtained by regarding all things under the form of a timeless eternity, nor as ideally they might be, but as they are already in Christ, the End …

For when that word [of God] is heard, nothing appears quite the same. The fashion of this world looks different when seen from the End. The neutrality goes out of it. It is as though the beam of a searchlight has been turned upon it, immeasurably deepening the contrast between light and shade. The flatness is taken from living. A new edge and tone is given to it. The common round becomes charged with fresh moment and decisiveness.

It is precisely this gift that the modern world so desperately lacks. It is for this reason that it seeks an outlet in the man-made eschatologies of Fascism and Communism. It is for this reason that it creates the artificial stimulants of sensational journalism and football pools, and continually screws itself up to some new pitch of excitement and suspense. All these are attempts to recreate a lost sense of each moment as the day of decision, to restore that pinch of expectancy to a life which has became flat and dead and insipid.

But those who have breathed again the atmosphere of Christian eschatology, who in a tired and drab world have sniffed the clean, crisp air of the Advent message and the Advent hymns, have no need of such expedients. It is difficult to express in language the effect of this recovery.

There is perhaps one analogy which may convey to our contemporaries a little of its feel. For there was a moment in recent English history when something of the transforming power of apocalypse was sensed as a shared experience of the nation. In the summer of 1940 we felt everything become braced to a sudden tautness. The slack went out of life. The indecision vanished. Blurred outlines leapt into focus. For a flash all stood out sharp and clear-cut, pin-pointed as in an etching or as by moonlight on snow. There was nothing artificial about that. The issues of life and death confronted us: there was no shuffling, no shrugging them off.

It is in such a moment that the Christian life is eternally set. It is the very nature of the Christian community to be an eschatological reality. This is what is being rediscovered by many of our generation. And when this happens, the Church wears no longer the dull sub-lunary look which it has when the dimension of apocalypse is absent. It is seen essentially as “the place where … the Spirit, that element of the ‘last days’ is active” (O. Cullmann, Christ et le Temps, 109). It has its very existence “between the times.” It is the bridge which spans the “moment” between the Resurrection and the Parousia’. – John Arthur Thomas Robinson, In the End, God.: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things (London: James Clarke & Co., 1950), 125, 126–8.