John Robinson and the Language of Faith in God

For the 40th anniversary of the publication of 'Honest to God', Southwark Cathedral held a symposium on 20 March 2003. Don Cupitt contributed this talk

My knowledge of John Robinson extended over a period of thirty years. From 1952 to 1955 I was an undergraduate at Trinity Hall, and frequently attended the Clare College Eucharist then presided over by John with Bill Skelton and Charlie Moule. It embodied all the principles of the Parish Communion Movement and was the best quality Christian worship available in Cambridge at that time. Of John's lectures in the Faculty of Divinity I remember most vividly the course on Romans that was later published. In March 1963, when Honest to God appeared, I had recently succeeded John Habgood as Vice-Principal of Westcott House and was still distinctly conservative in theology. Although I did sympathize strongly with Robinson's motives in writing it, I was not deeply affected by his book. But during the 1970s, when John had returned from Southwark to Trinity College, I regularly attended a small dining club of theologians that met and talked in his rooms, and in the early 1980s when my own extreme notoriety began I was conscious of being shown much kindness by John. 'The Sixties was my decade', he said to me, 'And the Eighties will be yours'—which shows that Eric James was right to say in his biography that John loved the limelight, and had greatly enjoyed the huge publicity that surrounded him during 'his' decade.

As I have said, I was not at first impressed by Honest to God. It seemed to be surprisingly clumsily written and obscure, and Robinson's use of the word 'God' seemed to be all over the place. He handed with confidence the Bible's mythical realism about God—the God enthroned 'up there' who is described in the language of worship—but he seemed rather ill-at-ease with classical Christian theism, as Herbert McCabe showed in an acute review. This was odd, and at the time we put it down to the fact that John was a New Testament scholar and not a philosopher. We supposed that, like Rudolf Bultmann, he was jumping straight from the biblical world-view to the modem world-view, and neglecting the extent to which the long doctrinal and philosophical development in between had sought, and sometimes found, ways of bridging the gap. In those days of the 1950s and early 1960s there were still some formidable neo-Thomists and other exponents of classical Christian theism around. Such people's God-talk was confident and orderly enough to create a climate in which it was very possible for readers to be dismissive about Honest to God.

Fifteen or twenty years later, however, some of us began to see the issues very differently. In the years immediately after the Second World War figures like St Thomas Aquinas and Karl Marx, Freud and Sartre had seemed to dominate the intellectual landscape. The issues of the day were debated under labels such as Catholicism, communism and secular humanism; logical positivism and existentialism; and theism, agnosticism and atheism. Now, all these names and ‘positions’ began to fade away, to be replaced by new names and a new agenda. Instead of talking about the clash between Catholicism and communism, we began to talk about the end of metaphysics, the Death of God and the emergence of postmodernity. And the presiding genius of the new age was Friedrich Nietzsche. At some date in the Seventies or Eighties you had to give yourself a crash course in Nietzsche: mine, I vividly remember, took place in the first half of 1981.

Amongst the radical theologians of the 1960s there were at least two—the Americans, Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton—who had been fully aware of the importance of Nietzsche for modem theology. Their nearest counterparts in Britain were Werner and Lotto Pelz; but these were, alas, rather marginal figures, and for many years Nietzsche seemed to us too excessive and fearsome a writer to be approachable.

Gradually, however, during the late 1970s, people in Britain were beginning to wonder how far the leading thinkers of the twentieth century had all along been aware of Nietzsche and had recognized the significance of his work. The answer came as a surprise: word had indeed gone round, and during their youth many or most of the major thinkers of the German-speaking world had put in a period of study at the Nietzsche-Archive. After about 1900 the leading-younger Germans somehow just knew that Nietzsche was canonical. He was someone you lived ‘after’ and therefore someone you had to have assimilated—in full. His work had made everything different, but because of his popular reputation many people drew a discreet veil over the extent of their personal debt to him. Something like this was true of thinkers as various as Freud and Jung, Heidegger and Gadamer, Thomas Mann and (amongst the theologians) at least of Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer.

You will have noticed that the three post-Nietzschean theologians just mentioned are the very ones whose work Robinson was interpreting in Honest to God. And that leads me to the second point on which our view of Honest to God changed after 1980: belatedly, we began to realise that John Robinson was not quite as unphilosophical as we had supposed. In fact, like Albert Schweitzer, he had written his PhD dissertation, not on a New Testament topic, but on a topic in the philosophy of religion. Schweitzer's topic was Kant's Philosophy of Religion—which helps us to grasp that for the rest of his life Schweitzer, following Kant, took a non-realist view of God: for him, God was just Love, a guiding spiritual ideal. Robinson's topic was Martin Buber's personalist philosophy of religion, which at that time was very influential amongst theologians. Like the others we have mentioned, Buber was concerned about the reconstruction of religious thought after Nietzsche, and two of his doctrines are highly relevant to our present topic. First, Buber made a sharp distinction between two different ways in which we may relate ourselves to whatever we are dealing with: we may treat it as impersonal, or we may respond to and address it as utterly personal. Buber called these two attitudes I-lt and I-Thou. Then secondly, Buber also said that-we could take up the I-Thou attitude to Everything, at cosmic level, recognized as an Eternal Thou. In such a case, according to Buber, we just intuit the personal: its call and our response may be unmediated by anything empirical. The eternal Thou, it was said, calls us, and can be addressed by us, but can never be described. It is always and only our Lord. We know it only as a claim upon-us.

These doctrines seemed in their heyday to offer theology a vocabulary in which one could continue to talk about God, about the ultimacy of personal values, about God's self-revelation, and about personal relations between humans and God, after Nietzsche, after the end of metaphysics, and even after the end of 'realistic' or literal belief in miracles.

Such were the ideas that John Robinson adopted. They were quite common amongst the 'dialectical theologians' and the 'theologians of encounter' who were much read in the years just before and after the Second World War, and they are very prominent in Honest to God. Robinson's biggest success was amongst the armies of people who flourished in the Welfare State's 'helping professions'—teachers, counsellors, therapists, health visitors, district nurses, social workers, probation officers and so on. These people were a new clergy, and their work was a new version of the pastoral work that in the past had been done by the parish priest and his wife. They were (roughly) post-Christian religious humanists, who were very ready to hear that to believe in God was to believe in the ultimacy of the personal, of personal values and personal relations. Personalism was exactly their world-view, and it was their enthusiasm for his book that buoyed Robinson up so much in the 1960s, during the years immediately following the publication of Honest to God.

All this is I hope sufficient to explain how and why our view of John Robinson's work changed around 1980 or so. The first decades after the War had been dominated by Freud and Marx, by secular humanism and socialism. Society was being reconstructed after the War, and the new professions were helping people to settle in and adjust to the welfare state, consumerism and the media society. In that context, the public naturally tended to see Honest to God as a work of ultra-liberal theology that cut out the supernatural and translated theological statements into statements about human relationships. The religious was the 'depth' of the interpersonal. But by the 1980s the culture had changed, and we began to see Robinson in a new way. In the manner of the Germans he admired—Tillich, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer—Robinson was trying to find a new use for God-language amid a future for religious thought after Nietzsche and the Death of God. Society was becoming so mobile and democratic that all objective norms and realities were crumbling. This was more than just secular humanism: it was something like nihilism.

Robinson was not, as rightwingers alleged, a crazed reductionist, throwing the faith to the wolves of secularism piece by piece: Honest to God was his normal theology, and its aim was constructive. He was not discarding, he, was rebuilding; and he repeatedly warns his readers that the twentieth-century crisis of faith is much graver than they yet realise. From Michael Ramsey downwards, the conservatives declared that ‘John Robinson went too far’, and he of course replied that posterity would probably judge that he had not gone nearly far enough. And he was obviously right.

There was however a persistent ambiguity in the message of Honest to God. In the end, was the book teaching a realist view of God and god-language—or was it teaching non-realism? It’s hard to say, because some of Robinson's statements and arguments clearly imply a non-realist view of God, whereas in other places Robinson uses realist language that equally clearly asserts that God exists independently of human faith in him. Which was Robinson's view? It is very hard to say, because most of twentieth-century German Protestant theology—including Tillich, Bultmann and Bonhoeffer—was itself highly ambiguous on this point, because it had to be so, and Robinson seems to want to shelter behind that ambiguity. I take these three points in turn. First, then, as the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre pointed out, many of John Robinson's arguments were clearly arguments for non-realism.

Unfortunately Macintyre confuses non-realism with atheism, a mistake that continues to be common to this day, but the main point is clear enough:

(Dr Robinson) is prepared to translate theological statements into non-theological. He says that what we mean when we speak of God is ‘that which concerns us ultimately’; that to speak of God is to speak of the deepest things we experience. ‘Belief in God is a manner of "what you take seriously without any reservation"’, and to assert that God is love is to assert the supremacy of personal relationships. All theological statements can consequently be translated into statements about human concern.

Here Macintyre is making a general point about modem Protestant theology. If you give up metaphysics, if you give up the attempt to prove the objective existence of God, then all you have left with is the ‘my god’ of personal religion. And the ‘my god’ is non-realist. He is internal to us: ‘my god’ is my goal in life, my spiritual ideal that I am trying to live up to, my dream, my hope. God becomes a function of human religiousness: not a being out there, but rather the ideal towards which my faith orients me, the imaginary focus of my own spiritual project. And because Macintyre assumes that everyone who is not a realist must be an atheist, he deduces that Robinson is an atheist.

Now it is certainly arguable that ever since Luther, Protestant faith has been of this kind—a personal religious project, oriented towards an ideal God. And it is also arguable that today, when our philosophy and our science no longer require an objectively-real God out there, all of Christian faith is and has to be of the non-realist type. The word ‘God’ still does a job in religion, but it no longer explains events all over the place in the way it did. But as I know and you know, the Churches certainly are not prepared to endorse a non-realist reading of their own faith, and John Robinson wasn't prepared to accept it either. Both in Honest to God and in all the subsequent debate he continued to affirm the reality of God, speaking for example of God's as ‘an other reality’, of ‘ultimate reality as gracious’, of ‘the reality of Being as gracious’ and so on. It seems that God's reality is not limited to the sphere of human subjective religiosity, but is objective.

However, although Robinson does want to speak of the reality of God, he also says that he is not to be understood as attempting to reinstate the old God, the God of the philosophers. For Robinson's God doesn't do anything: he is not causally active. The best-remembered illustration of this is the fact that in 1983, after his cancer was diagnosed, Robinson regularly declared that he did not think of God has having caused the cancer, but he did believe that God could be found in the cancer.

What did this mean? Robinson declared that God is an inescapable ‘reality of life’. In all the circumstances of life, without exception, he said that he ‘found himself’ held in the same ‘utterly personal’ relationship of claim and grace. So he fell back on Buber's intuition of an eternal Thou. He calls it 'real', but he cannot spell out its reality in any way that might make sense to a philosopher.

So the ambiguity remains to the end. Robinson would (I think) have continued to claim to be a theological realist to the end of his life—without ever openly disagreeing with me—and in reply to him I would say that unless he can do something to restore metaphysics, his view doesn't and cannot differ from my own non-realism—the point being, of course, that the notion of objective 'reality' is highly metaphysical. So as I see it, the ambiguity remains and runs through all of John Robinson's work, as it runs through most of twentieth-century theology. It has some troubling consequences. One is that today's language about God very often sounds confused and unclear. For example, sometimes people talk as if the reality of God is objective and constraining, but at other times people talk as if they are aware that they themselves have made a moral decision about what sort of God they are going to be ready to believe in. Such talk is obvious non-realism. Sometimes people talk as if God gives them strength and comfort in adversity, but at other times they say that it is their own faith from which they derive comfort. The prophet Elijah would say to that: 'How long will you go limping with two different opinions?' And he might make the same remark about the well- known and freely-admitted fact that church leaders nowadays have two faiths. There is the common ecclesiastical faith to which they are institutionally committed by their office, and which they must unhesitatingly defend in public; and there is the personal faith to which they have been led by their own study and thinking. Every church leader who is theologically educated is aware of the gap between the two, and of the devices that must be used to conceal it.

John Robinson was aware of difficulties like these: they were pressed upon him by his critics. But twentieth-century theology was not able to resolve them, and Robinson himself within four years or so (that is, by 1967) had gone as far as he could with them. Perhaps the twenty-first century will do better. We see the issues a little more clearly now than they did in the 1960s, and we see very much more clearly how late the hour is and how urgent the question of reform and renewal has become.

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