Honest to God

by John A. T. Robinson

Paper Book, 1963



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London : SCM Press [1964, c1963]


Originally published in 1963, Honest to God ignited passionate debate about the nature of Christian belief and doctrine in the white heat of a secular revolution. In addition, it articulated the anxieties of a generation who saw these traditional fundamentals as no longer acceptable or necessarily credible. Reissued on the 55th anniversary of the original publication, Honest to God remains a work of honest theology that continues to inspire many in their search for credible Christianity in today's world.

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LibraryThing member JaneSteen
Where I got the book: purchased used on Amazon. My copy is the 1963 American edition.

I have no clue whether this book is currently laughed at by theologians or accepted as an interesting step in the development of modern theology, so I'll just forge ahead and give you my impressions.

I spent much of
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this book thinking that Robinson was throwing the baby out with the bathwater. First, he wants us to consider a non-supernaturalist idea of God: let's stop thinking of God as a Being apart from ourselves, "a supreme Person, a self-existent subject of infinite goodness and power, who enters into a relationship with us comparable with that of one human personality with another." Instead, we are to view God as "in the depths" of our existence: "For the word 'God' denotes the ultimate depth of all our being, the creative ground and meaning of all our existence."

Robinson tries very hard to prove that this is not pantheism (i.e. God is in everything, everything is God) but I got the impression that he's walking a very fine tightrope here, theologically speaking. And he talks a lot about love in this chapter, giving me the impression that he was cutting two thousand years of Christian doctrine down to some nebulous form of New Age spirituality.

And then we get to the chapter about Jesus...blimey. Is Robinson actually saying that Jesus isn't God? It certainly looks like it. "Jesus never claims to be God, personally: yet he always claims to bring God, completely." Mmmmmmmmmmmkay but if you knock the claim that Jesus is God out of the Christian religion, there's not much left of it. The Incarnation is one of those litmus test thingies: if you don't believe in it, your claim to be a Christian is a bit empty.

And then JR attacks religion, the Church and prayer; you get the impression that he thinks Christianity would be so, so much better off without them and we wouldn't have to feel guilty about not going to church or not praying. At this point I'm yelling "Dude, you're a Church of England Bishop...if you find religion inconvenient you may be IN THE WRONG JOB." Look, I'm perfectly OK with people telling me they're "spiritual but not religious." But saying that and then saying you're a Christian in the same breath is like watching a giraffe give birth to something that's half antelope, half lizard. There's a point to the "rules," which is that we're really not very good at making any spiritual progress without a bit of structure and community, and Christianity, for all its faults, does supply the undergirding which allows us (ideally) to move in the right direction.

Having thus increasingly annoyed me in chapters 1-5, JR redeemed himself considerably in the last two chapters. He considers the various ethical/moralist/humanist systems that have arisen to replace the supernaturalist view and moral absolutes of traditional Christianity, and posits that "they have taken their stand, quite correctly, against any subordination of the concrete needs of the individual situation to an alien universal norm. But in the process any objective or unconditional standard has disappeared in a morass of relativism and subjectivism." He claims that there is a standard, but it is love as taught and shown by Jesus Christ, and that Christians are called to practice a "casuistry of love" in which we must judge (if judge we must) situations on the basis that "compassion for persons overrides all law." I believe that many Christians nowadays understand this form of casuistry in everyday life; accepting the Bible's teaching on moral absolutes for themselves, they nevertheless support their divorcing friends, love their gay neighbors and are tolerant, even friendly, toward other religions. They are not the ones shouting that God hates f*gs/Muslims/Harry Potter, and therefore go unnoticed.

And then Robinson wraps up by making some interesting observations about what the church IS and what it should be: For the last thing the Church exists to be is an organization for the religious. Its charter is to be the servant of the world." You'll get no argument from me there, JR. And I liked this: ". . .[for] authentic Christian worldliness. . .the things of this world are 'really interesting in themselves', . . .'their truth is not as it were swallowed up and destroyed by a higher reference'--for instance, by how far they can be turned to the service of the church or used as occasions for evangelism." That's thought-provoking while well within the bounds of orthodoxy, so I'll give it a think.

So, something of a parson's egg of a book--parts of it were quite good. Is it relevant? Is it necessary? Or is it just the ramblings of a disaffected clergyman looking for a feelgood religion more suited to the spirit of the 60s than the CofE in which he has climbed high? I'm rather hoping someone will come across this review and give me the low-down on how this book has survived (or not) in theological circles.
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LibraryThing member MerricMaker
When it came out, this book was like a dropped bomb. Even today, many in the C of E consider reading this book to stand as the doorway between mere church attendance, and actual, active congress with their faith.

Robinson wrote this text in response to what he saw as the church's tendency to respond
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to modernism with obstinate parochialism. New theological ideas from people like Paul Tillich or even Huxley were found to be too odd, too unorthodox. As a result, many found church to be rife with banal supernaturalism and incapible of self-examination in the face of the 1960's. The result was what John Shelby Spong would later call, "believers in exile." That is, people who stopped attending church because it had ceased to be relevant to their lives and experience. "Honest to God" called for the work of constructive iconoclasm, for the church to look at encroaching modernism and actually be able to respond constructively to it, and indeed to incorporate itself into the movement. A classic of radical theology.
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