The Honest Broker
by M H Maasdorp
For some hundreds of years now,
Christian thinkers have been examining - and often rejecting - the
ancient concept of God as a being, other than the natural world, out of
whose will everything was created and who we are duty bound to obey.
These scholars and others have often found themselves driven out of the
Christian community, their work discounted by heavy-handed assertions of
absolute truth, and their livelihoods as often as not taken away. In
short, they have one way or another been forced into exile.
Bishop John Spong, long a thorn in the side
of the conservative Church establishment, notes the long rearguard
action of Church officialdom over the last forty years and maintains
Our first hurdle in our new spiritual
journey is, however, simply to recognise the reality of exile �
The role of the exile is important. Spong
correctly identifies that it has become the exile's task to be open to
new possibilities for the Christian way of life in the 21st century and,
in the process, to
� journey past those definitions of a God
who is eternal, supernatural and invasive ... 
Spong notes that the usefulness to ordinary
Christians of traditional formulations about God has been declining ever
more rapidly for some 300 years or more. Some observers have charted the
history of that decline with ongoing anxiety, while a majority seems to
have been more or less oblivious of theological storms, both in their
back garden and on the horizon.
In the process there has been a severe
fracture of Christian traditional consciousness. Perhaps there has
always been one. At any rate, almost all of the Church's clergy to a man
or woman is today theologically literate to an extent never before
achieved. They understand to some considerable degree that the Bible
isn't what it's been cracked up to be through the Christian millennia.
They also know, if somewhat less acutely, that the ways in which humans
have envisioned and talked about God in the past will no longer do in
This is not the first time that humanity's
vision of God has changed. There seems to have been a similar fracture
of consciousness in a passage from polytheism to monotheism. But it is
reasonable to say that the current slow change from realism (a personal
God exists out there) to non-realism ("God" is that which concerns us
ultimately) is more demanding than anything we have experienced before.
The progress of history is, of course,
seamless and far too complex for much more than an attempt to
encapsulate the major features of its great and more obvious changes.
Nevertheless, certain markers or beacons stand out more clearly than
other features on the recent landscape of the Church's history. They
enable us to recognise the nature of the terrain, to get an approximate
fix on the deep, slow underground forces which will determine the
eventual landscape of the Christian faith.
One such marker was the remarkable
appearance of an apparently unremarkable book published in England in
1963. Written by John Robinson, then Anglican Bishop of Woolwich in
South London, Honest to God
struck a loud chord for large numbers of readers who either had little
idea of theology and its controversies or, until then, had not cared one
wit about Christianity. (See a brief summary.)
Like Spong after him, Robinson immediately
became a thorn in the side of the Anglican establishment. For that he
was hounded mercilessly by conservative elements, eventually abandoning
his episcopal ministry in the London Diocese of Southwark and returning
to the calmer and less treacherous waters of academia.
Perhaps a brief examination of this event
will serve to illustrate what I mean when I propose that not only is the
Church fading from the landscape of the old Christian world, but so also
is the very idea of God. The majestic, sometimes threatening but always
compelling notion of a person, somewhere "out there" who rules the world
is rapidly becoming a mere myth to most of the Western world.
It's worth dwelling briefly on the book and
the controversy which rapidly attached to it, if only because it
illustrates quite well why so many Christian exiles have chosen to seek
fulfillment outside the Church.
One of the great ironies of Honest to
God, considering the world-wide fuss it stimulated, is that it was
substantially unoriginal. Robinson was merely an honest - that is, an
accurate and sympathetic - broker of the views of others.
When Bishop Robinson pointed out, for
example, that the "Old Man in the sky" motif of traditional theism is no
longer tenable, he was merely echoing a conclusion long-since reached
and accepted by a substantial majority of theologians and philosophers.
The truth of this statement is too large to
spell out here and it is difficult to summarise adequately. Briefly,
theists are those who accept that
� there exists a God, in the sense of a
being who is personal, without a body, omnipresent, perfectly free,
perfectly good, omnipotent, omniscient, creator and sustainer of the
universe, the proper object of human worship and obedience, eternal
and necessary. 
The powerful impact of Honest to God
seems to have been the result of the fortuitous coincidence of a number
First, the Church of England is an
established church, part of the State structure. It's not unfair to say
that part of an unwritten code, now as then, is that bishops don't
wittingly rock the boat of England's national religion. Bishop Robinson
did just that when his book was published.
The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time,
Michael Ramsay, took Robinson to task within days of publication for
caricaturing traditional images of God. In a television interview he
said of Robinson that
� it is utterly wrong and misleading to
denounce the imagery of God held by Christian men, women and children:
imagery that they have got from Jesus himself � 
Ramsay must have known of the many and
illustrious predecessors of Bishop Robinson who had already ploughed
this particular furrow with far greater skill and credibility than
Honest to God did. If so, his clumsy outburst was all the more
To take one of many possible examples, it
had long been clearly stated by great Christian thinkers such as
Emmanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) that it is
not unreasonable to dismiss the concept of God as an objective being to
whom one can relate in a way analogous to the way one relates to other
persons. On top of that, Ramsay would have found it extremely hard to
win a debate with even more conservative biblical scholars that
Christian imagery of God derives "from Jesus himself".
In effect, Ramsay was attempting to
perpetuate what I call a "clerical trade secret" to which the clergy
have access through their theological training, but which must not be
communicated to defenceless laypeople lest they lose their "faith" -
that is, their willingness to publicly and psychologically affirm
official doctrines. Clerics who do this are guilty of nothing less than
heresy trials). The early part of the 21st century in Anglican
Britain is, to take only one instance, seeing a resurgence of attempts
to persecute the clergy who profess "heretical" views. The powerful
Curia of the Roman Catholic Church have also lately stepped up their
efforts to muzzle dissent amongst priests and theologians.
To do him justice, Ramsay later admitted
that his initial response had been hasty. But he did nothing of any
significance to right the damage he had done, or to counsel the clergy
of the Church of England to correct his error in their congregations.
However, despite his efforts, this
particular trade secret was at last out in a big way, wriggling
vigorously and messily in the public marketplace. It marked a definite
point in the 20th century when the tide of "unbelief" (in contrast to
that of true faith) finally turned. Ramsay could do nothing about that.
In the first decade of the new millennium, despite a conservative and
evangelical backlash, it is fair to remark that more and more Christians
are now learning to live with a non-realist God.
Second, Robinson already had a high public
profile for having recently defended in court the publication of D H
Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover by Penguin Books. That he
presented a well argued case which could be refuted only by resort to
traditional doctrine and conventional morality was largely not
comprehended in Church circles.
Third, and most important, the London
newspaper The Observer
printed a prominent article about the book which was entitled "Our Image
of God Must Go". Within seven months some 350 000 copies of the book had
been sold and it eventually sold well over one million (an unusually
high figure for any book on religion in general and Christianity in
particular). Far from stopping the flow of the tide, Ramsay and his
cohorts were simply swept aside.
In the forty years since then, the
possibility that theism need not be normative and that other ways of
envisioning the universe can be usefully sought has become more and more
I doubt very much that in the long run
traditional perceptions of God will survive, except in slow moving,
turbid theological backwaters relatively undisturbed by the faster
currents of life.
 Why Christianity Must Change Or Die,
 David Jenkins in Lambeth Essays On Faith, SPCK, 1969
 A Life of Bishop John A T Robinson, Eric James, Collins, 1987