Catholics for a Changing Church

"To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often" - Bl. John Henry Newman

Modern Believing, April 2013, Still Honest to God? (#166)

Our friends at Modern Church have dedicated the most recent issue of their quarterly Modern Believing to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God.

I was just beginning Theology studies when I read the book and still remember the mind-blowing and breath taking experience it was. I began to feel the shaking of the foundations which would not stop until a few years after my encounter with Liberation Theology.

I reread the book only a few years ago and was struck by how reluctant Robinson was to be a radical thinker. Yet he had to plough the furrow he felt called to open.

The book was a publishing sensation. He declared, “Our image of God must go”. Robinson had been wrestling with the God question long before he wrote his bombshell. His speciality was New Testament studies but he found himself in the company of Tillich, Bonhoeffer and Bultmann, three Germans who were having a tremendous impact on theological thought of the mid-twentieth century—Tillich with his theology of culture and God as ultimate concern; Bonhoeffer with his religionless Christianity and Bultmann with his demythologisation of Scripture and Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.

Robinson set himself the unenviable task of deconstructing a whole way of thinking about God. The God of our upbringing, of our culture, of our worldview must be discarded if Christianity is to survive. God is not ‘up there’, nor is he ‘totally other’, nor does he have an existence utterly remote from us. Rather God is close and intimate, a ‘Thou’ (Buber) we encounter in the deep-down of us, in the place where we engage in all our finite relationships. God, the mysterious ‘Thou’, is in us as we are in God.

Experience is the foundation of Robinson’s theological thought and it is the impetus towards the rearticulation of a Faith in God who is closer than our jugular.

This way of thinking is nowadays called ‘Panentheism’, a position beyond pantheism—the notion that “all is God”—which permits us relate to a God who is the ‘ground of our being’(Tillich), who is ‘in’ our cosmos and inseparable from it.

For those who remember those heady days of renewed christian ecumenical thinking this quarter’s Modern Believing will be a wonderful tour of a terrain where Robinson’s position is firmly established.

Frank Regan
April 2013

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