Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 3rd February 2013
3 February 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
Fifty years ago next month a book was published that some held to have shaken the Church of England to its core. It was written by the then Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, and it was entitled ‘Honest to God’. On the Sunday before it was published the Observer newspaper carried an article by the author to which a sub-editor gave the title: ‘Our image of God must go’. Whether it was because of that or because of other reasons the book was a publishing sensation. It went into four impressions in the first month, March 1963, and by the end of the year over 300,000 copies had been sold in England, vastly more than would ever normally happen to any book of theology however popular. It was translated into many languages, well over a million copies of the book were sold internationally, and it was widely talked about in this country in newspapers and on radio and television.
Some people were very critical. A review in the Sunday Telegraph started with the question ‘What should happen to an Anglican bishop who does not believe in God?’ and traditionalists of various forms heaped abuse on the book and its author. Of course not all who disagreed resorted to abuse, and among them was the then recently appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who nonetheless regretted the book. Later Ramsey was publically and very graciously to regret his initial hostile stance.
Others warmly welcomed the book, including one of the Canons of Westminster and Sub-Dean at the time, Max Warren, one time General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, whose memorial stone you may well walk over as you leave in the south cloister. Christian England was divided over the book, but what that level of sales did show is that it had touched a nerve, and English Christianity could never be quite the same again.
If I may be personal for a moment I read the book as a young man in one sitting. I started at about ten o’clock one evening and could not put it down! It was only about 140 pages long so it did not take that much time, but those few hours certainly changed me profoundly. Because here was someone, and a bishop to boot, who was asking many of the questions about faith that were running around in my mind, and quite a few that I had not thought of at the time. I found the book completely liberating and it was further encouragement to me to go to university to read theology, which I did. But perhaps equally influential on me was the reaction of some of those who had been my theological mentors but who roundly condemned the bishop. I was simply horrified at their reaction and it marked a decisive break in my theological sympathies.
What I had no way of knowing at the time was that my path would cross with John Robinson’s a few years later. Six years after the publication of the book he moved to become Dean of Chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge, which was my old College and he appointed me as Chaplain ten years after Honest to God was published. I obviously got to know him well and worked happily with him for five years, and found him a very stimulating, if at times slightly angular, colleague.
I therefore intend to use the three sermons I have at Matins this month to look at some of the themes in Honest to God, and I start this morning with what must be the most fundamental, the notion of God.
The problem he was seeking to address was the incomprehension that many intelligent and thoughtful people in England felt when they encountered the Christian faith. For many then, and possibly even more now, the concept of God is simply strange if not even unbelievable, and what Robinson was trying to do was to change the way of thinking about God. He suggested that then some people seemed to conceive of God as something if not ‘up there’ certainly ‘out there’ almost as though God was an object in the universe who may or may not exist. He quoted with approval the American theologian Paul Tillich, who wrote ‘The first step to atheism is always a theology that drags God down to the level of doubtful things.’ By contrast Robinson and Tillich preferred to speak of God as Ultimate Reality, because you cannot question whether there is an ultimate reality, although you can, of course, argue about what it is like. And he thought that the language of height, God ‘up there’, was less helpful in thinking about Ultimate Reality than the language of depth. He quoted Tillich again: ‘Deep’ in its spiritual use has two meanings; it means either the opposite of ‘shallow’, or the opposite of ‘high’. Truth is deep and not shallow; suffering is depth and not height. Both the light of truth and the darkness of suffering are deep. There is a depth in God, and there is a depth out of which the psalmist cries to God.’
And so Robinson preferred to follow the notion developed in thinking of God when Tillich described him as ‘The Ground of our Being.’ He quoted Tillich again: ‘The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation.’ Tillich went on to suggest; ‘Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God.’
I believe that both Robinson and Tillich were on to something profoundly significant there, because it is a way of speaking about God that rooted it in the reality of human experience and does not depend on some sort of super-naturalist understanding of God that sees him almost as a quasi-magical being who intervenes in some strange way in making the world what it is. Perhaps today we are more aware than was the case fifty years ago that science has investigated so much about our world that God as some sort of magical creator is simply not needed as part of the Best Explanation of Everything. But where he is needed, I believe, is in understanding the meaning of things. As the shortly to retire Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, so well put it, it is the job of science to take things apart to see how they work, but it is the job of religion to put things together to see what they mean. I think that is part of what Robinson and Tillich meant, and it is a way of thinking about God that makes him deeply real. In a fortnight’s time I shall reflect on what Robinson said about Jesus and. if you are interested, it will, as will this address, appear on the Abbey’s web-site.