The New God: John Robinson

Anglican Bishop John Arthur Thomas Robinson (1919-1983) shocked the world of Christianity in 1963 with his book, Honest to God. Its assertions were so radical, that I’m not sure if Mormonism even brushed by it in the theological waters of the twentieth century.

I heard of Robinson’s book later, and I became interested in it because of its impact on understanding Evil. In a way, Robinson’s book was an attempt to remove paradoxes embedded in Christian thought from the fourth century. Like Islam, Robinson approached God by first saying what God is Not. God is not the universe. God is not a person. God is not confined to the primitive theology of the past: hell, earth, heaven. Appropriating the thought of Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Bishop Robinson used rather esoteric synonyms to say what God is: Ground of Being, Meaning-Itself, Abyss of Being, Love-Itself.

Exiting the troubling issues of a personal God, Robinson provided a way of dealing with Evil and Good that seemed to stamp them as part of existence. They just are. Quoting John Wren-Lewis, Robinson wrote:

It is not merely that the Old Man in the Sky is only a mythological symbol for the Infinite Mind behind the scenes, nor yet that this Being is benevolent rather than fearful: the truth is that this whole way of thinking is wrong, and if such a Being did exist, he would be the very devil.

Robinson himself is a bit more flexible, leaving the old folks and the less intellectual perhaps, with their beliefs in the GrandFather in Heaven out there, up there as it were. But he sees his idea of God as eventually triumphant, “I am firmly convinced that this whole way of thinking can be the greatest obstacle to an intelligent faith—and indeed will be so to all except the ‘religious’ few. We shall eventually be no more able to convince men of the existence of a God ‘out there’ whom they must call in to order their lives than persuade them to take seriously the gods of Olympus.” He continues, “it is urgent that we should work away at framing a conception of God and the Christian Gospel which does not depend upon that projection.”

Robinson is not (in his book) going to advocate for a transcendent diety, nor an immanent one, at least in the “old ways.” The thing Robinson wants to jettison is the idea of a “God” on the one hand and “the world” on the other. Instead, Robinson follows Tillich in seeing God as “the infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being”. Tillich: “The name of this infinite and inexhaustible ground of history is God.”

With this leap, Robinson seems to move beyond the history of Christianity to a Redefined Christianity.

Now once you take this step, a whole lot of thinking is necessary to make meaningful things like inspiration, vision, revelation, testimony, immortality, resurrection, atonement. God does not “come down” or “reveal” himself to Joseph Smith in the grove, there are no angels of God in the sense that Mormons see this term through the story of Moroni. Frankly, Mormonism becomes one of those primitive religions that must eventually be cast off as vehicles to cynicism and atheism.

I want to think a bit more about Bishop Robinson, but this seems like a good place to stop. In the meantime, you might want to have a look at his book, which is still rather popular as such things go. I cannot do his prose justice even if it is somewhat derivative of others. Robinson was a brilliant and sincere man I think.

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2 Responses to The New God: John Robinson

  1. ricke says:

    Interesting. I had never heard of him.

    • WVS says:

      He was a big deal for a while in some circles. I can’t decide if I would name what he did in Honest “good” though. But perhaps it kept some people from discarding religion all together. In a way, it played to liberal Christianity by rewriting the social gospel. I think.

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