The Private Sea
9. The New Theology
A coffee shop in Indiana did not seem a very likely place in which to encounter the Anglican bishop of Woolwich, England, probably the best-known advocate of the radical New Theology. But that in fact is where I met him one dreary morning in 1966, on the Crawfordsville campus of Wabash College. Bishop John A. T. Robinson had come to Wabash from England to participate in the annual Lilly Lecture Series, and he looked a bit weary as he sat there in a corner booth discussing Dr. Thomas J. J. Altizer's announcement of God's demise. He shook his head over the idea, wondering aloud how Altizer could justify his curious position on Judaism. Later we left the shop together, heading for Robinson's temporary digs at the Caleb Mills House, and the balding, pink-cheeked bishop seemed a lonely figure as he walked across the campus through a misty rainfall, his macintosh flapping in the wind. Some three years before, with the publication of a little book titled Honest to God, he had been attacked as a heretic, a traitor to the faith and a false prophet; nowbitter pillthere were some who regarded him as a theological square: in fact a real cube. For the moment at least, the Ground of Being was Out. The Death of God was In.
Honest to God had created a sensation when it first appeared in 1963. To the astonishment of the author and his publishers, no doubt, the book became an international best seller, and total sales had exceeded a million when I met the bishop. There are as many New Theologies as there are New Theologians, but Robinson's book has had a tremendous impact both in Europe and America, and it offers an excellent vantage point from which to explore the main trends in radical theology just prior to the emergence of the Death of God school. It is in a sense a compendium of the ideas that shaped those trends, and what it did basically was bring together a number of concepts developed by four contemporary giants of philosophy and theology: Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and Martin Buber. But it brought them together in a new synthesis, the most important aspect of which was a new interpretation of divine transcendence, and it popularized them for a vast lay readership. In doing so, it gave expression to the spiritual unrest and dissatisfaction of laymen who had been theologically inarticulate, and it helped also to lay a popular groundwork for the still more radical ideas which were soon to follow in America.
From Rudolf Bultmann, to begin with, the bishop took the concept of "demythologizing" the Bible.
To demythologize does not mean to debunk. On the contrary. A myth may represent an eternal truthintuitively grasped perhapsbut the mode of expression will be dictated always by the world-view of the men who lived in the age when the myth was promulgated, and it will reflect also that age's level of knowledge and sophistication. Its language is metaphorical and anthropomorphic. The method of demythologizing probes for the deeper meaning hidden by the metaphor. "Its aim," said Bultmann, "is not to eliminate the mythological statements but to interpret them." In essence this is the same test we applied in an earlier chapter to Wordsworth's ode and to poetic symbolism in general: does the "is" really mean "is," or does it perhaps mean "as if"? Suppose, then, said Bultmann, that the authors of the Bible wanted to convey the idea of God's transcendence. They could do so only by resorting to the crude category of spaceresulting in a God who is "up there" in a place called heaven. According to Robinson, a more sophisticated age refined the veridical myth to connote a God who was not "up there" but "out there," somewhere beyond the flashing comets. But again this is a crude metaphor, and it no longer satisfies modern man, who is intruding upon outer space with radio telescopes and rocket probes. To remain relevant, the truth of God's transcendence must be demythologized or demetaphorized. It and other biblical truths must be retranslated in modern terms for men who are able to digest deeper levels of abstraction. But how? If God is not "up there" or "out there," where is he?
From Dietrick Bonhoeffer, the bishop took the concept of a Christianity "without religion." This is certainly an enigmatic idea, and Bonhoeffer never had an opportunity to elaborate upon it; it was merely suggested in letters and notes which he wrote in a Nazi prison before he was hanged in April 1945. But it has haunted many churchmen with a moth-to-flame fascination, and it would be difficult to exaggerate the fundamental influence it has had upon contemporary theology. For most New Theologians it has served as a sort of Rorschach ink blot, and each has brought to it his own interpretation. For Robinson it represented at one level a rejection of churchiness and otherworldliness. God is neither "up there" nor "out there." He is rather, in Bonhoeffer's words, "the 'beyond' in the midst of our life." And that is where we should seek him, in our midst.
Traditionally, said Robinson, religion has implied withdrawal from the world to a special compartment of life where, in a sort of spiritual vacuum, one prays and thinks holy thoughts. Too often, in Ronald Gregor Smith's phrase, it has implied "a kind of battle against the world on behalf of God." One seeks God only in the sanctuary, in the gaps of life. Inevitably, this attitude has made worship possible, or profitable, for only a comparatively small cadre of religiously minded peoplefor the praying type. And something else. If God is used simply as a deus ex machina to explain man's unanswered questions about life and the universe, what happens when these questions, one after one, are answered? God is pushed further and further back by the tidal advance of knowledge, said Bonhoeffer. Man has less and less need of him. "As in the scientific field," said Bonhoeffer, "so in human affairs generally, what we call 'God' is being more and more edged out of life, losing more and more ground. Catholic and Protestant historians are agreed that it is in this development that the great defection from God, from Christ, is to be discerned." Indeed, Robinson agreed, Julian Huxley expressed the same idea or was thinking in the same vein when he observed that, operationally, God "is beginning to resemble not a ruler but the last fading smile of a cosmic Cheshire Cat." The world has come of age, said Bonhoeffer, and men in a world come of age should accept their adulthood; they should go about their business just as if God did not exist, not clinging to his hand every time there is a street to cross. "God allows himself to be edged out of the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us." Like a parent who wants his child to be self-reliant.
But how does one worship in a post-religious world? By accepting the world, said Robinson. By seeking the sacred in the secular, the holy in the common, the beyond in our midst. One should seek God "in the hungry, the naked, the homeless and the prisoner." Prayer should not be a withdrawal from the world to God but a penetration through the world to God; for nothing, after all, is really secular: the whole world is holy.
From Paul Tillich, the bishop took the concept of defining God as the Ground of Being. Tillich rejected the view that God is in any sense a Being. This rejection applies of course to the God of Deism, who started the world ticking with mechanistic precision and then went off somewhere far away and remote, very much, as Robinson put it, "like a rich aunt in Australia." But Tillich also rejected the more familiar God of Theism, in so far as that implies some kind of supernatural Persona separate Being who exists in an intimate relationship with the world which he transcends. Theism necessarily does imply this kind of God, said Tillich. It implies "a being beside others" who is simply a part of realitythe most important part, but still only a part; it implies that God "is a being, not being-itself." Tillich proposed that theology replace this Being with the Ground of Being, and that a new dimension be adopted to conceptualize this reality. As a substitute for height (as in "up there") or distance (as in "out there"), Tillich suggested that we think of God in terms of depth (as in "in our midst").
Robinson took up the suggestion, defining God as "the ultimate depth of all our being, the creative ground and meaning of all our existence."
The bishop wrote that traditional Christian theology has concerned itself with adducing proofs for the existence of God, and the psychological implication, at least, is that God might not exist.
Well, then, what happens if we speak of God simply as ultimate reality or the Ground of our Beingas opposed, for example, to a Being?
Then it is no longer necessary to debate the existence of God, since nobody doubts there is an ultimate reality. The whole problem is reduced to speculation about the nature of this ultimate reality, or God.
A lot of people didn't like that. It seemed much too easy, for one thing. And perhaps there is a basic flaw in the argument, as we shall see later. In any case, the bishop also used the Ground of Being as a wedge for the most awesome effort of all demythologizing God himself. Behind the various mythological expressions, what is the ontology of God? What is the nature of ultimate reality, and what in truth is the real meaning of transcendence?
From Martin Buber, the bishop took the concept of the I-Thou relationship. We have already referred to this concept; let us examine it now in more detail. Buber was a mystic, and he began his argument with the proposition that all men are born with a sense of cosmic connection. The sense of "I" or individual self is not present at birth, and in fact the child at first does not distinguish between himself and the shining world which his eyes have opened upon. In the womb he had known a life "of purely natural combination, bodily interaction and flowing one to the other," and after birth he still rests for a time "in the womb of the great mother, the undivided primal world that precedes form." Buber recalled the saying of the Jews: "In the mother's body man knows the universe, in birth he forgets it." But he does not forget it all at once, and he never forgets it completely. Before his sense of natural connection with the world fades gradually away, the child is given time to establish a sense of spiritual connectionwhich Buber referred to as relation. Gradually there develops a sense of "I" or self "the separation of the body from the world round about it"but the world nevertheless is still perceived as existing in relation to the self. It is perceived as Thou, and this is the I-Thou relationship. But the sense of "I" grows ever stronger, until at last it snaps the fragile bond of relation between subject and object, I and Thou. Thou becomes It (or He or She), and I-It is the primary word of separation.
The world perceived as It is something to be used and exploited, and it is perceived in space and timewhereas the world as Thou is not perceived in space and time. The world perceived as It is chopped into isolated segments, and the segments are ranked in an artificial order; they are organized for cause-and-effect analysis, so that man can "get his bearings." Man no longer looks at the world in relation: "instead of looking at it he observes it, instead of accepting it as it is, he turns it to his own account." And why? "Only as It can it enter the structure of knowledge." This is necessary for survival, because man cannot live without It. "But he who lives with It alone is not a man," and the memory of Thou never dies altogether: there are "short, uncanny moments" when it reappears, "lyric and dramatic episodes, seductive and magical." The memory of that undivided primal world lingers as "a secret image of desire," and Buber implied that this is the real meaning of the Freudian wish to retreat to the womb. Not at all the sign of an unhealthy pathology, it represents a natural longing to re-establish the cosmic connection. Man of course cannot crawl back into the womb, in this life at least, but he can relate to the world; he can look for the thing-in-itself, seeing "each thing simply as being." He can say "Thou" to the world, and the world in turn will say "Thou" back to him. In this relationship a man affirms the reality of the worldand he affirms also the reality of himself. For the "I" is very real. With the emergence of personal life, a man cannot deny his "I," but he can choose what sort of "I" it will besince the "I" of I-Thou is not the same as the "I" of I-It. A man can choose to be a person or an individual, and all men are either persons or individuals: the "I" of I-Thou is a person, and the "I" of I-It is an individual. In I-Thou a man does not and cannot surrender his personality, since the essence of I-Thou is personal relation: an "I" relating to the Thou. A person does not lose "his special being, his being different." But he does not revel in his special being as the individual does; he simply accepts it as a necessary part of being in general. He seeks for the Thou, which he sees in the eyes of every man and every creature. He lives in the here and now, fully aware that "the one thing that matters is visible, full acceptance of the present." He recognizes that true love is the "responsibility of an I for a Thou," and this leads him at last "to the dreadful pointto love all men." He hallows this life, and thus he meets the living God who is present in every relational event. In every finite Thou he catches a glimpse of the eternal Thou.
I-Thou was the final ingredient in Robinson's eclectic omelet; he was ready now to face the question of Godand the question of God, he acknowledged, was the question of transcendence. It was certainly the question as far as the Western God was concernedno doubt about thatand the bishop therefore did his best to salvage the concept. That really was the whole point of his book, although many of his critics received just the opposite impression. The task, he said, was "to validate the idea of transcendence for modern man."
Robinson began with an all-out attack on Theistic transcendence, agreeing with Tillich that the atheists were quite correct in rejecting a transcendent Being or supreme Person. The bishop conceded the fact that classical Christian theology does not in fact picture God as a Person, and "the Church's best theologians have not laid themselves open to such attack." Nevertheless, he said, "popular Christianity has always posited such a supreme personality," and the question really was whether or not popular theology could afford to sacrifice the concept. To do so, R. W. Hepburn had written, "seems at once to take one quite outside Christianity." Robinson felt, however, that the concept could be abandonedindeed it must be, since the average layman was finding it harder and harder to take seriously. People must be told, then, that there is no reason they should take it seriously. "If Christianity is to survive . . . there is no time to lose in detaching it from this scheme of thought."
But to what does one attach it? To what does transcendence refer, if not to a transcendent Being?
Robinson groped for an answer. And he found one, he thought, in man's divine attributeslove, wisdom, justice. Feuerbach was looking over his shoulder now, and the bishop knew he was treading "on very dangerous ground." One slip and he could easily plunge into the bottomless chasm of humanism or pantheism, making of man's nature the ens rea lissimum. The problem perhaps was to identify God as the source of our higher aspirations, without at the same time making us synonymous with the sourcethat is to say, without making man and God identical. In any case, the bishop pushed on with the idea of defining God as the Ground of our Being or as ultimate reality. If God is ultimate reality, what, then, is this ultimate reality? Tillich had proposed that we think of it in terms of depth, you will remember, and Robinson quoted Tillich's seminal passage:
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. 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. [Furthermore] . . . speak of the depth of history, of the ground and aim of our social life, and of what you take seriously without reservation in your moral and political activities. Perhaps you should call this depth hope, simply hope.
One is reminded also of Tillich's "courage to be" as an argument for faith. Why this courage? Where does it come from? In the same sense, why do men hopeand where does their hope originate if not in the very depths of their Being? In the last analysis, depth meant for Tillich "those deep things for which religion stands: the feeling for the inexhaustible mystery of life, the grip of an ultimate meaning of existence." And this mysterythis ultimate meaningis the source of the biblical intuition that there is something which transcends our everyday life and the world of appearances. There is, to use a cliché, more here than meets the eye. And this "more" is the transcendentthe not seen. It is that which we normally do not perceive or recognize, but which nevertheless makes such urgent demands upon us. It is the truth about ourselves and the truth about Being itself. "To call God transcendent in this sense," said Tillich, "does not mean that one must establish a 'superworld' of divine objects. It does mean that, within itself, the finite world points beyond itself. In other words, it is self-transcendent." As Robinson expressed it: "The necessity for the name 'God' lies in the fact that our being has depths which naturalism, whether evolutionary, mechanistic, dialectical or humanistic, cannot or will not recognize." And in Tillich's words again: "We are always held and comprehended by something that is greater than we are, that has a claim upon us, and that demands response from us." This is the Ground of our Being, and we can no more escape it than Francis Thompson could escape the Hound of Heaven. A trumpet sounds from the hid battlements of Eternity, and a Voice declares: "All things betray thee, who betrayest Me . . . Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me . . . Lo! naught contents thee, who content'st not Me."
To thine own Self be true. Is that what this means? Is that what God means?
At Wabash I had a long talk with Robinson in the library of the Caleb Mills House, and I asked him, among other things, "However that word God is finally translated, do you believe that it transcends our Being?" He replied, "Yes. I believe, obviously, that God represents a reality which in a real sense encounters us as it were from without. It is not something that we think up for ourselves. In many ways I would find it much easier to invent a very different kind of God, far less uncomfortable to live with. There is this, I think, overmastering reality which challenges us, judges us, confronts us, questions our whole being. It is this element of othernessof unconditional grace and demandwhich it seems to me traditional Christianity has meant by transcendence. This is a dimension of experience in life which I've no desire whatever to deny. What I am concerned with is to try and find some way of expressing this dimension which doesn't put God right at the edge of our whole experience and world."
An unconditional demand would seem to imply a built-in demand which is forced upon us by the very nature of our Being. It would seem to imply that we are not completely free to choose our own destiny and to make of ourselves whatever we please. Or, to put it another wayand the distinction is importantwe are free to choose, but our freedom is less than perfect: if we deny the unconditional demand, we will suffer for it. We will suffer the anguish of alienation from the Ground of our Being. To boil it down, Sartre was wrong. There is an essence (unconditional) which precedes our existence and which gives our existence its meaning and direction; it tells us what we should do and where we should go. Whether we heed it or not is up to us.
But what is this essence? What is the Ground of our Being? What is ultimate reality?
In three words, what is God?
In his book, Robinson used three words to answer those questions. And he took the three words from another book. To understand his meaning, we must return for a moment to Buber, to whom the bishop owes a large debt, and we must ask what Buber meant by the eternal Thou, as opposed simply to Thou.
Buber had no objection to the word God. Anticipating what was to come, perhaps, he wrote in I and Thou, first published in 1923: "Many men wish to reject the word God as a legitimate usage, because it is so misused. It is indeed the most heavily laden of all the words used by men. For that very reason it is the most imperishable and most indispensable." Buber had no sympathy with the Eastern concept of absorption in the Absolute, in "the One thinking Essence." He spoke of relation, not absorption. He opposed the doctrine that "universal being and self-being are the same." He told of a Face that is sometimes seen, briefly, when one looks deep into the eyes of a finite Thou. This is God, the eternal Thou. And this is transcendent. "Every sphere is compassed in the eternal Thou, but it is not compassed in them." "God comprises, but is not, the universe. So too, God comprises, but is not, my Self." Nor did Buber refrain from speaking of God as a Person; in a 1957 postscript to his book, he wrote:
The description of God as a Person is indispensable for everyone who like myself means by "God" not a principle (although mystics like Eckhart sometimes identify him with "Being") and like myself means by "God" not an idea (although philosophers like Plato at times could hold that he was this): but who rather means by "God," as I do, him whowhatever else he may beenters into a direct relation with us men in creative, revealing and redeeming acts, and thus makes it possible for us to enter into a direct relation with him. This ground and meaning of our existence constitutes a mutuality, arising again and again, such as can subsist only between persons. The concept of personal being is indeed completely incapable of declaring what God's essential being is, but it is both permitted and necessary to say that God is also a Person.... From this attribute would stem my and all men's being as person . . . As a Person God gives personal life, he makes us as persons become capable of meeting with him and with one another. But no limitation can come upon him as the absolute Person, either from us or from our relations with one another; in fact we can dedicate to him not merely our persons but also our relations to one another.
Buber conceded that there was an apparent contradiction in the concept of God as an Absolute Person who cannot be limited and the assertion that his total Being is in fact limited "by the plurality of other independent entities" (namely, us). It is possible that Buber here was addressing himself to Tillich's criticism of the Theistic God who is only a part of reality, "a being beside others." Buber said, however, that this was not really a contradiction: it was a paradox. And he added the enigmatic statement: "It is as the absolute Person that God enters into direct relation with us. The contradiction yields to deeper insight."
Robinson in his book referred to Buber only in passing, as it were, and did not give him equal billing with Bultmann, Bonhoeffer, and Tillich as a major source of inspiration. Wedded as he was to Tillich's denial of Theism, the bishop certainly did not refer his readers to the passage we have cited on God as a Person. Nevertheless, his final conclusions about God or ultimate reality might very well appear to be a liberal interpretation of that passage, based perhaps on a "deeper insight." At Wabash I mentioned to Robinson that his concept of transcendence seemed to have a strong streak of Buber in it, and the bishop agreed. "I think what Buber is saying is fundamental," he said. "And in fact this goes back a long way in my own theological experience, because I did my Ph.D. thesis on Martin Buber, which has never been published. This was twenty to twenty-five years ago. And therefore this represents a long-standing influence on my thinking. And I think the kind of thing Buber is trying to get at in this I-Thou relationshipthe way he sees every finite Thou as a sort of glimpse through, a 'window through' into something which meets us in, with, and under every relationship of lifethis is very near the heart of what I am trying to say."
Did Robinson in fact demythologize Buber? Was Buber in fact asking to be demythologized? What might it be, that "deeper insight"?
Although he rejected the idea that God is a Person, the bishop did affirm that God is personal. This may appear contradictory at first reading, but we must remember that Robinson was speaking of God as ultimate realityas the truth about existence. "For this way of thinking," he wrote, "to say that 'God is personal' is to say that 'reality at its very deepest level is personal,' that personality is of ultimate significance in the constitution of the universe, that in personal relationships we touch the final meaning of existence as nowhere else." And he quoted Feuerbach: "To predicate personality of God is nothing else than to predicate personality as the absolute essence."
But personality in itself is not yet the absolute essence. If it is only in personal relationships that we touch the final meaning of existence, what, then, is that final meaning? What, then, is God? The bishop now was prepared to answer the question.
God, he said, is love.
"To assert that 'God is love' is to believe that in love one comes into touch with the most fundamental reality in the universe, that Being itself ultimately has this character."
This is the "more" which does not meet the eye. This is the truth about ourselves and the truth about Being itself. This is the unconditional demand that is made of us: that we love one another. And this truth, this ultimate reality, we have objectivized as God. But God as love does not imply "a super-Being beyond the world endowed with personal qualities." No. "To believe in God as love means to believe that in pure personal relationship we encounter, not merely what ought to be, but what is, the deepest, veriest truth about the structure of reality." It means to believe that love is the Ground of our Being. It means that "theological statements are not a description of 'the highest Being' but an analysis of the depths of personal relationships."
The bishop continued: "A statement is 'theological' not because it relates to a particular Being called 'God' but because it asks ultimate questions about the meaning of existence: it asks what, at the level of theos, at the level of its deepest mystery, is the reality and significance of our life." And this reality, this final truth, this God is love.
Who, then, was Jesusthe son of God?
Robinson demythologized him, too. Jesus was not a God-man who came from "out there," pretending to be a man. He was not a divine visitant who chose to live "like one of the natives." According to the bishop, the traditional view of Jesus leaves one with the impression that "God took a space ship and arrived on this planet in the form of a man." It leaves the impression that Jesus "was not really one of us . . . he came from outside." And that word incarnation: in itself, it "conjures up the idea of a divine substance being plunged in flesh and coated with it like chocolate or silver plating." But Jesus in fact was a man; he was in fact one of us.
Nevertheless, Jesus also revealed to the world the Word of God. He was a man, yesbut a man who was completely united with the Ground of his Being. He made himself "utterly transparent" to the Ground of Being and thus offered his fellow-men a window through to ultimate reality. He did this by emptying himself of self; he was "the man for others," and his whole life was a testimony to the fact that the Ground of all Being is love. I asked the bishop whether the I-Thou relation did not imply that all men are a window through to the eternal Thouhadn't Buber in fact said the same thing about a cat? and Robinson answered:
"Can I just say two things? First, this window-through metaphor is obviously very inadequate and just suggests that God is there to be looked at, whereas the New Testament takes a far more dynamic view. I mean, here in a real sense is the activity and love and purpose of God being revealed and poured out and acting through this man's life. The second question relates to the uniqueness of Christ. I think I certainly would not want to say that he is unique in the sense that he is quite abnormal. I think that it's worth asking: Is Christ unique because he is normal, or because he is abnormal? Now, I think a great many people would take from the Gospels as they read them today that he is unique because he is abnormalin the sense that he did all kinds of things we couldn't do, was born in an entirely different way, had all kinds of miraculous powers, and so on. Well now, if that is the picture of Christ, then he seems to me a man who has very little to do with our life at all. It seems to me what the New Testament fundamentally is saying is that here is someone who is uniquely normal, what all human life should be, what a genuinely human existence ought to be. And, on the whole, this is not true of any other manwe are in a real sense failing to be what we were meant to be. Now, in that sense I would certainly say that Christ is unique. But I don't think he's unique in a sense that cuts him off from the whole of the rest of humanity. And one of the troubles about so much of the mythological view of the New Testament is that, for man today, its effect is to sever this person from everybody else. After all, the New Testament itself talks about Christ as the firstborn of many brothersmeaning that there's a real solidarity here with the whole of the rest of humanityand I don't want to draw his uniqueness in any sense which denies this solidarity, but rather to say that he is the uniquely normal human being."
In his book Robinson ridiculed supernatural interpretations of the Atonementthe idea that a divine Person descended from heaven to save men from sin "in the way that a man might put his finger into a glass of water to rescue a struggling insect." He suggested that sin and hell are metaphors for man's estrangement from the Ground of his Being, while union with the Ground of Being "is the meaning of heaven," and the experience of grace is the experience of being accepted in that heaven where, in Tillich's words, "everything is transformed." On the level of worship, the bishop called for a "worldly holiness" and a "sacred secularity" in which the beyond is sought at the center of life, "between man and man"for God is discovered only in the here and now, in the concrete moment, in personal relationships: he is not discovered in some other world, nor is he to be found in the self alone. Finally, the New Theologian proposed a New Moralitya modern ethic, based on the Ground of Being, which would take as its credo Saint Augustine's injunction: "Love God, and do what you like." He even suggested that premarital sex might be wrong only in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, arguing that "the only intrinsic evil is lack of love." In an age that was turning its back on supernatural legalism, he said, he was only trying to offer a reasonable system, founded on the absolute priority of love, which could answer that troublesome question, "Why not?" Thus a boy would not take liberties with a girl unless he loved her; and if he loved her, he would not take liberties with her. Or so it seemed to the bishop. (See his book Christian Morals Today.)
Robinson warned his readers not to equate the eternal Thou with the finite Thou, "nor God with man or nature." This, he pointed out, would be pantheism or humanism, and "Christianity must challenge the assumption of naturalism that God is merely a redundant name for nature or for humanity." With Tillich, he said, he wished instead to push beyond both supernaturalism and naturalism; it was not his intention, he said, "to substitute an immanent for a transcendent Deity," but rather to reaffirm transcendence in a new translation. The bishop attempted to demonstrate, therefore, that his position was not the same as humanism on the one hand or pantheism on the other.
To rebut the charge of humanism, he returned to his statement that God is love; this could not be turned around, he said, to imply that love is God. In other words, divine love is not simply a projection of human love; on the contrary, human love is a projection of divine love: it occurs on this earth because love is the Ground of Being. We recognize human love as sacred because we see in it the ultimate truth about reality; we see in it "the divine agape of the universe." We love because the Ground of our Being demands that we love. This demand upon us is unconditionalbeyond our control as individualsand therefore it transcends us. And this element of transcendence is what finally distinguishes the humanist from the radical Christian. The humanist says love ought to be the final truth about existence; the radical Christian says it is. Furthermore, the radical Christian says that this final truth is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, and its validity "stands or falls" with that revelation. So this in turn is what finally distinguishes both radical and orthodox Christianity from all other theologies, Eastern and Westernand, we might add, from the psychedelic cults.
Turning to the next charge, the bishop conceded that his rejection of Theism might raise in some minds the specter of the Eastern God. He acknowledged that it was dangerous to abandon the concept of God as a separate Being. Indeed, he said, traditionalists might find it hard to believe that his position "must not result in a theology of mere immanence, not to say of pantheism." But, he said, there was one element which ultimately distinguished his view from the pantheistic or immanentist positionand this was the element of personal freedom: the freedom of the individual person to accept or deny the Ground of his Being. Pantheism is purely mechanistic or deterministic; concern for the other is as automatic as two plus two, since in fact there is no other but only the monistic One, and this concern cannot properly be described as love, which is a relationship between persons and not the Selfish awareness of an Absolute Identity. For example, you are concerned for the welfare of your arms and legs, but you would hardly refer to this concern as love. I am extrapolating now trying to read the bishop's mind, as it werebut I trust this is close to his meaning. The "I" is real, as is the Thou, but the two are bound together by God. And God is love. This is what it means to say that God is personal but not a Person. Love is the very Ground of our Being; but so too is independence an essential aspect of our Being: indeed it must be, if love is also, for the one implies the other.
Extrapolating again, it might be suggested that we worship not Godthe word itself would seem to indicate a Person but rather perhaps a symbolic X. Maybe we should offer up our prayers to Love, which in fact is what we do. All day long the radio blares the message, flooding our homes and our autos with songs of love and little elsenews, sports, and love: that is the prescribed formulaand our literature, too, seems preoccupied with the theme. Some call it sex; but is it really God? What sends the unhappy young man wandering the lonely streets of night in search of Her? Is it God who sends him, the Ground of his Being? If God is love we are a pious nation.
We shall not belabor the possible parallels between Robinson's demythologized Christianity and many of the Eastern or psychedelic concepts we have already discussed. They should be obvious. What especially stands out, of course, is the idea of immanence, and the reader will decide for himself whether the bishop has managed to slam the door in time. Or has pantheism slipped in? To many it may appear that the bishop is hanging by his fingernails over those chasms we mentioned, as far as transcendence is concerned, and it would be worthwhile to take one last look at his definition of this term.
It seems fair to say that Robinson has made the term transcendent synonymous with the term unconditional. Love is a built-in aspect of existence; it is not ours to command; it is the essence which precedes our existence; it is the "more" which does not meet the eye and which does not yield itself to the scrutiny of an empirical science. As the bishop put it to me: "Here is something before which you say, yes, this is it. Here I stand, I can no other. I think this is something in a real sense that confronts one, engages one, from outside. It's not something one thinks up for oneself. It clearly, as I see it, is describing how things are. You say, well, here is something fundamentally true which I cannot escape." For example perhaps, one does not think up breathing for oneself.
But some critics might argue that an unconditional "more" is not really the same as a transcendent "other," and "in a real sense" is, after all, a deceptive phrase; it sounds positive, but actually it weakens and modifies more than it reinforcesthat is to say, it implies "as if," not "is." It is significant that the bishop did not say simply: "This is something that confronts one from outside." Because he did not say this, and probably could not, it is debatable whether Robinson was successful in his effort to validate transcendence for popular theology, since transcendence has always implied "outside," "other," or "separate," and the bishop's God displays none of these qualities. It is not enough to say this God transcends the individual, since transcendence has always implied something more than just this; it has implied a divinity that transcends mankind as a wholeand not in the sense of being unconditional, but rather in the sense of being separate and superior (at least partly separate, and wholly superior).
Robinson of course was well aware of this, and it was precisely this implication he was trying to combat with his new definition. It might be argued that Robinson did not actually redefine transcendence; it might be argued that he substituted an altogether different concept. "Deep," for example, is not a redefinition of "tall," and unconditional, in this sense, is not a redefinition of transcendent. But this may be quibbling; substitution and redefinition shade into each other, and perhaps there is a sense in which the bishop's God "as it were" transcends us. ("As it were" is another of the bishop's favorite phrases.) If you think about it a long while, there will be moments when you say yesand moments when you say no, or maybe. It is not an easy concept to get your mind around; it is, if you like, rather vague (or mysterious), and you will see perhaps why we objected to talk of a vague pantheism. Pantheism is very easy. By comparison, one can well appreciate the frustration of the critic who described Robinson as a confused man who is confusing others. There are, however, a great many people who would say that the bishop has provided them with something other than confusion. From one point of view, he may have taken away their silverbut returned them gold. In an era of subjective chaos, he has made religion meaningful again for untold thousands. While he may well have scuttled transcendence in its traditional interpretationmay indeed have lost it altogetherhis system does retain the Western concept of pluralism. And this in the final test could prove to have more significance even than transcendence.
Perhaps the bishop himself has acknowledged this. You will recall the argument, derived from Tillich, that atheism collapses if you define God simply as ultimate reality. Then it is necessary to debate only the nature of this ultimate reality, the bishop said. And he added this: "One can only ask what ultimate reality is likewhether, for instance, in the last analysis what lies at the heart of things and governs their working is to be described in personal or impersonal categories." That perhaps is the real question, and not transcendence. That perhaps is the basis of the more fundamental challenge which is offered to the West by LSD and by Eastern metaphysics. The bishop of course took the position that ultimate reality is personal, and this is another way of saying that it is pluralistic: "love," "relation," "personal"all these are pluralistic words, opposed to monism. They preserve the integrity both of Thou and "I." If God is love, he cannot be Atman. If God is personal, there is no One.
We have said, however, that the instant remedy for atheism contains within it a possible flaw. As Robinson saw it, "one cannot argue whether ultimate reality exists," and we have quoted Tillich's assertion: nobody can say or think that life has no depth, that life is shallow. But in fact men can and do assert that ultimate reality does not exist, that life is shallow and has no depth. Existence, some say, is absurd. Life is a joke a rather ghastly one at thatand there is no ultimate reality in the sense of an unconditional purpose or meaning. For atheistic existentialists, such as Sartre, there is no Ground of Being, no unconditional, no primary state of Being in any sense; not only is there no God, there is no such thing even as a definite human nature, for existence precedes essence. And what does this mean? "It means," said Sartre, "that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterward, defines himself." In the beginning is subjectivity. In the beginning, man is nothing. "Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be.... Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself." He must choose what he will be, and that terrible responsibility is his alone. Man, to his horror, is born free. He is, indeed, "condemned to be free." He is "condemned every moment to invent man." There are no determinisms. There is, said Sartre, "no human nature for me to depend on."
"We are alone, with no excuses."
Robinson perhaps recognized his own error, for he also wrote: "The question of God is the question whether this depth of being is a reality or an illusion." And the next question, then, is obvious.
True or falsehow does one decide? How does one determine whether the Ground of Being is real or not?
There is first of all the possibility of rational proof. But those who hold to this possibility have had many centuries in which to produce their evidence, and the evidence has not been universally convincing.
There is next the possibility of revelationand especially, for the bishop, the possibility of revelation through Jesus Christ. I asked Robinson why the radical Christian says that love is the final truth, as opposed to the humanist who says it ought to be, and the bishop said: "I think that this is defined and vindicated in Christ. And personally, unless I saw this in Christ, and really felt that this was the clue, then there are so many things in our modern world which would suggest otherwise that I should find it very difficult to hang on to this. But this is in a sense, I think, the sort of knot in the thread." But the knot was tied almost two thousand years ago, and there are signs today it is coming undone. The revelation existed when the modern world came into being, and men ever since have paid less and less heed to it. Today men have eyes to see, and they do not see; they have ears to hear, and they do not hear. Or so it might appear to the church at least. "Often enough," said Buber, "we think there is nothing to hear, but long before we have ourselves put wax in our ears." So the problem perhaps is basic enough. How can men be made to look and see, listen and hear? How can the scales be removed from their eyes and the wax from their ears?
Robinson's solution was to demythologize, or redefine, and this for many has been richly rewarding. But is it enough? In itself, after all, it is rational analysis againand this alone has never been enough. It may serve to illuminate or to justify a truth that has been intuitively perceived, however vaguely. But what if that perception was lacking to begin with? Are we not thrown back once more on the primary necessity for a direct inner experience of the ultimate reality, which is God and the Ground of our Being?
This issue is implicit in the New Theology's response to secularization. Many New Theologians have taken Bonhoeffer to mean that the church should turn exclusively to this world, becoming secular itselfthat religion should be made "relevant" by involving it full scale in social and political issues, and, in a more shallow sense, by adapting it to contemporary mores and the modern idiom (beat prayers, jam sessions at the altar). But is this what people really want from religion? Or do they seek instead that intimate, personal encounter which in turn is the ultimate basis for social action? Are the secularizers putting the cart before the horse? In their reaction against otherworldliness, do they threaten a further diminution of that mystical element for which LSD seems to demonstrate a widespread hunger? There is no simple answer, but the problem is there. And so LSD perhaps challenges not only orthodoxy but also one aspect at least of radical theology.
Robinson himself is not limited to this one aspect; he is not to be identified with the secularizers alonealthough Altizer has so identified him. Certainly he has a good deal of sympathy for this school, which derives largely from Bonhoeffer. But, as he put it to me, "There is a whole other side which I took over from Tillich, and there is a whole lot for instance in Teilhard de Chardin, and others, which I think is equally important." This other side, of course, represents the mystical-philosophical approach to theologyor, in other words, the metaphysical school. "What I'm trying to do," Robinson said, "is to combine this with the sort of thing that the prophets of secularization are saying, and I don't want to have to choose between them." The bishop indeed has shared Saint Thomas' penchant for synthesishe has not been an either/or thinker, and this no doubt explains why some have thought him confused or confusing. While many of his basic viewpoints were drawn from mystical philosophy, however, and while mystics such as Tillich and Buber have been his own inspiration, the bishop in his book nevertheless took a dim view of mysticism for the average person, and of mysticism as a solution. He wrote:
Our contention has been that God is to be met not by a "religious" turning away from the world but in unconditional concern for "the other" seen through to its ultimate depths.... That there are veridical experiences of the type usually called "mystical" or "religious" no one would be so foolish as to deny, and a man may thank God for them as St. Paul did for his visions. But the capacity for religious or mystical awareness, as for aesthetic or psychic awareness, is largely a question of natural endowment. Women, for instance, appear to be naturally more religiousand more psychicthan men. To make the knowledge of God depend upon such experiences is like making it depend on an ear for music. There are those who are tone-deaf, and there are those who would not claim to have any clearly distinguishable "religious" experiences.
Again, in our own conversation, I asked Robinson if Bonhoeffer was not, among other things, rejecting what the bishop referred to as churchiness. "Yes," said Robinson. "He's also certainly rejecting any view of religion which sees it just as a compartment of life and sees the church as a sort of religious club for those who like that sort of thingwhich indeed it very largely is. That is one of the troubles. It exists to meet the needs of religiously minded peoplewhich seems to me a great distortion of the real function of the church, which is much more concerned with the making holy of the common, with the transformation of the whole of life, and not simply in providing the same sort of function that, say, a musical club does for those who like music."
Obviously, as the bishop has interpreted it, Bonhoeffer's rejection of "religion" is nothing more or less than a rejection of mysticism in the sense that we have defined it. The question remains, how does one manage to see the holy in the common, and how is the whole of life to be transformed unless there is, to begin with, some inner experience corresponding to a mystical awareness? You cannot simply tell people to see the holy, or point it out to them, and no New Theology, however radical, is going to transform the whole of life. If people cannot find ultimate reality in Jesus Christ, they are not going to find it in Tillich. It could be argued that more churchiness is just what is needed. Robinson of course had no intrinsic objection to mysticism; on the contrary, he was merely facing the fact that most people cannot achieve the state.
Or could not, the drug movement would say. If everybody in the world would take LSD tonight, under the proper conditions, it is possible that tomorrow there would be millions more of the praying type.
Here, then, in its full scope, is LSD's challenge to New Theology.
As for New Theology's own challenge to orthodoxy, the traditionalists have taken comfort in the fact that Robinson since publication of his book has more or less dropped that phrase Ground of Being. The idea seems to be that this was some sort of capitulation, and a collective sigh of relief was heard. Robinson indicated to me, however, that he had tended to "shear off" the phrase simply because "it obviously seems to cause so much misunderstanding." A great many people, he said, "have assumed this is a purely impersonal phrase and is the enemy of belief in God as in any sense a personal reality." That of course is not the way he interpreted it himself. I asked him if the book still stood, or if he had changed his viewpoint in any fundamental area. "I think basically it still stands," he said. He had not in fact read the book since it was last in proof. "But I wouldn't say that radically I have regretted anything I have written, or changed it."
When they were not denouncing him for heresy, the bishop's critics tried the opposite tack. After all, he was saying nothing more than the church itself had always said. It was old stuff. During a public debate at Wabash, for example, Professor J. V. Langmead Casserley of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary declared the bishop was "profoundly in harmony with the deepest theological opinions of the church." The bishop was being honest to God perhaps, but dishonest to history. Well, the bishop never said his stuff was new. He did say it was not being communicateda fact attested to, perhaps, by the incredible spark-to-tinder response his book produced in the pews. Robinson has been criticized for fogginess, as noted, and Casserley charged he had "befuddled the minds of men both inside and outside the church to a quite unprecedented degree." But there was one man at least for whom the bishop's meaning seemed perfectly clear. And that was Thomas J. J. Altizer.
In a talk I had with him, Altizer had no difficulty whatever in assessing the bishopas an opponent. He identified Robinson as one who was trying desperately to salvage the core of traditional Christian theology, which Altizer rejected. It was rather astonishing to find the bishop emerging, from one point of view, as a kind of Red Cross Knight and defender of the faith. To mix the metaphor, and possibly to strain it, he might be described as a man trying to jettison excess cargo from an aircraft which was dropping perilously close to those peaks identified on theological charts as Altizer and Hamilton, Nietzsche and Sartre.
From another point of view, however, it might be said that Robinson opened the doorand Altizer slipped in.
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