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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
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"
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
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
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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