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Converting Christianity

Almost ninety pages of E. L. Mascall’s book The Secularisation of Christianity (London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1965) is devoted to a critique of then-controversial theologian John Robinson’s best-selling book Honest to God (1963). He writes: “One might be pardoned for supposing that Robinson had despaired of trying to convert the world to Christianity and had decided instead to try to convert Christianity to the world” (p. 109).

Whether or not this assessment was true of Robinson (who, looking back, seems to have had a ludicrous preoccupation with obviously-nonliteral spatial images of God’s supposed-location; “up there” / “out there” – etc.), it was certainly true, not only of the whole enterprise of modern reductionist (“critical”) theology, but also of much mainstream/”official” Christianity, and particularly as promoted from the top down.

Exactly at what moment the leadership of Christian thought/belief threw in the towel, and surrendered all to the supposedly-sovereign demands of “modern knowledge/culture” etc., may be uncertain, and probably future historians will trace this right back to the so-called “Enlightenment”; but certainly by the time of John Robinson, the deed was done.

The “buzz phrase” at the time was all about letting “the world set the agenda”, something which we all had to do, and which really meant Christians doing the very thing they had been specifically ordered not to do – to jettison Christian values, and the Christian (or Judeo-Christian) world-view, and accept (quite uncritically) those of the modern age, involving as it did, throwing away everything in pursuit of the El Dorado of “relevance” – being “relevant to the world we live in”, etc.; and the more trendy clergymen tried to do this, the more foolish they became, and the more successful at driving people from the Church’s doors.

Mascall’s critique of Honest to God contained a more specific, and very revealing, aspect of the theology of the age. As Mascall makes clear (p. 110), Robinson had felt at home among many non-Christian (and perhaps non-theist) friends, whom he considered to be good people with admirable values and high principles.

He sympathised with them in their supposed-inability to accept the reality of non-materialist/supernatural concepts, and considered that what really mattered was their high principles and values, etc. In fact, it seems, Robinson considered these people believers (in some sense) though they claimed to be atheists, people whose principles and values made them in reality the same as him, though they might not know it, or wish to acknowledge it.

I fancy that many theologians and church leaders (John Robinson was Anglican Bishop of Woolwich) experienced things in just this way. I suspect more than a few did not attempt to persuade their high-minded, materialist friends of the doctrine of Jesus’ incarnation, or the reality of the resurrection.

It was thus at this time (but perhaps long before, who knows?) that the Church – at least part of it – abandoned authentic Christian belief or evangelisation and became advocates of a kind of post-Christian Humanism (perhaps some of Robinson’s friends would have called themselves “Humanists”).

Perhaps it was still fairly new, in 1963, for the majority of a church leader’s associates to be non-theists, though now, of course, almost everybody around one is non-theist or non-Christian; now, we are more used to the idea of being like, say, the first Christians whose neighbours were all pagans or orthodox Jews (the message for us of “the Millennium” – as I have said often before – is that Christians are now back, or well on the way to being back to, where we were 2,000 years ago).

In those days, no doubt Christians mostly rubbed along relatively well with their non-Christian neighbours (the big persecutions were yet to come); but their leaders, with their epistles, left them in no doubt that they must in no way imagine (or behave as though) those neighbours shared their ultimate values and ideas.

It is the same today. Most of us have friends who will not be Christians, with whom it is pleasant to spend an evening, go to a football match (not that I ever do), or have a few beers (yes, indeed): but I do not suppose for one moment that these fine fellows hold values which are in the final analysis anything like my own; they, unlike me, will possibly believe ultimately in a kingdom which is of this world.

If John Robinson, and many church leaders and “critical” theologians of the 1950-1975 period, had realised the importance of this distinction, perhaps they would not have been so keen to compromise Christian ideas out of existence, in their desperate bid to court the materialist world’s acceptance.