Honest to God

The then Bishop of Woolwich, John A.T. Robinson, in his 1963 book, ‘Honest to God,’ rejected the notion of a God out there, a superhuman creator, interfering from time to time in human affairs as incompatible with modern scientific thought.  Ironically this superhuman creator, that Robinson so roundly rejected, is one that Richard Dawkins accepts as a logical possibility. Arguing only that such a creator would not in fact be a god, because gods are supernatural beings, and this kind of creator would only be one other part of the natural order.  And therefore neither a god or God.

Which just goes to show that Richard Dawkins theological insight is better than you might otherwise give him credit for. John Robinson was also arguing that such a creator would not be God.

The personal God, that Robinson was arguing for was not this superhuman abomination.

Belief in God is the trust, the well-nigh incredible trust, that to give ourselves to the uttermost in love is not to be confounded but to be ‘accepted,’ that Love is the ground of our being, to which ultimately we ‘come home’.

John A.T. Robinson  Honest to God Chapter 3 1963

Robinson was arguing that his emotionally held belief that Love was the central value of life was grounded in his faith in God. And that his belief in God was grounded in his faith that Love was the central value of life.

This view of Love as the central value, was held by the philosophers, William James, who identified as a Christian, and Bertrand Russell, who identified as an agnostic. Just as is the case with Bishop Robinson, neither of these men came to this belief by rational means. It was in both cases an emotionally, not rationally held belief.

William James made the argument that while there was no way of obtaining rational certainty for those things that the heart wished for were true, acting as though that which you wish for is true, is what brings about the emotional certainty that it is so.

At the end of his article ‘Will to Believe’ he used the following quote to illustrate his point.

We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist, through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we may be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘Be strong, and of good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.

Fitz James-Stephens quoted in William James Will to Believe 1896

Or that to live fully human and courageous lives we need to, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes had it:

Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days. Ecc. 11:1

The Bishop of Durham from 2003-2010, Tom Wright was highly critical of the arguments put forward by Bishop Robinson in, ‘Honest to God’ accusing him of being far from  honest.

In particular, Robinson himself seems to me to protest rather too much when he declares again and again that for the most part he remains a traditional Christian—yet says in the preface, revealingly, that he finds less and less of himself to what he calls the right side of the line that runs through the middle of himself. He was of course a complex character, as his biography reveals, and in later life he edited and republished, movingly, his father’s devotional book The Personal Life of the Clergy under the title The Personal Life of the Christian, reaffirming warmly the central disciplines and habits of Christian devotion. But how he kept the two sides of himself integrated, if he did, has never been clear to me. Maybe it was honesty which compelled this unclarity, but the sense of ‘owning up’, of ‘coming clean’, which the title implies is not, I think, borne out by the apparent confusion of the author.

N.T. Wright  Doubt about Doubt: Honest to God 40 years on 2005

The apparent confusion belongs to Tom Wright not John Robinson. Robinson was engaged in providing a meaningful account of Christianity to those for whom the biblical stories held no resonance.  People who would no more have regarded the biblical accounts as evidence of God in action in the world, than they would regard the Star Wars films as evidence for the existence of midi-chlorians.

Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to us, telling us the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you’ll hear them speaking to you.

Qui-Gon Jinn, to Anakin Skywalker  Taken from Wookieepedia

The attacks and sniping that Tom Wright complains of are found not in ‘Honest to God’ where Robinson almost bends over backwards to acknowledge the truths of those such as C.S. Lewis, and Dorothy Sayers who were producing more traditional accounts of the Christian message, but in Wright’s  ‘Doubts about Doubt.’

And it is this misidentification of where the alleged evil lies, that leads me to the conclusion, not that Tom Wright is dishonest but that he is deluded.

One of the things that Tom Wright accused John Robinson of was of ignoring the problem of evil.

I find it quite shocking that Robinson has no account to give of evil, either its existence, its analysis, or the solution offered to it in either traditional or revisionist Christianity. He recognizes that the normal liberal analysis is shallow and inadequate, but has nothing to offer in its place. How a theology rooted and born in the twentieth century could do justice to that twentieth century without a serious account of evil simply defeats me.

N.T. Wright  Doubt about Doubt: Honest to God 40 years on 2005

‘Honest to God’ is a small book, and it didn’t set out to solve the problem of evil.  But Tom Wright in projecting his own behaviour unto John Robinson, illustrates one of the causes of evil in the world.  The ability of the human brain to convince itself, that whatever it wants to believe is true.  An especially devastating ability when what that brain, is highly intelligent, and what it wishes to convince itself of, is that it is certainly right, and that the evil lies in the other.

Human Beings bond on shared ideas. Those who can produce the illusion that beliefs held for social reasons are certainly true, have opportunity to gain status in their social groupings.  If they can at the same time convince their followers that their social groupings and truths are under attack, by the other:

Those Evil  Awful People Over There,

then they are a position to acquire even more power within their group.  And certainly in times past and maybe even today this will have improved their average reproductive fitness.  In other words I am suggesting that the type of self deluding argument exhibited by Tom Wright, the gift that can make Satan himself appear as an angel of light, is an innate deceiver, a human instinct, the product of natural selection.  And you’ll find him waving his noodly appendage wherever humans seek power rather than love, certainty over truth.

 The noodliness of Wright’s thinking is even more clearly obvious, except to those who are similarly noodled, in his arguments against gay marriage, than in his critique of Honest to God.

Tom Wright’s sphere of influence is largely among those who would regard themselves as Bible believing evangelicals, and his views on justification, have led many within these circles to regard him as theologically unsound.

To maintain his sphere of influence, he needs to impress those within it of his ‘orthodoxy.’ They and he are emotionally certain that homosexual relationships cannot be recognised as marriage. And the innate deceiver, the instinct that likes to say,”Yes:” obliges in enabling him to convince himself that he can in fact  rationally justify his emotional response.

He is quoted over at First Things, as objecting to Gay Marriage, because it involves a change of the meaning of the word marriage. Now Tom Wright and I have both lived long enough to know that language evolves over time.  The word gay for instance has changed meaning within our lifetime.

I grew up in the Anglican Church of Ireland, and we regularly prayed that justice should be administered indifferently.  Rather than Christians demanding that word usage remains constant, I think a more sensible case could be made that we recognise the actual usage that words have in the present time, and use them accordingly.

Sarah Moon in More Like N.T. Wrong, does an excellent take down of his arguments based on the creation story of Genesis 1.

I won’t deal with them here.  But I find myself vastly entertained by the ludicrousness of this argument.

The last scene in the Bible is the new heaven and the new earth, and the symbol for that is the marriage of Christ and his church. It’s not just one or two verses here and there which say this or that. It’s an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.

N.T. Wright’s Argument Against Same Sex Marriage  First Things 2014

On that gay and glorious day when Christ comes to reclaim his Bride, N.T.Wright  if he believes himself to be a Christian, must surely expect to be there, at least metaphorically, as the Bride to Christ’s Groom.  Not a convincing argument against gay marriage.

The entertaining yet truly scary thing about those operating under the operation of the noodly deceiver, the confirmation bias driven monster that has been given not so much anthropomorphic as pastopomorphic form by Bobby Henderson as the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is that you can see that the truth finding mechanisms within their brain are still in operation.

The bits of the brain that are there to test the theory, in the only way possible, by finding arguments against it are there doing their job. Yet the strength of the noodly appendage is such that its deluded servants are able to present evidence against their case as though it is evidence for, with total conviction.

In this same article Tom Wright can also be seen criticising others including Tony Blair the British Prime Minister at the time of the invasion of Iraq, for the holeyness of their arguments, while seeing only holiness, in his own holey arguments.

Tom Wright demanded from John Robinson a theological account of evil. A spaghettiology is all I can offer.  We have inherited from our evolutionary past an instinct that serves to hide our true motives from us, as we seek status and power within our society.  This instinct enables us to believe whatever it is that will gain us that power and status. It enables us to deceive ourselves into believing in our own goodness, and the rightness of our cause.  It enables us to see that the fault lies only in the other.  And thus is monstrous evil born.

If we would resist the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the first place we must look is within ourselves. Only then have we any chance of being, ‘Honest to God.’

 


 

 

 

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