Former Anglican priest Mark Vernon discusses the impact of Honest to God, a book by Anglican bishop John Robinson, when it was first published in 1963.
For Robinson, the problem was the belief that we are “down here” and God is “up there”, as if sitting on a cloud. Science destroys that worldview. Instead, he sought God in life.
Similarly, Jesus is an alluring figure not because he saves you from your sins and a wrathful deity, or offers immortality, but because he displays the transforming potential of love.
The bishop was part of the demythologisation movement, an attempt to re-describe Christianity in terms that made sense to the non-religious mind.
Of course, demythologization didn’t start in the 1960s. Back in 1935, in an essay called “On Youthful Cynicism”, Bertrand Russell dryly noted that the “God of most moderns is a little vague, and apt to degenerate into a Life Force or a ‘power not ourselves that makes for righteousness’”. This transformation of religion into allegory and metaphor is fair enough if done in a sufficiently complete, honest and clear-eyed way. Yahweh could have an honourable place in our culture as a figure symbolizing cosmic order, for example, provided the clearly expressed consensus was that he was merely a symbolic figure rather than an actual being dispensing commandments that had to be obeyed. The problem is that adherents of “demythologized” versions of Christianity generally seem to want their god to be just metaphorical enough to avoid being too obviously incompatible with scientific knowledge, while still retaining an aura of sanctity and solemnity that a purely metaphorical entity could never aspire to.
However, Vernon notes that demythologization has only gone so far. Even in secular Britain, lots of people still believe in angels, the afterlife and the soul, even if they don’t go to church.
There has been a spontaneous rediscovery of the spiritual dimension, if actually it ever died. The tragedy for the church, 50 years after Honest to God, is that many people no longer feel that Sunday worship and the images of God on offer there has much to do with it.
This is a problem because religious practices and theological traditions hold a wealth of insights that are needed if the questing is to deepen and grow. They help ground the speculations of New Age thought and offer means of discernment.
Insights into what? Where is all this questing supposed to lead? New Age thought grounded in religious practices and theological traditions will be more or less as hollow and misguided as New Age thought grounded in the usual mix of wishful thinking and hocus pocus. It could even be said that the two amount to the same thing. Mark Vernon seems profoundly uninterested in whether the “spiritual dimension” describes anything real, but that’s an issue reasonable people should consider before they go off “questing” for holy grails that won’t hold water.