The year 2013 is the 50th anniversary of the famous book Honest to God. I cannot claim to have read the book when it first came out but I was affected by the article in the Observer which had the headline, using words ascribed to Bishop Robinson, ‘Your image of God must go.’ That headline did speak to me because even in my late teens I was aware of the problem of ‘anthropomorphism’, making God into a person, a quasi-human who sat above the clouds waiting to catch us out. In short I did not believe in a God who was like a grumpy and arbitrary tyrant. The way many people spoke about God as though he could simply turn on or off hurricanes, earthquakes as well as serious illnesses at will did not seem satisfactory. Although I cannot remember in detail the kind of God I believed in at the age of 17-18, I do know that I was never sucked into a belief system that made me afraid of God. All my attempts to pray, to worship and generally lead a reasonably good life were never done because I was afraid but because I had a glimpse of a better, fuller life working with this transcendent being. The people called Saints seemed to have got something that I wanted. Being a Christian was part of a journey towards this kind of life and God and Christ were in different ways travelling companions.
These memories of the naive Christian teenager do, I believe, summarise one version of the faith that was set before some of us in the early years of our Christian formation. Another version of the Christian faith, and here I allow myself to be the opinionated writer of a Blog, was frankly terrifying, cruel and even abusive. Some of us were presented with a Christian teaching that threatened us with overwhelming everlasting torture beyond the grave if we did not obey our earthly teachers and submit to their control. They spoke for God himself. To misquote the Anglican collect for Trinity 6: O God who has prepared for those who do not love thee, such awful things as pass man’s understanding. This teaching was not confined to evangelical churches but was being peddled in a middle of the road church primary school assembly as recently as the early 80s. Many of the children were reduced to tears by this uncompromising message. Nothing was done, because the Vicar concerned, no doubt, could quote scripture to say that this was Biblical truth. Behind this teaching is a doctrine of man that sees the natural state of humanity as one of unrelieved evil. The only way to escape such a fate was to be frightened into the kingdom of Christian belief through a process we could call ‘terror evangelism’. It also presented a doctrine of God who, even though described as a God of love, could behave in ways that appeared to be far from loving.
Bishop Robinson was anxious to banish these and other images of God and he now introduced the reader to expressions such as ‘ground of being’ or ‘ultimate concern’ as ways of talking about our relationship with the Divine. These terms strayed far from the quasi-human picture of God, prone to cruelty and arbitrary punishment which filled the imaginations of so many Christians at the time as well as now. But many Christians fiercely resisted this kind of language introduced by Robinson. Their reasons for resisting it were ostensibly because it was not language found in the Bible. But curiously the language of everlasting damnation awaiting those who were not members of the Church was also comforting and attractive to those on the inside of the Church, looking outwards. They had been ‘saved’ so now they were smugly safe from all this potential terror and pain. The fact that they could contemplate with apparent satisfaction such an awful fate for so many of the world’s population verges on the obscene, but many Christians then as now still seem oblivious to this example of a catastrophic failure of love and compassion.
As a footnote to these thoughts about the teaching of Honest to God, the terrible events taking place in the Philippines make it even more imperative that our image of God must change. The anthropomorphic God, the one susceptible to arbitrary moods and emotions, may well be a God that sends or withholds terrible weather events, such as Typhoon Haiyan. The God that Bishop Robinson spoke of who lives in the places of mystery and depth seems to have a very different relationship with these natural events. He does not create or prevent these weather systems. We might wish to say that the God that is presented to us in Scripture is a God, not of power and control, but one of vulnerability and weakness. Somewhere in all the pain of the homeless, the bereaved and the dying in the Philippines, God is to be found in ways we cannot fully grasp. But perhaps his presence is also found in the hearts and imaginations of those who feel moved to respond to the awfulness and the tragedy of this event. In the way we respond to suffering we can show the power of God’s transforming love in our lives. Ubi caritas, ibi Deus est. Where there is love, there is God.