John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich, England, in the 1960’s, was not an ordinary Anglican prelate, not even in a country where Anglican bishops are known as atheists in purple gowns. He first became notorious for suggesting that the D.H. Lawrence novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not only not pornographic but a moral book.
Then, in 1963 he ushered in a movement sometimes called “the new divinity” when he wrote a book exploding conventional images of God as false and suggesting that the biblical images of a petulant and fickle God, in particular, were more a hindrance than a help to the Christian faith. He challenged British Christians to consider alternatives to the God-in-the-sky model, especially ones being proposed by theologians like the German-American thinker Paul Tillich (God as “ultimate concern,”) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who rejected the objective moral values of the Bible.
In a country where “existential” theology was not popular and German ideas especially suspect, it was no surprise that Robinson’s suggestions did not immediately catch on.
One sympathetic reader of Honest to God was Julian Huxley, a distinguished embryologist in his right and the grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”) by descent. He independently distinguished himself as a researcher with his first book, on avian ethology. By 1925 he had become Professor of Zoology at King’s College, London, a position he resigned after less than two years to work with G.H. Wells on The Science of Life.
Rejecting T.H.’s legendary “agnosticism” relative to religion Julian preferred to call himself a “humanist,” emphasizing the positive and progressive goals human beings have achieved in their evolutionary march from simple to complex organziations, made possible through the use of language. He rejected the notion that this progress was “teleological” in the religious sense, but rejected equally the idea that there was an absolute split between religion and science: As he notes in the essay below, “There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion;… I believe that [a] drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a god-centered to an evolutionary-centered pattern.”
Ethics, Huxley believed, was at the heart of the progression; “it largely overrides the automatic process of natural selection as an agent of change.” (Evolution in action. Chatto & Windus, London, 1953, p132.)
His commitment to an ethical vision and “humanism”–a term he virtually reinvented and modernized, yet pointing back to the classical and neo-classical usages, led him to become involved with the founding of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (largely inspired by his work) and with John Dewey, Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, to serve as a founding advisor to the First Humanist Society of New York.
Huxley however was, if not precisely in the American philosophical sense, a naturalist. The two great philosophical traditions of Europe, the rationalist and the empirical, each had their own unresolved dualisms and overcame them in separate ways through linguistic and rational critique of the “supernatural.” But Huxley was not eager to reduce religion to a commitment to supernatural entities and intrusions. He wrote, that the abandonment of the God-hypothesis did not entail the end of piety (in the strict, classical sense of the term) least of all ethics, but merely a recognition of our location of the history of our life on the planet:
“Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. But it does mean, once our relief at jettisoning an outdated piece of ideological furniture is over, that we must construct something to take its place.”
The following essay is edited slightly from its 1964 version in Essays of a Humanist (1964: Chatto and Windus)
The Bishop of Woolwich’s courageous book, Honest to God, is impressive evidence not merely of what he calls our present theological ferment, but of the general ideological ferment and indeed of the revolution of thought through which we are struggling.
This is the inevitable outcome of the new vision of the world and man’s place and role in that world — in a word, of man’s destiny — which our new knowledge has revealed. This new vision is both comprehensive and unitary. It integrates the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework, the pattern of all-embracing evolutionary process. In this unitary vision, all kinds of splits and dualisms are healed. The entire cosmos is made out of one and the same world-stuff, operated by the same energy as we ourselves. “Mind” and “matter” appears as two aspects of our unitary mind-bodies. There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both organs of evolving humanity.
This earth is one of the rare spots in the cosmos where mind has flowered. Man is a product of nearly three billion years of evolution, in whose person the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities. Whether he likes it or not, he is responsible for the whole further evolution of our planet.
Dr Robinson describes the current image of God as follows: “Somewhere beyond this universe is a Being, a centre of personal will and purpose, who created it and sustains it, who loves it and who ‘visited’ it in Jesus Christ. But I need not go on, for this is ‘our’ God. Theism means being convinced that this Being exists: atheism means denying that he does.” However he continues as follows: “But I suspect that we have reached a point where this mental image of God is also more of a hindrance than a help. … Any image can become an idol, and I believe that Christians must go through the agonizing process in this generation of detaching themselves from this idol.” He even writes that he heartily agrees with something I wrote many years ago in my Religion without revelation — “The sence of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a superhuman being is enormous.”
And yet he clings to the essential personal concept of God — “nothing,” he writes, “can separate us from the love of God”; and sums up his position in the following assertion, that “God is ultimate reality… and ultimate reality must exist”.
To the implications of these statements I shall return. Meanwhile let me state the position as I see it. Man emerged as the dominant type on earth about a million years ago, but has only been really effective as a psychosocial organism for under ten thousand years. In that mere second of cosmic time, he has produced astonishing achievements — but has also been guilty of unprecedented horrors and follies. And looked at in the long perspective of evolution he is singularly imperfect, still incapable of carrying out his planetary responsibilities in a satisfactory manner.
The radical evolutionary crisis through which man is now passing can only be surmounted by an equally radical reorganisation of his dominant system of thought and belief. During human history, there has been a succession of dominant systems of thought and belief, each accompanying a new organisation of social, political and economic activities — agriculture with its rituals of rebirth as against hunting with its magic; early civilization with its cities and sacred kings, its written records and its priesthoods; universal and monotheistic religion; later, the scientific, the industrial and the technological revolutions with their corresponding patterns of thought; and now the evolutionary and humanist revolution, whose ideological and social implications have still to be thought out.
What has all this to do with Dr Robinson’s views on God, or indeed with religion at all? The answer is, a great deal. In the first place, religion in some form is a universal function of man in society, the organ for dealing with the problems of destiny, the destiny of individual men and women, of societies and nations, and of the human species as a whole. Religions always have some intellectual or ideological framework, whether myth or theological doctrine; some morality or code of behaviour, whether barbaric or ethically rationalized; and some mode of ritualized or symbolic expression, in the form of ceremonial or celebration, collective devotion or thanksgiving, or religious art. But, as the history and comparative study of religions make clear, the codified morality and the ritualized expression of of a religion, and indeed in the long run its social and personal efficacy, derives from its “theological” framework. If the evolution of its ideological pattern does not keep pace with the growth of knowledge, with social change and the march of events, the religion will increasingly cease to satisfy the multitude seeking assurance about their destiny, and will become progressively less effective a a social organ.
Eventually the old ideas will no longer serve, the old ideological framework can no longer be tinkered up to bear the weight of the facts, and a radical reconstruction becomes necessary, leading eventually to the emergence of a quite new organisation of thought and belief, just as the emergence of new types of bodily organization was necessary to achieve biological advance.
Such major organizations of thought may be necessary in science as much as in religion. The classical example, of course, was the re-patterning of cosmological thought which demoted the earth from its central position and led to the replacement of the geocentric pattern of thought by a heliocentric one. I believe that an equally drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a god-centered to an evolutionary-centered pattern. Simplified down to its bare essentials the stepwise reorganization of western religions thought seems to have proceeded as follows. In its early, paleolithic stage religion was magic-centred, based on the ideas of magic force inherent in nature, in personages such as “medicine men” and shamans, and in human incarnations, spells and other magic practices, including witchcraft. This type of belief developed gradually into animism and so to polydaimonism and polytheism; while with the coming of agriculture a new pattern was imposed, centering on the ideas of fertility and rebirth, and leading to the rise of priest-kings and eventually divinized monarchs. The next major revolution of religious thought came in the first millennium B.C with the independent rise of the monotheist and/or universalist religions, culminating in Christianity and later branching off into Islam. The last two thousand years have seen the development of elaborate monotheistic theologies; but in the process their single God has broken into many, or at least has assumed a number of distinct and indeed sometimes actively hostile forms; and their nominal universalism has degenerated into competition for the possession of absolute truth.
Of course a great deal of magic survived into the polytheist priest-king stage, and some persists in thinly disguised form in Christian and Mohammedan practices and ideas today. Similarly, elements of polydaemonism and polytheism persists in the nominally monotheist religion of Christianity, in the doctrine of the Trinity (with the virtual divinization of the Virgin in Catholicism), in the multiplication of its Saints and Angels, and in so doing has increased its flexibility.
But to come back to DR Robinson. He is surely right in concentrating on the problem of God, rather than on the resurrection or the after-life, for God is Christianity’s central hypothesis.
But he is surely wrong in making such statements as that “God is ultimate reality”. God is a hypothesis constructed by man to help him understand what existence is all about. The god hypothesis asserts the existence of some sort supernatural personal or superpersonal being, exerting some kind of purposeful power over the universe and its destiny. To say that God is ultimate reality is just semantic cheating, as well as being so vague as to become effectively meaningless (and when DR Robinson continues by saying “and ultimate reality must exist” he is surely running round a philosophically very vicious circle).
Dr Robinson, like Dr Tillich and many other modernist theologians, seems to me, and indeed to any humanist, to be trying to ride two horses at once, to keep his cake and eat it. He wants to be modern and meet the challenge of our new knowledge by stripping the image of God of virtually all its spatial, material, Freudian and anthropomorphic aspects. But he still persists in retaining the termGod, in spite of all its implifications of supernatural power and personality; and it is these implifications, not the modernists’ fine-spun arguments, which consciously and unconsciously affect the ordinary man and woman. Heads I win, tails you lose: humanists dislike this elaborate double-talk. The ambiguity involved can be simply illustrated by substituting some of the modernists’ definition of God for the plain word [I think it should read world, not word — Fredrik’s comment] itself. I am sure that many opponents of freer divorce use the phrace “whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder”. If they were to proclaim that “whom universal reality has joined together, let no man put asunder”, it would not carry the same weight.
Today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable, has lost its explanatory value and is becoming an intellectual and moral burden to our thought. It no longer convinces or comforts, and its abandonment often brings a deep sence of relief. Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. But it does mean, once our relief at jettisoning an outdated piece of ideological furniture is over, that we must construct some thing to take its place.
Though gods and God in any meaningful sence seem destined to disappear, the stuff of divinity out of which they have grown and developed remains. This religious raw material consists of those aspects of nature and those experiences which are usually described as divine. Let me remind my readers that the term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interprete man’s experiences of this quality.
Some events and some phenomena of outer nature transcend ordinary explanation and ordinary experience. They inspire awe and seem mysterious, explicable only in terms of something beyond or above ordinary nature.
Such magical, mysterious, awe-inspiring, divinity-suggesting facts have included wholly outer phenomena like volcanic eruptions, thunder, and hurricanes; biological phenomena such as sex and birth, disease and death; and also inner, psychological phenomena such as intoxication, possession, speaking in tounges, inspiration, insanity, and mystic vision.
With the growth of knowledge most of these have ceased to be mysterious so far as rational or scientific explicability is concerned (though there remains the fundamental mystery of existence, notably the existence of mind). However, it is a fact that many phenomena are charged with some sort of magic or compulsive power, and do introduce us to a realm beyond our ordinary experience. Such events and such experience merit a special designation. For want of a better, I use the term divine, though this quality of divinity is not truely supernatural but transnatural — it grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. The divine is what man finds worthy of adoration, that which compels his awe.
Much of every religion is aimed at the discovery and safe-guarding of divinity in this sence, and seeks contact and communication with what is regarded as divine. A humanist evolution-centered religion too needs divinity, but divinity without God. It must strip the divine of the theistic qualities which man has antropomorphically projected into it, search for its habitations in every aspect of existence, elicit it, and establish fruitful contact with its manifestations. Divinity is the chief raw material out of which gods have been fashioned. Today we must melt down the gods and refashion the material into new and effective organs of religion, enabling man to exist freely and fully on the spiritual level as well as on the material.
What precise form these new agencies of religious thought will take it is impossible to say in this period of violent transition. But one can make some general prophesies. The central religious hypothesis will certainly be evolution, which by now has been checked against objective fact and has become firmly established as a principle. Evolution is a process, of which we are products, and in which we are active agents. There is no finality about the process, and no automatic or unified progress; but much improvement has occured in the past, and there could be much further improvement in the future (though there is also the possibility of future failure and regression).
Thus the central long-term concern of religion must be to promote further evolutionary improvement and to realise new possibilities; and this means greater fulfilment by more human individuals and fuller achievement by more human societies
Human potentialities constitute the world’s greatest resource, but at the moment only a tiny fraction of them is being realized. The possibility of tapping and directing these vast resources of human possibility provide the religion of the future with a powerful long-term motive. An equally powerful short-term motive is to ensure the fullest possible development and flowering of individual personalities. In developing a full, deep and rich personality the individual ceases to be a mere cog or cipher, and makes his own particular contribution to evolutionary fulfilment.
In a way most important of all, an evolution-centered religion can no longer be divided off from secular affairs in a separate supernatural compartment, but will interlock with them at every point. The only distinction is that it is concerned with less immediate, less superficial, and therefore more enduring and deeper aspects of existence.
Meanwhile, religious rituals and moral codes will have to be readapted or remodelled. Besides what Nietzsche called the transvaluation of values, we shall need a transfiguration of thought, a new religious terminology and a reformulation of religious ideas and concepts in a new idiom. A humanist religion will have to work out its own rituals and its own basic symbolism.
In place of eternity we shall have to think in terms of enduring process; in place of salvation in terms of attaining the satisfying states of inner being which combine energy and peace. There will be no room for petitionary prayer, but much value in prayer involving aspiration and self-exploration. A religion of fulfilment must provide bustling secular man with contacts with all that is permanent and enduring, with the deeper and higher aspects of existence; indeed, with every possible opportunity of transcending the limitations not only of his day-by-day existence in the equivalents of shared worship, but of his little secular self in acts of meditation and self-examination and in retreats from the secular world of affairs. It will of course continue to celebrate the outstanding events of personal and national existence (already in some countries there are humanist wedding and funeral ceremonies). Furthermore, it will enlist the aid of psychologists and psychiatrists in helping men and women to explore the depths and heights of their own inner selves instead of restlessly pursuing external noveltry, to realize more of their mental and spiritual possibilities, to utilize even their repressed and guilty urges, and to transcendent the limitations and the internal conflicts of the unregenerate self in a constructive wholeness and a sense of achieving contact or union with a fuller reality.
Christianity is a universalist and monotheist religion of salvation. Its long consolidation and explosive spread, achieved through a long period of discussion and zealous ferment, released vast human forces which have largely shaped the western world as we know it. An evolutionary and humanist religion of fulfilment could be more truly universal and could release even vaster human forces, which could in large measure shape the development of the entire world. But its consolidation and spread will need a period of discussion and ferment, though with modern communications this is likely to be much shorter than for Christianity.
The evolutionary vision of man’s place and role in the universe which science and scholarship have given us, could be the revelation of the new dispensation. Dr Robinson’s article is evidence of its effectiveness in changing ideas. What we now need is a multitude of participants to take part in the great discussion and to join in the search for the larger truth and the more fruitful patterns of belief which we confidently believe is waiting to be elicited.