Viewpoint: When did people stop thinking God lives on a cloud?
- 16 May 2013
- From the section Magazine
People rarely queue around the block to buy a book. And when was the last time a prime minister had to ask the publisher for a copy as none was otherwise available? Philosopher, writer and former priest Mark Vernon tells the story of Honest To God.
It happened 50 years ago, in the spring of 1963. A book called Honest to God appeared on the shelves and caused a storm.
Before long, a million copies were sold in 17 languages. The author was a Church of England clergyman, John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich in south London.
A couple of years previously, he had described sex as "an act of holy communion" in the trial that tried to ban Lady Chatterley's Lover. That caused a stir and his book was read partly because it called for a revolution in ethics, particularly on divorce.
But there were deeper shifts in the collective consciousness that found voice in its pages.
The Observer newspaper's memorable headline caught it well: "Our Image of God Must Go".
People found that thought a liberation.
Sarah Coakley, now a professor at Cambridge University, ended up making theology her career. "[Robinson] was a brilliant educator," she says. "He kept asking us students: 'Why is this important? What matters now?'"
Rob Bell, the American evangelical leader whose congregation is counted in the thousands, feels similarly. "I can't even tell you how much that book affected me," he remarks. He too believes that we need new images of God - ones that enable us to speak of the mystery of everyday experience.
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.
Robinson drew on the philosophy of existentialism and especially the writings of the German-American, Paul Tillich. Tillich described God as the "ground of being", the power that sustains the cosmos in the face of the alternative, nothing. He argued that to be human is to have "ultimate concerns", namely something for which you would not only live, but die.
Robinson and his generation were in thrall to science and felt that religion must change. The same imperative is felt to this day when atheists compare religion to fairytales and believers pen apologetics in response. But I wonder whether this knockabout has actually been a distraction because, on the whole, it seems that people do not live in a demythologised world. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Regular church attendance has declined, yes. But since the 1960s, belief in a "spirit or life force" has doubled, according to British Religion in Numbers - 41% of British people now believe in angels, 53% in an afterlife, and 70% in a soul.
For more evidence, wander into your local bookshop and find the Mind, Body, Spirit section. First, there will be one. Second, it is likely to be larger than history, psychology or biography.
Or note the interest in spiritual practices such as mindfulness meditation, which you can now get on the NHS, or think of the recent BBC TV programme, Pagans and Pilgrims. It visited Britain's holiest places and found that they are thriving.
To the convinced non-spiritual person this is likely to be bemusing, even offensive. There should not be "holy places" because a piece of land is just a piece of land. If individuals believe in angels or an afterlife then they must be stupid, sad or deluded.
And yet, look more closely and you will see that science itself promotes the re-enchantment of things. In books and on TV, physicists tell of vast cycles of cosmic death and rebirth. It is wonderful to be part of this majestic universe, they declare.
They are right - although according to science alone, the cosmos does not die because it has never lived. Scientifically, the story is neither wonderful nor majestic - it just is.
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.
There is something crucial going on in this welter of spiritual experimentation and exploration. We humans are the creatures for whom our own existence is too small. We yearn for more, for connection, for meaning. And moreover, we find it. All the scepticism in the world cannot put it down.