I recently tried to read Anglican Bishop John Robinson’s notorious work of theological “modernism,” Honest to God.
I would not recommend this book. Apart from its theology it is written in an style which makes it most difficult to understand what the Bishop is actually trying to say.
However, on one point he was clear and understandable: he claims that our image of God must go: that our religious writing, art, etc. has a picture of a three-level Cosmos, with God as an old man with a beard sitting on a throne above the clouds, below that the Earth we walk on, and below that, somewhere underground, Hell. And this, the Bishop says, does not accord with modern astronomical knowledge.
Well, as a matter of fact, it never did in the Christian era. Already in pre-Christian thought we can detect increasing tensions between ancient, primitive images of the gods as people living somewhere in the clouds – or on Mount Olympus – and what astronomy was discovering.
Before Christ was born learned people already knew that the Earth was a sphere in space. In about 200 BC Eratosthenes, an official of the great Alexandrian Library, calculated its diameter very accurately.
From about 100 BC we have, in the Athens museum, a calculator used for computing planetary orbits. The ancient astronomers and philosophers knew the stars were unimaginably and inexpressibly distant – that by comparison with such distances the whole Earth was a point of no magnitude.
Objections to Columbus sailing west to India were not based on ideas that the Earth was flat and he would sail off the edge, but that it was impossible to carry provisions for such a long voyage (a valid point: if America had not been there Columbus would have starved to death somewhere in the Pacific).
Why then, have we had an image of God as an old man sitting on a throne a few miles above the clouds, when our astronomy has always given us a different picture of the Cosmos?
I think the reason, and here I follow C.S. Lewis, is that this idea of a noble and regal-looking man is the highest image of which our imagination is capable. It is not an adequate image, but any alternative is even less so and it is the best humans can do. Bishop Robinson seems to prefer to describe God as “the ground of our being,” which to me suggests a sand-bank.
Another term for God favoured by some modernist theologians is “The first cause.” Up to a point I accept that: if the universe had a cause (and it is hard to believe its creation was an event without a cause), whatever caused it must be, by definition, God. But an image of God which stops there seems so abstract, remote and cold, that it is almost impossible to relate to it. And such a Creator may not relate to its creatures or have any personal concern for them.
Thus we have two related problems: the impossibility of having an adequate image of God, other than as a man and, for those who accept the evidence of a Creation, lack of evidence that that Creator cares personally about us. The only answer to both these problems was, it occurred to me as I read, an odd one: that God should somehow become man, perhaps most fittingly about the time increasing astronomical knowledge was forcing these problems upon us. And until I reached that point I really had not seen where my speculations were leading me.