INNER LIFE BY DAVID TORKINGTON
IT WAS 30 YEARS AGO that John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, published his famous book Honest To God that shocked may church-going Christians. The newspaper headlines were full of it: "Our image of God must go. God is not a daddy in the sky."
All he was trying to say was that if we think, or rather picture, God as a sort of celestial Santa Claus sitting on the clouds then that image must go if we are to mature spiritually. The truth is, as the bishop tried to explain, that God is not so much up there in the clouds, but at the centre of our inmost selves as the very "ground of our being".
Both ideas or rather images of God can be found in the Scriptures. However, because Jesus was a brilliant communicator he knew that to teach people profound truths you must start from what we already know, and from the picture language to which they have been accustomed.
The people to whom he preached had been brought up to believe in a sort of treble-decker universe into which they had been born. The earth was flat like a penny and the sky or the firmament was like a sugar bowl turned upside down and supported by the "eternal hills" at its outer bound
aries. Below the earth, that was supported by huge pillars, Seoi where Rahab or
Leviathan lived, a monstrous incarnation of the Evil One. Above the firmament was a gigantic throne where God sat between the cherubim with his feet planted on the world which was his footstool.
Now Jesus had come to show people how to come closer to God, not to give them lessons in 20th-century cosmology, which they wouldn't have understood anyway. That's why he rose up on the first Ascension Day to where everybody believed God lived. It was from there that they believed he sent the Holy Spirit at Pentecost so that those who received him could also be united with the Father.
This is how Jesus explained profound spiritual truths to people who could only understand them when they could picture them in their imaginations. However, at the same time he also taught those same truths in a more profound way that would only become apparent gradually under the influence of the Holy Spirit, who he promised would eventually make all things known to them.
It was under the guidance and inspiration of that same Holy Spirit that St John spent many years poring over all that Jesus had said and done before he wrote his Gospel. It is here more than in any other of the Gospels that you find the deeper meaning of all that Jesus said and did. Although he did actually rise off the ground in front of his disciples he wasn't on his way to take up residence in outer space, but in inner space, as he had already promised at the Last Supper. After all where was the Father to whom he was going? He was in the Kingdom of heaven. And where is the Kingdom of Heaven? It is within us as he made quite clear before the Ascension.
When Jesus goes back to his Father he takes up residence in inner space at the very "ground of our being", as the Bishop of Woolwich would put it, as he'd already promised in the upper room. Ancient picture language that still influences us portrays the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost as someone coming from
above, when in fact he is coming from deep down within, where he dwells at the very foundation of our personality.
We all need picture language to help understand what we can't see, so a picture from St Teresa of Avila might help. It is the picture of a traditional Spanish fountain spraying water above itself and then overflowing to fill and replenish every successive level of its being, bathing it with the refreshing spring water that has risen form deep down within itself. This is how the Holy Spirit rises from the very "ground of our being" to purify and transform us from the inside.
The emotional outcry against John Robinson was not so much because people thought he was teaching unorthodox theology, but because he was taking away the traditional picture language with which many people had become accustomed to visualise it. If you find it still helps you, then use it. After all, Jesus did. But if you want another picture to help frame the same message in your imagination at a deeper level why not turn to St Teresa's famous fountain.
It has helped me over the years; perhaps it might help you too.t