By C. Robert Wetzel
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made” (Genesis 3:1).
Some time ago I read Susan Howatch’s novel Scandalous Risks. It is the fourth in a series of six novels about the Church of England in the 20th century. I was surprised to see the novel introduced by a quotation from the book of popular theology entitled Honest to God, written by Bishop John A. T. Robinson in 1962. Honest to God was one of those books that attempts to revise Christian faith to make it more acceptable to the modern person. Robinson called upon the works of Tillich, Bultmann, and Bonhoeffer. Robinson’s little book set off an intense debate in England that spread to the English-speaking world. It was a book you could talk about at social occasions without ever having read it.
By 1988 when Howatch wrote Scandalous Risks, the Honest to God debate was long since history. Today, what Robinson produced is now but an interesting bit of theological history. It proved to be a radical departure from biblical Christianity that, by and large, was rejected by the church while not making any significant impression on the modern humanist for which it was intended as an apologetic.
What Howatch does in Scandalous Risks could be described as a narrative critique of Robinson’s Honest to God. She tells a story in which the main characters play out the implications of Robinson’s theology. And they do so with disastrous consequences.
In all fairness to Robinson, he would hardly have condoned the adulterous affair that led to the disaster. As the wife of Bishop Ashworth says in the novel,
I know it is quite wrong for a bishop’s wife to be so cynical, but at least I’m being entirely honest when I say that in my opinion a man in the grip of a grand passion can always work out a way to circumvent his moral beliefs. He’d still hold those particular beliefs, of course, but he’d decide his case wasn’t covered by the rules. There’s nothing like a grand passion for encouraging self-deception on an epic scale (p. 264).
By now you have caught the drift of the story. The dean of the cathedral, Neville Aysgarth, is a man in his 50s, widowed once and now married to a domineering and socially inept woman. Aysgarth is convinced that Bishop Robinson has led the church into the modern age theologically. Having rejected “supernaturalistic ethics,” Robinson had looked to an early essay by the American Episcopalian Joseph Fletcher and agreed that love is the only regulative principle in human behavior. Hence,
For nothing can of itself always be labeled as “wrong.” One cannot for instance, start from the position “sex relations before marriage” or “divorce” are wrong or sinful in themselves. They may be in 99 cases or even 100 cases out of 100, but they are not intrinsically so, for the only intrinsic evil is lack of love (Honest to God, p. 118).
It comes as no surprise that Aysgarth must have regarded himself as the one case out of 100. He is convinced that his love for Venetia Flaxton, a woman in her late 20s, is an expression of the pure love that Robinson, Fletcher, and even Jesus had in mind. One hundred-to-1 odds are indeed risky, and when you are a churchman involved in an adulterous affair it is not only a risk, it is a “scandalous risk.” And hence the story progresses from theological self-deception to a grand passion to a great disaster with only a hint of redemption in the end. For the intricate details (not seamy details) you will have to read the book.
I found the novel to be fascinating but disturbing. True, one has to admire Howatch’s brilliant command of English and her ability to draw convincing characters. But the novel was for me a chilling reminder of the many people I have known who have ruined their ministries and caused great harm because of some “grand passion,” whether sex, greed, pride, or any other of the seven deadly sins.
As a member of the Christian community called Emmanuel School of Religion, I am fully aware Satan has many ways to penetrate the lives of those in ministry and those preparing for ministry. We are blessed with a beautiful campus in a beautiful location. And we are blessed with a beautiful community of people who are committed to Christian service.
In my more rapturous moments I would compare it to Eden. But there is a serpent in every garden. The image of the serpent occurs regularly in the novel. At first it is always on a leash, but there came the moment when Venetia Flaxton says,
Then alongside me in the world of allegory, the demure little serpent, gliding along on his leash, slipped his collar at last and slithered away beyond my control into the garden (p. 216).
I leave it to your imagination as to what occasioned her comment. My concern is to say something about the risks a person faces as he or she begins or continues preparation for ministry. I’m thinking also of the risks we face as faculty, administrators, and staff at Emmanuel and similar institutions.
Risks often arise when we forget why we are here; when we as faculty, administrators, and staff act as though students come to Emmanuel to serve us, rather than we serving them; when students forget what brought them here. Maybe they came with a clear sense of calling to Christian ministry. Or perhaps the calling was not so clear, but rather they are on a spiritual journey to see what God has in mind.
It’s certain the rigors of graduate study can test a sense of calling. And the rigors of living in a religious community can also test a sense of calling. Medieval monk Thomas á Kempis in Imitation of Christ comments that living in a religious community can try one’s faith like gold in a furnace.
When we forget our sense of commitment and calling, the serpent slips the leash. Adulterous affairs are rationalized into expressions of something called “true love.” Dishonesty becomes a matter of “being clever.” Cynicism simply becomes being “realistic about human nature.” Arrogance and pride can be clothed in a sense of “fulfilling my ministry.” Unkindness to others can be justified as “boldness in speaking the truth.” Anger, or as Paul says, “fits of rage,” can be moralized as “righteous indignation.”
If you recognize an oblique reference to Galatians 5:19-21, then let me follow with Paul’s admonition, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” But then he follows by enumerating the fruits of the Spirit. And he can say of these fruits,
Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:23-25).
As I have encouraged us to avoid sinful scandalous risks, let me challenge us to involve ourselves in a different kind of scandalous risk. The root of our English word scandal is the Greek work, scandalon, and this is the word that Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 1:23:
But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block [scandalon] to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23, 24).
Go out to the Village Green at Emmanuel and walk up to the Cross of Our Risen Lord. The imprint of the body of Christ reminds you that we serve a crucified Christ. But the body is no longer there, because we serve a risen Christ. Think about it. We are a people who believe that God, the very Creator of the universe, became man in Jesus Christ and died a criminal’s death. And then, contrary to all naturalistic wisdom, he arose from the dead. Is it any wonder that today there are those who find the message of the cross both a scandal and unbelievable? Hence they either reject it, or like Bishop Robinson and other theologians, try to create a version that is somehow more believable for the “modern person.” (Of course, now we talk about the “postmodern person.”)
It was Soren Kierkegaard who said that one can stand before the cross of Christ and say, “It is absurd and I don’t believe it.” Or one can stand before the cross of Christ and say, “It is absurd, and I believe it.”
But if it is absurd, it is the kind of absurdity that makes sense out of an otherwise absurd world of meaninglessness. And if it is a scandal, then I invite you to join us in this scandalous risk.
Bob Wetzel, a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor, is president of Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee.