Rediscovering Howard Root: a review

Theological Radicalism and Tradition: ‘The Limits of Radicalism’ with Appendices. By Howard E. Root.
Edited by Christopher R. Brewer. Pp. xii + 165. Illustrated. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.

[An extended version of a review for the Journal of Theological Studies.]

The prominence of Howard E. Root (1926-2007) during his career is not matched by his obscurity in subsequent years. Born in the USA, he moved to the UK in 1949 after a time teaching in Egypt, and studied and taught theology and philosophy at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford before taking the chair of theology at the University of Southampton in 1966. As Christopher R. Brewer shows in his helpful introduction to this welcome volume, Root was thought to have great potential from early on in Oxford, and this repute soon spread around the Church of England. Root was appointed one of the Anglican observers at the Second Vatican Council when not yet 40, and he was subsequently called upon to serve the church of which he was a priest on successive commissions, not least that on marriage and divorce which reported in 1971, and the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. But Root published relatively little, even for a time before the hyperactive publishing culture of the modern university, and as a result he figures hardly at all in the current literature on the period.

If his writing has been noted at all, it was for his essay that opened the 1962 volume of ‘essays concerning human understanding’ edited by Alec Vidler with the title Soundings. Root’s essay, entitled ‘Beginning all over again’, surveyed the current state and future prospects for natural theology, and was robustly dealt with in E.L.Mascall’s book-length response to Soundings, published as Up and Down in Adria (1963). While Brewer suggests (rightly) that Mascall somewhat missed the point that Root was making, his accusation that Root was proposing a wholesale abandonment of Christian tradition has to a certain extent stuck, and Soundings as a whole has been read as the catalyst to much of the ‘radical’ theology of the next decade. But, as Brewer points out, ‘Mascall did not, and should not, have the last word on Root.’ (p.14) This edition of Root’s hitherto unpublished Bampton Lectures for 1972 should go a long way to recovering the range and intentions of Root’s thought. It will be read with interest both by theologians and by historians of theology and of the religious climate of the sixties and seventies; no serious library for theology or religious history should be without it.

The eight lectures of ‘The Limits of Radicalism’, though brief in compass, are rich and suggestive, with scarcely a dull sentence. The subject is nothing less than the proper purpose of theology as a discipline, and the degree to which it, and natural theology in particular, could hope to survive in the peculiar intellectual conditions of the time. Though no theologian himself, this reviewer would imagine that Root will now find new conversation partners amongst contemporary theologians. Brewer shows in particular the synergies and continuities between Root and the work of David Brown, under whose supervision Brewer completed his graduate study at St Andrews University. Brown is, Brewer suggests, ‘in more ways than one… Root’s theological heir’ (p.20). But it is the significance of Root’s lectures in their historical context that I wish to explore in particular here.

Root was invited to give the Bampton lectures in early 1970, during what in retrospect can be seen as a hiatus between phases in the theological confrontation between radical and conservative. The initial excitement caused by Soundings and then Honest to God (1963), and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) had to an extent died down, and the controversies over the report Christian Believing and the work of John Hick (The Myth of God Incarnate, 1977), Maurice Wiles and Dennis Nineham were yet to come. And so there was some space for a stocktaking, such as in Michael Ramsey’s God, Christ and the World (1969), of which Root’s lectures were arguably a part. At the remove of a few short years, Root’s criticisms of the radical project of the preceding decade were acute. Born of a failure of nerve – a loss of confidence in the tools for theological study – the movement to ‘translate’ the message into new terms had risked the disintegration of the discipline into a set of sub-departments of history, literary criticism and other disciplines. But this left theology with nothing distinctive to do, no peculiar concerns to call its own, and for Root it was metaphysics that had been left out; in the final analysis, theology without metaphysics was largely redundant (Lectures 1 and 2).

Root was particularly alive to the significance of terminology – to the power of particular discourses, as we might now say – and there are subtle and stimulating asides, such as on the curious process by which ‘radical’ – in its etymology a restorative, backward-looking term – had become exclusively focussed on the future (Lecture 3). Similarly telling is a brief note on the idea of the need for the church to offload its ‘baggage’, a widely used and largely unexamined metaphor in the period. Root was also a prolific maker of fertile images, most particularly in his discussion of the nature of tradition (Lecture 4), which may be the part of the lectures that has the most enduring significance. It was not necessary for the church to choose between two mutually incompatible notions of tradition: on the one hand, a petrified set of texts, doctrines and symbols that could only be preserved and passed on unchanged, and on the other, tradition as a deadweight from under which the church needed to pull itself (the attitude which Mascall thought he detected in Root in 1962).

For Root, tradition is in a continuous process of being received, as Christians select those elements that are of most pressing usefulness, and in the process modify and renew them in readiness for a transmission in turn to the next generation. But this process of transmission was not linear; to look for genealogies of tradition was to misconceive its nature. Root proposes the image of multiple constellations of theological effort, an image ‘that preserves a sense of order, but at the same time not only permits diversity, but finds diversity an element in its order’ (p.67). While there may be disagreement over particular points of doctrine (individual stars in the constellation), the constellations are so interconnected such as to constitute an identifiable whole, a recognisably Christian theological universe. The suppleness of this notion of tradition was rare indeed in the theology of 1972; one wonders what Mascall would have made of it. One also wonders how the subsequent development of Anglican theology might have been different had this ‘third way’ been available.

A second major theme is connected to that of tradition: the responsibility of the Christian theologian to that tradition and to the church that receives it. The controversy over John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God had brought into sharp relief the tension between freedom of enquiry and the responsibility of the theologian to his or her church, as had the leaving of the Roman Catholic church in 1966 by Charles Davis; an episode that Root addresses directly. Root’s notion of tradition led him to conclude that Davis, by renouncing any claim that his church might make on his work, could no longer meaningfully be called a Christian theologian, though a theologian he remained. Root adopted an analogy from the arts, from the process by which a work of art comes into being. As a painter is commissioned to fill a certain space with a work on a certain subject, so the theologian is commissioned by his church, with the constraints that that entails; the choice of materials, and the use he makes of those materials remains his prerogative, as does the opportunity to convey something of his own individual, unique sense of the message itself. At a time when the Church of England was reorganising (and reducing) its provision of theological education, and the nature of the discipline was changing in the universities, Root’s comments were timely. The church could have only limited use for the ‘freelance men’ in the universities who responded to no commission in particular.

Finally, Root’s set of lectures is remarkable for the use he makes of the arts, both as a source of the analogy explored above, and as a remedy for the ‘imaginative impoverishment’ of theology that he had identified in Soundings. The Church of England had begun in the previous two decades begun to rediscover a tradition of artistic patronage, led in large part by Walter Hussey, but this was not yet accompanied by the kind of theological engagement with the arts that characterises the work of David Brown and others in more recent years. Root, a great lover of music, makes great use of artistic metaphor as a means of understanding theology, drawing on T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Pierre Boulez. But he also wants to prompt theologians to look to the arts as generators of new images that reflect the experience of life in the early 1970s. Not all these images would be immediately useful to all – they were, after all, only individual stars in one of Root’s constellations – but over time these images would cluster together, be found in theological dialogue with each other, and either become part of the tradition, or (although Root does not spell the point out) be found to be useless and fall away. In this, in the context of the theology of the time, Root was advanced indeed, and foreshadows much of the more recent work on theology with and through the arts.

Readers of this volume will have reason to be grateful to Brewer for his scrupulous annotations to the text, few of which Root himself had supplied. Some of them are perhaps over-long, such as the long lists of reviews of volumes to which Root had contributed (p.29), but this reader (at least) would rather this inclusive policy than its opposite. The appendices – other essays from Root that were either obscurely published or not at all – do much to complement the main text, though the selection of correspondence relating to the non-publication of the lectures adds little and could have made way for something more substantial in what is a slim and expensive volume. These cavils aside, Christopher Brewer is to be commended for this valuable edition, which will go a long way towards the recovery of Root for which it is intended.

[There is as yet no biography of Root, but there were a handful of obituaries after his death in 2007: in the Daily Telegraph and the Church Times.]

Iris Murdoch and the death of God

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) features not one but two clerical characters, both of the Church of England, and amongst the principal characters to boot. A little while ago I introduced the physical setting in which Murdoch’s drama is played out: the vicarage of a ruined church in a London wasteland, blanketed in snow and shrouded in the twilight of a London fog. It is against this backdrop of isolation and purposelessness that Murdoch is able to dramatise the impact of the ‘Death of God’ theology of the 1960s.

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster
The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

There are two Fisher brothers: Marcus, and his elder brother Carel, the rector of St Eustace Watergate. Marcus has become concerned about his brother, living as a recluse in the rectory and refusing all callers, including Marcus. He is concerned not only for Carel, but also for Carel’s daughter Muriel, and for Elizabeth, to whom Marcus and Carel are guardians. He is also concerned on his own account. Marcus, a schoolteacher, is writing a book, Morality in a World without God (chapter 7), which will ‘rescue the idea of an Absolute in morals by showing it to be implied in the most unavoidable human activity of moral evaluation’. Thus armed, no longer would either theological metaphor or crude existentialism be necessary in order to society to function. But somehow he is distracted by the thought of his brother.

Marcus’ friend Norah has her doubts about the book, and Marcus’ intentions in writing it (chapter 2). Despite his apparent wish to start afresh, Marcus’ favourite reading is still works of theology; for Norah, Marcus is ‘just a Christian fellow-traveller. It’s better not to tinker with a dying mythology.’ The sooner the West would pass through its current twilight of the gods, the better, Norah thought. Her aim, characteristic of ‘the brisk sensibleness of an old Fabian radical’ was to get all that out of the system.

Concerned about Carel’s state of mind, Norah and Marcus consult with his bishop (chapter 9). Murdoch does not name him, but the parallel is very clearly with John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, whose 1963 book Honest to God was perhaps the last theological bestseller in British history, for which he was censured by Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury. Both Norah and Marcus press the bishop on Carel’s apparent lack of belief, while he tucks into their treacle tart, washing it down with their claret. ‘It is a time’ he says ‘when, as one might put it, mankind is growing up. … Much of the symbolism of theology … is, in this scientific age, simply a barrier to belief. Our symbolism must change.’ As for Carel, the key is not his beliefs, but ‘passion, Kierkegaard said, didn’t he, passion. That’s the necessary truth.’ For the so-called ‘South Bank Religion’, what one believed was not so important as the earnestness with which one believed it. Despite his confession of atheism, the bishop regards Carel as ‘a profoundly religious man’.

I don’t want to write too much here about Carel himself, since to do so could very easily spoil the plot for anyone who has not read the book. But his character, and his actions, are the dark counterpart to both Marcus and the bishop. Marcus is superficially sure that his project of morality without the supernatural can be achieved. The bishop seems content enough that the church can survive the kind of testing and purification that the current ‘interregnum’ (Norah’s twilight of the gods) will entail. Carel, and the suffocating darkness that seems to emanate from him and damage those around him, is the side of their argument that neither can contemplate. Murdoch shows us the abyss of meaninglessness that may be glimpsed but cannot be faced.

What did modern theology look like in the Sixties ?

What did modern theology look like ? An odd question perhaps; but I’d like to look at some of the cover designs of books of theology aimed at a popular readership between 1963 and 1970. This is no exhaustive study (being based mostly on the books on my own shelves), but it would seem that at least some of those responsible for publicising the ‘Death of God’ theology thought there was a connection between it and modern art.HonestToGod-cover-blog

Undoubtedly the most famous such book of the period was John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, published by the SCM Press in 1963, in its series of cheap pocket paperbacks. Its cover is a minor masterpiece of cover design, showing a young man deep in thought, wrestling perhaps with precisely the kind of radical rethinking of his religion that Robinson was proposing. Image and message seem to be in perfect interplay. Interestingly, the image is of a rather older work, and from a different context. ‘Seated Youth’ (1918) is by the German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and Lehmbruck’s experience of working in a wartime field hospital is translated between nations and over time to become a symbol of a more spiritual crisis.Lloyd-Ferment in the Church - cover 1964 - blog

After Honest to God, ‘Seated Youth’ seems to have become iconic of Robinson’s book, such that it appears again on a follow-up book from Roger Lloyd, The Ferment in the Church, published in 1964, also by SCM. This time the sculpture is overlaid on a background of Winchester Cathedral, signifying the clash of old and new.

Ramsey - Resurrection of Christ - fourth imp 1966 - blog

I must stress again that this post captures an impression, and is not based on a systematic study. As such, there isn’t much in the way of a control group – of works of more mainstream theology published for a mass market, for which the economics of a cover design with an image added up. But there were some, such as Michael Ramsey’s The Resurrection of Christ, first published in 1945 but reissued by Collins in the Fontana imprint. The impression here is the fourth, from 1966, and whilst it too uses a work of art, Collins’ designer opted for an unidentified work in a much older style. This perhaps matched Ramsey’s work, which was by no means conservative in the broader scheme of things, but looked to be so when set against Robinson.

Newbigin - Honest Religion for Secular Man 1966 - cover - blog

There was one artist who seemed to appear often, and that was Jacob Epstein. Lesslie Newbigin’s Honest Religion for Secular Man (SCM, 1966) featured ‘Risen Christ’, a work made between 1917-19 and, like ‘Seated Youth’, an imaginative product of the First World War. A sepulchral Christ shows the viewer his wounds, against the backdrop of the type of multi-storey office building in vogue at the time, although the particular building is not identified. Modern Man needed to work out the appropriate response to the call of God in a secular, “technological” environment.

Laymans Church - 1963 - cover - blog

All three SCM titles I’ve discussed so far were in the same series; but other publishers were not slow to see the connection, and at about the same time. In the same year as Honest to God, the Lutterworth Press published Layman’s Church, a collection of essays introduced by Timothy (later Lord) Beaumont, and including essays from several of the figures associated with ‘South Bank religion’, including Robinson. Its cover features Epstein’s ‘Christ in Majesty’, made for Llandaff cathedral in 1954-5. The new Coventry cathedral has on the exterior of its porch Epstein’s ‘St Michael and the Devil’ (1956-8), featured on Stephen Verney’s Fire in Coventry (Hodder, 1963).
Verney - Fire at Coventry - 1963 - blog
So it would seem that publishers of popular theology in the early Sixties thought there was a connection between the kind of modern theology that seemed to be leading the market and the kind of modern sculpture (and it is mostly sculpture) that was finding its way into churches. Or, at the very least, those publishers thought that their likely readers would find the designs meaningful. I doubt I will have the time to pursue this idea any more systematically; but there’s a great Ph.D. subject in here for someone.

Michael Ramsey, ‘Honest to God’ and the edge of the Church of England

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