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God Our Contemporary by J.B. Phillips


Born in London in 1906, J.B. Phillips was ordained in 1930. In 1940 he became Vicar of the Church of the Good Shepherd, London. He is noted for his work in the field of Biblical translation, and in particular for two books: Letters to Young Churches and Your God is Too Small. Published by The Macmillan Company, New York. Copyright by J.B. Phillips, 1960. Fifth printing 1966. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Personal Foreword


For over twenty years I have worked within the parochial system of the Church of England, and have therefore retained a strong impression of the point of view of the average hardworking parish priest with his absurdly large and varied responsibilities. And, for the same period, I have had a good chance of observing the behavior and pattern of life both of those who have been within the Church from the cradle, as it were, as well as of those who came to join the Church from a background either pagan or agnostic. But for the past five years I have been living without parochial responsibility, and have had the opportunity not only of speaking to groups of most denominations in this country, but also of listening to a great many people, both Christian and non-Christian. While heavily engaged in parish work I used constantly to complain that I could not see the wood for the trees; for almost any conscientious priest or minister is kept so close to the immediate interests of his particular job that he cannot easily achieve any detachment. But when one is detached from a local responsibility for a period of even five years the over-all picture grows more clearly in the mind. One cannot help seeing life both from the point of view of those inside the Church and of those outside it, And one cannot avoid being almost intolerably aware of the gross misunderstandings which exist between the worlds of faith and non-faith.

There can be no doubt at all that the contemporary God is at work outside the limits of the Church’s direct influence. Yet much as I admire and thank God for all the random goodnesses which exist in our country today, I cannot see any prospect of any rebirth of religious faith without the Christian Church. Heaven knows there are sections of the Church which are antiquated and backward-looking, loving the traditions of the past rather than the living men and women of today. And it cannot be denied that the Church spends a good deal of time and energy on matters of quite secondary importance. Nevertheless, there are in the living Church hundreds of men and women of vision, of courage and selfless devotion, doing all kinds of bold and imaginative things to bring back into our common life that true religious faith which alone can give to it depth, meaning and purpose. The need is very urgent. I have found for myself, in various parts of this country, the most appalling ignorance of what Christianity is basically concerned with. Very few people outside the churches appear to have any knowledge of the aims and achievements of any live contemporary Church even in our own land. And as for the magnificent heroic work of the Christian Church throughout the world, most ordinary people have no knowledge of it whatsoever.

Our society today bears all the marks of a God-starved community. There is little real moral authority because no ultimate Authority is known or acknowledged. Since there is no accepted standard of values beyond the purely material, the false god of success, the lure of glamorized sex, the love of money and the "rat-race" of business or social competition hold almost undisputed sway in the lives of many people. When the true God is unknown, that combination of awe, love, respect, admiration and wonder, which we call worship, becomes diverted toward human beings who exhibit unusual gifts in the public eye. Without the Spirit of the living God the public conscience is capricious and ill informed. The death sentence passed on a brutal, calculating murderer arouses hysterical protest, while the killing and maiming of thousands of people on our roads raise among the general public little more than a perfunctory regret. Cruelty to animals is a far more burning issue to many people than the terrible damage done to the personalities of children by the irresponsibility or infidelity of parents. Where there is no belief in a Purpose extending beyond this life people are inevitably oppressed by a sense of futility. And since there is no great cause for which to suffer and labor, words like "duty" and "moral obligation" have simply lost valid currency for large numbers of people. Further, since a great many people know nothing of the Christian certainty of life beyond death, the power of death to injure and terrify is restored to a pagan level. And finally, since most people have no idea of any resources beyond their own, and apparently believe that we live in a closed-system of cause and effect, they come to accept both their own characters and those of other people with a slightly cynical fatalism. The whole situation cries out for the restoration of real religious faith.

I believe that modern man can never possess a faith which can both command his intelligent loyalty and influence every part of his thinking and feeling until he discovers the unique authority of Jesus Christ. Those who have discovered that authority, which is at once so different from and superior to any known human authority, must do all they can to make the widespread recovery of faith possible. There are many false ideas to be exposed, and the difference between what is purely traditional and absolutely essential must be made plain. There is sound historical evidence as well as modern information to be brought to the attention of those who are largely ignorant of the true content of the Christian Faith. This is no time for reticence, and all those who have found a satisfying religious faith in Christ are nowadays called not only to serve the patient purposes of the Kingdom, but to make the King known. Today information is as necessary as testimony. In a time of dire spiritual poverty the extreme difficulty of "communicating" the Gospel of Jesus Christ appears to me to underline the urgency of the situation. And, unless it can be communicated, what is meant to be Good News for all men everywhere becomes a frozen spiritual asset.

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