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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.


Chapter 1: The Time in Which We Live


The concern of this present book is chiefly the relationship of man with the contemporary God, and it is in this context particularly important not to sigh for old days which can never come back. If we admit the existence of "God" we can certainly claim that because of his nature the passage of time cannot alter his character. But as for man, his conditions of life, his perceptions and outlook, his attitude of mind, both toward himself and toward any possible Creator, have all changed so enormously in the last sixty or seventy years that we face almost a new situation. In the whole long history of mankind there has never been such a violent acceleration in the acquisition of human knowledge, at least of certain kinds. We really cannot be surprised that the young person of today is very largely lacking in historical sense. There is such a fundamental difference between his attitude to life and that of his counterpart of less than a hundred years ago, that he can hardly be blamed if he sees no more than the most tenuous connection between his own age and all the previous centuries.

This marked change of outlook has swept over us with unbelievable speed. It is in a really very tiny fraction of the thousands of years of recorded human history that the lonely watcher on the hill has been superseded by scanning radar, the cannon ball by the guided missile, the urgent message on horseback by the telephone call, the peepshow by the cinema, the spreading of unreliable rumor by responsible broadcasting, the eyewitness account given to a few by the mass-perception of television, the months-long weary voyage by quick and comfortable transport, dangerous and arduous labor by powerful mechanical devices. New fabrics, new materials included under the general term of "plastics," new drugs and antibiotics, the mechanization of farm and factory labor, new methods of food packing and the widespread use of refrigeration, these and a hundred more things are quite new in the human scene. It is no good repeating nowadays the weary old cliché, "there is nothing new under the sun," for it is obviously and demonstrably untrue. There are literally thousands of human discoveries and devices which have never, even in embryo, appeared before in human life.

In addition to this, never in all our human history has there been such interchange between the nations not only of ideas but of living people. (We need constantly to remember that in past centuries only a very privileged or adventurous few were able to travel at all.) The network of news coverage throughout the world is so efficient and on the whole so reliable, that the intelligent man of today may make himself better informed about events in the distant places of the world than the intelligent man only a hundred years ago could make himself informed about events within his own country. Despite all menís fears and prejudices and differences, it is for the first time becoming possible for thinking people to sense what was foreseen a long time ago, that we are "members one of another."

Yet while human achievement in practical and scientific matters has progressed by leaps and bounds, the presentation of the Christian religion is still frequently made in an atmosphere at once stuffy and old-fashioned. The language of the Authorized Version of the Bible, the language of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, yes, and the language frequently employed in homemade prayers in the Free Churches, not to mention the language of hymns, are unquestionably heavily redolent of the past, only partially aware of the present and vaguely hopeful about the future. At the risk of offending many Christian people it has to be said that to the impartial observer, the faithful Christian is apparently saying, "This must be true, it has been believed for so many centuries." But the non-Christian is at least sometimes saying, "This thing may be essentially true, but it is so old and encrusted by tradition that it is high time that it was cleaned and re-examined." Under sentimental appeals, under pressures of guilt or fear, through a wistful nostalgia for the serenity and security of the past, or in sheer desperation through his modern bewilderment, modern man may be driven to accept the faith and trappings of past ages. But for every one who consents to do this, there are a dozen men of good will who cannot be intellectually dishonest, who cannot lightly forget the fears and superstitions of the past, and who cannot reconcile what appears to them to be the mumbo jumbo of bygone days with the dear cold knowledge of the present. If there is a God at all he must be "big enough" to fit into the modern scene (and that naturally means a conception of the Creator a million times greater than that held even a century ago).

Although we are deeply concerned with the present and the future, no sensible man will deny his debt to the past. If it is impossible to put back the clock, it is equally impossible to think that we can face life today without the slightest regard for the generations which have preceded us. It is neither more nor less than adolescent arrogance to think that any generation starts de novo. Young people, for example, may be intensely critical of all that has been taught them and may be contemptuous of the tradition and culture in which they find themselves, but they would be in no position to exercise their critical faculty at all if it were not for the educational process which is part of the system they are so anxious to denigrate. Even on the purely physical plane the voluble young rebel against the present order of things owes far more than he realizes to the past. What young person could feed himself, or maintain even a modest level of hygiene, without using the knowledge and accumulated experience of other people? Does he know anything about agriculture, weaving, the manufacture of soap or indeed of the mechanical processes which enable him to disseminate his ideas? I am not at all sure that this very obvious debt to the past is always clear to the modern "clevers." The most clear-sighted, fearless and unprejudiced writer of today is able to do what he does only because of the knowledge and invention of the generations which lie behind him. The modern writer, however contemptuous of days gone by, does not write as an Australian aborigine or a South American Indian.

Just as inescapably as we are rooted in the past, so there is a quite inevitable "given-ness" about the present human predicament. In our rebellious adolescent days we all feel like the poet who wanted "to grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire" and "re-mould it nearer to the Heartís Desire." But as we grow more mature, we realize that such a sentiment is not only highly egocentric but utterly impracticable. The plain fact is that we can do little or nothing about the basic terms on which we live. It is only after acceptance of these terms that we can do something constructive and practical. The countries of the free world are at present suffering fairly patiently the cults of "angry young men" or their equivalents. More serious attention would be deserved by the outbursts against Things as They Are if the rebels themselves would do something more than denounce and destroy. They claim that there are no causes left to live and die for, but I have yet to hear of an angry young man dedicating his life to the cure of leprosy, to the care of crippled children or the spreading of medical knowledge in newly-awakening continents, to name but a few of the worthwhile human causes. They cry that they have nothing in which to put their faith, but have they seriously considered the claims of true Christianity? If one looks upon human life as a challenge to courage, compassion and charity, the anger could be readily transformed into worthwhile energy, the frustration be resolved and the self-pity be forgotten.

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