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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 4: The Inadequacy of Humanism


The prevailing atmosphere among thinking men and women of good will today is one of what may loosely be termed "scientific humanism." Since all of us are filled with admiration for the achievements of science and since all of us desire to practice and propagate such human virtues as friendliness, tolerance, good humor, sympathy and courage, we unconsciously assent to scientific humanism as a working philosophy of life. What we do not so readily see is that science has very little to offer in solving problems of human relationships, even though these are the problems which most need to be solved. Nor do we see, behind what appears to be a kind-hearted philosophy, an utter denial of any dimension beyond this present observable life, of any such thing as absolute right or wrong and of any power which might be called God.

Now although I know that many humanists are good and kind people I remain convinced that humanism itself is a bleak and cruel creed. For it offers man a blank denial where his needs are greatest and his aspirations frequently most desperate. But before we examine this failure let us see the extraordinarily fragile foundation upon which the humanist position rests. No man in this country with its centuries-old tradition of Christianity can detach himself from that tradition, however vehemently he abuses the Christian Faith and denies the existence of God. Not all humanists, of course, are to be found attacking Christianity or denying God; many of them indeed strike me as wistful people. But humanism itself, according to its official literature, explicitly denies the Christian Faith and the need for any moral or spiritual authority outside humanity.

What exactly does humanism mean by "human" values? It is easy enough, in a land where more real Christianity has been practiced than is sometimes supposed, to believe that it is truly "human" to be kind, just, faithful, unselfish and tolerant. But does the humanist seriously imagine that such ideas are universally held? Is he really so naïve as to think that they are widely held in, for instance, a Communist-controlled country? And if not, who is to say what is really "human"? Where are the real standards of right and wrong? It is worth noting in this connection that conference and negotiation between a traditionally Christian country and a Communist country invariably break down because the values held by the parties concerned are not the same. What appears to us to be insincere, false, callous and cruel may be perfectly "moral" and "human" by the standards of Communism. It is monstrous to suggest that whole races of people have suddenly ceased to be "human"! But it is perfectly possible that they have conformed to a view of life which is quite antipathetic to the one which we traditionally hold. Yet if we say that they have been "deceived" or are "mistaken" or have been indoctrinated by "false" ideas, then we are passing moral judgments, and the moment we do that we are implying that there are standards of good and evil. Without some knowledge of pattern and purpose behind life, what constitutes "a good human being" can vary so enormously as to make any definition nonsensical.

Humanism denies men any religion, any suprahuman standard, any timeless point of reference; and without any of these things I do not believe humanists have a leg to stand on, and it is high time the absurdity of their position were realized. The most a thoroughgoing humanist can do is to express his own opinion about what is "good" and "right," and there may be a hundred different views about that! And I cannot help commenting that the very same intellectual humanists whom I have met, and who can speak so convincingly about the uselessness of religion and the sufficiency of scientific humanism, are among those who are quick to point out that "right" and "wrong" are purely relative and vary both from country to country and from age to age!

But there are other weaknesses in the atheistic humanist position and they are much more serious than illogicality. Since in the humanist view a manís life is entirely restricted to his consciousness of living on this planet, and since God is totally denied, a conscientious humanist renders himself impotent in many crucial situations. Thus, since there is no life beyond this one, humanism can offer no hope to those who are severely handicapped. Since there is no God, it can offer no external power to guide and strengthen a man who is defeated by his own emotional conflicts. Humanists are themselves prisoners of a closed-system and, since they believe in it so tenaciously, they have no gospel of any kind to offer to the weak and struggling, and can offer neither hope nor security beyond the ills and accidents of this present stage of existence.

Sometimes I cannot help suspecting that some of the atheistic humanists who write and talk so brilliantly have had very little experience of life "in the raw." For I know, as many others know, that in the crises of life men and women not only reach out desperately for God but quite often find him. You cannot visit hospital wards, for example, week after week for many years, you cannot attend many deathbeds and speak with literally thousands of bereaved people over the years without realizing what potentialities there are in the spirit of apparently quite ordinary people. Personal contact with many suffering, loving and sorrowing people convinces one that man does not live only in this dimension of time and that no amount of humanist docketing will confine him to it. It is not merely that human beings in their hour of need show tremendous courage, although this is true. Quite ordinary people reach out and touch powers beyond themselves and use them. They receive solid assurance that goes far beyond their tentative hopes. Those of us who have had much to do with the sick and suffering know how common it is for people to tell us that they have drawn upon reserves outside themselves or rested their hopes and fears upon a serenity apparently quite independent of their own minds. Most of them describe this in religious terms, rightly, as I believe, but even if it were not so described I cannot doubt that it is part of the total human picture. I have used the example of human behavior in pain and suffering because it is under those conditions that insincerity, pretense and habitual self-deception are most easily stripped off.

I know perfectly well that the militant humanist will tell me that I am merely describing subjective phenomena. But the whole point is that what I have observed results in objective phenomena -- courage, faith, hope, joy and patience, for instance, and these qualities are very readily observed. For while the kind-hearted humanist can at the very most only rally a mans own resources, the one who has some experience of a power outside himself can invite others to share it with him This will mean fulfilling certain conditions, and if the result were merely a subjective experience it would scarcely be worth while. But if it results in a new sort of reality being apprehended, the effects of which are objective and demonstrable in terms of human living, then surely it is very valuable indeed.

The man who wants everything proved by scientific means is quite right in his insistence on "laboratory conditions" if he is investigating, shall we say, water-divining, clairvoyance or telekinesis. But there can be no such thing as "laboratory conditions" for investigating the realm of the human spirit unless it can be seen that the "laboratory conditions" are in fact human life itself. A man can only exhibit objectively a change in his own disposition, a faith which directs his life and a belief in its significance, in the actual business of living. And this is precisely where I join issue with the humanist. If I had not seen objective results springing from faith in spiritual realities, I should no more believe in God than the most thoroughgoing atheist.

But what really puzzles me is the attitude of mind adopted by the humanist who denies the existence of God. He claims that his own life has a purpose, and that other peopleís lives have their various purposes, but he emphatically denies that there is any purpose in the whole. Moreover, since he also denies any further existence beyond that of this planet, there can be no sense whatever of ultimate purpose of any kind. For the whole tale of manís struggles, discoveries, achievements, insights and aspirations ends automatically when this little planet becomes either too hot or too cold to support human life. I honestly find it impossible to believe that men who are otherwise quite intelligent can seriously think, as they appear to do, that the end of the whole vast human experiment is sheer nothingness. I think I can understand a man willingly devoting his life to posterity, even if he is unable to believe in his own personal survival of death. But what I cannot believe is that it is worth anybodyís while to give time, talents and energy to something that finally is utterly without worth.

Now I am well aware that one of our modern humanists might interrupt at this stage and say, "Now your religion, your belief in God and immortality are put up by your mind, simply because it will not face the true facts -- the utter loneliness and futility of human living." But, quite apart from other arguments, which I will advance later, I am perfectly entitled to retort, "But suppose your attitude is also one of wishful thinking! It is because you cannot bear to believe you are set on this temporary stage to develop responsible moral character, and because you cannot tolerate the idea that this is only the first of what may be many stages of conscious existence that you deny completely the idea of God and of life on any other plane,but the terrestrial. You are deliberately lopping off certain human experiences because they do not fit in with your theory of closed-system humanism."

I am convinced that there is a true humanism, which flows not from a vague Christian tradition but from a quickened sense of the meaning and purpose of God. I am further convinced that the true love of mankind springs more readily and more potently from the Christian Faith than from any other religion. Such a love of humanity is no enemy of science or knowledge, but it can add a quality and a depth to living which are impossible without a true religious faith. The particular brand of scientific humanism which affects so much of our thinking is either agnostic, in the less narrow sense of that term, or rigidly atheistic. And a system which denies the existence of God, the possibility of touching extrahuman spiritual resources, and any dimension of human living except that which is lived upon this planet, seems to me to be a pathetically inadequate philosophy for the complex spirit of man.

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