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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 6: The Beginning of Wisdom


I Believe I am right in saying that no primitive race or tribe has ever been discovered without a religion of some sort. Of course it can easily be argued that since primitive man is far more vulnerable than we are he has to invent, out of his fear and insecurity, "gods" with greater knowledge and power than he has himself. We may further argue that primitive people have to invent "sanctions" or "taboos" for the regulation of tribal life. There must be some authority commonly agreed upon which transcends the wishes and power of any individual. Further, we cannot leave out of our consideration the action of the human conscience, however variable and misguided it may sometimes be. A sense of guilt and fear is found in most primitive peoples and that inevitably leads to rites of propitiation and sacrifice. Life is both mysterious and awe-inspiring and death, in its starkness and finality, is always at the elbow of primitive man. In some way, simple or complicated, horrible or beautiful, he has to reassure himself that the death of the body is not the death of the human spirit.

Now at a superficial glance all primitive religions are no more than a natural defense mechanism against manís ignorance, fear and insecurity. Consequently if these last three were reduced we should expect to find the decay of "religion." To some extent of course we have seen this happen, although it would be a bold man indeed who would claim that todayís "civilized" world is free from ignorance, fear and insecurity! Nevertheless, as mysteries of the natural world are "explained," and as man gains more and more mastery over nature, one particular necessity to invent "gods" tends to die away. That side of nearly all religion which is produced by fear, ignorance and superstition will obviously be dissolved in the light of scientific knowledge. And that is all to the good. But for myself I would consider it quite unwarrantable to assume that the need for religion has been abolished. A primitive religion may express itself in very primitive ways indeed, but when we come to examine its heart and essence we find it to be far more than a defense against fear and ignorance. It contains in it, in however crude a form, basic human longings, which I do not believe we have in any sense outgrown. There is a desire to discover supernatural laws for human happiness, a willingness to cooperate with a purpose higher than the transitory human purpose, a longing to communicate with the Creator and an attempt to grasp some security which transcends physical death.

Civilized man is insulated far more than he realizes from the raw material of living. Most of the exchange of intelligent ideas today takes place, I believe, under strongly protected conditions. Manís sense of wonder is blunted by many inventions, his solitariness upon the planet is concealed from him by the presence of many people, and the highly competitive world in which he makes his living stifles any lingering yearning for anything outside it. However expert he may be in his own particular field, his actual experience of life is far smaller than he realizes. Ideas and emotions are often not stimulated by life itself, but by the mediated experience of other people. The newspapers, radio, television, the cinema and the theater, all create in him an illusion of experience. His firsthand knowledge of human living is usually restricted to a small circle of intimate friends, and between them they have worked out a more or less reasonable code of conduct for their department of life. It is hardly surprising that the modern urban worker rarely sees any need for any kind of religion. Obviously we cannot undo the process of "civilization" which has made us what we are, but at least we can make some attempt to see how it disarms and deludes us.

At this point, then, I would put in a strong plea for a more realistic grasp of our human position, for more true humility. Whether our view of life be "scientific" or "religious" or both, it would seem only sane and proper for man to feel a sense of awe. He is but a part, and in all probability an extremely small part, of this astonishing universe. The sensitive thinking man is probably aware of this, but he may be quite unaware that for vast numbers of people the capacity for awe, wonder and humility has been exhausted or numbed by the bewildering advance of modern knowledge. Human beings have scarcely caught their breath after one achievement before they are confronted with yet another. They have no time to assess the worth of what has been accomplished, still less to value it in relation to the total human situation. This is surely where the thinkers and writers must come in and make some attempt to restore the balance.

I believe that it is necessary for us to recover a certain salutary humility before we can discern pattern and purpose in our present stage of human existence. I do not in the least mean that we should disregard scientific knowledge or that we should somehow restrict or distrust it, but simply that we should realize our own inherent limitations. We have to accept that our status and our standpoint in the totality of creation are both lowly and circumscribed. For example, astronomers are constantly telling us how foolish, indeed how arrogant, it is to regard the planet on which we live as in any sense the center of the universe around us. But in condemning the arrogance of such geocentric thinking we should beware of another, subtler arrogance -- that of supposing that the sum total of truth can be gathered, sorted and interpreted on this earth where we live! We are quite literally in no position to ascertain all the facts, and what monstrous conceit makes any man suppose that, if we had them, we have the intelligence and the wisdom to understand them? Astronomy itself provides a telling parable of our limitations. The development of the radio telescope, with a range thousands of times greater than that of the optical telescope, can give us information of certain happenings in the universe millions of light-years away. We are naturally enormously impressed by this reaching out into space, but our wonder can easily blind us to the fact that astronomy is always telling us of what has happened in the past. It can only say that such-and-such an event took place almost countless millions of years ago. It has absolutely no means of judging what is happening now. It can, for instance, tell us that the universe is expanding very rapidly. What it really amounts to is that we know beyond reasonable doubt that the universe was expanding a very long time ago. We cannot know what is happening now, at this point of earthtime, and indeed for all we know the universe may be rapidly contracting! Now there is no cure whatever for this kind of limitation, and it seems to me but one instance of the intrinsic limit of the human situation, and this might reasonably be expected to recur in other fields in manís search for truth.

I do not think we need be either depressed or surprised at this, but I do think we must learn to live with it as one of the facts of our existence. It often seems to me when listening to the talk of clever people that they are in effect saying, "Unless I understand, unless I am let into all the secrets of the Creator, I shall refuse to believe in him at all." I am sure that such an attitude, even if it be unconscious, creates a strong barrier between man and his understanding of his true position.

Anyone with the most elementary knowledge of physics knows that there are sounds which are too high in pitch for us to hear, and forms of light which are quite invisible to the human eye. Nowadays we accept as commonplace the fact that we can devise instruments which can "hear" and "see" for us. Yet for some curious reason we find it very difficult to believe that there may be sense higher than our sense, reason above our reason, and a total purpose quite beyond our comprehension. It seems to me perfectly possible that there may be suprahuman wisdom, and we might well assume an attitude of wholesome humility when we reflect upon our relative insignificance. Can we not accept the suggestion that there are facts, even "scientific" facts, which we can never know because we are incapable of understanding them? Can we not be persuaded to believe that specks of consciousness on this little planet cannot, in all reasonableness, be thought of as accurate critics of the total purpose behind creation? I believe it to be essential for us to appreciate our inescapable limitations before the results of our observations and experience can make any sense to us. We do have to become as little children -- which is in fact what we are, comparatively -- before we can begin to appreciate anything of the plan or purpose of the Creator.

I make no plea for obscurantism or "blind faith," but rather that men should find their proper place in the universe. This is precisely where a real religion, which takes proper account of man and his limitations and of the Creative Mind which knows no limitations can provide sense and sanity in our bewilderment.

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