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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 7: The Necessity for True Religion


I believe a recovery of real religion to be essential to the well-being of modern humanity. But, alas, the very word "religion" has the wrong associations for many. They think of Puritanism, of churchiness, of spiritual restriction, of taboos, of dreary church services and sentimental hymns, of pious legend, of traditional thinking, of the attempt to squeeze all truth into a narrow religious mold, of the inefficiency and blindness of some churches, of the hypocrites who profess one thing and obviously believe another, of blind faith with its fear of true knowledge, of the pride of those who believe that they alone hold the truth -- and so on, ad nauseam. And yet what I am pleading for when I urge a return to real religion is something quite different. It must mean a willing adjustment to our situation as human beings in the whole creation, and that must mean accepting a relationship not only with other human beings but with the Spirit behind the whole scheme. As I have said above, we are children living largely in the dark, but we are not wholly without clues. We have reason, we have critical faculties, we have a more-or-less developed moral sense, we have intuitions and intimations which point to something beyond the here-and-now. We have, too, enough accumulated human experience to show what patterns of human conduct lead to misery and disaster, and what can lead to happiness and fulfillment.

The humanists would say that we have enough without supernatural religion -- with all our knowledge and experience there is surely no need to postulate a spiritual world and a supreme being called God. It would be pleasant to believe that they are right as far as they go, and that a little spiritual superstructure is all that is needed to turn a humanist into a truly religious man. But my experience and observation convince me more and more that the humanist position is quite unrealistic. For one thing it never takes serious account of evil. In humanist thinking the reason why people behave badly, cruelly or selfishly can always be explained in economic, political or psychological terms. Human perversity, callousness and brutality, when exhibited in sufficient quantity, lead the humanist mind to the end of its tether. Yet, to be frank, it has no remedy to offer except good advice!

It is all very well to be a humanist and exhibit "human" values if you are a reasonably well adjusted, kindly, tolerant, honest and decent person. In all probability you habitually exert a certain amount of self-discipline of your own thoughts and feelings, and probably you do not see why others cannot readily do the same. But suppose your temperament is a mass of contradictions and that you find it extremely difficult to be kindly and tolerant. Suppose that by nature you have no great interest outside yourself and have no desire to serve other people or ameliorate their lot. Suppose that you are only too aware of evil in yourself which vitiates relationships and dries up the springs of compassion. Is there, then, no hope for you to be a good human being?

This is to me the very heart of the whole matter. If there is no restoring force, no healing and rehabilitating Spirit, no extrahuman source of goodness and compassion, then many of us are undone indeed. If I did not know that there was such restoration and reinforcement, that there are such springs which can be tapped by human beings, I should naturally not be writing this book at all. But here is a field of actual human experience disgracefully neglected and very imperfectly explored, which could make a radical change in our human condition. It is a fine thing to say that unless we learn to exercise more love and compassion for one another we shall end up by destroying one another. But unless we can implement that rhetoric by exploring a power wiser and greater than mere humanity we are doing no more than underlining the obvious. For the more we examine the human situation -- and the more we can do of this at first hand the better -- the more we see that a deficiency of love is the root cause of nearly all our most refractory problems. Juvenile delinquency, for example, may be traced back to a childhood starved of love, and juvenile delinquency is never cured without the wise application of love. Marriages break up because love diminishes. Industrial relationships become embittered, men and women are cheated, exploited and deceived simply because there is a lack of love. It is time the very word "love" was rehabilitated, for probably no other single word has been so grossly misused. But the true love of which the world stands in such desperate need is compassionate and wise, strong and patient. Wisdom, cleverness, experience and psychological "know-how" are all useful tools in dealing with human situations, but unless they are used by love no situation is permanently changed and no human attitude radically altered. That is a matter of observable experience.

But to adopt the way of informed, constructive love is necessarily costly to the personality. And nowhere do we see more clearly the terrible lack of real love than in the scarcity of people willing to give themselves in coping with dark, difficult and messy situations. Why is there a chronic shortage of nurses and midwives? Why such a lack of those willing to nurse the mentally ill, or care for the physically handicapped? Why indeed is there such a lamentable shortage of leaders for youth organizations, of prison visitors, of doctors willing to go to the disease-ridden parts of the world? Why are there so few volunteers in the really needy centers of human misery -- why are there so few whose love extends any further than their own circle? Why are works of human compassion nearly always left to be operated by a mere handful on a shoestring budget? Why indeed, unless there is a tragic and world-wide deficiency of outgoing love?

Unless we are totally blind to human situations as they really exist, we cannot avoid the conclusion that without a revolutionary quality of living the human race is doomed to an endless process of unproductive suffering or even of total extinction. Even if a few should survive a nuclear world war there is absolutely no guarantee that the same dangerous situations would not reappear. Much as we may dislike the doctrine of original sin -- and indeed it has often been formulated in a way that must antagonize any man of sense and good will -- there would appear to be in human beings the seeds of selfishness, arrogance, brutality, callousness, the lust for power, jealousy, hatred and all the rest of the miserable host of evil. I do not believe that we serve the cause of truth or of humanity if we insist that these things have no real existence, when in fact they may be merely dormant or unprovoked. A realistic view of human life demands that we take into account the evil as well as the good in human nature.

To me it seems perfectly plain that there can be no satisfactory human living, feeling and thinking without a true religion. For example, men can without much difficulty regard one another as comrades and brothers in undertaking some difficult enterprise provided that their basic ideals are more or less the same. Those who are opposed to the ideals of such a band of comrades must be either converted or destroyed. Without true religion I cannot see anything illogical in this process, which is indeed the process of Communism. The intrinsic value of the individual, his dignity and his freedom become meaningful to us only when we see him standing in the same relationship to the Creator as we do ourselves. Without recognition of the Creator, without some apprehension of a good over-all purpose for all human beings in whatever stage of development they may be, to consider all other men as our brothers is no more than a pious phrase. And certainly, without access to resources of patience and compassion beyond oneís normal human endowment, most of us would have to face life with no more than a stoic despair.

Further, as I have said before, if this little precarious foothold upon earth is all that we are ever to know of conscious living, if in fact there is no life except the material and physical, those of us who are not particularly altruistic by nature would hardly think our labors and struggles worth while. Why should we not eat, drink and be merry? For tomorrow we die. But suppose this is not true. There are many besides myself who know that when we allow ourselves to be used by a purpose much greater than we are, we become conscious of fitting into a pattern with a feeling of permanence, a pattern only incompletely outlined in the here-and-now. If this be true, as many of us are convinced it is, then life itself, ourselves, our neighbors and all the crying needs of the world take on a new significance. This little life with its incurable limitations, its apparent injustices and pointless tragedies, its hopes, disappointments and frustrations, is seen as no more than the outcrop in time-and-space of a vast process which we can only begin to discern.

But such a view of life, which at once accepts manís present limitations and believes in his ultimate potentialities, is only possible to the one who has true religious faith. The man who has no religion, and denies the possibility of there being any such thing, imprisons himself within the closed-system of physical life upon this planet. This is the position of the agnostic who, according to the Oxford dictionary definition is "one who holds that nothing is known, or likely to be known of the existence of a God or of anything beyond material phenomena." The dreams of the poet, the visions of the artist, the "pattern" apprehended by the truly religious man, have all to be explained as purely subjective phenomena within the material setup. All the hopes, joys, inklings and intuitions which seem to have a point of reference outside the physical world must be shown up for the illusion that they are. Every "intimation of immortality," every "sunset touch," every sense of awe and wonder and mystery have to be seen through and explained away. For the true agnostic the material dimension is the only dimension. There is no reality beyond this reality, no purpose and no God.

Yet I would doubt very much whether the majority of those who call themselves "agnostics" would accept the dictionary definition. They are much more like people who "donít know" than like those who would definitely assert that no one can ever know anything at all in fields beyond the material. False religion, prejudiced and perverted religion, arrogant and self-opinionated religion have unhappily made them distrust the religious approach to truth. Yet I say with some knowledge that there are modern agnostics who have never given ten minutesí serious adult critical study to what real religion stands for. They have allowed themselves to be put off by the hypocrites, the obscurantists and the lovers of power, who exist in any religious system -- as they do elsewhere. I am concerned here to plead that such people should examine the religious approach de novo, and be prepared to give such a widespread human phenomenon as religion their serious attention. The man who possesses a strong religious faith knows very well that there are hundreds of questions which are likely to remain unanswered, at any rate in this life. But he is in possession of a strong clue to reality and a conviction that he is cooperating with a purpose transcending present observed material phenomena.

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