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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 8: Religion and Modern Knowledge


The heart of all real religions is an affirmation that human life on this planet is only part of something very much greater; that "human values" are determined by an authority higher than human beings themselves; and that man neither finds happiness nor discovers his true self until his worship, his loyalty and his love are given to Someone infinitely greater than any man or group of men. Through the great religions of the world man is trying to find some clue to the mystery of life and to find some expression of those longings within himself which transcend the confines of ordinary material existence. In short, however crude his attempts, he is trying to prove that he is more than a physical entity. It appears inevitable that with the passage of the centuries the worldís great religions are inclined to become complicated and corrupted. Even in the best cases it may be difficult for the modern observer to penetrate to the original intention of the founder of a religion, while in the worst cases the pristine spirit has been entirely suffocated. It is therefore essential for the modern man who attempts to understand religious truth to get behind the accretions, distortions and degenerations and try to see the original light.

As modern knowledge advances and hitherto insoluble problems are solved, a good deal of religion will be seen to be based on false premises, to be inadequate for modern conceptions of the universe, or to be little more than a collection of superstitious taboos. In our day whole nations who have been held in fear and ignorance by certain religious systems are being released almost overnight, as it were, by the rising tide of modern knowledge. This is happening at this very moment in the continents of Asia and Africa, for example, and insofar as men are being set free from ignorance, superstition and fear we cannot but be glad. But that is not the whole story. For if nothing is put in the place of the old religion then men are left with a greatly diminished sense of their own value. With the old taboos gone and the authority of the old gods exploded, moral standards are the first casualties. Under the old religion a man had status, significance and purpose, but with the old beliefs discredited beyond recall, he very quickly becomes lost and sinks into being a mere unit in the mass-mind. This is of course the golden opportunity for Communism. In place of the old vague, "spiritual" purpose a definite observable program is set down in concrete terms. Manís place and worth are established, and provided he can disregard any immortal longings he can fit happily into such a comprehensive system. The State takes over the "father-figure" of God, and the State provides for his needs much more reliably than any of his old capricious gods.

The State makes laws which are plainly for the good of all, and the whole scheme is obviously making more physical and technical progress in a few years than was previously made in as many Centuries. We really cannot be surprised that as old religions are shattered Communism moves in and meets menís apparent needs.

Before we become too pessimistic about the inevitable spread of Communism, let us remember that all religions are attempting to say something about manís place in the universe, and are to some extent satisfying his immortal yearnings. Since Communism is essentially an earthbound and spirit-denying creed, and since man has never been able to live by bread alone, I believe it quite reasonable to hope that there will be a reaction from regimented materialism. The old gods, the old superstitions, the old wivesí tales, the fables and the legends have been destroyed, but I see no valid reason why there should not be a recovery of true religion of the kind at which I have hinted above. Moreover, we should be foolish to ignore the significance of any religion, however faulty and inadequate. Let me illustrate what I mean. As modern medicine advances throughout the world the superstitions and mumbo jumbo of magic-medicine very naturally disappear. But even in the most ignorant and primitive medicine there existed the desire to heal, and that desire has not been superseded. Thus it seems to me that although the acids of modern thought may quickly dissolve myth and superstition, nothing can destroy the basic need which led to the emergence of religion. A false view of "the gods" may easily be blown away by the first breath of scientific knowledge, but a true faith in God is not destroyed but rather enhanced by every fresh discovery of the complexity of Godís wisdom. I believe the time may come when it will seem ludicrous for men to discover layer after layer of truth which bears all the marks of pattern and design, and then categorically to declare that there is no Designer! I see nothing farfetched in the idea that man may one day consider it just as important to make spiritual discoveries and live in harmony with the spiritual pattern as he now thinks it so important to discover, and cooperate with, physical laws.

It has sometimes been suggested that what modern man needs is a religion composed of all the best elements of the existing world religions, purged of course of their magical, superstitious and miraculous elements and presented in an ethical form which might win widespread acceptance among men of good will. It could be argued that such a synthetic religion would provide a suitable acknowledgment of the Supreme Wisdom behind all observable phenomena, and while properly respecting the visions and ideals of religious founders, would not affront modern intelligence by retaining what is plainly irrational. It is only when we come to examine the worldís religions in some detail that we realize the impossibility of such a synthesis. Naturally, in all religions there is a common denominator of human ethics, although even this is not as high as some humanists with a Christian tradition behind them would suppose. It is when we come to study the basic conceptions of God, the relationship between man and God, the impact of belief upon social conduct and the view of life after death, that we realize how wide and deep are the gulfs between the leading religions. If we attempt to combine them into one modern super-religion we are left with something very like humanism. For since human beings would be the judges of which tenets are included and which are excluded we find ourselves back again in the closed humanist world which denies supernatural revelation. Thus I believe it is essential to have revelation if we are to have a religion which can give purpose and power to human living. To my mind there must be a breaking through into human life of information about an order both supra-human and ultra-human. Otherwise the best we can do is to form an ethical society with its objectives and horizon limited to this planet.

It is not my purpose, and indeed it is not within my competence, to write a book about Comparative Religion. There are several such books quite readily available for those who want to study the subject. But I must make a few observations to underline the impossibility of synthesizing the great religions. For example, according to Islam, God is a strict unity and although compassionate he is predominantly a God of power rather than of love. God and man are permanently separate; God orders manís destiny (Kismet) and freedom is an illusion. Sin is as much foreordained as righteousness. Conversion may be forcible, and women are regarded as inferior to men. Of course many Moslems are better than their creed, but we can at once see how irreconcilable Islam is, for example, with Christianity. The central point of the Christian Faith is the indissoluble link between God and man, expressed through Christ; man is free to choose either good or evil; Godís purpose is to bring all men into the right relationship with himself; and in the teaching of Christ there is neither class distinction, color bar, nor discrimination between the sexes. In fact the only common ground between Christianity and Islam is the belief that God is infinitely greater than man and is a God to be worshipped and served. Now what compatibility can we find between these two great faiths, and either Buddhism or Hinduism, in which millions have their only experience of religion? Again, to pick a few random but important points -- Buddha himself was agnostic about the existence of God. He held that the question had no bearing on practical living. Consequently any problems of the relationship between God and man simply do not arise. Sin, which is a matter of antisocial behavior, results in repeated unpleasant reincarnations into this present world, while the ultimate state is the abolition of either existence or desire (Nirvana). Now although the teaching of Buddha contains much that is beautiful and compassionate, it is a known fact that in predominantly Buddhist countries for centuries very little was done to relieve suffering or ameliorate the lot of other people. After all, if a man were working out atonement for sins in a past life by his present suffering, what right had anyone to interfere with the process? Hinduism is also equally difficult to combine with any other world religion. Within it are enormous varieties of philosophical and popular belief. Common ground with Buddhism may be found in the doctrines of rebirth and Nirvana, but there are many contradictory notions held within the framework of this religious system. It has been observed with some truth that, at any rate in the past, a Hindu could believe anything so long as he observed caste, reverenced the cow and accepted the Veda as revelation! According to Hindu philosophy God is the unknowable Absolute, while at the same time man is God, the apparent distinction being due to illusion (maya), which in turn is due to ignorance (avidya). Within the almost unbelievable latitude of belief allowed by Hinduism there stands out the most rigid caste system which the world has ever known. Of course it is true that this system is being slowly broken down under the various modern pressures, but it remains an essential part of official Hinduism, and a lasting memorial to manís religious inhumanity to man.

Let us think of another great world religion, Judaism, the religion of the Jews. It is indeed hard not to be thought unfair to this monotheistic religion which has given so much to the moral thinking of the Western world. A religion which could produce the Ten Commandments and the inspired writing of the Old Testament prophets, for example, cannot but command the greatest respect, while those of us who are Christians should never forget that the teaching of the New Testament sprang historically from Judaism. It is only when we come to examine the religion of the Jews more closely that we find its severe limitations. It tends to be both backward-looking and inward-looking and it is a religion for one people only, containing no intention of embracing the whole of mankind within its system. Orthodox Judaism by its very nature cannot be combined with or incorporated into any other religious creed. It can never become the religion for modern Gentile man.

I should like to make it plain at this point that I am not saying that there do not exist within the great world religions true, honest, wise and good men. Of course there are many such, and many men and women rise far above the spirit of their particular creed. Furthermore, Eastern religions, despite that wealth of fantasy, myth and legend which make them quite unacceptable to modern minds with an historic sense, possess a keen perception of the spiritual as opposed to the material. They underline the virtues of quiet meditation, of contemplation and of control of the body by the mind and spirit in a way which is foreign to most Western minds, but which might yet prove valuable to modern Western man in his busy, noise-infested world. Thus, while we are bound to reject the fictitious and fanciful content of Eastern religions, we might do well to accept techniques of practicing religion which we in the West have almost wholly neglected.

But if we are to find a religious system which cannot be outdated or outgrown, from which the acids of modernity can only remove accretions and encrustations, a religion which properly practiced produces the highest forms of human behavior, and offers both supernatural pattern and spiritual power beyond human endeavor, then I believe we shall have to take a fresh look at Christianity. We shall have to look at it with new eyes, forgetting the distortions, suppressions and misapprehensions to which it has been subjected over the centuries. We shall have to overlook menís blindness to its revolutionary character, their stupidity in attempting to confine the spiritual within the temporal and their many sad demonstrable failures in Christian living. Then we may be able to touch again the heart and center of something which I believe reorientates the whole of human thinking, feeling and action.

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