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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 14: Some Criticisms of Christianity (1)


A great many criticisms of the Christian Faith, as has already been suggested, are not valid criticisms at all. The critics have never taken the trouble to study what the Faith really stands for, and in most cases have certainly never studied the relevant documents, namely, the books of the New Testament, with their adult intelligence. For example, it is only too easy to imagine Christian living as a soft, meek-and-mild, head-in-the-clouds avoidance of reality, and therefore to pour scorn upon it. But no one could seriously read the essential message of the gospels or study the lives of the early Christians without seeing that living according to the plan of God calls for the highest courage, and makes the most strenuous demands on the human spirit. Again, it is, alas, still possible for otherwise intelligent people to jeer at Christianity as a "pie-in-the-sky" religion which has little or no contact with day-to-day life. But could anything be more devastatingly practical than the way of living outlined by Jesus, and followed since by all kinds and conditions of people? Could sane people really study the records of such men as Paul and Luke, and say that theirs was an escapist religion? Or, for that matter, could anyone read of what Christians are doing today to combat fear, ignorance and disease in the dark places of the earth, and still say that a Faith which impels them to do such things is either a drug to their sensibilities or a means of escape? It is not worth trying to answer the criticisms of those who have neither taken the trouble to find out what is involved in embarking on this way of living, nor even to observe the lives of those who have followed it faithfully.

Nevertheless, quite apart from the ill informed attacks upon something which never was the Christian Faith, there are some legitimate criticisms, made by sane and thoughtful people, which must be considered. For example, there are those who are filled with admiration for Christís demonstrated way of self-giving love, and of his personal non-resistance to the forces of evil. But in practice they may have serious doubts about the efficacy of such methods. Here we need to do some careful thinking, for many of the current ideas of Christ are not true to the character revealed in the gospels. In other words we have to see with clearer eyes what love in action really entails. While it is true that Jesus offered no resistance to physical attacks against himself, his love did not prevent him from using the most aggressive and blistering invective against those who thought they held a "corner" in religion. For all his loving-kindness, he did not hesitate to say that a man who led a little child astray would be better off dead. He roundly declared that such notorious evil cities as Sodom and Gomorrah would fare better in the judgment than towns which rejected the living truth when it was before their eyes. He was no verbal sentimentalist; he was not prepared to gratify King Herodís whim to see him "perform," but bluntly called him a fox. He was moved to violent physical action by the combination of irreverence and black-marketeering which was corrupting what was meant to be the center of worship -- the Temple in Jerusalem. Thus we must not oversimplify the issue and say that in a given situation the attitude of Christian love must always be that of meek acceptance and the patient smile. The schoolmaster in charge of forty or so tough adolescents in one of our big cities cannot mediate the love of God without its sternness. It would indeed become impossible for a policeman, a detective or, shall we say, an inspector of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to be a true Christian at all if our concept of the way of love were limited to that of passive acceptance or non-resistance of evil.

Now here we strike one of the really fundamental problems of the way of love, a problem of which not every clergyman and minister appears to be aware. It is a fine and moving thing to advocate the way of patient love from the pulpit on Sunday, but it is quite a different thing to apply that love in the complex situations which arise every day in the shop, the office, the garage, the workshop, the laboratory and the factory. For the Christian is not merely concerned about himself; indeed he may rightly feel that in following his Masterís example he may have to accept as patiently and as good-humoredly as he can anything from a personal slight to sheer injustice as far as he is concerned. But he is not only concerned with himself, and that is just where the task of interpreting the way of love becomes difficult. Is the Christian to stand wordlessly by while someone else is bullied or unjustly treated? Is the Christian to say nothing when corrupting suggestions are made? Is the Christian to give silent assent to practices which he knows are dishonest? It is here, in the very stuff of life, that men and women so frequently and so wistfully abandon their dream of being "loving," to all men. Surely much more thought and honest discussion between Christians is needed on this point, as well as a more realistic appraisal of the actual demonstrated methods of Jesus. And we have to admit that it is just here, in the painful issues of actual human relationships, that clergy and ministers have sometimes been unable to give sound advice.

As soon as we begin to study in earnest the recorded actions of Christ, we cannot help being struck by his extraordinarily varied approach in dealing with different people. It is immediately apparent that no rule of thumb is applied, but that the purpose of constructive love is very flexible in the face of human complexities of character. Thus, one person may best respond to the most uncompromising challenge, while another needs patient encouragement. One is told that his life already approximates in pattern to what God is wanting him to be; but another may be told bluntly that despite all his religious profession he is at heart a "child of evil." It is only when we detach "texts of Scripture" that there are apparent contradictions in the sayings of Christ. Once we grasp the underlying principle of love in action touching human lives in various states of awareness and development, we can begin to understand why so many different things were said to so many different people.

Now if we turn from the life of Christ to our ordinary experience of people, most of us would probably agree that there are certain types of men and women who need to be shocked or jolted out of their self-love and complacency before they can begin to see and appreciate what we and constructive love is trying to do. It is impossible, for example, for the schoolmaster to lead his pupils into the appreciation of what is good and true and beautiful, unless he has first established discipline. Those who have been most successful in rebuilding the character of juvenile delinquents know that their work would be impossible without love, but that such love must be a stem love, particularly at the beginning. If Christian love is supposed to be "doormat-like" in its meekness and gentleness, in many existing human situations it does not have a chance to get started at all. Now these words are far from being an argument for what was once called "muscular Christianity," but they are a plea for an honest examination of real situations. The need to use physical force, the need to bring people slap up against the consequence of their own wrong-doing, and sometimes the need to deflate them drastically are undoubtedly called for by certain human situations, but as methods they are only part of a much bigger whole. Such means may make it possible for true concern to be shown and for reformation to begin. But the actual constructive work of changing a situation or reforming a character can only be achieved by understanding and love.

With such considerations in mind we begin to see that the scathing denunciations of religious leaders, which are quite a prominent part of Jesusí recorded sayings, belong only to the first part of the process of love. Christ needed to use violent methods to crack the armor of complacency. (And it is not always remembered that such attacks did not invariably result in increased hostility. Some at least must have had their spirits stabbed broad awake by such aggression, for we read in Acts 6:7 that "a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith.") If therefore as Christians we feel obliged to use the reprimand, the argumentum ad hominem, or even physical restraint, we must realize all the time that such things are only a means to an end; by themselves they are both incomplete and ineffectual. They can do no more than provide the proper conditions for the constructive patient work of love. The schoolmasterís work of establishing discipline is only a prelude to the positive self-giving task of real teaching. The policemanís arrest of the wrong-doer is only the prelude to the patient reformation of character. Christís apparently merciless attacks upon complacency were no more than the initial stage of the work of Godís Spirit upon the personalities of the men behind the façade.

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