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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 15: Some Criticisms of Christianity (2)


A further apparently legitimate criticism which is sometimes leveled against the Christian Faith is that it depends entirely upon an old-fashioned conception of God and upon the assumption that this little planet is the center of the whole universe. Modern astronomy has forced many to realize how frighteningly vast is the universe of which we have some knowledge; and that, for all we know, there may be countless other universes, at present beyond range of our means of observation. Many therefore find it inconceivable that the Mind behind this bewildering creation could reveal the essence of his character in a unique life lived on this almost negligible planet. We can sympathize with this difficulty. It is a great deal more acute today than when the psalmist meditated on the relative insignificance of man, and wrote, "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained: what is man, that thou art mindful of him?" (Psalm 8: 3,4) -- simply because manís scientific knowledge has been very greatly extended. But whatever mistakes the Christian Church may have made in past ages of intolerance, surely no modern Christian is concerned to maintain that the revelation of God given to this planet which we inhabit is necessarily the only revelation God has made in his whole universe! We simply do not know what creatures may exist elsewhere, and therefore we cannot begin even to guess at other kinds of revelation which the Creator may have given, or may plan to give, in other parts of his apparently limitless creation. In spite of the fragments of knowledge concerning the nature and size of the universe which science is continually gathering, we need constantly to remember that our primary concern is, whether we like it or not, with the earth on which we live. It is what God has revealed to us which is important to us, and surely our most pressing and most urgent problems are concerned with life on this planet. We are not God; the fact that we "cannot imagine" the Creatorís total purpose for the whole universe proves nothing except the limitation of our own capacity to comprehend. Further, although our minds are so made that they are necessarily impressed by almost unthinkable size, by energies at which the imagination boggles and by æons of time which we cannot in any real sense appreciate, there is no reason to suppose that outside the human mind such things are of any great significance.

A further objection which is sometimes made to the Christian Faith lies in its claim to uniqueness -- that it is in Christ alone that God has revealed his personality and character. The impartial observer knows that Christianity is only one of the worldís religions, and that for millions of people other faiths appear to suffice. Surely, it may be argued, if there is only one God the object of worship in all religions is the same, and it cannot greatly matter how that worship is given or what means are used to regulate human life in accordance with the divine purpose. Such criticism usually comes from those who know very little about either Christianity or other religions. Obviously there are certain basic goodnesses which are urged by any religious system, and equally obviously any religion which is sincerely believed in will have individual and social effects. The modern Christian, whatever follies the Church may have committed in the past, does not deny the value of all true religion. Shafts of divine light, of truths not discoverable by "scientific" means, have broken through upon the human scene through poets, philosophers and sages, as well as through the founders of various religions. This fact no intelligent modern Christian would minimize, but such fragments of revelation can, he believes, be only secondary to the planned personal focusing of God in the man Jesus Christ. Indeed the more seriously he takes his own faith, the less it seems to him that its overwhelming significance has so far been rightly appreciated. If, as the Christian believes, God has actually entered the human scene then there is an inescapable uniqueness about Christianity. If this is "the real thing" then in a sense there can be no compromise with anything less. This does not mean lack of sympathy with other religions, but it does mean a determination that all men shall know the fullest possible truth.

Another objection to the Christian Faith which is felt, if not expressed, by many intelligent people is that it appears to attract the immature and seeks to perpetuate their immaturity. By insisting that men "become like little children" and that they accept life at the hands of their "heavenly Father," Christ appears to be placing a premium upon childishness and tacitly disapproving of menís growth toward more mature conceptions of the world. Now this objection needs careful and honest answering. It is perfectly true that there is a divine simplicity about Christís teaching which is more readily grasped by the uncomplicated than by those whose minds have become so "cultured," "conditioned" and "educated" that they are blind to the prime conditions of human life upon this planet. Therefore, Christ says in effect, if men are to grasp the purpose of God they must begin again to learn as children. Now it is inconceivable that the One who was God-become-man should deprecate the pursuit of truth or despise human knowledge; and it is equally unthinkable that he wished to inaugurate a movement limited to members of low intelligence! Surely the force of his remarks is that there must be a return to humility in the God-man relationship before human knowledge and the acquisition of truth have any real meaning. A momentís reflection will show us that there is a fundamental difference in the mental attitude of the learned man whose faith is in humanity and that of the learned man whose basic faith is in God as Creator and in man as Godís creation. Jesus is concerned to establish the fact that compared with the immensely complex wisdom of God we are children, and that until we accept that fact with humility our knowledge will either be a burden to us or may lead us further and further from essential truth. It is true that some Christians are childish, and that some remain in a state of arrested development. It is even true that some Christians are finding in God a "father-substitute" and seeking to perpetuate their own dependent childhood. But that is not true of the Personality of Christ or of any mature or effective Christian from Paul onward. Nevertheless, I believe that Jesus was perfectly right in insisting that compared with God we are dependent, incomplete and liable to all the mistakes of childhood; that is one of the given facts of the human situation, and the wise man recognizes its truth.

Another stumbling block of the Christian Faith which presents itself in various forms to the modern scientific temper of mind is that the truth of such faith is not susceptible to scientific "proof." I must confess I often wonder what sort of proof the scientifically-minded are asking Christians to produce. Let us freely admit that organized Christianity has made tragic and repeated mistakes. We could go further and say that in some centuries and in some countries the Church has borne only the slightest resemblance to the life and teaching of its Founder. But if we look away from the failures and consider the effect on character and personality of a genuine Christian faith, surely we are presented with something very impressive. We have already mentioned the zeal and vigor of the early Christians and the undoubted historical fact that the direction and quality of peopleís lives were dramatically changed in New Testament days. But if we skip the centuries for the moment and come to modern times, there is plenty of evidence of a similar faith producing a similar effect. Within my own experience I know scores of people to whom God has become a reality through their intelligent acceptance of the Christian Faith, and who know experimentally that the resources of God are available to sustain and invigorate human spiritual life.

Now if, as I have suggested, Jesus Christ came to inaugurate a new way of constructive living, it is obvious from what we know of human nature and of the human situation generally that there will be a very considerable pull back to easier, safer, and more comfortable ways of living. The small-scale and large-scale failures of Christians down the centuries -- and they are many and grievous -- are no indication at all as to what the Christian Faith, honestly received in heart and mind, can achieve. And it is quite unrealistic to judge the validity of the Christian Faith by assuming that such European countries as Britain, France or Germany are "Christian." For various reasons, not least I think because men and women of influence have failed to take the Christian revelation seriously, the actual number of convinced and active Christians is, even today, quite a small minority. If we are looking for "scientific proof," then, of the truth of the Christian Faith, let us look at genuine Christians and not at the actions of any nation which is only nominally Christian, nor at any Church which has again and again acted in a spirit completely contrary to that of its Founder.

But by far the most serious criticism comes from those who would sincerely like to believe the truth of Christianity but find the very nature of life itself appears to deny it. The idea of God as a loving heavenly Father, who marks the fall of every sparrow, appears to break down in the complex stresses, disasters, inhumanities and horrors of modern life. There appears to be a certain winsome simplicity about the Christian view of life which has to be reluctantly discarded when we grow up and face both life and people as they are. I believe there are many people to whom the teachings of Christ are true in the sense that a vision or an ideal is true. It is with real regret that they see the vision and ideal daily destroyed by manís greed, inhumanity and fear. I believe that such people are wrong. If they were to return to study the gospels again, they would find no evading of the issues of human exploitation, injustice and persecution, no avoidance of lifeís inequalities, injustices, evils and disasters. But I understand their unwilling discarding of the Christian Faith -- for the problem of human suffering and evil is without any doubt, for most people, the greatest barrier to belief. And while no one can hope to solve it satisfactorily and completely there are several considerations which should be carefully examined, by which I believe it is not impossible to see life fairly and squarely, and at the same time to be an honest Christian. But for such considerations, we must have at least two separate chapters.

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