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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 20: Re-presenting Christianity


I am sometimes inclined to think that what the Church of England, at any rate, lacks more than anything else is a proper means of disseminating information. (At the moment of writing, the urgency of this matter is beginning to be recognized "at the top" but it has been urgent for at least two generations.) Its pressing task is quite simply to tell people what the basic content of Christianity is, and to give them some information of what the Christian Church is achieving in the face of ignorance, fear, disease and sheer physical human need in many parts of the world. Since 90 per cent of the people in this country are never inside the churches, and since only a tiny fraction even of church people regularly read any church literature, some means must be found of propagating true Christianity. This, I think, must mean buying newspaper and magazine space, making the fullest possible use of radio and television opportunities, employing highly skilled professional journalists, establishing information centers and providing literature "popular" enough to be available in the secular bookshop and bookstall. In fact, I believe we must seize every modern means of communication for re-presenting Christianity.

Of course such dissemination of information can never be a substitute for Christian living, for Christian witness to the truth and Christian ways of coping with human situations. I do not mean that at all; I am concerned only to point out the need for sheer elementary information. Such a work requires a very great deal of money as well as the highest gifts of imagination, insight and sympathy. But I remain convinced that it must be done and should command urgent priority. I have found that a prodigious ignorance about Christianity exists in all classes of people, but I have not always seen this recognized in church circles. Indeed I have often heard opinions expressed, at meetings of clergy and others, which assume that the people of this country are openly and defiantly rejecting the standards and claims of Christian living. I am sure that this is an entirely false view. A few random conversations with ordinary non-church-going people in different parts of the country quickly reveal that most people have only the haziest idea of what the Christian Faith is all about. I am not sure that we are even living in a "post-Christian" era. It would be far more true to say that our society is neopagan. For although it may well be that a certain brand of Victorian piety was rejected during or soon after the First World War, there has been no wholesale repudiation of the basic message of Christ. I do not know whether there would be, but at least it seems to me of the greatest importance that people should know, in terms which they can understand, what it is they are being asked to accept or reject. The stuffy materialism, the lack of purpose, the uncertainty about moral values and the collapse of belief in anything beyond the tomb, are not in themselves a rejection of Christianity so much as a cri de cúur the truth of the Gospel.

Now although it is true that in a sense the task of the Church is always the same, for it always means introducing something of the spiritual life of the contemporary God into a community, in another sense its work must differ according to circumstances. When Christianity began, the young Church sprang into urgent life in spite of the darkest and most discouraging circumstances. Our own circumstances may look dark and discouraging enough for the rebirth of true Christianity, but they differ almost in toto from those of the first century A.D. If we read the New Testament documents we see that their background is largely one of fear, cruelty, superstition, corruption and a callous lack of consideration for human beings. The widest disparity between rich and poor aroused no censorious voice; slavery, exploitation and immorality of all kinds were commonplace, while a gang of more or less discarded gods and a bevy of passé goddesses permeated the common life of the countries surrounding the eastern Mediterranean. The only religion which maintained strict monotheism and upheld moral standards, and which might have proved a friend and helper, became a bitter foe. It is abundantly clear from the New Testament record of Paulís life that the Jewish religion, in which he himself was nurtured, proved as implacable an enemy to the new Faith as paganism itself. In those circumstances the early Christians called men from faith in false gods to faith in the living God, from lives ridden by fear to a life lighted by the love of God. They called men from multifarious sins to a life of wholesome confidence, supported and reinforced by a God who actually pervaded their personalities. Perhaps above all they called men to share the timeless life of God so that they could regard their present lives as an almost infinitesimal part of an awe-inspiring and magnificent whole. The call was a definite one; it was from darkness to light, from fear to confidence.

The issue today in this country is nothing like so clear-cut. The vast majority of people are not living evil or depraved lives. There is still a public conscience of considerable strength ready to condemn greed, exploitation and cruelty. There is still a great deal of willing self-giving service which, when it is known, commands widespread admiration. The "gods" and "goddesses" which rule the lives of many of our people are not personified and cannot easily be denounced or dethroned. The growth of "scientific" knowledge, to which I have referred many times, coupled with the increasing urbanization of our society, has destroyed primitive fears of divine justice either before or after death. Gross inequalities between rich and poor no longer exist, exploitation in its obvious forms is rare, while the Welfare State has removed many secular anxieties. Since the grosser sins are mostly avoided and apathy is not considered wrong except in time of war, most people are not oppressed with a sense of guilt or sin. It is a pagan world all right, but it is a very different world from the cruel, lustful, callous, violent world of two thousand years ago.

Somehow or another those of us who believe that Christianity is good and relevant news for a bewildered generation have got to do some hard thinking about our methods of re-presentation. For example, there has never been a time when the value of human life has been so highly regarded and when what are loosely called "human" values are the sole guiding principles for most people. This seems to me to offer a very great opportunity for Christianity to make its unique claim for the value of human beings. "People matter" not simply because the nicest people think so or because humanists say so, but because God focused himself in a human being. Human values, instead of being variable and uncertain because they are established by human beings themselves, are revealed by God-become-man. The essence of Christian behavior is to treat people as people, all equally loved by the same Father, however much they may differ in talents or development. But we must go far beyond mere humanism. It is not simply that the value of human beings has been established by an act of God, but that a huge far-reaching plan has been begun. The Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of inner loyalty, which has neither its roots nor its culmination in this temporary life, has nevertheless been established as an historic fact upon this planet. This Kingdom already exists, and its standards and methods of working challenge the life of everyone. A new dignity, a new importance and a new responsibility, have all been brought into the life of man. He can cooperate or he can refuse to cooperate with the patient way of love. He may or may not be religious, but since "no man is an island" he cannot escape from the issue involved -- he either helps or hinders. The refusal to be committed and the attitude of indifference can in fact never be neutral.

To re-establish this concept of the importance and responsibility of living means speaking with the utmost conviction and speaking repeatedly. This is no time for offering people completely out of touch with the Church a snippet of religious comfort or an isolated text from the Bible in some obscure corner of the daily or Sunday newspaper. It is no time for assuming on the radio, on television or in any other public place that people have somehow carelessly lapsed from the Christian way. It is no use blaming people for failing to reach moral standards when many of them scarcely possess any definite standards at all. It is equally useless to belabor people for not attending public worship when they have only the sketchiest idea of what Christianity really means and even less of what the Church stands for. The time has come for the Church to restate boldly and unequivocally that the Way, the Truth and the Life have all been revealed, that the Kingdom is here already and that the battle in which there can be no neutrality is on. The bankruptcy of humanism without God should be ruthlessly exposed and its disquieting similarity to godless Communism deliberately pointed out. The added depth, the added dimension, which human life receives when linked to the timeless Life of God, should be fearlessly proclaimed. False gods do not exhibit their power or even their existence until the living God is experienced. Sin and failure have no meaning until the challenge of a new way of living is thrown down. Noncommittal agnosticism is never seen as an avoidance of the responsibility of living so long as the truth remains unknown. No man knows the strength of the enemy until he has fully enlisted on one side or the other. People will never take evil seriously nor ever see much need to tap the resources of God until they join in with the costly redemptive purposes of love.

We cannot, of course, command success, but we can, at least, present people with the truth as relevant, practical and rewarding in our modern life. We proclaim not a myth but a historic fact, not an idealistic pattern of behavior, but an active, joyful way of living life. We do not preach a stoic courage in the face of lifeís ills and accidents, but an acceptance of living from a heavenly Father whose final purpose can never be defeated. Above all, we do not preach outworn pieties reeking of superstition and medieval misunderstandings, but honest contact with the living God. By sheer force of circumstance we are beginning to recover the good sense shown by Paul and many of the early Christians. We are beginning to see that this little world never has offered and never can offer physical security. We are beginning to see that the vast purpose of God can never be confined to individual salvation or to the welfare of any particular race or nation, or even to the necessarily restricted physical life of human beings on this planet. Perhaps, not without wonder and awe, we can at last see how bold and imaginative was the man Jesus when he called a few fishermen and others to found a world-wide Kingdom!

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