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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 19: The Missing Dimension


The longer we live the more life will reveal to us our inescapable loneliness, insignificance and insecurity. No one can be said to be living at all until he has realized and come to terms with the real and permanent which transcends change and decay. A man without the sense of reality underlying and extending far beyond present realities is, to anyone who has even glimpsed the dimension of true living, a deficient and pathetic figure. He may be brave, kindly and unselfish but he cannot escape being a clueless cardboard figure in a meaningless, purposeless world. I believe the time is coming when this geocentric conception of the human predicament will seem foolish and inadequate. I believe that as science discovers more of that unseen which "programs" and "patterns" the seen, it will become more and more clear that physical death is not always a disaster and is never a finality.

I wonder why it should be thought unscientific to believe in the dimension of God, in spiritual forces and spiritual realities which have demonstrable effects upon people. An everyday example will show the illogicality of such thinking. We are surrounded by such things as radio, television, radar, X-rays, sunlight and the artificial lighting of our streets and homes. All these things produce or are produced by vibrations of various "wavelengths" in what used to be called the "ether." Now in spite of the fact that the wavelength of any of the above-mentioned phenomena can be accurately measured, and despite the fact that the speed of these vibrations through the "ether" is known, it has become scientifically unfashionable to talk about "ether" at all. These vibrations occur in "space," and "space" has the ability to support or transmit vibrations of widely varying frequency. Indeed, the radio-telescope at Jodrell Bank can detect "radio" vibrations from exceedingly distant stars whose light-vibrations cannot be received at all by any optical telescope in the world. Yet we are told that this medium which transmits measurable vibrations at a measurable speed has no objective existence; its function is simply a property of space. All right, then. But if we can swallow such a dictum of science without a murmur, why should the values and realities of the spirit be held to be unreal and imaginary? We might, for instance, suggest, in imitation of scientific terms, that there are "vibrations" of the human personality higher up the spectrum than our scientific humanists will allow. We might go further and suggest that these "vibrations" are a property of the "spiritual dimension" just as truly as the etheric vibrations are a property of "space." And it is really a poor argument to say that the existence and reality of the spiritual are purely subjective phenomena. For, after all, the result of every scientific experiment is ultimately a subjective one, since it is human beings who decide whether a theory is proved or not. There are millions of people today to whom the spiritual and supra-human are quite satisfactorily "proved."

The discovery of God, his purpose, the dimension of "eternity" and all that follows from this experience seem to me to come along certain lines. And these, which I now mention, are based upon actual observed experience, although of course there must be many others.

(1) A man, for reasons that he certainly could not put into words, is dissatisfied with the atmosphere of non-faith in which he has been brought up. Unlike the noble souls who apparently find satisfaction in pursuing purposes in the certain knowledge that the whole universe is purposeless, he is oppressed with the futility of an ordinary human life. For some reason or another, and very often because he has observed the stability and satisfaction which a true religion has given to someone else, he begins to seek with an open mind. For the first time he reads and studies as an adult the documents of the New Testament. During this period of study he "prays" and attempts to open his whole personality to God, if indeed there be one. This is normally a fairly slow process, but again and again I have observed such a man, or woman, discover the livingness of God. Christ steps out of the ancient pages and becomes an unseen but real contemporary person.

Now I would emphasize that in these conditions, which apply to quite a number of the Christians whom I know, there have been no outward pressure and no indoctrination. It is true that such Christians may later ask for "instruction," so that their knowledge of this new truth may be deepened and widened. But in the first instance neither guilt, fear nor the pressure of anybody elseís personality forced such people into religious faith.

(2) There has been in my experience a small number of people who came "to seek God" almost in despair because they were defeated by their own temperaments, desires or circumstances. To put it quite bluntly, they saw themselves being pulled down by something either inside or outside themselves which they were growing less and less able to resist. Such people turn to God as a kind of last resort. I know several who found that the hitherto inexperienced God does in fact exist. They received, in varying degrees, an experience of reconciliation, and to some extent this may be explained purely in terms of internal psychology. But what I personally find so remarkable about such happenings is that men and women find in God a power greater than themselves, which is demonstrably available in their situation. It is naturally very easy for the clever and well adjusted to sneer at simple people "finding Christ," "knowing the saving power of Jesus," and to forget that behind the "corny" expressions that may be used there lies a rather awe-inspiring truth. For that which is theoretically unattainable is in fact attained: human nature is changed both in direction and in disposition..

Because this is a genuine experience of some people, it is only too easy for certain evangelists to assume that it is the right way for all. They therefore concentrate all their energies upon inducing a sense of guilt, and then presenting the message of salvation and forgiveness. Unfortunately it is quite easy, especially among young people, to produce this feeling of guilt. And once it has been produced sufficiently strongly, a personality may be led in almost any direction -- a truth which is well known to Communist indoctrinators. But in practice, and as a result of observation, the induction of guilt by methods of mass evangelism frequently has one of two unfortunate results. First, after the experience of having the feeling of guilt aroused and then tranquilized the man of intelligence may come to see how he has been emotionally exploited. I have known of men whose last state was thus much worse than their first because, once having got over the humiliating experience, they are thereafter suspicious of what true religion is trying to say. The second unfortunate result, and again I know this from observation, is that people may come to regard the guilt-forgiveness experience as the high spot of the religious life. Indeed, it assumes such paramount importance in their minds that anything else in the complex business of living seems scarcely worth consideration. Consequently we find people clinging to their experience of being "converted," "saved" or "born again," but quite obviously never allowing the revolutionary message of true Christianity to penetrate their thinking or their feeling. Fascinated by the wonder of their own "redemption" they continue to live in a cocoon of forgiveness and let the world go hang.

(3) There are people, people of intelligence and integrity, some of whom at least have been nominal members of a church for many years, upon whom the truth seems to break in quite sudden illumination. This may happen through a study group, through a mission, through the ordinary ministry of the Church, through the reading of a book, or through personal conversation. The significance and relevance of Christianity, which had previously been dulled or impotent, become radiantly clear and strong. Words and phrases which were meaningless suddenly become alive and meaningful. Christianity is no longer just a reasonable hypothesis, but the truth by which all other truths are judged. God, vaguely believed in as a background power, becomes alive, operating in and through the contemporary scene.

(4) Then there are a few people whom I know (and I wish with all my heart that there were more), who have, apparently accidentally, discovered the relevance of the Christian Faith to the work that they have been trying to do for humanityís sake. I can think of a probation officer, a male nurse in a mental hospital, a hospital sister, a youth worker, and some others who, over the years, discovered that they were unconsciously (or perhaps intuitively is a better word) following the way of outgoing love, which is the way of Christ. I have no wish to make exaggerated claims, but I think I can fairly say that in all these cases the sense of worthwhileness and purpose was deepened and strengthened when the work was seen to be part of the "immemorial plan." These people also gained in their personal lives because God became to them a living and active power instead of a vague possibility.

The above examples of a few people who have found God real and contemporary, and who have thereby gained a sense of purpose which far transcends this little life, are no more than a brief record of those whom I have personally known. Obviously, such experience could be multiplied by thousands, if not by millions, throughout the world. It is an undeniable fact of human experience that contact can be made with a reality beyond the visible realities. To me at least this is evidence for the existence of God which simply cannot, in common fairness, be lightly dismissed.

Now unfortunately for the scientifically-minded, God is not discoverable or demonstrable by purely scientific means. But that really proves nothing; it simply means that the wrong instruments are being used for the job. God is discoverable in life, in human relationships, in the everlasting battle between good and evil, even though he may be conceived as transcending all these things. There is no discovery of the truth of Christís teaching, no unanswerable inward endorsement of it, without committing oneself to his way of life. We can observe with detachment the failures of Christians and the virtues of non-Christians as though life were a competition in goodness, but we can never know for certain what life is really all about until we have honestly committed ourselves to the Christian way of living. The test lies in the doing, and as Jesus himself once said (I translate freely from John 7: 17): "If any man wants to know whether this teaching comes from God or is of purely human invention, he must set himself to follow the purpose of God."

Christianity is an invitation to true living, and its truth is endorsed only by actual experience. When a man becomes a committed Christian he sooner or later sees the falsity, the illusions, and the limitations of the humanist geocentric way of thinking. He becomes (sometimes suddenly, but more often gradually) aware of a greatly enhanced meaning in life and of a greatly heightened personal responsibility. Beneath the surface of things as they seem to be, he can discern a kind of cosmic conflict in which he is now personally and consciously involved. He has ceased to be a spectator or a commentator and a certain small part of the battlefield is his alone. Consequently he also becomes aware, as probably never before, of the forces ranged against him. As in every evolutionary process, including the growth of a normal human being, there is a force which pulls upward, but there is also a force making for relapse and regression. We must not be surprised to find a man whose eyes have been opened to spiritual reality experiencing again and again reactionary forces within himself. He is, I believe, being drawn to a higher level of human living, a greater awareness, and a greater responsibility. In the nature of things there will inevitably be a pull back to the former, more comfortable, mode of non-committed thinking and feeling.

In addition to this tendency within himself he will in all likelihood be surrounded by many people who regard his new enlightenment as moonshine and will exert a day-by-day pressure to bring him back into line with "ordinary" life. But there is a third factor of opposition which I attempt to define with some hesitation. For it appears to me, on comparing my own experience with that of many friends, that once one has seriously enlisted on the side of God and his purpose some considerable spiritual opposition is provoked and encountered. Quite apart from oneís own tendency to regress and quite apart from the atmosphere of non-faith in which many Christians have to live, the Christian finds himself attacked by nameless spiritual forces. It is very easy for the non-committed agnostic, or indeed for any non-Christian to make light of an organized force of evil. But it is highly significant to me to find that in every case of a person becoming a Christian, of which I have personal knowledge, this sense of spiritual opposition is experienced, and sometimes felt very keenly. If we may personify the forces of evil for a moment, it would appear that "Satan," does not bother to attack, for example, a university professor of philosophy, a popular film star, a busy farmer, a telephone operator or a worker in heavy industry, or anyone else, just so long as they are uncommitted in the real spiritual battle. There is no particular point in producing pressures of evil against a man or woman who moves harmlessly and respectably with the normal currents of contemporary human living. But should they once begin to embark on real living, to assist in the building of the Kingdom of God, then the attack begins. We may read Dr. C. S. Lewisís Screwtape Letters superficially with amusement, but if we are committed Christians, we know that the diabolical subtlety and ingenuity are no mere literary fancies.

To my mind, we are driven, if we are honest, into an inescapable personal decision if we are determined to know the truth. God remains unproved or a myth until we commit ourselves to the way of Christ. The forces of evil, "the devil," "Satan," and all such conceptions remain as a laughable superstitious hangover until we seriously attempt to lead Christian lives. I have therefore no hesitation in challenging any agnostic who wants to test the truth of the Christian Faith. Let him commit himself and before long he will know both the splendor of the truth and the seriousness of the struggle.

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