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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 21: Christ and the Church


If we can accept the divine entry of God into human history through the man Jesus Christ, we cannot help accepting the unique nature of the fellowship which he founded. For in a true sense it is an extension of the actual visit, sustained by the living God. This explains the extraordinary strength and resilience of the Christian Church, and also why it is a mistake to regard it as a purely human organization of those who happen to share the same religious views. Neither its own failures or stupidities, nor the neglect or the persecution of the surrounding world can ever destroy it. Sometimes outstandingly, but more often imperfectly, men and women all over the world have allowed something of the life, and therefore of the love, of God to invade their own personalities. Individually they are expendable, but as the agency of God they are indestructible. Maddening as this fact may be to the atheistic humanist, both past and present history confirm it over and over again.

For Jesus Christ himself began the vast project of establishing the Kingdom of God upon earth by calling together a handful of men. Before his own departure from the visible human scene he entrusted to these few the awe-inspiring task of telling the world about God and his Kingdom. He promised them supranatural power, wisdom and love, and The Acts of the Apostles shows how this close-knit fellowship set out with joyful and hopeful audacity to build the Kingdom of Light in the Stygian darkness of the pagan world. These early Christians were held together by their common love for their Lord and his purpose, by their worship and their prayer. Violent persecution, public torture, social ostracism and dreadful forms of death could neither quench the fire nor defeat the purpose of the young Church. The movement proved unconquerable, and still proves unconquerable, because its unseen roots are in the eternal God.

Now it may seem a far cry indeed from that pristine, heroic fellowship to the Christians of today, who are too often tied by tradition and prejudice. Yet it remains true that wherever a church is sincerely dedicated to the living God and committed to the pattern of outgoing love, the same joyful certainty and the same paradox of vulnerable indestructibility continue to be exhibited. When we have made all the criticisms we can of those sections of the Church which are antiquated and backwardlooking, we still have to reckon with the real builders of the Kingdom, who exist in every branch of the Christian Church. Having worked with and lived with such people for many years, I am ready to believe the truth of Paulís startling statement that Christians are "the Body of Christ."

The work of the Christian Church in the dark, fear-ridden parts of the world today is almost completely unknown to the ordinary man of good will. But anyone who takes the trouble to study what the churches are actually doing will see how they are proving to be the spearhead of good against centuries-old fear, superstition and prejudice. I believe the man of good will without much religious faith would be enormously impressed if he could realize what is being done by the Christian churches in works of human compassion alone. The true lover of humanity could not but feel deep sympathy with those Christians who are impelled by the love of God to serve fear-ridden and disease-stricken humanity in almost all parts of the world. But the man of good will takes, as a rule, not much more than a passing glance at the existing churches in this country. He sees readily enough the outmoded pieties and the undoubted pettiness of some Church members. But if he would penetrate further and seek the heart and soul of the whole matter, he would find in any true Christian fellowship that quality of compassionate love which is both inspired and sustained by the living God.

While it is true that the Christian Church has proved itself to be the spearhead of light in primitive pagan darkness, and indeed is still proving so today, its task in this country is not nearly so clear-cut. The true Christian sees with painful clarity the need for a recovery of a true religious faith, and many heroic efforts have been made, and are being made, to communicate it. I have already suggested that one of the Christianís urgent tasks is the giving of essential information, and I do not think that can be denied, but I am coming to believe more and more that the right "way in" in the prevailing atmosphere of today is to stress the need for compassionate service.

For although I do not doubt that some have found a religious faith in the mammoth evangelistic rallies which are held from time to time, I find it impossible to believe that this is ever going to be the way for a large-scale recovery of religious faith among ordinary people. The Englishman is basically sensible and practical, and although like anybody else he can be swept by superficial emotion for a time, his life is actually governed by much deeper emotions and affections. On the whole he is not "spiritual" by nature at all, and unless "faith" is expressed in actions which he can see and appreciate he is not likely to be convinced. Because of his unconscious but centuries-old impregnation by Christian belief, he often knows instinctively what is genuinely good and kind and unselfish, and on the whole he admires it. He may be Pelagian, (The heresy of the monk Pelagius was that he considered people to be fundamentally good rather than fundamentally evil.) but, to be blunt, no argument in the world is ever going to persuade him that a good man, however irreligious, goes to hell, or that a bad man, however religious, goes to heaven!

It seems to me that the re-presentation of Christianity in todayís situation might well begin with a re-emphasis of the teaching of Matthew 25, verses 31 to the end, to which I have already referred. It seems to me a most useful argumentum ad hominem with the strongest possible authority behind it. People have never been so aware of the dire distress of other human beings, and in this parable -- the only recorded picture of the final judgment --we have an argument which appeals alike to the basic kindliness and powerful sense of justice which lie deep in the British character. For here we find the King categorically stating that the way in which we treat people, consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, is the way in which we treat him. Here, in the ultimate issue, is no airy-fairy religious notion but downright practicality. If a man helps a fellow man in need he is to that extent serving Christ. Inasmuch as he turns a blind eye or deaf ear to human need he is failing to serve Christ the King. It is as simple and as profound as that.

Of course the moment we can get people to take such teaching seriously they find themselves confronted with their own prejudice, intolerance and lack of outgoing love. Indeed, they may well become aware that their real sin, as distinct from the "sins" which they may or may not have committed, is a failure to love, a refusal to be committed, a dislike of being involved. Valuable as human love is, something is needed to deepen, enlarge and strengthen it. And here, I believe, is the point where men can come into contact with the living God. I do not mean merely that a manís own insufficiency of love drives him back upon the resources of God, although this is true, and such an experience has happened to many people. I mean that when a man wholeheartedly commits himself to the way of love, compassion and service, he finds that the pattern itself is surprisingly, and perhaps disconcertingly, alive. For the living Christ is really quite easily discoverable and no one recovers a true religious faith without a personal encounter with him.

We have now to face an unpleasant fact. It would be delightful indeed to imagine that all the nice, good, kind people would immediately become wholehearted Christians if only they were properly to grasp the true nature and purpose of the Christian Faith. I believe this is true of a good many men and women of good will, who live in almost complete ignorance of what Christianity is all about, and that is why I have constantly stressed the need for Christian information. But there is a challenge and a demand made by the living Christ that many people would rather avoid. It is far easier to evade the moral responsibility which Christ may put upon a man, by criticizing the churches and satisfying the conscience by doing deeds of kindness, than to declare oneself boldly and unequivocally ready to serve the King. The unpleasant truth must be stated: some people deliberately avoid anything that may lead them to the divine encounter.

Further, it is significant that those who write of their experience of true conversion to the Christian Faith always tell of a time of struggle. Their struggle is not with an historic fact, not with a philosophy of living, and not with any branch of the Church, but with the gently persistent, inexorable claim of Jesus Christ. The very bitterness of their attacks upon Christianity is later revealed to be only the measure of their fight against the one ultimate authority, the Son of God. Some of those whom we know to have had such experience (and there must be many thousands of whom there is no record) have found this penetrating, challenging spirit through contact with a group of true Christians, who were themselves probably quite unaware of issuing any challenge. Others, who have taken the trouble to read and study, have found to their alarm and discomfiture that what they thought was a safely distant historical figure becomes disconcertingly alive and contemporary.

But for every one who makes contact with a living Christian fellowship or studies the New Testament for himself there are thousands who do neither. They know nothing of the historic origin of Christianity, its present-day battles, or of the fundamental difference which the presence of Christ makes to so many people. If the churches were seen to be focal points of love and compassion, of understanding and service, if their services were known to be meetings of worship for those who are, or would like to be, agents of self-giving love, then at least the nice, friendly people without faith would know "what religion is all about." They might or might not accept the challenge to Christian living, but at least there would be the chance that the people of good will without faith might join forces with the people of good will with faith, to the very great spiritual benefit of all concerned.

Thus, I have come to believe that at the present time our best chance of creating the conditions for a spiritual revival lies in the repeated stressing of Christian humanism. Humanism without religion lacks depth, purpose and authority, but the humanism advocated by Jesus Christ seems to me peculiarly appropriate to our age. For even the least intelligent of men are beginning to see that unless they love and understand one another they will most certainly destroy one another. If the true nature and function of the Christian Church were rediscovered many might come to realize that only in the Kingdom of God, which is the Kingdom of Love, is there hope and strength, and the only possible security. For what ultimately matters is not religious exercises per se but the way in which we behave toward other people, our willingness or unwillingness to be involved in the vast purpose of love. The Englishman may be suspicious of churchiness, of technical religious terms, of rites and robes, of bells and smells, which seem to him irrelevant to the business of living. But he is by no means unmoved by the needs of the handicapped and underprivileged, the homeless and the helpless, when he is made aware of them. It seems to me therefore that the most hopeful place in which to build a bridge between the worlds of faith and unfaith is on the common ground of human compassion.

I have written in this book about two worlds of good will which are known to me personally -- the one whose compassion and love flow out of its faith in God, and the other which produces actions of compassion and self-giving service with little or no articulate religious faith. I am not for a moment suggesting that these are the only two worlds which exist in our country today --there are vast fields of greed, stupidity, selfishness and fear, which lie quite outside the categories under consideration. No, what I am pleading for is that these two worlds, which are at present largely strangers to each other, might become one in spirit, a powerful army of true goodness and true love, following the pattern and inspired by the Spirit of the contemporary God. On the one hand the Church should welcome with open arms those who are plainly exhibiting the fruits of the Spirit, however sketchy and ill informed their ideas of the Christian Faith may be. On the other hand I would like to see the men and women of good will but little faith making a positive invasion of the churches, bringing with them their own insights, refusing to be dismayed by what appears to be outdated and irrelevant, and joining in what is the heart and soul of the matter, the worship of the living God and the expression of his love and purpose in everyday human life.

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