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.
Many people of sensitivity and perception, whether they have a religious faith or not, view with dismay the growing materialism of this age. To anyone who is in the least alive to the contemporary God, the general life of this country, despite many virtues, exhibits all the symptoms of God-deficiency. For the present generation is, albeit unconsciously, attempting to prove that man can live by bread alone. "The good life" is conceived almost entirely in terms of creature comforts, labor-saving appliances, better clothes, better and longer holidays, more money to spend and more leisure to enjoy. None of these things is wrong in itself. But when they are assumed to satisfy every desire, ambition and aspiration of man, we are surely right to be alarmed at the grip of materialism. For when possessions, pleasures and the thought of physical security fill a manís horizon, he ceases to ask himself such basic questions as, "What am I?" or "What am I here for?" He may gain the whole world but he will lose his own soul.
Now I do not believe there is any remedy for this suffocating materialism except the recovery of a religious faith, and that means, above all, the recovery of true, essential Christianity. For it is only when it is plainly seen that the great purpose is the building of the universal Kingdom of God, and that the object of human living is the development of the human spirit, that the irrelevance of such things as material success becomes apparent. Close contact with the living Spirit of the living God, whether it be by conventional religious approach or not, is the only thing that will reveal to us the lunatic topsy-turvydom of many of our current values. Without the Christian revelation, without a point of reference which lies beyond the present human situation, I cannot myself see that any really cogent argument can be advanced against materialism.
Man does not of course live by bread alone; he merely continues his physical existence with some concomitant mental phenomena. It is the authentic Word of God, the suprahuman truth which challenges him and brings his spirit to life. Sooner or later, if men will only pursue their thoughts far enough, they must see that life without a true faith is quite literally a dead loss. At present the religious instinct, which I believe to exist in every man, is being penetrated. All men naturally worship someone or something, but in the commonly assumed absence of God, this worship is given almost wholly to such things as success, sport, the heroes or heroines of the fantasy-world of the screen or stage, or to the mysteries of science. Such a superstition as astrology may flourish as a substitute-religion for the ignorant, while some fancy version of an Eastern religion may attract the intellectual agnostic. But perversions of the instinct to worship God do not in the long run rescue man either from his own solitariness or from the closed-system of materialism. The way out, paradoxically enough, lies in no form of uncommitted escapism, but in a closer commitment to life. Christianity shows the way of such closer commitment; it does not merely restore a manís faith in God but inevitably involves him in compassion and service. This is both the strength and the difficulty about the Christian way of life. Other methods may give "religious" experiences, but only Christianity insists that the life of the spirit must be expressed within the terms of the present human predicament. That is why only Christianity can fully satisfy the desire to worship and the desire to serve. It is demonstrably true that when men begin to love their neighbors as themselves, to experience and to express compassion for those in all kinds of human need, they become spiritually alive.
In Christís teaching enormous stress is laid upon the way in which men and women treat one another, and the whole concept of a human being is raised in value because he is declared to be a loved and valued son of God. The relief of human suffering, of whatever kind, the liberation of human beings from fear, ignorance and evil, the compassionate use of human talents and personality -- all these are shown to be of the highest importance. For they are expressions of the divine purpose as well as the means of developing the human spirit. But because we are infected personally, nationally and internationally with the prideful spirit of competitiveness, we have got our priorities hopelessly mixed, and cannot see the truth. Most men admire compassion from a safe distance, and applaud good works which do not involve them personally. But willing compassionate involvement in dark and difficult human problems stands very low in the list of most menís plans and ambitions. In our modern world we have come to accept it as commonplace that the launching of a single small satellite should cost more than the building and equipping of a modern hospital. We find it easier to be fascinated by the possibilities of space travel than to be distressed by the plight of millions of refugees living in misery on our own planet. Real Christianity is good bread-and-butter stuff which nourishes menís souls by the worship of the true God and by the exercise of practical compassion. But the fascination of modern technical advances in every department of our physical life has made us like spoiled children who long for candies and more candies, and have lost their stomach for truly nourishing food.
At the risk of being repetitious, I must say once more that I believe that only a new grasp of Christian humanism can save us from the subtle deteriorations of materialism. Good will, kindheartedness, self-sacrifice and the willingness to serve are, of course, good, but they are absorbed in the desert of material godlessness unless they are joined to a supranatural purpose and reinforced by a supranatural power. And this is exactly what the Christian Church should be. For any army of men and women who are conscious, despite their own defects, of cooperating with the Mind and Purpose which began, and will end, the human scene, cannot be lightly dismissed as a crowd of "do-gooders."
Whenever the Christian Church has in fact been such a dedicated fellowship, it has often met with hostility, ridicule and persecution, but it has never been disregarded. At this present time the Church is taken very seriously in atheist-Communist countries, and hardly ever looked upon as a mere hangover from a superstitious past. For the men with hard faces, the men who lust for power and see their fellows as no more than units in a machine, know intuitively that the Church is the implacable champion of human liberty, of the truly human values and the finest human aspirations. Recent history shows quite clearly that when the conflict becomes acute in a totalitarian society it is the Christian Church which alone can successfully stand up for human liberty and conscience. It should be remembered that it was not the well meaning agnostics who were able to defy Hitler but the Christian churches. Today it is not the vague humanist who is regarded as the enemy of Communism in, for example, Eastern Germany; it is the Christian, who has standards and loyalties which are rooted in God.
I think something else should be said. If we were able to conduct a survey of those human beings who are giving the most devoted service to people in need, whether it is to the blind, the deaf and dumb, the leper, the spastic or any other of our afflicted fellow human beings, I am confident that we should find the Christians in the majority. I believe ordinary men and women would be amazed if they could see how often, in the black spots of the worldís superstition, ignorance, disease and fear, the Christians were the first to arrive. There are, to my knowledge, many thousands of dedicated Christian men and women who are day after day mediating the love of God despite every difficulty and discouragement.
Now in this country of traditional Christian values, a land which may well lead the world in matters of justice and liberty, it is very easy to underestimate the powers of evil. The issues are blurred and the battle between good and evil is scarcely recognized by the majority of people. We know nothing at first hand of the cruelty of dictatorship. We rarely have to suffer much for our faith, if indeed we have one. But how much longer this atmosphere of comfortable apathy is going to last is anybodyís guess. Already we have a generation growing up without moral standards, with no sense of purpose and with little, if any, concern for the enormous human problems which are coming to light all over the world. Mere "kindness," "niceness," "good will" or "tolerance" is never going to supply a dynamic for living, a cause for which to live and die, or a purpose commanding a manís total dedication. We who are middle-aged may have jogged along, content with those liberal humanist values left to us by preceding ages of faith. But nothing less than the recovery of real Christianity, with its ineradicable emphasis upon human compassion, and its inexorable insistence upon the transience of this world and the reality of eternity, will ever put back into the disillusioned the faith, hope, courage and gaiety which are the marks of a human being cooperating with his Creator.
I believe it to be essential for us to recover the dimension of eternity if we are to value this life properly and live it with sanity and courage. The pieties of former ages cannot satisfy the modern mind. For example, the conception of `íeternity" as merely endless æons of time has given many people an idea of "Heaven" which they have rejected as absurd. But surely here the conception of another "dimension" can come to the aid of our thought. No thinking Christian today believes in "Heaven" or "everlasting life" as a mere extension of time-and-space existence, however purified and exalted! He believes that after the death of the body there is a release from the time-and-space predicament and a conscious sharing in the timeless Life of God, in which there are probably various stages of enlightenment and knowledge. There may be no words to describe such a timeless state, but that proves no more than that its reality is beyond present human expression. Yet it remains the unshakable conviction of Christians, from New Testament days until today, that there is what must be called, for want of a better word, an "eternal" order, an "eternal" plan and an "eternal" life. Compared with these eternal verities the present human scene gives no more than a hint of unimagined realities.
The trend of modern thought, with its concentration upon making the most of this present life and the tacit assumption that death means extinction, makes it particularly easy for people to disbelieve in, or to ridicule, life after death. But historically, it is the conviction of unseen realities which has given men and women invincible strength. There might be some truth in the old gibe of pie-in-the-sky if we found all Christians doing absolutely nothing to better the world, on the grounds that they have Heaven to look forward to; and all the atheists working like mad to relieve every form of human distress, since this life is all that we have! But that is obviously and demonstrably untrue, and something very like the reverse is sometimes the case. It is those who are in touch with the eternal order who make the most heroic and sustained efforts to improve conditions for their fellows. It is those who know God to be eternal who most satisfactorily prove that God is their contemporary.
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