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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 18: The Challenge to Living


There is a tendency in most of us to avoid the crucial and painful issues. This is perfectly obvious in the weak character who, in common parlance, "takes the line of least resistance." But even in characters whom we should call "strong," that is, in properly integrated, mature and purposeful people, there is frequently a reluctance to decide upon radical spiritual issues. A well disciplined human character will seek with determination the solution to a "scientific" problem, or deal courageously with the complexities of a political or "business" situation; many men are capable of exhibiting the highest qualities of courage and endurance in the face of terrible physical handicaps and dangers. But it remains comparatively rare for a man to be willing to fight the spiritual battle, to put into practice the principle of outgoing love which is the heart of Christianity. The moment we begin to come within range, as it were, of the danger area, a great many people take refuge in what I can only call "cozy agnosticism." For so long as a man can persuade himself that he may honestly maintain an open mind about the identity and person of Jesus Christ, he remains uncommitted to the real business of living. Since he has no real standards he can be tolerant in isolation instead of becoming embarrassingly involved. Since he is unenlisted in any supra-human purpose, he is free to give or withhold himself as he chooses. Since he owes loyalty to nothing but his own humanist ideals, he is under no personal obligation to touch or be touched by the evil he deplores. And since he is responsible to no one, he need feel no particular guilt or failure in avoiding battles in which he can observe a pitiful minority struggling ineffectually. This attitude of noncommittal detachment is one of the most crippling evils of our time. Of course, there are thousands of people who, with the greatest moral courage, are coping with the sufferings, evils and distresses of our common social life, but if we come to examine any of these human efforts to deal with human needs, there is almost always a desperate shortage of dedicated men and women. "Dedicated" is the operative word, for so long as people have no faith in any value or purpose beyond the immediate human situation, there is nothing, in the last analysis, to which they can be truly dedicated. People may be "nice," honest and kind within certain limits, but nothing is going to break the coziness of agnosticism except a resurgence of faith. It is absolutely necessary for us to recapture the sense that this limited human life is surrounded and interpenetrated by a timeless spiritual dimension. Christ spoke unequivocally about "coming from" the Father, and "going to" the Father. It was said of him that "he went about doing good and healing all manner of sickness and disease among the people." He claimed that the work which he did, whether it was the healing of body, mind or soul was the work of God himself. Yet at the same time he stated quite definitely that his "Kingdom is not of this world." In other words, while he operated within the time-and-space situation, and neither despised nor detached himself from actual human living, he lived in continual awareness of what, for want of a better word, we call "eternity."

We may think his free use in the parables of the ideas of rewards, compensations and punishments in "the life to come" somewhat crude. We like to think that we do good for the sake of doing good and not for any reward or through fear of any punishment. But if we take Christ seriously we cannot avoid the conclusion that our status in the next stage of existence will be largely determined by our behavior in this one. As far as I know Christ nowhere suggests that we should be "good," unselfish and loving merely because we shall thereby win a heavenly reward. Nor does he suggest that we should avoid evil merely because we shall otherwise suffer for it hereafter. He is simply concerned to state what he clearly sees to be inevitable consequence; he is neither threatening nor promising, but stating inescapable fact. His chief call therefore is to what is usually rather misleadingly translated "repentance," actually to metanoia, which means a fundamental change of outlook, the acceptance of a quite different scale of values. The call to follow him, to enlist in the service of his Kingdom, must sooner or later include this revolution in thinking. It is really a call to freedom, freedom from the preoccupation with self, and from the preoccupation with the values of the closed-system of this world. It is as though he were showing men something of their true dignity and destiny -- he is revealing the fact that they are all potentially, and may become actually, sons of God. He exposes the play-acting (that is, the hypocrisies) of human living, its lovelessness toward fellow men, and its blindness to the contemporary presence and purpose of God. In effect, he calls men to a new pattern of life, the way of self-giving love, which is not shaped by earthly caution and prudence, but guided by his own living Spirit. It is a call to heroic and adventurous living, dangerous and exciting. For it is nothing less than the following, in this present level of living, of the timeless pattern which extends far beyond it. It cannot be contained by the old forms and traditions, and, as he himself remarked, any attempt to put the new wine into old wineskins would be disastrous.

Now it does seem to me that, in an age which has done and is doing exciting things in almost every department of life, this call to a new and true way of living should have a wide appeal. We have come to equate the supernatural with the "spooky" and the spiritual with the nebulous. But suppose we ourselves are being called to a metanoia. Suppose we are asked to believe that the dimension of ultimate reality is only partially adumbrated by what we see happening in human life? Can we not, on the authority of the historic visit, make at least a leap of imagination and see our lives as a temporary indication in time and space of something of far greater value and significance? Must we be so geocentric in our thinking? Can we not see that it is only from our point of view that this life looks like the whole? Could we not for a moment forget to be "sensible" and "scientific" and believe that our dreams, our longings and our intuitions, which can never be satisfied in this life, are not vapors of wishful thinking, but quietly insistent reminders of our true destiny?

Now although Christianity is an "otherworldly" way of living in that it derives its values, its power and ultimate purpose from a source outside this planet, it is, as we have seen above, incurably earthly. Therefore, we must not be surprised, if we embark on the course of following the way of Christ, to find that we are at once challenged by mundane difficulties. It is no good pretending that the way of freedom, of true insight and of deep joy is some painless primrose path. If it were so all men would unquestionably by now have become devoted followers of Christ. The way of living which recognizes God as the center of life instead of the self, or the aggregate of selves which we call humanity, does carry an endorsement of truth, but not without arousing hostility both inside and outside ourselves. We do not realize the depth of our former blindness, or the distortion of our previous values until we begin to live by the Light of the world.

We are in fact called to a battle, a battle which is largely a matter of holding tenaciously to what we inwardly know to be true in spite of apparent contradiction. But however sharp the conflict may be, no one who has seriously put his faith in Christís revelation ever wants to go back to a blind and purposeless existence. The Christian holds a clue to the meaning of life which is a pearl of very great price, and he will never let it go. It is true that he is faced by problems of every kind, by strains within and without himself, but he is no longer walking in darkness, and he knows that he is not walking alone. At the best he sees life and its purpose with such clarity that he is amazed that all men cannot see and embrace the truth; but at the very worst, whatever life may inflict upon him, he knows himself to be indissolubly joined to the reality which is God and he is in no doubt about the ultimate outcome. Following the way of real living may prove costly and difficult; but I know from my own experience and from that of many others that it provides increasingly a sense of satisfaction which is almost indefinable. Something very deep within us knows that we are in harmony with the real pattern, the real purpose -- we have begun to live as sons of God.

I see some clue to the spiritual satisfaction afforded by acceptance of the Christian Faith in what have now become established as the psychological essentials of human living. For the distilled wisdom of psychological schools of thought really amounts to this: that human beings need above all love, security and significance. The personality deprived of any of these three, especially during the formative years, is inevitably bound to show signs of inner deprivation. To put it in plain terms, everybody needs to love and be loved, everybody needs a reasonable degree of security, and everybody needs to feel he holds a significant place in human society. A great many human evils are directly attributable to the fact that people have been or are deprived of these basic requirements. Now the conscientious humanist society will do its utmost to meet these psychological needs, but I believe that they must also be recognized at a much deeper level, at the level of the naked and lonely human spirit. Because many people live most of their lives in the company of others, and indeed many cannot bear to be alone, these deep needs are often concealed. But when circumstances force men, possibly through tragedy, bereavement or personal suffering, to realize their solitariness, a need far deeper than the basic psychological requirements is, often poignantly, experienced. Man finds that he needs both to love and be loved by God, not in any sentimental sense, but at the center of his being where pretense is impossible. He desperately needs real security, not physical security, for life has probably taught him that comparatively few can enjoy this, and in any case, sooner or later, it is knocked from their grasp by the fact of death. He wants the deep security of knowing that he is in fact a son of God, and that there is nothing whatever which could possibly happen to him which can affect the ultimate safety of that relationship. Spiritually, too, he deeply needs to know that he is of value, that his little life is significant in the vast eternal scheme of things. Properly understood, the Christian Faith answers these needs at the deepest level. Countless men and women have in their own darkness and solitariness found that there is "someone there." In the God revealed by Christ they discover love, security and significance of a quality inexpressible in words.

But there is no need to wait for life to strip us of our armor and reveal us to ourselves in our solitariness. We need not wait till the superficialities are destroyed before we make a determined plunge beneath the surface to find the meaning and significance of life. God, I repeat, is inescapably and at all times contemporary.

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