God Our Contemporary
by J.B. Phillips
Chapter 13:<B> </B>Christian Revelation
Now if we regard all real religions as attempts to get at a special kind of truth to provide some answer to man’s intuitions about his own nature, we shall, I believe, find that what we know as "Christianity" comprehends, develops and fulfills all that at heart we hold to be true. In a way that we should not have guessed, or indeed planned, God has visited this planet, and we can do no thinking or philosophizing, nor can we deal with any human problem unless we take this fact into our serious calculation. It is perfectly true that the most convinced believer in God’s focusing of himself in Christ does not "know all the answers." But at least he has enough true light by which to live, and he has powerful and indeed exciting clues to the meaning and purpose of life and to man’s ultimate destiny. In order to make this clear I will mention some of the unique truths with which Christianity presents us.
1. With the coming of Christ a completely new God-man relationship came into being, which is not found in any other religion. Man enjoys a new value, a new dignity and new potentialities, because God became a human being. At the same time, man’s conception of God is revolutionized by the thought that the Spirit of Wisdom, Love and Power behind all that we know, and all that we do not know, reduced himself to the stature of a man.
2. It is not always realized how closely the life and teaching of Jesus links the life of man with the life of God. Two examples from the recorded sayings of Jesus will perhaps serve to illustrate this:
(a) A fundamental problem of all religions is the problem of "forgiveness." Man sins and fails, despairs and loses faith, and yet he must somehow be reconciled morally and spiritually with the absolute perfection of God. Only God can resolve this sin-guilt-suffering-death complex, and Christians believe, however their interpretations may vary, that "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself" But quite apart from this act of reconciliation it is most important to realize that Jesus declared categorically that reconciliation with God is an impossibility without reconciliation with man. He taught, "if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:15). We can hardly overestimate the significance of this statement, or of the general tenor of Jesus’ teaching, which would not allow any divorce between love of God and love of man. We may perhaps wish the situation to be otherwise, but as far as we are concerned this is one of the conditions, definite and inexorable, by which we have to live.
(b) As far as the records show, Jesus gave only one parable of the final judgment which all men face after the probation of this life. The criterion is neither religion, nor orthodoxy, nor respectability, but the way in which man has treated man. (See Matthew 25, verses 31 to the end.) In this altogether revolutionary way of looking at things, which is unique to Christianity, Jesus deliberately and precisely identifies man’s treatment of himself with man’s treatment of man.
Here surely is the true humanism. Because God has become man, all men are at least potentially sons of God. It automatically becomes a serious offense to injure or exploit other people, not because of some vague humanist values but because God has done man the unspeakable honor of identifying himself with the human race.
3. Now although Christianity leads human thoughts and aspirations far beyond the limitations of this present stage of existence, and is thus in a sense an other-worldly religion, it is also incurably earthly. Men may have their visions, but they are required to work them out in the everyday stuff of human situations. There is no room for mystical escapism; we find God-become-man himself involved in the messes and miseries of the human situation and requiring his followers to do the same. A man whose life is united with the timeless life of God through sincere and intelligent faith in Christ becomes strongly aware of his eternal destiny, and all kinds of inexpressible hopes for the distant future begin to stir in his mind. But he has to learn and to act in this present world, accepting good-humoredly his physical limitations and a fair degree of spiritual blindness. He has to express what is spiritually true in the context of ordinary human relationships and ordinary human problems.
4. As might be expected from a religion which is not the product of any particular human way of thinking but the result of a planned revelation, Christianity is of universal application. It cuts across barriers of class, color and sex, and has a message of equal importance to the wise and to the foolish. It is perfectly possible for men or women of any race, color or culture to be wholehearted Christians. And while Christianity’s highest and deepest implications may tax the brains and moral courage of the most fully developed personalities, they can also be accepted by the relatively simple and ungifted.
One of the reasons why it is imperative for us moderns to get back to essential Christianity is that we may realize afresh the revolutionary character of its message. We have forgotten its devastating disregard, or even reversal, of current worldly values, and have allowed what we call "Western civilization" or "the American way of life" to become more or less God-fearing substitutes for the real thing. For when God made his strange invasion of the life of this planet, the little section of humanity into which he came was obsessed as much as we are today with the importance of such things as power, privilege, success and wealth. By revealing reality, by declaring the Kingdom of God, God-become-man undermined or exposed these false values. He taught, and his teaching is as difficult to follow now as it was then, that what is apparently happening may bear little or no relation to what is really happening. The reality, according to him, is the establishment and growth of a Kingdom of inner loyalty which transcends all human barriers. Therefore, the realization of the existence of this Kingdom, working for its expansion, living according to its principles, and, if necessary, dying for it, is the real significance of man s temporary existence upon the earth. Jesus taught, and demonstrated in person, that the very things which the world values most highly are irrelevant and ineffectual in the dimension of permanent reality. He neither denied the existing world nor despaired of its inhabitants, but by setting up an entirely different standard he showed the way of constructive human living. He showed men how they need not be overinvolved with this world, how they need be neither deluded by its glamours, nor confined by its limitations.
It is particularly interesting to notice that he who was born a Jew cut fearlessly across the fierce Jewish prejudices of his day. It is, for example, well worth while studying his treatment of women and of the underprivileged. Quite as remarkable is his habit of being unimpressed by what was, and is still in some quarters, regarded as a sign of God’s favor and the peak of human achievement -- the possession of property and riches. It is because the teaching of Christ (which I believe to be the truth breaking through into a world of false values) is at once so realistic, so disturbing and so revolutionary, that we need to go back to it with adult minds and hearts.
The moment the truth dawns upon us that the purpose of God’s visit to this planet was not to establish another religion but to reveal the reality behind the appearance of things, we see what I believe to be another unique feature of the Christian Faith -- its utter inescapability. Its principles and laws do not merely apply to religion and the religious way of life, they apply to life itself, wherever and whenever it is lived. For Christianity, although it is a religion in the sense that it links the life of man with the Life of God, is far more than one of the world’s great faiths: it is the revelation of the way of true living. Since, unless we live as hermits, we are all to a greater or less extent bound up with each other, we cannot escape behaving toward people or treating people in one way or another. And because Christ has plainly declared that the way in which we treat people is a mirror-image of the way in which we treat God, the most ardent atheist or thoroughgoing agnostic can no more escape from Christianity than he can escape from life itself. You cannot contract out of life, and since God has personally visited the planet, you cannot contract out of the reality which underlies the business of human living. To me at least this is not a "religious" matter at all; it has not necessarily anything to do with going to church, or praying, or reading the Bible, or even with believing in God. It is a matter of the quality of our living, and God’s assessment of that no one can ultimately escape.
It is taken for granted in the recorded teaching of Jesus (and in the New Testament generally) that this life is lived against a background of what can literally be translated as "the Life of the Ages." The present business of living is merely a prelude, acted in the time-and-space setup on this planet, to life in another dimension where present limitations do not obtain. It is probably impossible to describe the next stage of existence in earthly terms, and it would be childish to take literally the picture-language of the New Testament writers who make some attempt to hint at its unimaginable splendors and possibilities. But the teaching of Christ is that the ultimate destiny of human beings, as far as we can at present comprehend it, is not extinction or absorption into the Infinite, but the full development, the bringing to maturity, of sons of God. For all we know, there lie ahead of us activities and responsibilities far beyond our present dreams, but at least it is clear that what we do in this present life is a significant factor in determining our status in the next. It is unwise to press parables too literally, but the general tenor of the parables of Jesus emphasizes man’s moral responsibility in the here-and-now, the certainty of life persisting beyond physical death, and the equal certainty of his continued cooperation with the joyful purpose of God -- or his exclusion from it. Therefore, although Jesus would be the last person to use fear as a moral weapon (except in the case of the desperately self-complacent), he did teach that life should be lived with a due sense of awe and responsibility. I believe he did this not merely because of man’s short- or long-term effect upon others, but because of his destiny in the dimension which follows what we call "death."
Now this background of "eternity" is absolutely essential to any reasonable belief in God. Without it the glaring injustices, the inexplicable tragedies and the unsolved problems of this life make nonsense of the idea of a loving God. But if we have here only the preparatory stage, the first working-over of the raw material, the significant beginnings but not the final endings of a vast purpose, we can accept life with a much better grace. We are no longer tortured by the dreadful limitations of man’s life on this planet, and while as lovers of God and lovers of man, we are bound to do all that we can to spread the invisible Kingdom here on earth, we know that both the foundation and the fulfillment of that Kingdom lie beyond the confines of our present situation. Why this should be so we simply do not know. Indeed, it is only one of the hundreds of known facts about human life which we must accept with a proper and reverent agnosticism.