Chapter 2: Faith and Unfaith

God Our Contemporary
by J.B. Phillips

Chapter 2: Faith and Unfaith

Many men and women are baffled and bewildered by the complexities of the modern human scene. They can see no sense or purpose in it at all, and many of them are not a little frightened at the new vistas of human knowledge and power which are continually opening up in a dozen different fields. Most of them hold on, without much reason or authority, to the moral standards of what is commonly supposed to be the good life. But it must be plainly said that when they turn to the churches they feel they are entering the atmosphere of a bygone age. Indeed the whole language, teaching and climate of "Church" appears almost totally irrelevant to modern life. I am not of course saying that the irrelevancy is factual. I am merely concerned to point out that this is how the whole machinery of "Church" often appears to the outsider.

I am happy to be aware of exceptions, but the fact remains that most of the practicing Christians in our churches are the product of Christian parents -- there is a sort of hereditary indoctrination. What is more, almost every clergyman or minister of my acquaintance comes from a Christian family, and is not infrequently "a son of the manse." The training of young men for the ministry of the Church is certainly far better today than it was when I myself was ordained. Nevertheless, I am convinced that even today it does not do enough to help a man understand the unbelieving world to which he is called to minister. It is not uncommon to find that those who train him however learned they may be in such matters as theology and Church history, are almost totally ignorant of non-Christian ways of thinking, except perhaps theoretically. It is still possible to find plenty of ordained men who have never worked, in the secular sense, in the contemporary world, and who find it difficult to understand the perplexity and insecurity of godless materialism. The very fact that the modern Church finds "communication" such a desperately difficult problem is undeniable evidence of its lack of understanding of the world of unfaith. I know that these are hard words, but they are not written in any spirit of useless criticism. I am merely concerned to point out, and to emphasize as strongly as I can, what is to me the daily tragedy -- the gulf between the good men of faith and the good men of unfaith. Let us put briefly the two contemporary points of view.

The Christian believes in a God of Love, All-powerful and All-wise. He believes man to be God’s special creation, and whether he believes the fault to derive from the failure of the first man or not, he believes mankind to be suffering from a universal infection called "sin." He is inclined to believe that the non-apprehension of God is chiefly due to this moral infection. The Christian further believes that the eventual effect of sin is death, and that man would be in a hopeless impasse were it not for God’s personal visit to this earth in the man Jesus Christ. This man not only provided a perfect example of human living but by making himself, as it were, representative man, allowed the forces of evil to close in upon him and kill him. By this action he reconciled the sinful human race with the utter perfection and holiness of God. After his death by crucifixion he returned to life again, both to prove his own claim to be divine, and to demonstrate the fact that he had overcome the power of death. After his Resurrection and Ascension he sent his own Spirit into the personalities of his early followers so that they might be the spearhead of a movement designed to convert the world to belief in, and cooperation with, God himself. Christians further believe that Jesus Christ founded a Church which is to be on earth a witness to heavenly truth, and that he gave that Church unique spiritual authority. The Church therefore seeks to add to its membership so that men and women may be reconciled with God and may do his Will upon earth.

In sharp contrast with this view of life is that of the intelligent agnostic. He finds himself part of a vast number of human beings living on this comparatively tiny planet. He knows something of the aeons of time which must have elapsed before Homo sapiens appeared. He can probably see an upward trend in the process of evolution, however blind and ruthless that process may sometimes seem to be. But, if he is honest, he is not wholly convinced that the present tendencies of man are in an upward direction. He cannot help observing evil, injustice and cruelty. He cannot help seeing how frequently the innocent suffer and how the tough and cruel go through life comparatively unscathed. He also sees a good deal of human unselfishness, kindness and courage, and these qualities he is prepared to recognize as good and even to regard with a certain reverence. Now the Christian’s starting point, or at least the starting point of such evangelism as he may chance to hear, probably seems to him quite monstrous. The emphasis is on human sin and on the failure of men to reach the apparently arbitrary standards of God. After all, he thinks, if there is a God in charge of the whole bewildering universe, it seems singularly unfair that he should be presented in the role of a hanging judge! For, to put it plainly, he holds all the cards and knows all the answers, while even the most devout Christian, on his own admission, walks by faith and not by sight. It seems to our sensitive agnostic that the God presented by the passionate evangelist is making unwarrantable demands. For if, after a long process of evolution, highly complex beings with self-consciousness emerge, then surely any reasonable Creator would not expect too much of his creatures who are blind and limited through no fault of their own. Indeed, if there is a God his attitude toward man could fairly be expected to show both pity and the desire to help. But to call his creatures "sinners," and to insist that to admit their "sin" is the only way to get to know him, seems uncomfortably like condemning a small child for not understanding the binomial theorem!

To my mind the difference between these two points of view is not always properly appreciated. The Christian, who is far more indoctrinated than he realizes by upbringing and training, very naturally tends to consort with fellow-Christians who share his point of view. If he is a clergyman or minister his specialized training will condition him even more deeply. It becomes virtually impossible for him to view the human scene without theological color. He holds a faith which, in my view, is infinitely worth passing on; he is more often than not a man of kindness, compassion and sympathy. But again and again he feels frustrated and grows disheartened because he does not really understand the thinking and feeling of people who possess absolutely nothing of that Christian conviction which shapes his whole life.

At the same time the intelligent agnostic, with his prejudices against the churches and all their ways, very rarely takes the trouble to look behind the tradition and the façade and to find out the meaning of essential Christianity. His knowledge of what the alert modern Church is doing in any part of the world is usually infinitesimal, and equally minute is his firsthand adult knowledge of the early Christian documents which comprise the New Testament. Consequently his attacks on the churches are nearly always ill informed or out-of-date. If he rarely fires a shot at Christianity itself it is simply because he usually has little more than a very sketchy knowledge of what it is all about.

There is an added difficulty in the modern situation which is not always appreciated by the sincere lifelong Christian. In the old days, when man knew very little about the true nature of the physical world, he could very easily be reduced to a state of awe and even terror by natural phenomena which he did not understand. But with the vast increase in scientific knowledge in the last seventy years -- a knowledge which is expanding all the time -- man’s attitude toward Nature has greatly changed. When confronted with the inexplicable his reaction is very far from that of the saints of old who could humbly say, "It is the Lord, let him do what seemeth to him good." Old-fashioned humility of this kind is a very delightful virtue, especially when we observe it in other people’s lives! But the modern agnostic is not necessarily lacking in humility when his reaction before the inexplicable is markedly different. He says, in effect, "This is something new to human experience; let us try to understand it and, if possible, control it." And it may be worth pointing out here that if it were not for this attitude men would still be living in terror of darkness, lightning and contagious disease.

Some Christians, at least, do not appear to have properly observed this change of atmosphere in thinking. For a man who believes in a God who is a benevolent Heavenly Father, it may be easy to accept life at the Father’s Hand. But it is really expecting too much to think that the intelligent agnostic is going to smother his own critical faculty and observations of life and submit to an unknown quantity called "the Lord’s Will." The modern agnostic, who is by no means unaware of the mystery of life, is not nearly so arrogant as he appears. But he is not going to be shocked or coerced into faith by the sheer weight of the inexplicable. "If we admit that there is a God," he is saying, "surely we can consider ourselves as having passed the fears and bogeys of childhood. Cannot God treat us as intelligent adults and let us have at least a few hints as to what life is all about? Can we not know something of its purpose so that we may cooperate with it? We cannot abrogate our intelligence, but we would give a great deal to have reliable clues to the nature and purpose of life." Surely such an attitude is reasonable, and surely the Christian should try to understand it!