Chapter 3: A Plea for Understanding

God Our Contemporary
by J.B. Phillips

Chapter 3: A Plea for Understanding

I have already mentioned the widespread ignorance on both sides of the chasm which divides the world and the Church. The traditional churches do not always seem to realize that the premises for sensible argument, which are basic to themselves, are probably neither valid nor comprehensible in the world outside the Church. When the practicing Christian talks to modern man about the "Law of God," the "Teaching of the Church," or invokes the authority of Holy Scripture, he is to his own mind bringing out the heaviest weapons in his armory. But to the man whose idea of God is nebulous to the point of negligibility the invocation of "God’s Law" is quite meaningless. To say that "the Church teaches" is equally without force, for the man of intelligence knows, in the first place, that there are a great many churches and that some of their teaching is contradictory. Secondly, he may ask rudely but pertinently, "Who are the churches anyway and by what right do they attempt to speak with authority to me?" And although in the heated atmosphere of the revival meeting the phrase "the Bible says" may carry fervent conviction, the intelligent man who has read the Bible knows perfectly well that it can be made to "say" a lot of things, and that, as a matter of sober history, witch-hunting, slave-owning and the inhuman policy of apartheid have all been justified by reference to the same Bible.

But the ignorance and misunderstanding do not exist only on the side of professing Christians. There is, for example, a basic misconception held by a great many people outside the Christian Church. It is commonly supposed that, in the religious view, life is primarily a kind of competition in goodness and morality! Consequently, the agnostic who can, and frequently does say, "I am as good as So-and-so who goes to church," feels that he has given a final and unanswerable reply to the whole Christian position! But true Christianity has never taught that life is primarily a kind of competition in goodness. Most Christians today are "in the Church" because they have felt the need for God and for cooperating with what they know of his purpose. There probably were times in the history of the Christian Church in this country when some church-going Christians would look upon themselves as "superior" to those outside the Church. But to imagine that such is the common attitude today would be laughable if it were not a tragic part of the misunderstanding between the worlds of faith and unfaith. Most modern Church-goers give this weekly witness to their own inner conviction without the slightest sense of superiority, and more frequently than is sometimes supposed, it is given by young Christians despite ridicule, discouragement and even some persecution. If I plead for more understanding on the part of Christians for those who have not enjoyed a Christian upbringing, I would also plead that the agnostic should know much more accurately than he appears to do what the Christians of today, particularly the young Christians, really believe.

Now apart from the nonsense of the supposed "competition in goodness" both Christians and humanists believe that it is important to lead a good life. But in this country there is not the sharp black-and-white contrast between Christians and pagans, largely, I believe, because the whole life of the country has been soaked for many centuries in the Christian tradition. Thousands of people today are exhibiting, even to a marked degree, "the fruits of the Spirit" which Paul listed long ago in his letter to Galatia. They are, for the record, "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, tolerance and self-control."

It is obvious that these qualities are no monopoly of the churches, and that devoted selfless service is quite frequently given without any religious faith. It is naturally argued by our scientific humanists that this is good and normal human behavior. But is this really so? It would need firsthand knowledge of an entirely pagan country to say for certain that these impressive spiritual qualities are growing spontaneously, rather than being the delayed action of many years of unconscious Christian absorption. It could surely be reasonably argued that many people in this country are living on the spiritual capital of the past, and that there are signs that the capital is being depleted. Already there are many thousands of present-day parents who were brought up with no religious faith and few standards, and they have had almost nothing, and sometimes less than nothing of spiritual value, to pass on to their children. Surely it is not farfetched to suggest that the depletion of spiritual capital accounts for the breakdown of moral standards in our society. For, as I hope to show in a later chapter, moral standards ultimately depend upon something transcending the human scene.

Quite apart from the gulf between the comparatively small world of faith and the world of unfaith there are innumerable smaller gulfs between various sections of our common life. I am not pining for the long-past "ages of faith" when I point out that there was in those days a communal basic belief in God and in revealed standards of human behavior. This central belief to a large extent held people together in their widely varying activities. Moreover, in days when the sum total of human knowledge could practically be held in the mind of one man the division caused by human specialization was little more than a superficial difference of function. Men could at least imagine that all truth was one.

But today, in our country, the picture is entirely different. A common faith in God is held by only a minority, and comparatively few people believe that there is Absolute Truth to which all human discoveries of truth can be referred. This means in effect that our modern greatly accentuated specialization tends to divide people more and more. In our industrialized society all kinds of professions and vocations, all kinds of skilled and unskilled occupations, tend to become wrapped in their own cocoon of specialized knowledge, and to have little more than superficial contacts outside their own mystiques. What does the steelworker, for example, know of the life and problems of a modern secondary school teacher? What does the electronics engineer know of the life and problems of the surgeon? Such examples could obviously be multiplied many times; there are many human occupations which exist in practical isolation from the rest of the community, and in the absence of a common faith there is today no effective meeting point. From time to time crises such as strike action remind people that they are dependent upon one another, but for the most part they live and work within the confines of their own occupation, and there is extraordinarily little communication of ideas of any significance. This truth is most easily observed by those who have the opportunity of passing readily through the unseen barriers. The doctor, the nurse and the clergyman or minister are some of the few who can observe these divisions.

Now these people, divided into occupational compartments of knowledge, skill and experience, are a kind of parable of what is happening in the realm of thought. The scientist who is exploring the very frontiers of human knowledge in some specialized department of truth may have absolutely no knowledge of the work of any other specialist and may indeed take a certain pride in such ignorance! Of course there is a fascination in retiring more and more completely into the ivory tower of expert knowledge, and the temptation to do so is just as real to the religious man as it is to the poet, the archaeologist, the astronomer, the geneticist, the mathematician and all the others. But the result of such retirement is that there is no common pool of human knowledge, no interaction between various aspects of truth, and no kind of conclusion based on the total of human knowledge and experience. It will naturally be objected that the real expert cannot share his specialized knowledge with the untrained, and that is no doubt true. But surely his point of view can be expressed, and the reason for his dedication to his particular facet of truth translated into terms comprehensible to other men of intelligence? Can it not be more widely recognized that we are all in the human predicament together and that the pooling of knowledge and experience might lead to considerably more light being shed on the business of living which faces every one of us.

There is another danger in extreme specialization. Unless the specialist informs himself to a reasonable degree outside his specialty he can easily be misled in a department where his critical faculties have no familiar data on which to work. Thus a dedicated scientist who feels, because he is a human being, the need for something less coldly detached from humanity, may easily be drawn into a religious cult which is both crude and obscurantist. His highly developed mind apparently ceases to function in an unfamiliar milieu -- or it is possible that he may not wish it to function. Psychologically it may be an enormous relief to him to enter a world of warmth and fantasy after the cold, disciplined life of the laboratory where feelings count not at all. That this can and does happen I know from personal experience, and it sometimes has unhappy consequences. For other scientists, doctors or whatever the specialists may be, are apt to jump to the conclusion that "religion" is simply an emotional escape. They are therefore hardly encouraged to examine such a phenomenon as Christianity with unprejudiced critical faculties.

Apart from such dangers in excessive specialization, there is a kind of intellectual snobbery about the whole matter which I am sure all men of good will should steadfastly resist. I call to mind a former high dignitary of the Church of England who was presented with a fountain pen. But he never used it, on the simple ground that "he did not understand mechanical things"! I cannot see why the artist should despise the engineer or the engineer the artist, and I have little patience for artists or intellectuals of one sort or another who dismiss a scientific device, which has taken years of patience to perfect, as a mere gadget. Those who make it their proud boast that they "don’t know the first thing about electricity and couldn’t even mend a socket" or, when referring to their car, say, "I haven’t the remotest idea what goes on under the hood, I just drive the thing," are to my mind guilty of a quite unpardonable conceit. It would not take them long to understand at least the elementary principles of those things which they affect to despise, and even to have some clue to the rudiments might give them an inkling into the enormous skill, patience and ingenuity which lie behind the practical application of physical science. Those who loudly deplore the intrusion of "science" into our private lives and speak nostalgically of the past would be among the first to complain if they were deprived of the convenience of electric light, the telephone or the motor car! On the other hand, the man of science has no right to dismiss a religion such as Christianity, for example, as a mere hangover from more primitive days. He surely cannot seriously imagine that men of similar intellectual caliber to his own have not asked the same searching fundamental questions about life and its meaning which he himself asks, and yet have come to the conclusion that the Christian Faith is an indispensable part of total truth. If it is rare to find a bishop, shall we say, giving time and thought to understand the elements of a scientific process, it is, in my experience at least, also rare to find a scientist giving his serious attention to the meaning and significance of Christianity.

Obviously, in an age such as ours there must be specialization; but must there be such drastic isolation of objective? Surely there need not be such divisive walls between art, science and religion, erected and maintained only too often by pride, ignorance and prejudice. No intelligent seeker after truth imagines that he is the only one on the right track, and the time has gone by when complete ignorance of another man’s point of view could be considered a virtue.