Plain Christianity / J. B. Phillips

This review appeared on my previous blog, Rat's Reading.

Not a lot of people realize this, but I’m a pretty religious person. Having spent some time in self-help groups where many push the idea of spiritual, not religious I try to set myself apart from that. To me, it gives religion a bad connotation. I’m actually a big fan of religion, even though I don’t subscribe to the creed of any organized religion. I wish I could believe, but I don’t.

Cover of Plain Christianity

Since my start in that group, I’ve been on a quest to find out just what creed I do believe. I suppose I could be called a cafeteria Christian, picking and choosing the pieces I like from various religions, including non-Christian ones. Though I think that’s also a misnomer. I believe that deep inside me is the fundamental idea of god. My quest is not to see what god I like, but instead to put some form to the god in which I already believe and the god that is part of me.

One of the fundamental tenets of my belief is that god shows himself in the little things. Everyday living is much more important to me than devoting one’s life to missionary work, or starting a leprosarium in Calcutta, or such things. Those are activities usually performed by people who have dedicated their lives to god. But most people do not have the means or fortitude to live like that. Nor do I think god requires that of us.

I think god lives in our daily lives. God shows us how to match calamity with serenity. I don’t mean the calamity of a hurricane, divorce, or election of a right-wing president. Though I believe god does do that as well. God protects me from self-made calamity. Taking bad service in stride at a restaurant. Missing my bus to work. Screwing up on the job. God gives me purpose, and with god such things won’t divert me from my purpose. In fact, in some respects, they enhance my purpose. For years, I often told people that they could tell the level of my spiritual life by the height of my unwashed pile of dishes. The lower the more spiritual I was. I still believe that today. To be fair, the principle is not limited to my dishes; it’s merely one of many measures of my spiritual life.

Which brings me to Plain Christianity. I don’t recall where I picked this book up. I love it. It’s a transcription of some talks J.B. Phillips gave on the B.B.C.. They are conversational in tone, readable, and the philosophy and theology are accessible to common people like myself. The first talk represent to me the epitome of Christianity. Phillips writes that he is not interested in a religion that does not work in daily living. He believes that Christianity gives Christians who live by faith three characteristics:

  1. inward tranquility,
  2. unquenchable gaiety of spirit,
  3. and an outgoing love that is concerned about other people.

In particular, he writes that this love is exhibited not only in a small circle where it is likely to be returned, but extends to places and people where it is certainly not asked for and where it may not even be appreciated. I try to keep these characteristics in mind. They are a checklist of sorts. If I can’t check them off, I’m losing touch with god and need to reconnect.

Phillips follows that with something I don’t agree though. He lists three differences between Christians and nice people who exhibit the prior three qualities but do not follow the Christian creed. First, is that according to him these people were likely brought up Christian anyway, and so their qualities can be attributed to their Christian upbringing. Second, that while these people are nice they cannot cope effectively with the messes and muddles made by the sins and failures of other men. But that comparatively speaking, Christians do. And third, they have no way to communicate the secret of their niceness. Christians evangelize, but nice people’s spiritual condition is not the product of a particular creed or method and so cannot be handed down to someone else.

Having been a non-Christian for many years, I’d politely disagree with Phillips were I to meet him were he to return to life. My non-Christian faith allows me to cope with the messes and muddles of everyday living, and I do have a way to pass on the secret of my creed. I don’t generally, because I believe people have to want what I have strongly enough to ask me how. I don’t believe god wants me to teach my belief to the unwilling.

Phillips is right though about the characteristics of people of faith, but I think he unnecessarily limits it to Christians. Given that he was a parson in the Church of England, my guess is he was working with a certain set of religious blinders on, and so was looking for a way to differentiate when none necessarily existed. And I can use his checklist to see where I currently stand in my spiritual and religious living.

The rest of the book is less interesting, though perhaps Christians may be interested in his views on translating the New Testament, the form worship should take, or the holy spirit.

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