J. B. Phillips is perhaps best known for his translation of the New Testament, which was released piecemeal throughout the late 1940s and into the mid-1950s. He was an Anglican clergyman for over twenty years. Sometime in the early 1950s, Phillips gave a series of evangelistic talks for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1954, these talks were compiled and published as a little book entitled Plain Christianity. The book is a warm-hearted, commonsense discussion about the Christian faith and message. With its mid-20th century British cadence, the book reminds the reader of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which was also derived from a series of radio talks.
In this excerpt,1 Phillips discusses whether people can live without God.
There is a question which I think is in a good many people’s minds, though they may not often put it into words, and I am going to try to answer it. The question is simply this: ‘Can I live without God?’
Well, of course, the short answer to that is, ‘No, of course, you can’t.’ The very fact that you are living at all is because you are using the very complicated mechanism which we call the body, which you had no hand in designing. You are listening to me with ears that are very delicate and complicated mechanisms, and you and I certainly had no part in making them. At the same time, you are breathing with lungs you have ever seen, you are digesting your last meal by a most complicated process which turns inanimate matter into the living cells of your body – a process about which you and I know very little. And at the same time you are using your mind in following my thoughts, and to do this you are using a brain which is an enormously complicated and highly efficient piece of apparatus.
In a very real sense you could not possibly live without the One who designed and created the body you live in. I sometimes read of certain radio or film artists who appear ‘by kind permission of Mr. So-and-so.’ I may say in passing that this always amuses me because it sounds as though the particular artist would be invisible or inaudible unless Mr. So-and-so gave him permission! But it is perfectly and literally true that you and I exist at all only by kind permission of God.
It is strange how people can lose sight of this very elementary fact. Radio construction happens to be one of my hobbies, and the other day I was talking to a radio engineer who was pointing out to me the finer points of a television receiver. After a bit I said to him, ‘Has it ever struck you that all this would be quite useless if it were not for the human eye?’ He paused for a moment, then laughed and said, ‘Well, to be perfectly honest, I really hadn’t thought of that.’
You see, we take the miracle of the human machine so much for granted that we forget the Mind that must lie behind its enormously complicated design. So, I repeat, in the strictly literal sense, we cannot live at all without God.
But, I don’t think the questioner really means the question to be asked in just that sense. What he really means is, ‘Can I do without thinking of God, without prayer or worship, or reading the Bible or Holy Communion? Can I live my life without reference to God, in other words?’
Again, to give a short answer, we can say, ‘Yes, you can, millions do.’ They go through life without scarcely a thought of God from the cradle to the grave. But I believe they suffer an immense loss in quality of living. After all, your radio will work without an aerial, but not very well. Your car will run on two cylinders instead of four, but not very well. If you are a housewife you can do your cooking without ever using sugar or salt, but neither you nor the family is going to be pleased with the result.
It seems to me it is all a question of quality of living. You can live some sort of existence, you can get through your life somehow, without any conscious reference to God, but your life is going to be of a poor quality. At the best it is going to be deficient and at the worst it is going to fall an easy prey to the various evil forces in the world. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the reason why the world as a whole is in such a frightening mess is because the vast majority of people are living lives without God.
That to my mind is not how life is meant to be lived, and humanity as a whole shows all the signs of a deficiency disease. I am convinced that we are meant to live as sons and daughters of God, and if we refuse to realize our heredity or accept it, or if we refuse to cooperate with the Will and Purpose of God, we cannot really blame Him if the human situation grows pretty appalling.
I said a few moments ago that life without God is of poor quality. Now that is not a favorite theory of mine. It is a conclusion based on a good deal of personal observation. I expect you’ve realized that a parson has an almost unique opportunity of getting to know people; people of all types and temperaments, of all classes and of varying degrees of intelligence. Not many people have that opportunity.
Most people know their own circle and have only haziest idea of how other people live, except of course through books and films. People who live in towns have very little knowledge of how country people live, and vice versa. Business people as a rule only know their business friends and acquaintances, and a few friends outside. People who work in shops get to know their own customers pretty well, but they don’t have much time or opportunity for knowing many other people apart from their own friends.
But people like doctors, nurses and parsons, who are allowed into the homes of all sorts of people, have, as a rule, a much wider knowledge of human nature. They are privileged really, and when they have been on the job for over twenty years, working amongst different kinds of people, they can’t help noticing a difference in quality between people who have a real faith in God and people who have not. Oh, by the way, I am leaving out of this talk the hypocrites, of whom there are a few in any community, who pretend to be very holy and devout, and who are really thoroughly self-centered. I am thinking of the contrast that I have observed between the people who attempt to live without God and the people who have a living faith in Him.
Well, let us look first at the people who have no faith in God. Please remember I am not condemning them; I am just telling you what I have observed.
The first thing I notice about them is that they have not got any real purpose in life. So often they re just waiting for something – waiting for the children to grow up and be off their hands, waiting for the time when they can retire. Very rarely have they got any sense of joining in and helping with a Purpose bigger than themselves. Many of them are very kindly people, but if you ask them straight out: ‘What are you living for?’ they can usually only give you the most hazy or trivial answers. I don’t think they are aware of it, but to me it is pathetically clear that they are not linked to anything or anyone bigger than themselves.
In the second place I notice that such people have no one and nothing to turn to when they have reached the end of their own resources. For example, a man may be cursed with a bad temper. He may know perfectly well that it worries his wife and frightens his children and spoils the atmosphere of his home. When he is pretty young he may battle against it and sometimes succeed, but as time goes on and he is defeated more often than not, he is very apt to conclude that there is nothing that can be done about it. His bad temper, or whatever the fault may be, is just one of those things that can’t be altered. And so he shrugs his shoulders and simply makes a compromise with the bad temper or the jealous spirit or the bitter tongue, or whatever else it is that is spoiling his life. He does not know of any source to which he can turn which can enable him to control his own nature, still less to transform it.
Then too, I have noticed again and again that people who live without God are all right as long as they are well and reasonably prosperous, but that illness or accident knocks them completely sideways. Oh, they are ready enough then with, ‘How can there be a God to allow this to happen to me?’ But they have never learned to find God as a refuge and a strength in good times as well as bad. Many of them are remarkably brave, but many more are completely lost when, for example, health fails, or there is some tragic happening in the family. They have literally no one to whom to turn.
The third thing that I notice about people who live without God … is that they have nothing constructive to offer to the men or women who are defeated either by their own natures or by the circumstances of life. Of course, they can do and say things like: ‘Cheer up – it may not be as bad as you think’ or ‘Pull yourself together’ or even, ‘Why can’t you be like me?’ but what they can never say, what they are quite unable to say, is ‘I know Someone who is far stringer than you or I, who has helped me and who can help you.’ In other words, because they have no experience of God, they have no experience of any power or resource or refuge or strength outside themselves. And I think that is a very impoverishing thing.
1 J. B. Phillips, Plain Christianity (New York: MacMillian, 1954), 23-27.