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Christian Escapism: J B Philips

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Today’s voice from the past is taken from Mary Batchelor‘s anthology, The Lion Literature Collection. She introduces it as follows:

 In Your God Is Too Small, J B Philips reasons that many people today reject God because they have failed to form an adult image of him that is big enough to meet the questions and demands of life. In this extract, he describes those he dubs ‘bosom-flyers’.

The critics of the Christian religion have often contended that a religious faith is a form of psychological ‘escapism’. A man, they say, finding the problems and demands of adult life too much for him will attempt to return to the comfort and dependence of childhood by picturing for himself a loving parent, whom he calls God.

It must be admitted that there is a good deal of ammunition ready to hand for such an attack, and the first verse of a well-known and well-loved hymn provides and obvious example:

Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.

Here, if the words are taken at their face value, is sheer escapism, a deliberate desire to be hidden safe away until the storm and stress of life are over, and no explaining away by lovers of the hymn can alter its plain sense.

It can hardly be denied that if this is true Christianity then the charge of ‘escapism’, of emotional immaturity and childish regression, must be frankly conceded. But although this ‘God of escape’ is quite common, the true Christian course is set in a very different direction. No one would accuse its Founder of immaturity in insight, thought, teaching or conduct, and the history of the Christian Church provides thousands of examples of timid half-developed personalities who have not only found in their faith what psychologists call integration, but have coped with difficulties and dangers in a way that makes any gibe of ‘escapism’ plainly ridiculous.

Yet is there in Christianity a legitimate element of what the inimical might call escapism? The authentic Christian tradition…show[s] that throughout the ages heroic men and women have found God their ‘refuge’ as well as their ‘strength’…It has been well said by several modern psychologists that it is not the outward storms and stresses of life that defeat and disrupt personality , but its inner conflicts and miseries. If a man is happy and stable at heart, he can normally cope, even with zest, with difficulties that lie outside his personality…

Now Christians maintain that it is precisely this secure centre which faith in God provides. The genuine Christian can and does venture out into all kinds of exacting and even perilous activities, but all the time he knows that he has a completely stable and unchanging centre of operations to which he can return for strength, refreshment and recuperation. In that sense he does ‘escape’ to God, though he does not avoid the duties or burdens of life. His very ‘escape’ fits him for the day-to-day engagement with life’s strains and difficulties…

Today the gibe is that the message of Christianity attracts only the psychologically immature. Even if the charge were true, the answer to it would be that those who know they are at sixes and sevens with themselves are more likely to respond to a gospel offering psychological integration (among other things) than those who feel perfectly competent and well-adjusted. Nevertheless, the true Christian does not long remain either immature or in internal conflict. It is only if he becomes ‘fixed’ with the inadequate god of escape that he exhibits the pathetic figure of the perpetual bosom-flyer.

 J B Philips 1906-1982

Your God Is Too Small (1952)

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