This book has been around a long time (1956) and, for years, was on my 'someday to read' list. I eventually read it.
We first learn about God as children and our conceptions can remain in a state of juvenile faith or more likely, the idea of God can become too small to affect "adult loyalty and cooperation." Or one cherishes a "hothouse God who could only exist between the pages of the Bible or inside the four walls of a church." Phillips acknowledges immediately that "many men of goodwill will not consent" to "mass hypocrisy...to buy a sense of security at the price of...truth." Phillips addresses the inadequate conceptions of God which lead to this problem and tries to show us "a God big enough" for adult comprehension and respect.
Part I lists the destructive constructions of God:
The Resident Policeman, i.e the overdeveloped conscience, a relic of childhood that we mistake for the voice of God, where "God can be made to appear to the sensitive an over-exacting tyrant, and to the insensitive a comfortable accommodating 'Voice Within' which would never interfere with a man's pleasure."
The Parental Hangover, i.e. the residue of a sentimental clinging dependence on a parent. Christ's reference to the Father or becoming "as little children" was not about a childish toddler/grownup relationship but about an understanding of the "awe-inspiring disparity between man and God."
The Grand Old Man, a great power in his day but old-fashioned, a God inadequate for our modern scientific times, a God to be respected for what he was but hardly adequate to be engaged in our fast-moving contemporary world. I would call this a result of our narcissistic tendencies reinforced by the Enlightenment.
The Meek and Mild, often conveyed in sappy hymns. Christ may have been meek "in the sense of being selfless and humble" but he was hardly mild considering his displayed courage. He was "no saint" in the sense that we sometimes use the word. "He taught men not to sit in judgment" of others "but He never suggested that they should turn a blind eye to evil or pretend other people were faultless...To speak the truth was obviously to Him more important than to make His hearers comfortable" but He did it with tact, wisdom and love.
Absolute Perfection, i.e. Christianity as performance, involves completely obeying "rules" in order to be perfect, an "anxious slavery" rather than a life of "perfect freedom."
The Heavenly Bosom, i.e. the God of our escape, Christianity being a place for the psychologically immature. A good deal of harm is done by not "growing up" in Christ and the true Christian does not wish to remain in adolescence.
God in a Box, i.e. the problem of churchiness, joining the right union of a particular structure or formula of worship, the "invalid" church vs. the "approved" church, reflecting an intolerance of dissent and open criticism of those "other" less godly churches. Phillips calls this "the outrageous folly and damnable sin of trying to regard God as the Party Leader of a particular point of view." The outsider "cannot stomach... the exclusive claim made by each to be the 'right one"...No denomination has a monopoly of God's grace, and none has an exclusive recipe for producing Christian character...God takes no notice whatever of the boxes; 'the Spirit bloweth where it listeth' and is subject to no regulation of man."
The Managing Director, the God who is so vast in scope that we cannot conceive of his interest in the single human life. Phillips' suggest that this is a secret wish for many, to go unnoticed, and be free of responsibility. Others may sense being "cast adrift." The problem is that we model God upon what we know of man. "Man may be made in the image of God; but it is not sufficient to conceive God as nothing more than an infinitely magnified man." He is other than we are.
The Second-hand God, i.e. "We envisage 'God'... from the way in which He appears to deal (or not deal with) His creatures." It is from our perspective and knowledge of life that we evaluate the nature of God, which is no doubt lacking information, and exacerbated by 'fictional' notions of God, providence and His activity in the world.
Personal Grievance, i.e. God as a disappointment; it was He that was unfaithful. Phillips says some find "ghoulish pleasure" in wallowing in their grievances with God, particularly for one is using God as "a convenience, a prop, or a comfort, for his own plans". Our approach is one of self pity: I trusted Him and "He let me down." The emphasis, of course, is for mankind to cooperate with God's plans. (Consider the Book of Job.)
The Pale Galilean, i.e the negative God with the "perpetual frown" whose Nature seems to deny, to cramp, to stifle and is "quite literally a blight upon human life...Such people's lives are cramped and narrow and joyless because their God is the same." There are masochistic elements at work here, as well as the suffering servant's criticism of those who find joy in worship since the joyful obviously do not have the correct picture of God. The negative God worshiper also sees himself as "something special" which Phillips calls "pathetic... unattractive, and unpleasant."
Projected Image, where we ignore our blind spots and project qualities upon God from our own history--magnified--ranging from the hard puritanical god to a "god with about as much moral authority as Father Christmas." It is narcissistic, inadequate, and ultimately unsatisfying.
God in a hurry, which is a completely false conception. Phillips says "He is never in a hurry...never impressed by numbers, never a slave of the clock." Consider the anxiety within churches: "that every second, thousands of pagan souls pass into...eternity," or simply name the latest crisis in the news that requires our urgent attention.
God for the Elite, for the privileged class, for people who are drawn to mysticism, the place of a so-called higher spirituality. Phillips says the New Testament is "downright and practical. It is by their fruits that men shall be known."
God of Bethel refers to those who would be more comfortable with the Old Testament God--obey the rules, follow a formula, but do not see the connection with the New Testament.
God without Godhead, a "modern" concept, where "God is completely depersonalized and becomes the Ultimate Bundle of Highest Values...raised to the nth degree." And the Ultimate Bundle of Highest Values is what we have defined.
Gods by any other name, i.e. "substitutes," for example: "the State, success, efficiency, money, glamour, power...security." No one calls them God but one or more of these is where devotion and allegiance lies.
I have another one: The Great Puppeteer--The one who dangles mankind over the lake of fire waiting to drop us when we don't behave; as though saying, "I'll show you, for not paying attention to me. I'll give you cancer!" This, however, is not the God of love, but God the manipulator; and is as much a misrepresentation as the other destructive constructions.
Part II provides commentary on constructive principles:
Phillips starts this section by delving into the problem of the vast but perceived unfocused God, which seems to depersonalize God until he "becomes a vague Abstraction." A result of this is that people then "pin their hopes and apply their energies to the 'progress' of the human race...they get...satisfaction in improving the 'here and now' because they cannot come to terms with eternal values or a personalized God. The spiritual is "shadowy and unsubstantial while the physical is solid and reliable." Phillips suggests that human progress has been remarkable in advancing civilization but at the end of the day there is the distinct possibility of "annihilation in the deathly cold of inter-stellar space" with "nothing more to come...sheer non-existence" if one merely sees "progress" as the ultimate reality. However, God is something beyond time and space and "the nature of reality" may in fact be "spiritual and it is only quite temporarily and incidentally involved in matter" which means we might "want to know something of the Spiritual Being behind the Scheme of Things." (See C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce.)
Phillips discusses the nature of beauty, and the "good" or a universal moral sense, and Truth ("not always a welcome visitor") that are clues to Reality. He says, down deep, we want to know God; and Jesus gave us indications "by which men could know (not by scientific 'proof,' but by an inward conviction that is perfectly valid to him in whom it arises) that His claim and His revelation are true." (1) "Jesus says... that there will be no inward endorsement of the truth of the ways of living he puts forward as the right one until a man is prepared to do the will, i.e. cooperate with the purpose of God....Christ regarded the self-loving, self-regarding, self-seeking spirit as the direct antithesis of real living." (2) "Christ unquestionably claims to present accurately and authentically the Character of God" not the whole of God but the nature of God and His love. (3) John 14:6 "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." If Jesus was God in human form, he must say this, mustn't he? Phillips asks, "Do people in fact know God except through Christ? He says, yes, people can stumble upon a Christ like way of living. (Note: He does not delve into other religions here, I assume to stay on point. He was not writing a book about the Buddhist or Hindu who never heard of Jesus or if they did, only in a passing obscured sense.) But anyone who rejects Christ's claims, or ignores it "do not know God." (One must consider the flawed approach of over analysis of Christianity vs. the simple faith-- seeking the presence of the Holy Spirit.)
Phillips says, "To Christ the most serious sin was not the misdirection of the love-energy, which might be due to ignorance or mere carelessness, but the deliberate refusal to allow it to flow out either to God or to other people...Christ's time, in the circumstances, was short and He wasted none of it in dealing with mere symptoms. It was with motive and attitude of the heart, i.e. the emotional centre, that He was concerned. It was this that He called on men to change, for it is plain that once the inner affections are aligned with God the outward expression of the life will look after itself."
I have some issues with this idea of good intentions being sacrosanct since, I think, motivations are too easily manipulated by our own ego, where then inappropriate actions are self-justified. But to avoid going off on a tangent, I'll deal with this subject elsewhere. And to be fair to Phillips, he doesn't bore into it. He moves on to a wonderful interpretation of the Beatitudes.
Phillips then delves into the subject of sin and forgiveness and suggests that "sin against the Holy Spirit is a pretty bad one: "If God Himself is both Truth and Love it would be logical to suppose that a deliberate refusal to recognize or harbour truth and love would result in an attitude that makes reconciliation with God impossible... forgiveness must then consist in a restoration to Reality, i.e. Truth and Love." In other words, forgiveness requires repentance first.
Phillips comments on "spiritual poverty" with this explanatory remark: "It is those who realize their spiritual poverty who find in Christ's Act [dying on the cross] the way to fellowship with God." Death has been abolished: "It is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the meaning that Christ intended to convey [John 11:26] was that death was a completely negligible experience to the man who had already begun to live life of the eternal quality."
At the end of the book, Phillips says that Christianity "is not to be judged by its success or failure to reform the world which rejects it. If it failed where it is accepted there might be grounds for complaint, but it does not so fail. It is a revelation of the true way of living, the way to know God, the way to live life of eternal quality, and is not to be regarded as a handy social instrument for reducing juvenile delinquency or the divorce rate...if real Christianity [as opposed to fake, maudlin, or immature Christianity] fails, it fails for the same reasons that Christ failed--and any condemnations rightly falls on the world which rejects both Him and it."
In fitting conclusion, a good friend said of the book: "...as to the best of Phillips' book, our God has been too small, measuring at best the dimensions of Nietzsche's superman. Idolatry is the fate of him whose God is too small, followed by disappointment and finally jaded unbelief."