Mr Chips as a vision and incarnation of a wholly immanent and natural “God”

Peter O'Toole as Mr Chips (1969)

Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9).


I hasten to add that I am not so naïve as to think that the demise of the transcendent God within my own interpreted experience entails the universalized conclusion that he does not exist. I have become increasingly impressed by the inescapably contextual character of all our “ultimate concerns.” I can appreciate the fact that all sorts of people deal with existence in terms of faith in the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. On questions of ultimate meaning, none of us knows for sure who is closer to the mark. But in my own ongoing struggle to make sense of the Christian context of life- and world-interpretation, I find basic elements of that context which I simply cannot render coherent any longer, and I earnestly wonder how other persons manage to.


As some of you will know, “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” is a novella written by the English writer James Hilton published in October 1934 which tells the story of a much-loved school teacher, Mr Chipping, and his long career at Brookfield School, a fictional minor British boys’ public boarding school located in the fictional village of Brookfield, in the Fenlands. It appears that the model for this school was The Leys School here in Cambridge where Hilton was a pupil between 1915–18. The novella depicts the massive social changes that Mr Chips (as the schoolboys call him) experiences beginning with his arrival at Brookfield in the September of 1870, aged of 22 and running through the First World War and on to his death in November 1933, aged of 85, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. At the beginning of his career Mr Chips is somewhat conventional in his beliefs and he exercises firm discipline in the classroom. However, after meeting and marrying Katherine, a young woman whom he met whilst on holiday in the Lake District, his views begin to broaden, and his classroom manner becomes less severe. Despite Chips' rather mediocre academic credentials and his view that his own subjects, Greek and Latin, are dead languages, we discover him to be an effective teacher who becomes highly regarded both by the students and the school’s governors.

An extract from Chapter 14

1917, 1918. Chips lived through it all. He sat in the headmaster’s study every morning, handling problems, dealing with plaints and requests. Out of vast experience had emerged a kindly, gentle confidence in himself. To keep a sense of proportion, that was the main thing. So much of the world was losing it; as well keep it where it had, or ought to have, a congenial home.
    On Sundays in Chapel it was he who now read out the tragic list, and sometimes it was seen and heard that he was in tears over it. Well, why not, the School said; he was an old man; they might have despised anyone else for the weakness.
    One day he got a letter from Switzerland, from friends there; it was heavily censored, but conveyed some news. On the following Sunday, after the names and biographies of old boys, he paused a moment and then added:—
    “Those few of you who were here before the War will remember Max Staefel, the German master. He was in Germany, visiting his home, when war broke out. He was popular while he was here, and made many friends. Those who knew him will be sorry to hear that he was killed last week, on the Western Front.”
    He was a little pale when he sat down afterward, aware that he had done something unusual. He had consulted nobody about it, anyhow; no one else could be blamed. Later, outside the Chapel, he heard an argument:—
    “On the Western Front, Chips said. Does that mean he was fighting for the Germans?”
    “I suppose it does.”
    “Seems funny, then, to read his name out with all the others. After all, he was an ENEMY.”
    “Oh, just one of Chips’s ideas, I expect. The old boy still has ‘em.”
    Chips, in his room again, was not displeased by the comment. Yes, he still had ‘em—those ideas of dignity and generosity that were becoming increasingly rare in a frantic world.


Mr Chips as an incarnation of a wholly immanent and natural “God”

This is one of those addresses which starts with a frank admission of a particular kind of darkness and despair. I do this because I think we always need to be meeting together in the spirit of honest truth seeking and, if there is darkness and despair about, then it must be frankly acknowledged — and even when, at times, there is no obvious answer to them. But, today, how this address begins is not how it ends for I do feel able to bring before you some reasonable and educated hope that can resist, albeit in a modest practical way, the darkness and despair with which I’m going to begin. Whether the hope I bring is enough for you personally is, of course, another matter but, be assured, some kind of hope will be offered by the end.

Last week, Remembrance Sunday, I celebrated with you the fact that in the evening there was going to be an ecumenical service of peace and reconciliation at the local German Lutheran Church in connection with the one-hundredth anniversary of the ending of the First World War. That anniversary, and the fact that we still seem to be heading towards what is to me and I know for many of you a distressing and wholly unnecessary break with Europe, meant I felt it was vital to cancel our own evening service and join this unashamedly European focused act of memorial. I was pleased to be joined by seven other members of our congregation in a gathering of more than sixty people from half a dozen churches across the city. I’m truly glad I went but I have to confess that, although the act of European solidarity did energise and uplift me, the conventional theological and religious content of the service did not. So, what was going on?

Well, as I sat there, I realised it was yet another one of the increasing number of ecumenical religious events I attend where, despite my deep connection with, and (I hope genuine) loyalty to a practical and ethical way of living which centres on the example of the human Jesus (especially for me as mediated through Tolstoy’s “Gospel in Brief”), I was forcibly reminded that I simply no longer hold any Christian metaphysical beliefs and, as a Unitarian (of sorts) certainly not belief in the Trinitarian version of monotheism or, indeed, any version of monotheism. Consequently, the central hope being offered up in the ecumenical service — namely, that the supernatural, transcendent God of Love in the form of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost would finally be able to save and restore us all following the kind of horrific violence seen in all wars — left me unmoved.

At the time I was powerfully reminded of a short piece written by the American philosopher and theologian James W. Woelfel in 1976 which had a great influence on my own thinking when I first came across it back some fifteen years ago. Woelfel notes that what had caused him to lose his own belief in the God of monotheism was that “there is simply too much suffering” in the world. Here is what he says:

Dr. Bernard Rieux, the narrator of Albert Camus’s challenging statement on suffering called The Plague, sums it up with appropriate intensity and particularity. This world, he says, is “a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” It is a world in which, from many causes, children are too easily stunted, warped, denied, deprived, abused, malnourished, diseased, shot, gassed, bombed and generally robbed of their potentiality. What happens to children is a particularly graphic indicator of the depth of our human bondage to forces within ourselves and our planet.

Woelfel additionally tells us that his own religious despair was “not over finite existence as such, but over the crushingly heavy burden” of what seemed to him to be “nonsensical bondage”. It was “the sheer excess — the disproportion of our human bondages and the absurdity resulting from this excess, the grotesque pointlessness of so much of it” that undermined his “sense of ultimate meaning as transcendent willing purpose.”

I realise this sort of admission can be a profoundly disturbing thing to hear but my strong sense is that, at least at times, many of us here feel the same — I certainly do — and it is clearly something that many, many other secular people also feel in our wider society.  Anyway, last weekend, as we remembered in particular the conflict of 1914-1918, could there be found any better words to describe it than “grotesque pointlessness”?

As I sat in my chair looking around at the sixty other people present I found I could only earnestly wonder, as Woelfel earnestly wondered, how other persons were able to render coherent the underlying supernatural, transcendent theological elements found in the hymns, prayers and collects being used. 

Please don’t mishear me at this point. I’m not laughing at or pouring scorn upon those present who can render these theological elements coherent because, as far as I can meaningfully measure these things, most of the people there I have found to be good and often remarkable, they are people whom I both like and greatly admire. Also, as Woelfel says, I, too, have become increasingly impressed by the inescapably contextual character of all our “ultimate concerns” and I am perfectly able to appreciate the fact that all sorts of people deal with existence in terms of faith in the sovereign God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So there really is no laughter or scorn here, but only a genuinely earnest wondering about how on earth others can continue to render this God coherent?

This wondering brings me back to my earlier point about my own continuing deep connection with, and loyalty to, a practical way of living that centres on the example of the human Jesus. This is because, these days, it is only through the human that I can find any kind of theological and religious hope which I am still able to render coherent and plausible.

Like Woelfel, and I know many of you, I also find myself “somewhat drawn to certain aspects of what I understand of the world orientation of Gautama the Buddha: the difficult art of learning to accept the quite specific limitations and possibilities of my life without making myself unhappy struggling to affirm beliefs I cannot honestly affirm.” But upbringing, temperament and, let’s not forget, my public rôle as a minister in a church deeply rooted in the liberal Christian tradition, means that, again like Woelfel:

I am still more comfortable dealing with my life-situation in the more familiar terms of the Christian tradition. And at this stage in my pilgrimage, that has come to mean the myth of the God who in Christ dies to his deity and lives only as grand and miserable human beings within this beautiful ruined Eden called earth.

[This is a version of what is known as “Death of God theology” — a broad theological movement to which I myself belong.]

This means that, both for Woelfel and for me, the only possible revelation of “God” is one found in “the faces of us unlikely human beings, [and] his only worship our compassionate devotion to one another and to the needs of our earth.” In short, this “is the only version of the Christian myth that I can find personally tolerable and meaningful.”

Woelfel asks — as perhaps some of you might ask, and certainly many believing Christians will ask — whether any of this is at all biblical? And Woelfel and I answer, of course it isn’t. But, as Woelfel wisely reminds us, “a great deal that passes historically and at the present time for Christian faith and theology is not biblical but an imaginative development or a logical implication out of the biblical sources.”

So now, with this particular a/theistic, and certainly non-supernatural and non-biblical version of Christian myth held firmly in mind — i.e. that the only revelation of God is found in the faces of us unlikely human beings and his only worship our compassionate devotion to one another and to the needs of our earth — I can now turn to the only moment in last week’s ecumenical service that, in theological and religious terms, truly uplifted me and which gave me what felt like genuine hope. It occurred during a fine reading of the passage from “Goodbye Mr Chips” which you heard earlier.

What struck me, really struck me when I heard the passage — almost to the point of tears — was that, in comparison to Mr Chips modest but beautiful act in the school chapel in remembering “THE ENEMY” as well as the English schoolboys who had died, all the supernatural metaphysics on display in the service were, and are, to me as nothing because in that moment in the character of Mr Chips I truly felt I was beholding the only kind of face of the only kind of “God” in which I can now believe. Not, of course, the grand supernatural, metaphysical God of monotheism who was constantly being evoked throughout the service in the various prayers, hymns and collects but, to repeat Woelfel’s words I quoted earlier, a wholly immanent God seen in “the faces of us unlikely human beings” and that the only worship I was then, and am able to now take part in is in “our compassionate devotion to one another and to the needs of our earth”.

In our own frantic, secular age with its threats from various intolerant nationalisms and climate change, do we really need any other incarnation of “God” than that found in the countless numbers of ordinary men and women who, like Mr Chips, never stop keeping before us ideas of dignity and generosity?

So I give thanks to “Mr Chips” who during that evening last week was for me a saving vision and incarnation of a wholly immanent and natural “God”