THE NAME OF Oswald Chambers is well known to millions of Christians for a collection of notes gathered by his wife from his sermons and published as a devotional reader in 1927, 10 years after his death, under the title My Utmost for His Highest.
Like many Christians, I first read this devotional guide while still in college and harbored the suspicion that this man must have been a somber if not puritanical pillar of the faith. The gaunt, almost cadaverous portrait of him included in many editions of his most famous work contributed much to these impressions of mine. It turns out, though, that I did not know the human being who was Oswald Chambers.
I recently stumbled upon a crumbling book in the library stacks of a local university that greatly altered my perceptions of him. It was an out-of-print collection of tributes by those who knew him best, along with his personal diaries from his travels abroad as an itinerant preacher and as a YMCA chaplain in World War I until his sudden death from complications following an emergency appendectomy at the age of 43. As I read through these documents, I found myself strongly attracted to Chambers as a person and captivated by his vision of what it means to be a believer in the modern world.
AS A STUDENT of art at the University of Edinburgh, Chambers was not known among his peers for his religious devotion, which he had received from devout Scottish Baptist parents. He was better known, rather, for his outgoing personality and his knowledge and love of poetry, art, and music. He was gifted not only with a keen aesthetic sensitivity and outgoing temperament, but also with a rigorous mind. After completing his studies he became a tutor at Dunoon College in Scotland in 1898, where he taught logic, moral philosophy, and psychology for several years.
Chambers soon left teaching to pursue a life in ministry and missionary work. But in a diary entry in 1907, he wrote: "I am growing more and more grateful for the tremendous and, as I once thought, unnecessary schooling I gave myself in philosophy and psychology in my Edinburgh and Dunoon days; I see now that the mental discipline is invaluable for God's work."
The theme of discipleship emerges repeatedly in his letters and diaries not only as a spiritual discipline but also as an intellectual vocation. His notes are filled with references to the latest classical and contemporary books. In Zeitoun, Egypt, in 1915, Chambers recorded his reading adventures with an impious humor: "I am reading two very different but entrancing books out here," he wrote. "One is the Book of Deuteronomy and the other is The Arabian Nights."
The image of the author of My Utmost for His Highest setting aside his Bible somewhere in the Egyptian desert to pass the hours by torchlight, captivated by the tales of Scheherazade, might perplex some of his admirers in the conservative fundamentalist mold—who have generally been taught to shun non-Christian learning and imaginative literature as a distraction from the truths of Holy Writ. But for Chambers, such narrow brands of devotion are in fact no true devotion at all.
In a letter encouraging Major John Skidmore in his new spiritual journey, Chambers once wrote:
My strong advice to you is to soak, soak, soak in philosophy and psychology, until you know more of these subjects than ever you need consciously to think. It is ignorance of these subjects on the part of ministers and workers that has brought our evangelical theology to such a sorry plight … The [person] who reads only the Bible does not, as a rule, know it or human life.
IF THE LIFE of the mind must be central to the life of the believer, Chambers insisted that the heart of Christian faith remains an existential relationship with the living Christ. Authentic Christian living involves a personal and mystical encounter with the God who walked among us and who cannot be reduced to any philosophical or theological system of knowledge or control. "If we try to answer the problems of this world by intellectual or scientific methods," he wrote, "we shall go mad, or else deny that the problems exist."
For the Scottish minister, we must live with complete intellectual honesty—facing the fact that problems really do exist—and at the same time maintain absolute spiritual integrity and confidence in the person of Christ. "Stand true to the life hid with Christ in God and to the facts you have to face," he urged. "You will have no answer intellectually, but your faith in God will be so unshakably firm that others will begin to see there is an answer they have never guessed. 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.'"
Chambers' keen sense of God's real presence in the world and the truth hidden in Christ often emerges in the form of reflections on the fierce beauty of nature. It is not scenes of pastoral tranquility but rather ones of wildness and desolation that are most evocative in his mind of God's grandeur and Christ's implacable love. During his first trip to Egypt in October 1907, he wrote:
For thousands of centuries the scarred, serried range of sand-blighted mountains has held the mystery of God's purposes. The littleness, the pettiness, of modern civilization making its boast of progress sounds like "the crackle of thorns under a pot." But tonight the memory of our Lord Jesus Christ comes with ineffable peace.
The insignificance of human civilization included not only its arts and sciences but even religion as a reduction of God to human measures. In a passage dated Oct. 7, 1915, Chambers offered a withering critique of religiosity:
Surely all rational things such as civilization, organization, and Churchianity are but temporal scaffolding of the Real, which is ever hid with Christ in God ... Even doctrine, grand and valuable as it is, immediately it becomes the conscious standard of belief, it becomes also a tyrannic despotism in which spiritual life cannot progress. The law of the spiritual life is based in a personal vital relationship to Jesus Christ, and its growth is one of implicit "spontaneous moral originality."
Indeed, there is a strong moral and spiritual affinity in these lines with the long tradition of Christian mysticism, as well as with those early opponents of routinized, institutionalized religion—the Hebrew prophets—who first cried out from the deserts and also wrestled with the seeming absence of God.
CHAMBERS' RELIGIOUS sensibilities are less often prophetic, however, than deeply pastoral. If the desolation of the Egyptian deserts stirred his imagination and sense of God's calling, they did not draw him into a life of monastic contemplation apart from society—but rather into one of ever deeper engagement with, and affection for, people of all walks of life. This seems to be especially true of the toughened soldiers with whom he spent the final years of his life working.
"They [the soldiers] are too near, in fact we are all too near, the flesh and the devil and God to be anything else than genuinely what we really are," Chambers declared—and he was determined to be who he really was in unsentimental solidarity with them. In 1915, after answering one of his more unusual chaplaincy requests, he mused: "The uniqueness of asking God's blessing on a boxing bout! It is just these sordid actualities that make the right arena for Our Lord's Reality. I am devoted to the plain rough stuff as it is, and it is glorious to know that the reality of God's presence is but increased by things as they actually are."
Not surprisingly, Chambers had a very low estimation of the methods of traditional evangelism. The task facing the believer, he asserted, is not primarily one of converting others but of bearing witness to the love of God in situations of authentic and personal encounter. "How unproselytizing God is!" he exclaimed while still en route to Egypt. "I feel the 'soul winning' campaign is often at heart the apotheosis of commercialism, the desire to see so much result from so much expenditure."
Five months before his death, Chambers recorded an experience that was indicative of his modern views on evangelism. "Two Tommies lounged up to the Items Hut counter and began chatting in their fine way and landed almost at once on to religion," he wrote. "One said that he could not stand religious people, and I said, 'Neither can I,' explaining that, to me, spiritual reality was everything. He then confessed that he had fallen away and asked if I could give him any guidance." The encounter ended in all three men joining together in prayer.
One senses that Chambers was speaking with full sincerity—and not simply as an evangelistic ploy—when he confessed to the soldiers that he, too, could not stand "religious people." In a formula much criticized by many evangelical Christians today, Chambers was—by his own confession—spiritual but not religious.
CHAMBERS DOES NOT seem to have harbored any nostalgia for the lost glories of Western Christendom in the face of modernity and the challenges of an increasingly secular age. Instead, he insisted that believers labor not in developing new rhetorical strategies to prove the church's superior Truth and shore up its social or political standing. Rather, he suggests that Christians in a godless age must abandon all forms of spiritual manipulation and pretensions to even religious superiority. They must enter into the dangerous drama of God's own co-suffering and self-emptying identification with all of humankind. For Chambers and his religionless Christianity, the God-forsaken God of the cross is now to be found precisely among and through the "secular"—people who, in certain ways, may actually stand closer to God than the religious themselves.
In August 1917, Chambers reflected on the work of one "Dr. Glover" whose apologetic methods include "showing the immense success and measurable triumphs of Christianity." He found such an approach spiritually vapid and unconvincing. To "my own growing conviction and discernment," he wrote, "the phase of Christianity and church life which evolves and succeeds is the pseudo, ephemeral phase; while the true spiritual reality is effaced but permanent, and is of the nature of 'mines' which one day will explode and alter the configuration of things; meantime it is hidden."
Perhaps the greatest testament to the spiritual depth and continuing relevance of Chambers' thinking is the capacity his words have to explode like mines, setting fires in the minds of his readers. This is certainly true of his beloved devotional reader, My Utmost for His Highest. In my experience, it is much truer of his unguarded and restless diaries.
Ronald Osborn, author of Anarchy and Apocalypse, is a Bannerman Fellow with the program in politics and international relations at the University of Southern California.