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Intelligible Religion by Philip H. Phenix


Philip H. Phenix was educated at Princeton University, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He was formerly Dean of Carleton College, and was professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Published by Harper & Brother, New York. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 1: Religion and Reason


It might seem that a book whose purpose is to present an intelligible view of religion ought to begin by stating what religion is. This is asking too much, because the chief task of the entire work is one of definition. The word "religion" in actual practice is applied to a great variety of human ideas, acts, and institutions. All attempts to sift out from these some common element which would represent the "essence" of religion have ended in failure. There is no such thing as religion in general. There are only particular religions. When, therefore, a person wishes to talk about religion, he should try to make clear what he refers to. Much of the confusion and controversy associated with religion has come from a failure (usually unrecognized) to agree on the meaning of this word.

Considering the wide range of concerns called religious, it is at least clear that altogether they have played a highly significant part in human history. Men have fought and died for their religion. Art and literature have flowered forth as expressions of faith. In religion many institutions and customs have found their formative principles. Countless individuals have acknowledged religion as the basis for strength, hope, and significance in their lives. On the other hand, there have been and still are particular forms of religion which are insignificant -- lacking in formative power for the life of individuals or societies and without depth of insight or effect.

To say that on the whole religion has been important in human history is not to say that its influence has been wholly good. Significant religion may be good or bad. There is a common fallacy that religion is good because it is religion and that the cure for evil in the world is more religion. Actually great evils often flow from it. Bigotry, prejudice, cruelty, and ignorance, for example, are natural results of a fanatical faith. But neither is it right to condemn all religion, as some critics have done, for it seems quite obvious that much which goes by that name has been associated with the highest levels of human experience.

In setting forth a view of religion in these pages it will be our task to describe a faith which is (1) important rather than trivial and (2) good rather than bad. The general tests by which we shall measure significance and goodness in religion will be stated in this and the following chapter. The remainder of the book will be devoted to sketching a kind of religion which will meet these tests.

Generally speaking, we shall regard religion as significant in the degree to which it concerns the whole range of man’s experience. By this test, a religion which is relevant only to a part of man’s life would be relatively trivial. A second test of significance or importance is the extent to which the religion deals with "ultimate" rather than merely preliminary matters. The meaning of this statement will not be fully plain until well into the second part of this book. Suffice it to say now that a religion is trivial unless it continually leads one out from immediate and particular concerns to questions about ever wider meanings, more extensive connections, and deeper implications.

Our standard of goodness in religion can be summarized in one word, "community". Again, this will require much further elaboration before it is clearly understood. Broadly speaking, community is the harmonious inter-relation of individual entities. By this test, a religion is good when it ultimately promotes community and it is bad when it destroys community. The elements which enter into what we here call "community’, are not necessarily human beings. Thus we do not mean by this term only the social group. Harmonious inter-relation may also apply to man vis à vis his non-human environment. Or it may concern the co-ordination of the diverse experiences in the consciousness of a single human being.

This leads directly to a consideration of "reason". What is reason? In the broadest sense it is that capacity by which man is able to co-ordinate his various experiences. By the power of reason man can create a "community" of consciousness through harmoniously inter-relating in various degrees the diverse elements which go into his experience. Reason thus broadly conceived includes a wide range of human mental activity. Clearly scientific inquiry is an enterprise of reason. But so is "common sense", the co-ordination of everyday experience for practical ends. And so is art, including poetry, painting, and even music. For every work of art is a community of color or sound or shapes, producing out of a variety of elements some unity of consciousness.

Reason is man’s most distinctive and precious capacity. It is the power of reason which sets him apart from the lower animals. It is in the full exercise of the life of reason that human life finds its highest fulfillment. Human history is the history of reason. Human culture is the expression of the creative power of reason.

What, then, is the connection between religion and reason ? If religion is significant when it deals with the whole range of man’s experience (which it is the business of reason to co-ordinate) and when it is concerned with the widest meanings, connections, and implications (all of which are the province of reason), and if religion is good when it promotes community (which is the function of reason in the life of the mind), it follows that reason must be a powerful ally of significant and good religion. Religion which disregards or opposes reason is, by the same token, in this respect trivial or harmful or both. Regard for the demands of reason is therefore an essential of religion as we shall describe it.

Unfortunately there have traditionally been varying degrees of opposition between religion and reason. Religion has tended to be emotional, enthusiastic, impatient with the facts of this world in preference for the hopes of a world beyond. Reason, on the other hand, has often been opposed to feeling by insisting upon fidelity to the evidence of actual experience. Religion has generally been "supra-rational" if not frankly irrational. This opposition of reason and religion is not easy to overcome. Much so-called "reasonable religion" is so lacking in emotional warmth as to fail in real significance. On the other hand, the "supra-rational" faiths often do not commend themselves to people of liberal intelligence nor lend themselves to ready communication to unbelievers.

It is the fundamental thesis of this book that a union of reason with significant religion is both imperative and possible. To show one way in which this can be accomplished is our goal. It can be done only by taking a generous enough view of both religion and reason. Irrational religions have been too limited in scope to welcome the co-ordination of all experience which reason requires. Cold rationality, on the other hand, has involved too narrow a view of reason to admit the depth of meaning which is the essence of religious insight. It is possible, as will be shown in the following pages, to be both religious and reasonable. It is doubtful, in fact, whether it is possible to be religious in the highest sense without being true to reason. Nor is it possible to be truly reasonable without at the same time being religious. Reason and religion belong together.

The relation between religion and reason is especially important in the contemporary scene. The reason for this is largely the rise of modern science and technology. The magnificent successes of the natural sciences have greatly extended man’s knowledge and control of the natural world. This has led to the attempt to extend the scientific method to all areas of inquiry and to the tendency to pattern inquiry in every area on that used in the exact sciences. The striking progress of the physical scientists has also given them a degree of prestige which has invited admiration and emulation by workers in other fields. Nor has this influence been confined to professional scientific workers. The progress of science has produced a revolution in the outlook of the lay citizen as well. He may not really understand well either the intent or the method or the conclusions of the scientists, but he does have a view of the world which is largely influenced by certain of their assumptions and findings.

This modern scientific revolution -- together with its practical consequences in the marvels of the machine age -- has been a triumph of reason, probably the major one in all history measured by brilliance and by transforming power. It has given man greater confidence in his ability to use his reason to discover the nature of the world, including himself and his societies, to solve his problems in every area, and to influence his destiny.

Parallel with this mounting prestige of science there has been a general decline in the prestige of religion. Much religion has centered around the attempt through various rites to gain security in a precarious world. When these securities have been more consistently provided by technology, the religious techniques have fallen into disuse. Again, religion has often been regarded as the source of ultimate truth. When particular elements in the traditional teaching about the nature of things have been challenged by demonstrable scientific findings, the whole structure of religious dogma has been called into question. Finally, preoccupation with the fascinations of progressive scientific discovery and with the material products of technology has turned man’s attention away from the more uncertain and outwardly less rewarding results of the religious life.

The consequence of this two-fold development -- the advance of science and the decline of religion -- has been the often-discussed predicament of modern man in which knowledge and technical skill have outrun moral and spiritual competence. Human personality has been all but submerged by the machine and its demands. New and more terrifying evils have arisen to take the place of those eliminated by scientists and engineers. Large numbers of human beings are lonely, frustrated, confused, and threatened by ever more menacing forms of personal and social insecurity.

In the attempt to cope with this predicament many voices have recently been raised on behalf of religion. In colleges and universities interest in the study of religion has greatly increased. Theological schools are crowded. Vigorous discussion regarding the place of religion in public education has been generated. Many books on religion have been on the best-seller lists. Church attendance is reported as increasing at a faster rate than the population. These and other signs point to a marked return to an interest in religion.

Implied in much of the new religious emphasis is an attack upon reason. The movement called "existentialism" in its religious bearings has included an attack on the objective, rational understanding and control of human life and has encouraged reliance upon a freely chosen "faith" which is not rationally demonstrable. Leading thinkers have recently placed emphasis on the radical limitations of science and especially upon the inherent impossibility of applying scientific techniques to the true understanding and effective control of human beings both individually and socially.

The purpose of this brief summary of the modern situation in respect to religion and to reason as science is primarily to draw attention to the tension which exists in their relationship to one another. The rise of science is associated with the decline of religion. The resurgence of religion is linked with an attack upon reason. One might draw the conclusion -- as some people do --that religion and reason are incompatible. Others -- a larger number -- conclude that reason and religion occupy different "spheres" of human activity and hence may never be in conflict. Still others assert that reason must be subordinate to religion, serving merely to clarify and express it or that religion should derive from and serve reason.

Actually religion and reason ought not to be related in any of these ways -- as enemies or as strangers, or by subordination. Religion and reason are two constituents in the total life of whole human beings. Religious experience has rational elements and must draw upon reason for expression and co-ordination. Likewise, the life of reason may draw upon religious experience for motivation or for part of its working materials. Thus reason and religion belong together. The historical fact remains that reason in the form of science and technology has tended to disregard or discourage religious development and that religious interests have tended to undermine reason. Thus the union of reason and religion is not so much a fact as a task and an ideal.

It is to that task that the present work is dedicated. There is a particularly urgent need in our time for an intelligible religion --for a religion which is adequate to the full measure of man’s life including all the insights of his rational understanding. Such a religion would make possible greater spiritual resources for modern man who cannot give up a scientific world view and it would also provide the means by which religious experiences could be continually enriched with every enlargement of rational understanding.

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