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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 2: How to Make Religion Intelligible


Granting the need for an intelligible religious outlook, especially in our times, the next step is to ask how it may be attained. This chapter is therefore concerned with method. It will suggest some of the considerations which enter into the choice of a method, and will then outline the main steps in the method to be used in this book. Succeeding chapters will apply this procedure in detail to the construction of a religious view of life.

The obvious and time-honored way to begin describing a religion is to introduce its God or gods. The deity is regarded as the central object of worship and the source of religious inspiration. It would seem, then, that once he is defined the other aspects of the religion may be derived easily.

In practice this approach does not work well. The idea of the deity is not the proper starting-point. Understanding it is the end-process in a long series of more easily understood ideas and experiences. Since there are many different conceptions of God, in any discussion where this word is used there will be a tendency to confuse one meaning with another and thus lead to misunderstanding. Only as one begins with commonly-shared and understood experiences which go to make up a religious attitude can intelligible results be achieved.

The days of tribal religion are over. That is why we refer to commonly-shared and commonly-understood experiences. Formerly, in the particular religions of tribes or nations religion was the expression of special interests, needs, insights, and cultural peculiarities. The gods were the reputed defenders, authors, or even the critics of particular cultures. In order to discover the nature and source of any concept of deity it is necessary to analyze the culture in which it arose and whose needs it expressed.

If we are in search of a universal religion, then we must seek for experiences properly called religious which are in some sense universal. They must not be merely reflections of a special culture. If, then, the deity in such a universal religion is an expression of universal experiences, he must be one with whom all men must directly and inescapably have dealings. The deity of universal religion must be universally evident.

When we examine even casually the actual situation, it turns out that the gods of the so-called universal religions are by no means universally evident. If the average intelligent Christian, for example, is asked to make clear to an unbeliever who, what, or where his God is, it is most likely that no answer at all helpful to the unbeliever will come forth. Assertions to the effect that God is the Creator of the universe, the Father of mankind, or that he came in human form in Jesus Christ, probably do not relate helpfully at any point to the experience of the questioner and may well clash with well-grounded concepts derived from other areas of his experience. It appears that in effect the so-called universal religions are simply more ambitious versions of the tribal religions. The Christian, the Jew, and the Muslim, for example, each claims universality for his religion, but none of them in defining his faith points clearly and unambiguously to basic experiences which all human beings will acknowledge. Instead, each presents as his statement of faith a variety of more or less traditional statements which reflect the particular experience of the group with which he is historically identified. This is nothing except tribal religion with universal pretensions.

Religion ought to be the source of community -- a binding and unifying resource for mankind. Instead, the historical religions have in many respects divided people. One group is set against another -- all in the name of God. Natural divisions are accentuated and conserved when the gods are regarded as authorities for the special beliefs or practices of the groups devoted to them.

In theory the God of Christians (for example) is in some sense present in all events of the created world. The questions then naturally arise: Why is he so hard to find? Why are there so many who do not recognize his existence? Why is there so much confusion about his nature and activity ? Why is there such constant dispute about him ? Why is he not more evident? The standard answers take two main forms. One approach emphasizes man’s finiteness. It is said that the world, including man, is finite while God is infinite; that this is not merely a difference in degree; it is a difference in kind; that God is "wholly other" than the created world. The finite obviously cannot comprehend the infinite, it is claimed.

Such an answer at first sounds plausible. But it will not bear examination. If God is "wholly other" -- utterly different in kind from the creation and particularly from the creature man, then it must be impossible to say anything at all about God -- including the assertion that he is "wholly other"! It is fruitless to speak of anything which has not become evident through human experience. This leads us back to the basic assertion that God must always be designated in terms of specified human experiences. If no such experiences can be cited, it is impossible to have an intelligible conception of the deity.

The second answer given to the questions mentioned above is that God is hidden from man by human sin. It is said that God is continually seeking to make himself known to man, but that man inevitably rejects God by seeking his own profit and satisfaction instead of God’s.

It is true that human beings are selfish and willful. But it is difficult to see how this fact bears upon the acknowledgment of God. World peace is difficult to attain, and mankind seems constantly to defeat it, yet we are not for that reason any less clear about what world peace is. The ideal which it represents is fully evident. In fact it is the more evident precisely because it is so difficult to attain. In the same way, the fact of human perversity ought to be one of the factors making the recognition and understanding of God more attainable. Human sin ought to throw into sharper relief precisely what it is against which man is rebelling.

Our conclusion is that neither of the standard explanations for the difficulty of clearly specifying the deity will bear examination. Our conviction is rather that the difficulty arises simply from a failure resolutely and consistently to found religious ideas upon shareable human experiences. We believe that the trouble is not that religious questions are inescapably involved in obscurity but that adherence to traditional doctrines is regarded as more important than clarity and universal intelligibility.

Is it asking too much to be clear about religious matters ? The usual answer is in the affirmative. It is said that religion is primarily a matter not of reason but of faith. Faith is regarded as a way of grasping the truth quite beyond the power of reason. It is usually asserted that the demand for clarity is detrimental to faith.

In our view such an attitude must not be accepted. It represents the betrayal of reason -- man’s highest and most characteristic power and the principal means by which his life may be safely guided. To deny the possibility of clarity in matters of religion is to open the doors wide to every superstition. Furthermore, it prevents the realization of the community which is the goal of any truly universal religion. For where there is no reliable means of communicating religious insights, there can be no real community.

This leads us to the point where we are ready to outline a method which will ensure clarity, communicability, and universality of religious outlook. There are six aspects of this method which will now be described.

First. A religious view must grow out of human experience. This follows from the fact that human experience is the only basis for ideas that have any meaning or allow intelligible communication. This means that at every stage of discussion about religion, concepts or assertions must be explained by reference to actual human experience. Ideas tend in time to declare their independence of experience. When this happens, they lose their meaning or their significance becomes obscure and confused. This is the trouble with traditional religious doctrines: they are burdened with ideas which have lost their reference to actual human experience.

The method which retains constant reference to experience contrasts sharply with the method of authority, under which ideas are accepted on the basis of the prestige of a person or institution. For most people religious ideas are derived from and justified by appeal to such authorities. Even where there is a degree of reference to experience, there is generally a considerable residue of conscious or unconscious deference to authority for its own sake. It is legitimate, of course, to accept the experience of others as a valuable source of suggestions for ideas, but the ideas must be accepted as true only by the test of repeatable experience, and not on the ground that some powerful or eloquent or venerated person has stated them.

Our method therefore will consist first of all in the selection of certain specifiable human experiences as defining the concern of religion. It will also involve the constant return to experience at every stage of discussion for the clarification of the ideas developed.

Second. From amongst the varieties of human experience only those will be selected as religiously significant which are universal in nature. The reason for this has already been stated. We are seeking to define a religion which will be universal in character, which will have reference to the concerns of every human being. To do this it is necessary to discover experiences which are an inevitable part of being human.

Our approach rules out the commonly-held idea that religious insight or awareness is primarily the product of a special group of religious geniuses, or that it is the result of only occasional flashes of illumination. It is true, of course, that every experience is had in varying degrees of intensity or with a variety of consequences as between different occasions and persons. But experiences which are so rare as to be inaccessible to ordinary persons or unrelated to the life every day cannot be the basis for a universal religion. The insights of geniuses or of moments of high illumination may of course be valuable clues to the significance of the more generally enjoyed experiences which define the religious consciousness.

The method advocated here is also apparently at variance with the idea of "special revelation" in the Jewish and Christian tradition. "Special revelation" means that God does not make himself known primarily in the general experiences of mankind, but in particular critical historical happenings of unusually great significance. Examples are the exodus from Egypt, the Babylonian Exile and the Return, and the events associated with Jesus of Nazareth, culminating in his resurrection and the rise of the Church. It is true that every great discovery in human civilization is made in particular circumstances and because of a favorable combination of circumstances. All the historical events mentioned above were occasions for deepened insight into the meaning of life. But they were important precisely because they provided a clue to what may be universally true for man as a human being and not because they represented particular events or situations.

It is the same as the matter of the religious genius. There are special times -- as well as people -- which are the occasions for new insights. But the truth and importance of the insights consists in their universal applicability and not in the special circumstances surrounding their origin. The same relation of the special to the general holds in scientific inquiry. Many scientific discoveries have been made under special circumstances, but the important thing is not those circumstances, but the scientific principles made evident through them. This is not to make us less grateful for the events which occasioned the discovery, but it does suggest that our major concerns should be for the general truths. Adherents of the great historic religions are usually too much concerned with the primary historical events rather than with the universal truth discovered through them.

The chief value of concern with the historical sources of religious insight is their power of stimulating a vivid awareness of the general insights and suggesting ways for their further concrete embodiment. For the universal truth can only become individually, personally, and socially important when it is embodied in new concrete situations. In spite of this, it is still true that universal religion must be based upon universal experiences which can be successively illustrated in actual life situations.

Third. Among the universal experiences in which man participates religion relates to those which are of central concern. By this is meant experiences which are involved in every area of man’s life. Religious experience, as it will be defined in later chapters, is not some specialized department of human thought or activity. Rather it is an aspect which pervades every form of man’s existence. Further, these experiences are of central concern by being in some sense ultimate. They do not refer to the immediate, obvious, superficial aspects of consciousness, but to the deepest and most pervasive factors which determine the long-term quality of existence.

An example may make this clear. Hunger for food, and its satisfaction, are universal human experiences. But they are not by that token religious in character. This is because hunger for food is not necessarily involved in other experiences, such as the enjoyment of a work of art. In contrast with this experience, which is universal and important but not of central or ultimate importance, the experiences described in the next part of this book as defining religious experiences are involved in and illustrated by every form of human activity including the seeking for food and the appreciation of art.

This third aspect of our method confirms what was said in the first chapter about significant religion. We are not interested in a religion which deals only with one segment of human life, nor with matters of preliminary concern. It is the discovery of the pervasive factors and fundamental bases of life in its whole scope that is the task of significant religious philosophy. That this is not self-evident is clear when one considers the large number of specialized practices and minor concerns that enter into most actual religions. In fact religion is commonly understood as consisting precisely (from our viewpoint) in such relatively trivial and non-essential elements -- as for example, the precise acceptance of particular historic doctrines, the reverencing of sacred books, or the performance of specific ritual acts.

Fourth. It will be required that the ultimate universal experiences selected as defining religion be communicable to others. This probably follows naturally from the first three requirements. However, it deserves special attention because there is a difference between having an experience and communicating it. A religious view of life must be put into concepts which can be understood by others. It is not enough merely to distinguish the fundamental experiences called religious. It is also necessary to use them in defining a framework of concepts which can be used to clarify the meaning of religion in mutual discourse.

In terms of procedure in constructing a view of religion, the demand for communicability will probably be satisfied best by approaching the description of each basic religious concept from a variety of directions, all of which converge on a common center. This is necessary whenever matters of rich content are being dealt with and where great precision is neither possible nor desirable. In each of the five following chapters one basic concept will be defined in this way. Where communication is not achieved by one approach, another mode of description of the basic concept may be effective, and all the explanations together will, it is hoped, define a concept which all can understand.

As pointed out earlier, the requirement of communicability is one of the qualities of a good religion, judged by the standard of "community". It is also an essential for any religion which can be regarded as intelligible or reasonable.

A communicable religion cannot rest, as some religions claim to do, upon private disclosures to mystics or prophets. Nor can such a religion be the privilege of a favored circle of initiates. The exponents of mystical religion have emphasized the "ineffable" or indescribable and indefinable character of their mystic vision. All experiences are, in one sense, ineffable. None of us can know fully what anyone else experiences. But we are sufficiently alike to be able to assume for all practical purposes a community of experience. Religious experiences which cannot be communicated cannot be humanly important, except perhaps to the one who undergoes them. But they have no cultural significance. It is even unlikely that they can really be important in the long run to the person who has them until they become communicable, because without that they cannot really be understood even by himself. Hence we exclude the private vision as a method of reaching a religious view of life.

Fifth. To deserve the name "religious", the communicable, ultimate, universal experiences which are described should provide illuminating explanations of important features of the actual historic religions of mankind. It is reasonable to employ the word "religious" only if the experiences described do justice to at least large parts of what is traditionally associated with that term. Clearly no one is free to define a commonly used word in any way he pleases. The necessity for new definitions arises from the fact of ambiguity. A word like "religion" has many meanings, but not just any meaning. New definitions, such as those attempted here, serve to distinguish certain meanings of a term in preference to others in the hope that these will be more consistent and more serviceable in creating a community of understanding than the term in its full ambiguity and vagueness was able to do.

Hence an important part of our method will be to show the ways in which the experiences defining religion relate to important traditional concepts, institutions, and practices commonly called "religious". This will be done in part in the discussion of each of the five basic concepts in Part Two and will be further and more directly carried out in Part Three.

Sixth. The final component of our method will be to develop the implications of the historically-related, communicable, ultimate, universal experiences which are taken as defining religion. The experiences do not simply occur with no further consequences. The human mind is inevitably driven to ask what they mean and how they are related to other experiences. One is also encouraged to develop further concepts to include the experiences so inter-related. This leads to theological speculation. The danger here is that such speculation will lose touch with actual experience and lead a life of its own, unchecked by reference to concrete reality. Nevertheless, the full richness of a religious view of life cannot be achieved without a thorough but cautious searching for implications.

The traditional belief in God represents an important illustration of the speculative leap. As we shall see, there is a variety of fundamental experiences which enter into the definition of religion. The question about God involves the question as to what connection these experiences have with each other. Is it possible to imply a unity underlying them all, or must they remain distinct at our present stage of understanding? Whatever the answer to this question, we shall certainly be able to develop certain less complete implications of each of the basic experiences by which religion will be defined.

This concludes our discussion of method. In summary, our procedure is to begin by finding certain universal, ultimate experiences which can be intelligibly described, which shed light upon traditional religious ideas and which may contain valuable further implications. The important point is that we do not begin with inherited doctrines or with speculations about God, or the soul, or the realm of the supernatural. All of these and similar matters must be considered only in the light of the fundamental religious experiences themselves. This would appear to be a solid basis upon which a religious view intelligible to all can be built. While it may seem to some to provide an unfinished and incomplete picture, the beginning is at least secure and the direction of further development clearly indicated.

In the following part of this book five fundamental experiences will be described as forming a basis for a religious understanding of human existence. These are not the only ones which might be mentioned. They are ones which do seem to the present writer particularly important religiously. Other people might find somewhat different concepts more useful. These five will at least serve to accomplish one of the central aims of this book -- namely, to illustrate how an intelligible religious philosophy may be constructed. The particular results are not as important as the method. It seems to this writer that only such a method can deliver religious thought from many of the confusions which have perennially beset it.

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