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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 3: Change


The purpose of this chapter is to show how the awareness of change provides the ground for one of the fundamental forms of religious experience and how some of the basic religious concepts grow out of an interpretation of this experience.

The skeptical writer of the book of Ecclesiastics said that there is nothing new under the sun, that all things are a stale and wearisome repetition of what has happened before. Though this expresses a not uncommon and often understandable feeling, it is not actually true. The most elementary fact of all human experience is that every moment brings to birth a new world. The state of things at one moment of time is never exactly the same as that which prevailed at the previous moment. This is only to say that we live in a world of ceaseless change. The fact of change is perhaps the most fundamental human experience. There is no form of existence where change does not rule. Even the "eternal hills" do not stand forever, as any geologist can testify.

The most solid and durable of substances is simply a relatively stable arrangement of changing electric fields and elementary particles. In living forms the dominance of change is even more obvious. In life there can be no standing still. Stagnation means death. Change is the essence of life. We do not know yet, and we may never know, the deepest secrets of the nature of living substances, but we do know this much: that growth and decay, assimilation and reproduction -- in short, a variety of processes of change -- are without exception their characteristic. All existence therefore has a dynamic character. Thus the consciousness of change must be a universal and a central human experience.

The omnipresence of change has become most striking in modern times. The picture of the world presented first by the physical scientists, then by the biologists, and finally by the social scientists has convincingly and increasingly confirmed this dynamic character. But the average layman has been even more impressed by the revolutions which have taken place in his life and in the world about him because of inventions. And now the world-wide changes occasioned by the renewed rise of nationalism, the collapse of colonialism, and the spread of new ideologies -- all the results of conditions imposed by the machine age -- have increased the tempo of cultural transformation to an unprecedented degree.

The primacy of change is reflected in the dominant character of modern philosophy. One of the greatest of modern thinkers, Whitehead, built his view of the world upon this fundamental fact. The primary concept in his system he calls "creativity", by which he means simply the ceaseless change in which all existence is inevitably involved. On the same basis he finds the dynamic quality which is the essence characteristic of all things, even the so-called inanimate. According to this view there is no sharp distinction between dead matter on the one hand and life and mind on the other. Since all things are in process of change, they all partake of the same fundamental nature.

Another recent influential thinker, Bergson, also regarded change as fundamental. The truth about the nature of things, he said, is revealed in the intuition of "duration", or true time. This intuition is an awareness of the dynamic character of all existence. Implied in this is a renewed emphasis on the reality and the significance of time. Time and change are correlates. To be aware of time is to be conscious that all things change. This concern with the nature of time which pervades much of modern philosophy -- not only that of Bergson and other so-called "process" philosophers -- is therefore further witness of the recognition of change as a basic human experience.

At first thought there would seem to be no religious significance in the experience of change. Indeed, it might appear that religion would be concerned with change only as an unwelcome contrast to its interest in the "eternal". Actually this is a superficial view. To understand why we must now look more closely at the fact of change to see what it is and what questions it raises.

What is change? It is the appearance of something really new, and correspondingly the disappearance of something old. We are aware of change by virtue of two powers of the mind: memory and discrimination. Memory enables us to carry over the image of the past into the present. Discrimination enables us to compare this image with the present state of things. It is this discrimination of the difference between present observation and the image of the observed past which is the consciousness of change. This applies most obviously to the constant change, from moment to moment, which characterizes our ordinary existence.

But it applies equally well to the longer-range changes which occur in the structures of the world: in the transformations of inorganic substances, in the evolution of stellar systems, in the decay of radioactive matter, in the origin and disappearance of species, in the growth and decay of individual organisms, or in the rise and fall of civilizations. In long-term changes the individual memory which makes comparison and discrimination possible is replaced by a natural or historical memory, provided by the marks left in nature or in human records of what once was but has now passed away. But whether in the constant flow of passing events, in the unperceived processes of growth, or in the long slow transformations of world history, the same basic pattern holds good: things genuinely new come into being and present things pass out of being. Each moment of time brings a whole new world to birth and presides over the dissolution of an old world. To be sure there are important relationships between the new and the old, but the fact remains that out of whatever materials from the past, new things constantly are being generated in place of the things that are.

We now come to the heart of the matter. What does the fact of universal change mean? We are so accustomed to this basic experience that it may hardly occur to us to reflect on it. But when we do it immediately becomes apparent how extraordinary it is. For questions like this insistently present themselves: How is it possible that things really new come into being? Where do they come from? If they are really new, they cannot come from the world of the present or the past. But what other world is there? There is not even a world of the past, but only a present world with remnants of a past. Is there in some sense a "world of the future" which is real but not apparent ? What and where would this world of the future be? Can there be now a world of the future, since the future is not yet? And when the world of the present disappears, where does it go? What receptacle is there for things that once were and no longer are? What is the status and condition of the "world of the past"? Is it real since the past no longer is ?

There are at least three ways in which questions like these may be dealt with. (1) The first way is to refuse the assumption underlying the questions, namely, that there is such a thing as change in the sense of really new things coming into being. Some would assert that the author of Ecclesiastics was right, that there actually is not anything new under the sun, that the present was wholly contained in the past, and that the future is wholly contained in the present. Such a view gains support mainly from the success with which scientists have been able to predict the course of nature. If one can accurately predict the future on the basis of present conditions and the known laws of nature, then it would seem that in a sense the future is already contained in the present.

The objection to this view is that it robs time of any real significance. Time becomes simply a quantity by means of which the various possible arrangements of the components of the world may be labeled. Is it true that everything that now exists is simply a rearrangement of something in the past ? This is a question that cannot be simply and decisively answered. Much can be done by way of analyzing the course of events in terms of such rearrangement -- especially in the physical sciences. But there is no assurance that such an analysis is complete or in some areas justified at all -- especially in the study of living things, including man and his works. Curiously enough, doubts concerning the adequacy of this method of analysis have been most persistently and pointedly raised in recent years in the field of atomic physics, in connection with the so-called "uncertainty principle", according to which definite limits are set to the precise predictability of physical quantities. There is a strong trend among philosophers and scientists today towards the denial of the possibility of complete predictability in any realm of inquiry and therefore towards the re-establishment of the significance of time and the reality of change as the emergence of the genuinely new.

But even apart from these considerations, and assuming that the old theory of rearrangements were maintained, one might still admit the reality of change. For "rearrangement" is itself change. There is something significantly new in a new order of old things. In fact it is the order of things which really determines their essential nature. Even if it were true that the future could be fully predicted from the present state of things, there would still be a real difference between present and future. Otherwise, what would it mean to "predict"? Prediction means that something new, something not yet in being, is to come into being. And this suggests the same questions about change and the world of past and future which the denial of change was designed to dispel.

The conclusion is that the assumption underlying the questions about change cannot be denied. All experience confirms the reality of change. Hence the first way of dealing with these questions must be rejected.

(2) The second way is simply to dismiss the questions as idle speculations, and to rest content with the experience of change in itself. This involves a decision to be concerned with other things which appear to yield profitable results. The motive for disregarding the questions is that to some they do not seem to yield sufficiently clear and definite answers. Under these conditions the most that appears worth while is to acknowledge the fact of change and to describe the various changes which do actually occur. This is the position generally adopted by the scientist who considers that his business is to discover what in fact takes place in the course of natural processes and to discern the laws that pertain to them. For example, in dealing with the evolution of organic life, the scientist will speak of the "emergence" of new forms. This is what actually happens. New forms do come forth. And it does not usually seem to the scientists that there is anything more to say about the process. He does not see any scientific meaning in the question: Where do the new forms come from? For he conceives of his job as one of describing facts, and the only facts he discerns are the events as they succeed one another in the order of natural processes.

The difficulty with this position is that the questions suggested by the experience of change will not always be denied. They tend to return, sometimes with even greater insistence for having been banished. Whether he wish it or not, man is by nature a philosopher, latent if not actual. Though he may by choice limit himself to pure description of passing events, he cannot escape the haunting insistence of these still unacknowledged questions. The objection here is therefore different from that to the first response. The reaction is not really wrong. It is simply inadequate. It fails to do justice to the deeper meaning of the fact of change. It leaves too much unexamined. And this is unsatisfactory, because it is true, as Socrates said, that the unexamined life is not worth living.

(3) Both of the first two kinds of response to the questions suggested by change fail to lead to anything that might be called a religious experience. The response becomes religious when the reality of change is acknowledged and when the questions are asked in all seriousness. We are justified in calling it religious because as a matter of historical fact a number of the major ideas of the great religions are attempts to supply answers to these questions.

First there is the whole range of ideas associated with belief in some sort of supernatural realm. Where do new things come from and where do old things go? Many have found an answer in postulating another world, an "unseen world" where both past and future have their lodging. Plato suggested an ideal realm where the pure forms of things reside. In eastern religions there is the infinite ocean of absolute being of which the world of changing things is only the flickering shadow. In Jewish and Christian thought there is a divine kingdom where possibilities unrealized in this world are fulfilled. Regardless of its exact form, such an unseen world provides a source from which new things derive and into which things present pass away.

But even more to the point are the ideas of a Creator-God who is the ground of all existent things. Plato thought of the Creator as a great artisan fashioning the world of matter after the image of the ideal forms. The earlier of the two stories of creation in the book of Genesis somewhat similarly portrays God as the craftsman lending shape to formless stuff. The later and more sophisticated account in Genesis suggests that the world was created "out of nothing" by divine command. But in traditional theology God has been thought of not only as the creator "in the beginning". He is said to create continually. This doctrine of "continuous creation" has been particularly favored in more recent theological discussions. It does more clearly reflect the concern with the problem of change as it continually occurs in the world process.

In Hinduism the god Siva is called both Creator and Destroyer. This two-fold function reflects the corresponding two-fold character of change as both coming into being and passing away. The god thus represents an answer to the question about this double process.

Some of the ideas are naïve and graphic, with God pictured as literally fashioning the world or commanding it to come into being. Others are the product of highly-trained philosophic imagination. For example, the Creator-God is conceived of in a variety of ways, sometimes as though he were a person, at other times more impersonally as a source of energy. The contemporary theologian, Paul Tillich, speaks of the "Ground of being" or "Being-itself", from which all particular beings proceed. He also refers to the "Abyss of being", by which he attempts to do justice to the dissolution aspect of the process of change. The philosopher Hartshorne presents a proof for God as the "subject of all change". He argues that if change occurs, then there must be something which itself undergoes change. This reality he calls God. Whitehead thinks of God in part as the residence of the "eternal objects"-- the manifold forms of things -- and as the resource from which these forms are made available from moment to moment as new things appear. In this system God is also the vast receptacle into whose being all things pass as the present becomes past.

Our purpose here is not to discuss in any detail the various kinds of answers that have been proposed by religious thinkers to the problems raised by the fact of change. Our main task is simply to make clear that important religious ideas have arisen directly in answer to these problems, and that this is the justification for regarding the awareness of change as one of the fundamental sources of religious experience.

Most of the controversies in religion have arisen over differing details in answering such basic questions as those raised by the fact of change. One group will take their stand upon a doctrine of a man-like Creator-God dwelling in a supernatural realm. Another group will stand for an impersonal creative energy. Still another will attempt to define the answer in terms of symbols which point to the mystery involved in the emergence of the new.

There is, of course, every reason to seek for the most complete and satisfying answers possible. But the history of religious thought shows that agreement and mutual understanding in such matters are difficult to attain. Our contention is that the main issue lies not between those who give differing answers to the questions about change but between those who take these questions seriously and those who do not. It is this latter contrast that divides the non-religious from the religious. Those who either deny change or in their views of the world content themselves merely with description by that fact miss the religious significance of the experience of change. From this may it not follow that the awareness of change, together with its immediate implications, provides one basis for an approach to religious experience which is universally understood and of central importance to all persons ? Does it not provide one basis for the formulation of an intelligible religion ?

The extent to which any person will wish to speculate about the detailed answers to the questions suggested by change is partly a matter of his temper of mind. There are uncritical persons who find it easy to accept extensive metaphysical elaboration about a supernatural order. There are on the other extreme tough-minded persons who wish to remain squarely within the realm of repeatable and clearly describable human experience. Between these extremes there are those who wish to adhere to some of the great traditional symbols of the supernatural without taking them literally. The answers will differ, but in each case there is a clear recognition of the importance of the questions and a serious facing of what they may imply.

Let us attempt now to outline briefly the minimum implications of the fact of change. These should be intelligible to all who cannot rest content merely with a description of the changing order of things.

In the first place, there are two psychological components in the experience of change. One is the mere fact of discriminating differences between present and remembered past. The other may be described as a kind of "shock" experienced at the appearance of the really new and the disappearance of the old. When this latter component is recognized the calm survey of successive events -- which only involves discrimination of difference -- is not possible. The new now is recognized as really new. There is an element of genuine surprise at its appearance. The really new is "shocking" because it cannot be recognized. It has never been seen before. It is a revelation of the unfamiliar. In a similar way there will be a shock when the old is seen as really gone. The once familiar is seen no more. It is this experience of shock which finds expression in the questions about change. If there were only the act of discriminating difference, there would be no questions. Hence the first and most apparent mark of a religious understanding of change is a sense of surprise or of wonder or even amazement, at its happening. It has been said that religion begins in wonder. The analysis of the implications of change provides an outstanding confirmation of this statement.

In the second place, the experiences of memory and of anticipation give us in some degree access to whatever world lies beyond the present world of things. The past and the future both have a reality in the present through these two kinds of experience. Or perhaps one could say that the longer view of what the world really is, in comparison with its immediate appearance in a momentary time cross-section, is shown by memories and anticipations. The full scope of reality -- with a minimum of speculation -- certainly must include in some way the possibilities of things yet to be -- whether anticipated or not -- and the completed but no longer present actuality of things that once were.

On a minimum view, then, a world where change occurs must be a surprising world and one where both history and possibility are regarded as real and important. This means that the world will be seen as possessing a depth and a richness beyond the mere appearance of successive states and configurations of things. Such a view is essentially religious in character. Whether more elaborate explanations of the status of the world beyond its present appearance are attempted is a relatively secondary matter. One thing is certain: that there will be differences and perhaps misunderstandings about the speculations. The primary fact is that the ground from which the religious experience grows may be discerned. Amidst the differences of theological formulation the only basis for common understanding is to return constantly to the fundamental experiences from which the doctrines originally arose. The consciousness of change is one such experience.

In concluding this discussion of change, a few more remarks need to be added concerning the attitudes of mind which a religious understanding of change involves. First, there is a sense of mystery. Mystery implies an intimation of something real and important but still hidden from full understanding. If new things are constantly coming to be, then such an intimation is inevitable. A sense of mystery is the preparation of the mind to receive the shock of the really new. Without such mystery the world would not actually be interesting. It is interesting in proportion as new surprises are constantly emerging from the mystery of what in the present is only more or less dimly suspected.

A second attitude, really a part of the sense of mystery, is expectancy. There is no expectancy where change is no longer a problem. If there is indeed nothing new under the sun, then there is nothing to look forward to. Recognition of a world of possibility constantly unfolding into the world of actuality lends freshness and vigor in place of staleness and boredom. Perhaps the great success of the physical sciences in predicting the course of natural events and the remarkable control we possess over the forces of nature have led us to think the future in effect already ours and therefore to expect nothing really new. Some of the ennui which depresses many people today -- especially the more prosperous ones -- may find its source here. To understand change religiously is to regard existence as a venture, the inspiration for which is the expectation of things to come now hidden from sight.

A third attitude is humility, which goes hand-in-hand with expectancy and the sense of mystery. Humility is not, in the right sense of the word, self-negation. It is self-fulfillment through recognition of one’s proper relationship in the large scheme of which one is a part. Pride, the opposite of humility, is making one’s self central by ignoring the larger context. To see no problem in change is an act of pride because, in effect, one regards himself as beyond the power of surprise and superior to the mystery that enshrouds both future and past. The religious understanding of change encourages the recognition of the limitations within which we live and of our consciousness of the world as it appears to us now.

In the New Testament it is said that we cannot enter the heavenly kingdom without first becoming as little children. Perhaps this is because children have not yet learned to take change for granted. The world is for them still the opening of a new book, with surprises on each successive page and with enticing mysteries still to be disclosed at every turn. To regenerate the child-like mind -- the sense of wonder, expectancy, and continual surprise -- to experience the delight and the dismay of things coming and going: this is the function of a religious understanding of the fact of change.

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