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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 4: Dependence


The second fundamental experience out of which religion grows is the consciousness of dependence. This means simply that we recognize our life and all the experiences which make it up as given to us and received by us. No one could ever have asked to be born, nor could he fix the time and occasion of his appearance. Our existence, from the earliest moment, was not for us to determine, but came as our inheritance from the acts or decisions of others. So also were the resources for our growth and development provided. We did not make them. We received them and used them to become what we are. We come, as it were, as guests into the house of this world. It was here before we were and we live by virtue of the powers and supplies which it affords.

What is the life which we experience but a participation -- a "taking part" ? Whatever we are or do is a reflection of what has entered into our making. Every person is in a sense a channel through whom the stream of life flows. These are, of course, vague metaphors. They express in various ways the awareness that all life -- indeed all existence whatever -- is derived. Everything that exists derives its being from prior sources. Nothing is insulated from its causes, but is their outcome. In fact, to say that existence is derived is in part to affirm that nothing happens without a cause and that for every effect there is a sufficient cause. It is its causes, in this general sense, upon which everything depends. To say that all existence is "given" then means in part that there is nothing which lacks an adequate cause, and the consciousness of dependence is the experience of being caused.

The experience of dependence, viewed in the light of this principle of causation, is necessary for an intelligible view of the world. For intelligibility implies the possibility of ordering experiences in terms of cause and effect. Anything for which no question about its causes could be asked would be inherently irrational and unintelligible. Reason demands of everything that its causes be determined. The extent to which such determination has been effected is a measure of the rationality of existence.

Dependence implies that the things which make up the world are involved in a network of relationships. Nothing is independent of everything else. In fact, in the last analysis nothing is wholly independent of anything else in the entire world. This inter-relationship includes connections between things and their causes. It also refers to the contemporary connections. Thus dependence includes, but is more than, causal connection. It also involves the fact that everything is a part of a larger whole. Nothing stands alone. Everything belongs in various ways and through various links to everything else. The quality of experience at every moment is a function of the many relationships in which one is involved. Everything and everyone constantly depends in this way on its environment. It is impossible to describe any experience without specifying the various relationships and connections to surrounding beings. In fact, the description consists precisely in such specifications.

Obviously no simple and ready answer can be given to the questions: Upon what are we dependent, or What is the source or what are the sources of being? To answer such questions requires a detailed description of causes and of the complex networks of inter-connections which relate things to each other. A complete answer to any such question would require a full knowledge of everything in the whole world -- since in some way, however remote, everything is related to everything else. Such an answer is obviously not attainable. The most that can be done is to approximate to the major causes and contemporary connections of things. These are of the most varied sorts.

Consider, for example, the sources from which the life of a human being is derived. There are the material elements which through a long chain of chemical transformations have come to make up his flesh and bone. There is the stream of substances such as oxygen, water, protein and carbohydrates which continually nourish, repair, and empower the organism. There are the mental and emotional influences, beginning with the earliest experiences of mother and child and continuing with significant associations in home, neighborhood, school, and vocation which enter into the formation of habits of thought and patterns of feeling. Included also are the treasures of civilization -- the books, works of art, scientific creations, principles of wise conduct, social institutions -- which have influenced the developing personality. All of these -- material or mental, personal or impersonal, individual or institutional -- belong to the sources of being for any human being.

In a similar way it would be possible to analyze the causes and connections of entities other than persons or even of non-living beings. Each type of entity has its own important sources. For example, cultural values have only the most remote and indirect relevance to the production of a tree or a rock. They would be more significant sources for the life of a domesticated animal, and controlling in the life of a civilized human being.

Our assumption is that the sources of any being must be adequate to account for that being. Thus, material causes may be given as the sources for material entities. But material causes do not adequately account for beings like man, where mental characteristics are a dominant feature. The sources of human beings must include mental factors, as well as material ones. No personal factors are required in the causal analysis of plant forms, for example, but they are needed in the case of man. Thus when a human being asks whether that upon which his life depends is personal or impersonal, the answer is that he is dependent both upon personal and upon impersonal sources. Because he is a person, he has his derivations from personal sources -- that is from entities which adequately explain personality; but he also derives some of the aspects of his being from nonpersonal sources.

The fact of dependence is closely linked with the fact of change already discussed. In the experience of change the central element is the awareness of newness -- of appearance and disappearance of being. In the experience of dependence the central element is relatedness. The connection between the two consists in the fact that it is the sources of being, from moment to moment, which determine the changes that take place. This means that the question, "What are the sources of being ?" includes the question, "Where do the new things come from and the old things go?" But though the experiences of change and of dependence introduce essentially the same question, they are different experiences. The former involves surprise or shock at the fact of changing being, the latter involves awareness of other beings, past or present, with which links of influence and support exist. It is one thing to recognize that the face of things is never the same, another to know that all things are bound to one another by links of mutual dependence.

If the question about the sources of being includes the question about the basis for change, then the same variety of answers discussed in the previous chapter must apply here also. This means that no mere description of the apparent connections between things will complete the story. It is not enough, for example, to point out the many traceable factors which influenced the life of a person. There still remain those essentially astonishing factors which entered into the production of new elements in the developing person. Thus the sources of his being must include the hidden resources out of which new things proceed. It is for this reason that the problem of change really precedes the problem of dependence. The answer to the question about the sources of being must include the answer to the question about the ground of change.

The experience of dependence is both universal and central. There is no one who is not confronted at every moment of his existence with the fact of derivation. This is not an experience which relates to special circumstances, to particular moods, or to particular forms of activity. It applies necessarily to the character of existence itself. It is the nature of all that happens to be derived. There is no exceptional individual or special group exempt from this fact. There is no situation in which any being is more or less dependent than in others. Under every condition all beings are completely and entirely dependent, because everything has a source from which it proceeds.

The objection will certainly be made now that dependence is not complete because there is such a thing as independence. The concept of independence has a meaning and it does qualify what we have called the experience of dependence. In what sense, then, is there also an experience of independence? Take the case of the child in relation to the parent. The child begins life almost wholly dependent upon the parent, and then through the years he develops more and more independence. This means that powers which at first were exercised by the parent for the child more and more reside within the child himself and can be directly exercised by him.

Relatively speaking, then, independence may have clear and definite meaning. But when we speak of dependence being complete, we are concerned with the question that must still be asked about the mature and "independent" person, namely, what are the sources of those powers by which he demonstrates his independence? The "built-in" capacities which make him self-sufficient are all grounded in resources which were prior to him. The assertion of complete dependence is therefore based upon the assumption that for every being there is a sufficient cause. In this sense, independence has only a relative significance, referring to the more immediate relevance of one thing to others and not to the ultimate and perennial question of original derivation.

The next step is to justify the assertion that the experience of dependence is religious in character. This requires that we show that a number of important traditional religious concepts have their roots in this experience.

One of the most immediate religious ideas springing out of the experience of dependence is that of Divine Providence. Providence simply means that our life is provided for us, that it is a gift to us from the hand of God. It grows from the consciousness that we are part of and subject to a power or powers greater than ourselves upon which our destiny depends. In the history of religions Providence has been variously conceived. Sometimes, as in Stoicism, it is a rather impersonal order of things which governs their course. In other cases, as in the Jewish and Christian tradition, Providence is a personal yet usually orderly power, the giver and sustainer of life and upholder of the whole created order. In Islam he is thought of also as personal, but more in terms of arbitrary power and sovereign will. The very name "Muslim", meaning "one who submits", suggests the centrality in Islam of the experience of dependence.

Closely related to the idea of Providence is the concept of fate or of predestination. This results from the conviction that human life is directed by hidden powers towards definite and inescapable ends. It means that no one is ever really independent but is subject to higher powers. It needs no elaboration to see how such concepts stem from the experience of dependence.

The idea of God as Father is an interpretation of the same experience. In human families the father is the provider of the necessities of life. He has in most societies been regarded as the "head" of the family, and the one upon whom the responsibility for initiating action falls. Thus the idea of fatherhood becomes appropriate to designate the more ultimate sources upon which all life depends for its support. It should be noted, in passing, that most religions also have mother-gods. The reason is that in the human family mothers are obviously important sources of being; in fact, the child’s dependence within the family is generally much more upon the mother than upon the father.

In popular Roman Catholic piety the Virgin Mary, "Mother of God", supplies the need for a female supernatural resource. In Christian Science, founded by a woman, God is called Father-Mother God, thus combining the two forms of filial dependence. The experience of receiving life as a gift suggests the idea of the love of God or of God as love. This also expresses the feeling of relatedness, of belonging to a larger order of things which is one aspect of the experience of dependence. One of the difficulties which such a designation raises is the fact that all aspects of man’s life -- the bad as well as the good -- are involved in dependence. From the evil aspects have arisen concepts of evil powers --devils, demons, and dark spirits -- by which one’s life is in part determined and upon which one is dependent.

The religious concept which perhaps best expresses the experience of dependence is the idea of grace. Grace implies a free gift. A gracious person is one who is generous and outgoing towards others. Correspondingly, when the "grace of God" is spoken of, the meaning is that one has a sense that his life is freely given to him. One responds to whatever he regards as the sources of being as he would to a gracious person.

In Christian thought, stemming largely from the writings of St. Paul, the idea of grace is brought out in the contrast between faith and works. Faith in this sense does not mean, as it is often popularly interpreted, belief about something for which there is little clear evidence. It means rather a confident dependence upon one in whom he has faith. Thus the way of faith is the way of confident dependence upon a power deemed worthy of trust. The way of works, in contrast, involves self-reliance, confidence in one’s own powers, and independence of any external supports. A sense of grace and a corresponding life of faith would emerge from the recognition of the ultimate sources for one’s being.

The discussion of independence above shows that there is no necessary contradiction between faith and works For the works of the self are simply an expression of the life whose sources are other than the self, just as the independent person is independent by virtue of powers derived from beyond himself in the course of his life development. According to the religion of grace the most effective people, from the point of view of independence and the power of personal maturity, are those who most vividly recognize their dependence. The reason for this is that such recognition may strengthen and establish connection with the sources from which personal power derives. Faith is therefore not opposed to works but is their guarantee and support. There can be no works apart from some faith in the sources which make them possible, and there can be no faith which does not issue in works appropriate to the powers with which such faith makes connection.

It is from this recognition of the significance of dependence that the various religious "gospels of relaxation" have sprung. The clearest instance of this is probably in Taoism, one of the basic principles of which is the importance of "letting go", abandoning the attempt to make the world over according to one’s own plans and of letting nature take its course. One takes a passive attitude, expecting that life will best work out in the absence of striving and coercion. Such a philosophy can easily become an excuse for irresponsibility, but it contains important elements of wisdom. Above all it rests upon the firm recognition of universal dependence and upon the positive values, even in terms of work accomplished, which stem from such awareness.

The phenomenon of faith-healing well illustrates the practical effect of acknowledging dependence. That such cures really do take place seems well established. There are various interpretations as to how they occur. But this much seems clear: that at least part of the explanation is the release of the sufferer from fears and crippling self-concern by virtue of self-abandonment to some higher power to which he looks for strength and wholeness. He recognizes that health is a gift and not an achievement of his own, that it comes as he opens himself to receive it. This is of course true of all healing, not only the so-called faith-cures. Few doctors would presume to claim that they cure the sick. They recognize their function as preparing the conditions under which the healing process can take place. Their medical knowledge is a formulation of those laws and principles not made by human contrivance but discovered in the natural order, upon obedience to which the healing process depends.

The principle of dependence extends, in fact, clearly to every area of human achievement. Success in the arts, for example, depends upon sensitive responsiveness to the beautiful forms which are presented as free gifts of nature and life. Similarly in science and engineering the principle once again is dependence upon the natural laws that have been discovered. Man cannot really dominate nature. He can only express the powers implicit in it. And this requires before everything else the acknowledgment of dependence upon it.

It is in this matter of the consciousness of dependence that the contrast between the religious and the non-religious views of life becomes most clear. The assertion of absolute independence and self-sufficiency is the essence of irreligion. Independence may be claimed either by an individual or by a group. Thus, fanatical nationalism or partisanship are as irreligious as the most rugged individualism. It is the tragedy of the present age that the principle of dependency has so largely given way to the claims of self-sufficiency. The "self-made man" has been the ideal of success in capitalist societies. But collectivisms of various sorts, in which the individual acknowledges his dependence upon the group, substitute group self-sufficiency for individual independence and thereby merely magnify the threat and error of the self-made man. It has often been pointed out that modern man is without roots and that modern culture rests upon insecure foundations. This is a direct result of the irreligious rejection of the fact of dependence. Individuals and societies tend to wither and die when they cease to acknowledge and to strengthen their connection with the sources of their being.

At this point a word is in order about humanism. There are many kinds of humanism, all of which share a concern for the recognition of the unique values in man and in his culture. The kind referred to here is scientific or naturalistic humanism. This school of thought has made important contributions in such areas as the criticism of irrational world-views, of authoritarian social systems, of arbitrary religious dogmatism, and of pious superstitions. One of its major tenets is the self-sufficiency of man. When carefully examined it is usually clear that this means that man is not dependent for the fulfillment of his life upon "supernatural" agencies, but upon the resources which scientific understanding reveals as part of the natural (including human) order.

There is unfortunately in some humanists the tendency so to emphasize this negative criticism that they fail to appreciate the importance and the human value in the awareness of ultimate dependence. One of the best ways for humanism to strengthen its appeal would be to emphasize the fact of man’s radical dependence upon the various resources in the physical world, in society, and in whatever are thought to be the grounds for moral, aesthetic, and intellectual insight, inspiration, and illumination. Some humanists are so busy asserting man’s self-sufficiency and attempting to demonstrate it in activity that they fail to discover the secret of appropriating the power available to them and thus both disprove their assertions and frustrate their activities. Humanism loses its religious quality -- and incidentally its practical effectiveness -- as soon as the sense of grace disappears. A thoughtful recognition of human dependence is a requirement both of theoretical adequacy and of constructive accomplishment.

Psychotherapists have often pointed out the evil consequences of an overdeveloped sense of dependence, and have regarded independence as one of the characteristics of mature personalities. Particularly destructive from a psychological viewpoint are the fear and conformity engendered by strongly authoritarian influences on the developing personality. With this outlook we are in full agreement. There are good and bad kinds of dependence. As pointed out already, there is a preliminary sense in which independence is necessary. Children must grow up from early reliance upon parents to the development of powers which reside within themselves. To be subservient to other persons or to group demands in such a way as to impair the full development of human potentialities is bad dependence. But when mature personality is attained and independence achieved there still remains the importance of acknowledging one’s "good" dependence -- his indebtedness to all the sources of being which made him what he is -- and his reliance upon the many surrounding beings with which he is constantly in active relationship. The insistence upon independence is an important safeguard against preliminary dependency -- that is, reliance upon particular persons or groups. The demand for independence drives one out from such immature reliances. But it must not remain there, as though independence were the last word. The purpose of independence is to force one from preliminary to ultimate dependency, that is, to acknowledgment of and reliance upon the ultimate sources of our being.

This discussion of independence brings us to the much debated problem of freedom and the relation between freedom and dependence. It might appear that the assertion of radical dependence would deny the reality of freedom. Such is not the case. To understand this, it is important to be clear on the point that freedom does not mean absence of determination. Freedom does not mean pure chance. Human freedom does mean self-determination, that is, the causing of activity by the self rather than by external agencies. Understood in this way, freedom is not in opposition to dependence. For, granted the reality of human freedom, it is still important to ask: What are the resources upon which the making of the self depends ? It is these resources upon which one is dependent. It seems safe to say that the most complete freedom can, in fact, be achieved only when ultimate dependence is acknowledged. For freedom means not only the absence of external control, but power for maximum self-realization. And such maximum development occurs only by virtue of one’s connection with and full openness to the sources of his being.

Throughout our discussion of dependence it may have occurred to many to ask whether the main point is not being missed in failing to describe more precisely just what it is we are ultimately dependent upon. That such a description would be valuable and important is granted. A number of suggestions regarding the nature of the sources of our being have already been made. Some of the traditional religious answers, such as Divine Providence, Fate, Father God, and Love, have been indicated. These and numerous other answers have grown out of centuries of reflection upon the fact of universal dependence. Different degrees of speculative elaboration will satisfy different kinds of minds. Some will find satisfaction only in a man-like invisible Person-God, while others will accept only a tentative conception of the system of powers and structures in the natural order which reasonably account for the observed fact of the physical, biological, and social world.

The point to emphasize is that the particular form of speculative implication demanded is of less importance than the basic experience of dependence common to all interpreters, out of which the implications grow. The basic religious experience, whatever the interpretation, is the experience of dependence. It is only by reference to this universal foundation that the corresponding religious concepts can be understood, and it is only through a clear laying of this foundation in experience that a universally intelligible religious view may be assured.

In conclusion, we wish to summarize some of the attitudes of mind which stem from a vivid awareness of ultimate dependence. The most important of these is the spirit of thankfulness. There are few attitudes more productive of healthy and attractive personality than thankfulness. When a person feels grateful for the gift of life, his joy tends to infect others. He also becomes less subject to the threat of misfortune, because he regards life as a free gift and not as a possession to which he has permanent and inalienable rights.

Thankfulness then begets generosity. One who regards his life as not his own considers himself a steward and a trustee, responsible for the wise and profitable use of what has been entrusted to him. Since he is heir to a gift, he does not feel the need to protect his smallholdings, but in turn becomes a giver, in the expectation of finding replenishment from the still generous sources of his being.

The sense of dependence also generates confidence. Fear comes from the threat of isolation, of being bereft of support, of being estranged from powers larger than one’s self. Recognition of dependence links one to others and makes him aware of the many supports available to him.

Another result is humility. Pride is the assertion of ultimate self-sufficiency. In classical theology pride is the greatest sin. This agrees with the position outlined above that the denial of dependency is the essence of irreligion. Humility is the acknowledgment of dependence. It is the recognition that one is part of a larger order, and the seeking for a right relationship to others within the larger context.

Thankfulness, generosity, confidence, and humility -- these are some of the fruits of the experience of dependence. These are characteristics of the religious outlook. They have their roots in one of the universal experiences of human existence.

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