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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 5: Order


A third fundamental of religious experience is the experience of order. We saw in the last chapter that the world of our experience appears to us as "given". As persons we are dependent upon the sources of being which determine the world process. But it is not enough to point out this pervasive fact. For the world of experience is not given just anyhow. It comes to us in particular forms. These forms confront us at each moment of our awareness. Existence has a determinate structure. It is not formless, arbitrary, and chaotic. The world as we know it possesses character. It exhibits regularities. It lives up to expectations to a certain extent, and it also provides new patterns as the creative process goes on.

Another way of saying this is to point out that the words "possible" and "impossible" make sense. To say that the world comes to us as ordered implies that not everything is possible. Of course we cannot with our limited knowledge state fully and finally what is possible and what is not. But to describe the structure of existence is to draw the line between the possible and the impossible. There are certain inescapable characteristics in the nature of things with which we are confronted. This is the world of things possible. Actually there is no world of things impossible, for the impossible is something which is not and never could be. The real world, then, is the world as it is and as it might possibly be. The form or order or structure of existence is the definition of possibility.

Order is of several kinds, most basic perhaps is the fact of temporal order. Everything which we experience is involved in temporal succession. All experience involves the passage of time. There is no experience which does not have this dimension of temporality. Everything is perceived as "then" or "now". There is no event which we cannot designate by some index of its place in the sequence of passing moments. This is to say that everything belongs to world history -- including the "history of the future". To be outside history is to be impossible. For history is the story of whatever happens. And the primary dimension of history is time.

A kind of order depending upon temporal order is causal connection. Things are not only involved in succession, but some things are related to others as cause and effect. Not everything is cause or effect of everything else. Particular things are causes of specific effects. Furthermore, everything that is has causes and there is nothing which has not its effects. This is the fundamental character of time -- that the world that now is arises on the ground of the world that was. The reality of temporal process therefore assumes a principle of universal causation.

Another basic kind of order is spatial. Everything appears to us as located. It is possible to specify of every event its position in space. The world appears as spread out, and as arranged in various spatial structures. That two different things cannot be in the same place at the same time expresses a condition of possibility in the world of space and time.

Experience also presents the world in terms of quantity. To everything some predicate of size or number is applicable. Counting and measuring are activities which are used to describe the structure of the world. The detailed working out of this process is, of course, seen in the quantitative aspects of scientific inquiry. The principles of mathematics and logic determine the specific ways in which the quantitative structure of the world may be described. The special sciences then attempt as far as possible to apply these principles to the ordering of the data in their various provinces. The manner and extent to which such ordering is possible is, of course, not for the scientists to determine, but is a matter of discovery. This is another way of saying that the quantitative order of things is one of the "given" aspects of existence.

Two things need to be added about the quantitative order. The first is that there is a considerable variety of quantitative systems which may be exemplified in things. The proof of this is the development of new mathematical systems and their successful application to the description of the experienced world -- most strikingly in 20th-century physics. One of the most exciting developments in modern science is the recognition of the multiplicity of possible systems for the ordering of the materials of experience. The second point to be made is that the quantitative order is not the only kind of order, even in science. Much misunderstanding has been caused by the assumption of many people that the only function of science is to describe the quantitative aspects of things, and that the goal of all science is to reduce every description to mathematical equations. This is an unnecessary restriction of the task of science. To be sure, the task of quantitative ordering ought to be pushed as far as it will go, but it should not be assumed to be the sole task of scientific inquiry. There are other kinds of order the discovery of which belongs to the scientific enterprise in the broad sense.

The world also appears with various qualities. The quality of a thing is simply a description of it as it appears to the perceiving person. Color, taste, smell, or hardness are obvious qualities. Quality is actually a general term. Temporality and extension in space are really qualities. In this general sense quality is synonymous with the experienced character or structure of existence. Duration and size are qualities of things in this sense. But so are much more vague qualities such as goodness or rightness or loveliness or awesomeness. Such qualities need further explanation, but the point here is simply that the world does present itself in a vast variety of forms, and we are not justified in arbitrarily restricting the scope of that variety. The world as we experience it is rich in qualities. It is these qualities which constitute the given order of things.

Another aspect of the fact of order is the possibility of classification. All knowledge of the world depends upon classification. This means that it is possible to distinguish similarities between different things. Certain identical qualities may be found in different entities. Groups of such similar things are said to constitute a class, and the process of grouping them together is classification. Classification, and therefore knowledge, is possible only because the world is ordered. The nature of its order is described by stating the possible classifications of things. Scientific inquiry is, in the last analysis, classification. We know only to the extent that we are able to discover the classes into which experienced entities may be grouped.

The possibility of classification provides the basis for language. Language and communication involve the process of abstraction, that is, the discovery of similarities between different things. An abstraction is simply the common element discerned in the different things. Such abstractions enter language as concepts. Concepts are the expression in language of the observed order of things. Thus the existence of language bears witness to the order of the world. Language is the verbal embodiment of the order of existence. For this reason the world is intelligible only because it is subject to order. A world where there was no order would be one without language and without intelligibility.

A still different way of speaking of order is to refer to the relatedness of things. Everything that is has some definite relationship with everything else. Every relationship is a kind of order. That one event is before or after another constitutes a temporal relationship. To be located to the right or left of another is a spatial relationship. To be the cause of another is a causal relationship. Relationships may indicate similarity or difference. Thus, membership in the same class is one form of relationship and membership in different classes is another form. But between all things there is some kind of definite relationship. That this is so is witness to the order involved in all experience.

Order may also be described in terms of the concept of "community". Community is simply the inter-related coexistence of distinct entities. It is the condition of unity-in-difference or difference-in-unity. Every kind of order is a kind of community. In the usual sense of the term, a human community is a group of people living together on the basis of some principles of order. But so is an atom, for example, a community, because its different electrical constituents are inter-related by certain definite structural principles. The order of cause and effect establishes a kind of community between past and present. The intelligible order expressed in language is also evidence of a community of discourse and of understanding. The same observations hold for all other forms of order. Thus to say that the world is ordered is the same as to say that it exhibits various kinds of community.

The order of the world is sometimes spoken of in terms of the concept of "law". Thus, there are the laws of the physical world, the laws of living things, the laws of mental life, and the laws of social existence. Every science endeavors to discover the laws which pertain to its particular area of inquiry. In all these cases "law" means the specific ways in which things do actually behave. It does not refer to a prescription regarding how things should behave. It is solely a description of what does occur. In human society there is another meaning of the word "law", referring to the forms of human behavior prescribed for members of the society, whether they are actually obeyed or not.

In the case of the descriptive laws, there is no question of "obedience" in the usual sense. To say that matter "obeys" the law of gravity is only a figurative way of speaking. There is no command to which the matter gives heed. "Heeding" requires mind, and dead matter does not have that. Matter "obeys" the law of gravity only in the sense that it always moves in accordance with that descriptive principle. The law of nature, then, means the regularity or constancy of the order of nature. Law in the sense of a command is applicable only where mental factors are present. For the command may or may not be obeyed. It is obeyed only when the actual order of things conforms to the commanded order. Whether or not this is the case depends on a variety of factors. Thus, for example, a commanded law of human equality may conflict with certain actual laws of human behavior based on self-interest and thus fail of full realization. As a matter of fact, no prescriptive law will be actualized until it becomes the descriptive law of the human beings to whom it applies.

This leads directly to the question of the so-called "moral order". It is common to draw a distinction between the world of things as they are and the world of things as they ought to be. The world of the ought-to-be is called the moral order. Now it is clear that human action -- with which morality is concerned -- does involve a definite structure. Thus, for example, it is not possible both to act selfishly and to enjoy the benefits of friendship. It is a descriptive law of things that selfishness and friendship are mutually exclusive. Here there is clearly a moral order in a descriptive sense. The question then arises: Ought we to act selfishly or seek friendship ? It is difficult to see how this could be answered apart from the discovery of some tension or tendency giving some kind of preference to one form of behavior rather than the other. We shall discuss this matter further in the next chapter. It is sufficient here merely to say that in the area of human conduct, as well as in the more obvious areas of natural phenomena, there is form or structure. Only certain kinds of human activities, relationships, and patterns of organization are possible, and the moral order is an expression of these various structures together with principles upon which certain preferences may be established among them.

Particular forms or laws in any realm are not necessarily fixed or permanent. Individual things, whose character is an expression of a certain structure, change into things with other forms. But even the more general patterns, such as the so-called "laws of nature", may not be for ever fixed. There is no guarantee that the particular regularities which now pertain in the nature of things will always hold good. This means simply that order is not static, but dynamic. It is none the less order for being subject to change.

Disorder is a term which is always relative to a particular kind of order. There is no such thing as disorder in general. Entities are disordered in a given respect when they do not correspond to some particular sort of order which one seeks to apply to them. But nothing is without any order. Everything is what it is by virtue of its particular kinds of order. The most disordered array from one standpoint is from another point of view perfectly ordered. In fact, the nature of a thing is simply that order or set of orders which it exemplifies. It must be recognized, however, that no statement is ordinarily possible regarding all the orders which any given entity exemplifies. The process of stating the possible classes to which anything belongs and the many relationships into which it enters is one to which there is really no end, so vast is the world and so manifold its inter-connections. This is only to say that the full nature of anything is of limitless complexity.

It requires no discussion to see that order is a universal experience. The awareness of order is a necessary aspect of every person’s experience. There is no person who can perceive the world other than as an ordered world, in such ways as we have already illustrated. Furthermore, the centrality of order is borne out by the fact that there is no type of experience which does not come as a structured experience. An order-experience is not simply one among many other kinds of experience, but every possible experience is an order-experience. Order is the character, quality, or nature of any experience.

The experience of order is closely related to the other two fundamentals of religious experience already discussed, namely, change and dependence. For the new world which comes into being every moment is an ordered world. Not just anything new comes forth, but only entities of certain determinate structures. Order is therefore the law or structure of change. And change is in turn the dynamic component in the order of things. Similarly with dependence, the fact of order means that we are not arbitrarily dependent, but intelligibly so. The world of experience is not simply given, it is given in a determinate way, which is the order of things.

The experience of order has been an important element in all the great religions of the world. The basic theological concept stemming from it is the idea of divine wisdom. That the ultimate source of things, however otherwise conceived, is wise is evident from the marvelous structure with which the world is endowed. Wisdom implies a well-ordered mind. If the world is intelligible and well-ordered, then it follows that the sources of being are wise. However otherwise conceived, the ultimate ground must be as intelligible and as orderly as the world of experience. The God of religion is therefore never really arbitrary, but endowed with that wisdom which is the source of the world’s order.

The laws of the natural order have commonly therefore been regarded by religious people as expressions of the laws of God’s own nature. God is not without a nature. He has a definite character. The only basis upon which knowledge of that divine nature may be founded is the order of the experienced world. Important in this regard are the laws of the moral order. The prophetic personalities in human history who have been gifted with dreams of a better society have usually regarded these visions as revelations of the righteousness of God. The destructive consequences of human wrong-doing have likewise been interpreted as the judgment or wrath of God. The divine judgment is thus a theological interpretation of the experienced reality of a moral order. Human acts have consequences. Not everything is possible. There is a structure in the possibilities of human conduct. The ways in which this structure becomes apparent in human experience are theologically understood as revelations of the divine justice.

Another religious concept based upon the experience of order is the idea of the "Word of God". This phrase is often misunderstood, especially by biblical literalists, as meaning the words of God, supposedly contained in the Holy Book. The correct meaning is that God reveals himself in determinate forms. Thus he becomes intelligible to man. The Word of God is therefore simply every disclosure of the ultimate intelligibility of things. Since such disclosure is made through the experienced order of the world, it follows that the divine Word is a theological interpretation of the experience of order. The Word is sometimes referred to as the logos. This is a Greek word referring to the intelligible structure of the world. In Christian theology Jesus Christ is called the Logos or the Word. This is to be understood as expressing the conviction of the early Christians that the fundamental order of things was best seen in the life and death of Jesus and in the subsequent events in the community of disciples. Christ is the Word to those for whom the most complete understanding of the essential and humanly significant order of things is found in him.

The identification of order with community suggests also the relation between the experience of order and the idea of God as Love. The divine love is an interpretation of dependence, but it also interprets order, for love is the basis for community. Love is the establishment of mutuality between different persons. It is the discovery of unity amidst differences. Therefore love is an ordering process. It follows that if the world is ordered, its source or ground must be love. Hence an ordered world implies theologically a God of love. To be sure, this is qualified by the fact that there are many kinds of order and thus many sorts of community. Thus love also has different levels. It is even true, paradoxical as it may seem, that hate depends on love. For there can be no hate without a link of understanding between the individuals, and that is a product of love. Hate is hate because it eventually results in a complete destruction of community, even the minimal community that made hate possible. Thus love underlies all order, and the idea of the God of love becomes an appropriate symbol for the universal order in which all things experienced are grounded.

The experience of order is thus intrinsic to religious experience as traditionally understood. In this regard the irreligious would be simply oblivious to or heedless of this pervasive fact. They would either call order an illusion or else be so overwhelmed by the failure of the world to conform to their preferred patterns of order that they would fail to affirm the order that does exist. There are skeptics who claim that experience is a meaningless jumble. From some selected standpoint of what a meaningful order would be this may be the case. But that there is some kind of order pervasively experienced none can doubt. To recognize and acknowledge this is one of the fundamentals of all religious experience.

As in our discussions of change and of dependence, so with order it is important to note that from our point of view the significant thing religiously is the experience from which the various theological interpretations arise and not the various forms of interpretation themselves. Some will wish and be able to believe in some sort of Cosmic Mind "behind" the world -- in the sense discussed in Chapter III. Others will prefer to remain on less speculative ground in merely affirming the astounding fact of order and in recognizing this as a primary datum in the nature of things. Whatever the interpretation, the fundamental experience is the same.

Furthermore, amidst divergent theologies the basis for mutual understanding and intelligible discourse is provided in this universal experience of order. Actually religion like everything else can be intelligible and rational only because the world is orderly. Religious experience has a structure. It is the purpose of these chapters to describe some of the main lines of that structure. If this is possible, and if our thesis that religion need not be an unintelligible mystery can be sustained, it is because all our experience does involve order.

In concluding this chapter some of the attitudes which accompany the religious experience of order may be indicated. There is certainly in it a sense of illumination or insight. ("God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.") Life is no longer entirely obscure and baffling. Thus also it has meaning. The sense of order is the basis of meaning. Life is "meaningless" when existence is regarded as chaotic and arbitrary. The meaning of life is precisely the forms of order which it presents. Especially important for a sense of personal meaning is the moral order. Moral meaning arises when the reality of the moral order is understood and affirmed.

The experience of order also underlies the attitude of confidence, which stems from the recognition that the world is in some sense reliable. Order means that experience, while admitting new things, is not pure surprise. Without some determinate structure no existence would be possible. With order a sense of trust is engendered. This is the ground for feeling "at home" in the world rather than a lonely alien. Never completely at home, perhaps, because the present order is not the final order, but sufficiently aware of the pervasiveness of structure to make us rejoice in the magnificent existence in which we are privileged to participate.

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