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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 6: Value


A fourth fundamental of religious experience is the consciousness of value. It is necessary, if one is to be clear, always to speak of value for a specified person. For value depends upon the relationship between a valuer and what he values. The value of something for someone is one of the aspects of his reaction to it. If he seeks to preserve or extend or confirm the relationship, a positive value is indicated; if he seeks to destroy or diminish or escape it, a negative value is indicated. Involved here are emotional components. Acceptance and a feeling of satisfaction characterize a positive value; rejection and a feeling of unrest or dissatisfaction characterize a negative value. Something has positive value for a person if he is attracted by it or to it; it has negative value if he is repelled by it or from it. This is to be understood, of course, as more than a purely physiological reaction, as including emotional and intellectual components. Positive values act as a kind of "lure", negative values as a threat.

The value-experience rests upon some principle of conformity or congruity between the valuer and what is valued. Particular values are acquired in the process of education. It is through education, working within the context of the regular laws of biological, psychological, and social growth, that the pattern of habitual human behavior is formed. Positive values result when the human personality is confronted with objects and enters into situations where there is some kind of correspondence between the person’s nature and the nature of the objects and situations. Negative values result from a clash between subject and object. A precise statement of what the correspondence or the clash might be is not easy to produce and is not necessary here, since our main purpose in these remarks is merely to emphasize the point that value experiences depend for their character upon the kinds of relationships that exist between subject and object.

Presumably there are neutral values also, that is, situations in which there is neither attraction nor repulsion. In such cases the subject is simply indifferent to the object. This would seem to imply that there would be neither congruence of the type leading to positive value nor the clash producing negative value, but a relation of irrelevance of object to subject.

The complexity of the human personality is such that one cannot always speak of value without ambiguity. For a person may be at once attracted and repelled by the same thing. There may be conflicting emotions generated within the same situation. This is because no human being is completely "single-minded" or "integrated". He possesses a variety of impulses, needs, and habitual modes of response. This ambiguity does not impair the idea of value, however. It simply means that in every case the full complexity of the relationship and of the reactions involved must be stated. Value-experience is likely to be complex rather than simple. For full understanding the several components of it must be distinguished.

We sometimes speak of "valuing" something, "placing a value" on it, or "having a high regard" for it, as though the experience of value were a matter of our decision or choice. According to the view presented here, this is not correct. Value depends upon a relationship between given structures or orders. It is not made by us but we are confronted by it. Thus, for example, the value which a human being finds in food is a result jointly of the biological nature of man and of the chemical characteristics of the food which correspond to the nutrition needs of the organism. The value of food for man is a direct consequence of the natural order of which man and food are parts. This leads to the important conclusion that values are really one kind of fact. That there are certain correspondences or clashes between persons and objects or situations confronting them is a matter of fact. It is simply one aspect of the nature of things that human beings are of such a nature as to find some things attractive, some things repulsive, and some things neutral. Values reflect the human responses to the various structural interrelationships in which persons are involved.

It would be well in this connection to ask why it is so persistently asserted that facts and values are essentially different. It is said that facts refer to whatever is, while values refer to the worth of things which may or may not actually be. Thus, it is a fact that we live in a world with selfish and quarrelsome people. On the other hand, a universal peace, which has never actually existed and perhaps never will, is a value. How in this case can we say that the value is a kind of fact ? We can only do so by noting that there are really two kinds of values. One kind stems from relationship to something actual. The other reflects the human response to something not actual but only conceived in imagination. In the illustration just given, universal peace is not an actual fact, but is an imagined state of affairs. The response (usually an attraction) to the idea of universal peace is what determines its value. We can now see that in such a case the value is still a fact. It is a fact, for example, that a congruent relationship exists between a person and the idea of universal peace. In similar manner one’s own death may be a negative value, because there is a clash between the idea of it and the demand of the person for self-preservation.

Generally values based on imagined situations undergo change when the imagined becomes actual. This is because the relation of the person to an idea will differ from his relationship to the actual embodiment of that idea. The idea and its embodiment are inevitably different, and so the response to each will differ. A man (or woman) may be in love with love, as the saying goes, but find that any actual woman (or man) fails to measure up to expectations. A person may dread the idea of suffering, but sometimes discovers positive values in the actual experience of it. This change in response as one passes from idea to actuality further illustrates the difference between the two kinds of value.

Therefore, instead of making the common distinction between fact and value it would be better simply to make a distinction between the two kinds of value -- actual value and ideal value -- while insisting that both of these kinds are still facts.

An even more important reason for the traditional separation between fact and value stems from the practice of speaking of values as though they had some meaning apart from valuing persons. For example, it may be said that honesty is a value -- not for anyone in particular but simply in general. From one point of view such a way of speaking does not really make sense since values depend on a relationship. To speak of honesty as a value in general would be similar to saying that a certain tree is taller. If one asked "Taller than what?" and the reply were, "just taller in general", we would rightly say that the statement made no sense. So, also, honesty is a value to actual persons. It is therefore a matter for factual inquiry to determine whether or not honesty is a value for any given person.

A similar reason for the traditional separation of fact from value is the attempt to apply the values of one person or group to other persons. For example, the accumulation of property may be a positive value to one person, while another may be indifferent to it. Yet one or the other may insist without qualification that his attitude is the right one and that everyone "ought" to feel as he does about property. The expression of obligation is merely an attempt by one to secure the conformity of another (and different) person to his own pattern of value-relationships. Such an effort can be aided by the assumption that values are not matters of fact, but are in some way "above" the realm of actuality and therefore have some kind of independent status.

The separation of fact and value is thus derived in part from the desire of one person to justify and support the persuasion of other persons to accept his particular values. It often happens that the relationship between the person involved in these cases is such that the value urged by one actually becomes a value for the other. For example, a child will tend to take on the values of the parent because of the strong attachment to the parent. Often such "grafting" of values has harmful effects on the child’s personality, because they may not correspond to other values more proper to him derived from his direct experience. From such considerations arises the criticism of authoritarian methods in the education of children.

Our main purpose in dwelling on the factual nature of value is to strengthen the foundations of our discussion of religion, in so far as it depends on value, in actual human experience. When values are given some other status "beyond" the world of fact, the discussion of them tends to soar out of the area of shareable human experience and becomes unintelligible and confused. To recognize the factual nature of values as responses of actual human beings in actual or imagined situations is to remain on the solid ground of experience which all can understand.

This leads to a brief consideration of another commonly discussed question, namely, whether values are "objective" or "subjective". Are values real apart from human beings, or are they dependent on individual subjects? From our analysis above the answer is clear. Values are both "objective" and "subjective". They are neither purely one nor the other because they depend on the relation between subject and object. Values are objective in the sense that they describe the response of actual persons in actual or imagined situations. They have a subjective element in that it does not make sense to speak of values apart from valuing subjects. Values are not so objective as to be independent of persons. Nor are they so subjective as to be arbitrary whims of persons without reference to objective relationships. Note that here an imagined situation is assumed to be "objective" because the subject’s reaction to it is not a matter of preference but of given fact. The ideal of loyalty, for example, either attracts or repels a particular person, and which it is a given discoverable fact, not a matter of the inquirer’s preference.

A closely related question is the even more hotly-disputed one of the so-called "relativity of values". Are values purely relative -- that is, dependent upon persons and particular situations ? Values are based upon relationships. In that sense they are always and by definition relative. However, it may be that there are certain characteristics which are widely or universally shared by human beings, so that their responses in similar situations would be similar. Thus the universal value of food is based upon the common biological nature of men. Similarly perhaps with love, though here the case is not so easily established. Such common elements of human nature lead to whatever agreement on values exists among different persons. Values will inevitably differ in respect to those aspects in which persons are different. There is a good analogue from the field of modern physics which will clarify our answer about relativity of values. It is clear that velocity, like value, is always a relationship. Thus one cannot without qualification say that an automobile is moving with a speed of forty miles per hour. It may have this speed in relation to the roadbed, but a different speed in relation to another moving automobile. All speed measurements depend on a specified reference system. Speed is relative to the motion of the observer. However, it has been discovered that one speed, that of light, comes out the same for all observers, whatever their state of motion. Thus, it has been experimentally established that the speed of light is absolute, even though in general all speeds are relative. So in regard to values, while it is true that they are by definition relative because arising from relationships, there may in point of fact prove to be values which are the same or nearly the same from person to person or time to time. Such values would be called universal or perhaps absolute.

The problem of the ultimate relativity of values hinges on the question as to whether or not there is any universal value by which all other values may be arranged in order of rank. This depends upon whether there is some sovereign principle by which certain values are actually confirmed or enhanced in comparison with others, leading to a condition of increasing stability, permanence, and comprehensiveness. Such a principle will be suggested in the next chapter.

Just as there are many different types of order, there are also different kinds of value. One kind may be called "truth-value". This is a value which arises from the relation between an idea and the total organized set of ideas already held. An affirmative response resulting from the congruence or coherence of a new idea with one’s already existing ideas gives that idea positive truth-value. Another idea conflicting with the existing order of ideas may have negative truth-value, or appears as error. On the other hand a clash between new and old may result in a reconstruction of the old and assimilation of the new in such a way that the new idea has positive truth-value while some ideas formerly of positive value take on negative truth-value.

A second important kind of value is found in the experience of beauty. The sense of beauty is a positive response growing out of a relationship of the person to the aesthetic object. Beauty is felt when there is some congruence between the aesthetic object and the observer’s pattern of sense perception and related responses. It represents a harmony, complex in nature but simply perceived, between subject and object. In the opposite case, negative value or the experience of the ugly represents a clash or incongruity between object and subject.

A third important kind of value arises in the sphere of conduct. These are moral values. An act has positive moral value when it is based upon the whole-hearted assent of the person to it, that is, when there is a congruent relation between the act and the total personality structure of the one who acts. This is sometimes taken to mean that a moral act is one done "in good conscience". But this is not always so because the "conscience" may not represent the actual nature of the person involved. In any case, positive value in the area of conduct occurs when there is an affirmative response to it by the person acting. Obviously judgments of moral value will differ greatly, depending upon the training and basic characteristics of different persons. This does not, of course, exclude the possibility that changes in what are regarded as moral values may be brought about by education. The fact remains that actual value-judgments, in the realm of conduct as in other areas, will vary greatly according to the individual. The larger question of what this means for the problem of morality in general will be discussed in Chapter IX.

The division of values into kinds such as the three just mentioned is merely a matter of convenience and does not represent any radical separation. For value-experience is a single response with many aspects. For example, every contemplation of truth involves aesthetic and moral aspects. A mathematician may speak of a "beautiful" geometric demonstration, and he will feel a moral obligation to teach the truth. Similarly aesthetic experiences have truth-value and moral value and moral values involve truth and beauty. The distinction among the three kinds rests upon the nature of the objects valued -- ideas in the first case, sense data in the second, and acts in the third.

One further distinction is that between intrinsic and instrumental values. Intrinsic values are those which represent a direct and immediate response to the object valued. Instrumental values derive their worth from their relationship to more remote values. Thus food to a hungry person would be an intrinsic value because immediately affirmed and enjoyed. On the other hand, in regard to the value of health and strength the same food would have instrumental value. This distinction is only a relative one, since every instrumental value also has (some other) intrinsic value, and every intrinsic value has (some other) value of an instrumental character.

The experience of value is obviously universal. There are not some persons who have it and others who do not. Valuing is part of being a feeling, thinking person. It is also a central experience, in that every experience, of whatever sort, involves it. There is no situation in which a value-response of some kind is not produced. All experience arises out of the relationship of persons to their world. Values are the attracting or repelling forces which inhere in these relationships. There is no relationship to which the question may not apply: Is it one which will tend to confirm itself or are there forces involved which will tend to destroy or impair it? The universality and centrality of value-experience give it a fundamental character just as with the experience of change, dependence and order, and fulfill two aspects as the requirements for a basis of religious experience.

Value is related to change as a kind of dynamic element or tension in human life. If positive values tend to confirm relationships and negative values to fracture them, then the particular ways in which changes take place in the human scene will depend upon the systems of value which pertain. For example, the "motives" of conduct are derived from the moral values which persons have. Value is also related to dependence. We have already seen that values simply are. They are "given". Persons are "grasped" by them. They are not made up by the valuer, but emerge directly out of relationships as their inevitable accompaniment. Thus the derived character of human existence is illustrated clearly in the experience of value. Finally, value is related to order, because it is itself one of the products of order. The special character of any relationship depends on the particular kind of order involved. Thus value is simply an expression of the tensions set up by the inter-relations of persons with various forms of existence.

The experience of value has been a fundamental element in the traditional religions. One theological expression for the experience of positive value is the idea of the goodness or righteousness of God. This belief grows out of a profound experience of the worth of existence, a deep-seated affirmation of life as worthwhile. A related religious idea is that of the goodness of the created order, expressed for example in the Genesis creation story in the recurring words "And God saw that it was good". Certain ascetic tendencies in the historic religions have involved a denial of the goodness of the creation, but many have affirmed it. On the other hand, negative value-experiences have generated ideas of devils or demons or of a "fallen" world.

Positive moral value is taken in most religions as an expression of the will of God. This is especially true when the feeling of rightness is strong. In such cases the value of the individual or group is made into an absolute and universal rule. It is easy to understand why powerful motivations should tend to produce this result, but the bitter conflicts generated by the existence of opposing strong convictions bear witness to the destructive possibilities in making partial moral insights into ultimate religious principles.

The experience of value is also the basis for the "visions" of prophets and seers. A vision is an imagined situation the contemplation of which appeals with great power of attraction and persuasion to the prophet. He is "grasped" by an imagined ideal with such force that it becomes an important motivating principle in his life, particularly in his relationships with other people in whom he seeks to produce a similar reaction, as he may or may not do in varying degrees depending upon their preparation for the message. In this connection, it is to be observed that the prophet’s or the preacher’s message either will or will not appeal as a positive value to his hearers, depending upon their natures. Mere insistence on his part will not convince them. Either the soil is prepared or it is not. The New Testament parable of the soils is relevant here. The message will grow only in those who are ready for it and to the degree that they are prepared to receive it fruitfully.

A similar religious interpretation of value-experience is the idea of divine guidance, usually through prayer. Such guidance depends upon the awareness of compelling values -- the discovery of strong motivations through the imaginative consideration of various possible directions of activity.

Value is also involved in the religious concept of faith. As indicated previously, religious faith does not primarily mean assent to some belief for which there is insufficient evidence. It rather means an attitude of loyal commitment. This obviously springs from an experience of value. Faith in this primary sense reflects the positive response to the object of loyalty. Our description of value shows that faith is given through the nature of the responses actually generated in the inter-relation of persons with the objects of their loyalty. The commitment is not an arbitrary decision to be loyal. It is the direct consequence of having been captivated by that which is valued. Faith in this respect is like love. One loves truly and completely when the beloved has taken captive the heart of the lover. There is a real sense in which love simply is; one cannot help himself, still less can he claim credit for generating the love. So with faith, which really depends on love, there is no taking credit for it nor denying it. It is given out of the relationship to its object. This recalls what was said in Chapter IV about grace. Faith is a gift for which one may be thankful. It is by grace -- by a free gift -- that our commitments and loyalties come to us and that we can remain steadfast in them.

A final religious interpretation of value-experience is the idea of sacrament. A sacrament is some object or act which has special power of generating profound faith. For example, for Christians the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper may intensify loyalty to Jesus and his cause through the imaginative association of the elements with the body and blood of the crucified Jesus. The power of the sacrament is analogous to that of a catalyst in chemical reactions. It has the power of an intermediary agent. The sacrament stimulates a value response to an object other than itself -- in this sense being a kind of instrumental value -- by virtue of a three-way congruence of some sort involving person, sacrament, an ultimate faith-object. It is possible to extend the idea of sacrament beyond the traditional limits in church practice to include any object or act which evokes deep religious feeling. For example, the positive value felt in one particular object may evoke a sense of the general worthwhileness of life. Such an object has a sacramental character in the broad sense.

As pointed out, the experience of value is a universal one. Whether positive or negative, there is always some value-reaction to every relationship in which man is involved. It would appear, therefore, that everyone shares in this kind of religious experience. Irreligion would mean having no values. This condition is never actually reached. But it can be a tendency. Any increase in the feeling of irrelevance and of loss of interest in life is an irreligious tendency. The attitude that nothing matters very much and that one thing is the same as every other thing -- a feeling of "flatness" and of boredom -- is in the direction of the irreligious. Isolation or estrangement is also relatively irreligious because it reduces the number and closeness of relationships upon which any value depends. In the extreme case of the psychotic person living in a private world out of all relation to the real world value-experience is severely restricted, because it lacks the possibilities for growth and enrichment through the establishment of new external relationships. Complete irreligion would mean death, for man cannot live without some concern for the values of life. He cannot exist without some motivation for living. The difference between religion and irreligion is therefore measured by the depth and range of value experience.

As in the previous three chapters, no attempt has been made in this discussion to evaluate the various theological ideas associated with the experience of value. Those of speculative disposition may postulate a supernatural being, who, for example, issues moral commands. Others will prefer the interpretation of value experience simply in terms of a given structure of inter-relationships in which persons are involved. The point of our discussion is to show the roots in experience from which a whole range of religious concepts spring -- and to suggest once again that the intelligibility of religious ideas will depend upon returning constantly to these roots as the basis for mutual understanding.

Now a final brief remark about the personal attitudes developed through the experience of value. As pointed out above, it is the ground of loyalty. It also gives zest and interest to life. It destroys boredom. It leads to sensitivity rather than callousness, to responsibility rather than neglect, to decisiveness in place of faltering. It is the source of energy for creative living rather than static existence. Out of the experience of value spring not only the positive responses of faithfulness and love but also the sense of tragedy. Only thus can life be appreciated in its full dimensions of height and depth.

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