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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 7: Imperfection


A fifth fundamental of religious experience is the sense of imperfection. This means simply that every situation in which a person finds himself suggests the possibility of a better one. As one considers the world or any aspect of it, he is aware of the fact that it is not as perfect, as complete, as beautiful, as good, or as just as it might be. There is always "something more" beyond what now exists. The world that is for ever suggests a world that is not yet but that could be or should be. The actualities of existence are seen as only partial fulfillment’s of latent possibilities. This is to say that there is a richness of potentiality which the achievements of life in any realm up to now fail to exhaust.

We have already spoken in Chapter III of this fact of potentiality as one of the implications of the experience of change. In Chapter VI we then considered the experience of value. Imagined possibilities all have value to the persons who consider them. Here we add a new element to the discussion. It is not the mere fact of latent possibilities and their values. It is the sense that, whatever the situation considered, there are always more valuable possibilities beyond it. Clearly this involves some standard -- a scale of values -- by which the relative value of the possibilities may be evaluated. In actual practice there are many such standards employed. For the moment we shall remain content with the observation that on some basis or other the world and everything in it are always regarded as capable of improvement. Later in this chapter a suggested standard for evaluating improvement will be explained.

In everyday life, however, it is usual not to make the standard explicit. Few people if questioned could say just how they would measure better or worse. Or rather with regard to each condition discussed they would tend to apply some different measure. And usually the standard employed would be derived from common cultural prejudices. All this does not refute the basic fact that the world as experienced always appears to us as in some sense or other imperfect, incomplete, unfinished, capable of improvement. The idea of imperfection is firmly planted in universal human experience. Everything that we encounter comes to us as less-than-perfect.

Another way of stating this is to say that human beings can idealize in every situation. The ideal is a possible situation standing in contrast with the actual situation and regarded as an improvement of it. The experience of imperfection means that corresponding to every actual condition and growing out of it is an imagined ideal. Ideal as here used does not mean perfection. It means simply a higher goal towards which one aims or by which one criticizes a given condition of things. In fact, the nature of ideals is such that each stage of achievement leads to the formulation of still higher goals. Thus ideals as meant here are not final and ultimate goals, but successive steps upon the pathway of betterment.

The experience of imperfection is the basis of the idea of progress. Progress means an advance from a lower to a higher value. There is progress only when a scale of values has been defined. Imperfection means that further progress is possible. It does not, of course, mean that it is inevitable or automatic as many easy optimists have assumed. The sense of imperfection implies that in every situation there is the demand for or invitation to progress.

The sense of imperfection and the process of idealization can be illustrated in the most diverse areas of human experience. Consider first the realm of knowledge. Man is constantly engaged in what is called "the search for truth". The significant thing for us now is that this appears to be a never-ending search. Whenever the advance of knowledge pushes back the boundary of ignorance, there always appear new depths of ignorance to explore. This is especially striking in the history of scientific discovery. We know a great many things about the nature of the world. Our libraries are filled with the records of the achievements of researchers in many areas. And yet these discoveries, far from reducing the number of problems to be solved, have actually served to create vast new problems that were never thought of before.

There are more questions seeking answers in our present age than ever before. In physics, for example, knowledge of atomic structure has opened up a whole new area of research possibilities, and we confidently expect that when the currently most pressing problems are solved there will be implicit in the solutions new problems at present beyond our power even to formulate. Again, in the life sciences and in the social sciences much knowledge has been accumulated, but the function of such knowledge is not to extinguish the demand for research but rather to provide the basis for vast new explorations into the questions suggested by such knowledge.

It is this amazing capacity of experience to suggest new questions at every stage of inquiry which makes the "search for truth" a permanent pursuit. Actual attained knowledge is never completely satisfying, because implicit in it is the ideal of more complete understanding. The world is such that within every body of knowledge there are tensions and contradictions which invite resolution. Every answer, which before it was given was an ideal, becomes a new actual beyond which further ideals of understanding are envisaged. The scholar can never think that the last word has been spoken on any topic. The more he knows the more he sees how much there is still to learn. Implicit in the learning process is the sense of imperfection.

Closely related to the pursuit of knowledge is the realm of technical advance. Man has certain wants which he seeks to satisfy by means of machines which he invents. One might think that the satisfaction of these wants would put an end to the incentive for invention. The history of modern industrial development refutes this idea. Every invention has tended to confront man with new problems and new possibilities for the satisfaction of his wants. He does not remain content with one stage of technical development, but each stage drives him on to still further possibilities of the use of nature’s resources. Each end seems always to suggest new beginnings.

Even the exhaustion of natural resources, which might be considered a denial of the limitlessness of nature, is sometimes the basis for some new approach to the problem of supply which yields more than if the former supplies had been maintained. However, it must be granted that this argument cannot be pressed too far. Natural resources are perhaps not without limit, and it would be foolish to imply that man can continue to drain supplies of power indefinitely. But this does not really contradict the fundamental thesis, which is only that some kind of more ideal situation can always be formulated, though it may not necessarily be along any particular preconceived line. Thus in the case of natural resources the ideal might well involve a reduction in the use of power for the sake of achieving a more adequate balance between man and nature.

As with knowledge, so in the realm of conduct a sense of imperfection is always possible. There is no instance of human conduct in which some improvement cannot be suggested. There is no human relationship which can be considered entirely without flaws. There is no form of social organization which represents the final possibilities of achievement. It is doubtful, for example, if any individual is ever completely honest in his dealings with others. There are always some reservations, perhaps unconscious, which qualify them. No one ever tells the whole truth, partly because he never fully knows it and partly because he is never fully free of personal bias and self-interest. Thus honesty is always an ideal rather than a complete actuality. Every achievement of relative honesty suggests ways in which a higher level of truthfulness might be attained.

Or take the relationship of love. Actual love is always imperfect. That is, in every loving relationship it is possible to discern taints of discord, of insincerity, of masked self-interest. The more perfect the love the more apparent become its limitless dimensions and the farther one is from claiming his fulfillment of them. Love involves above all a keen sensitivity to the needs of others. Human life is so complex that the full extent of such needs can never be fathomed. Furthermore, to become sensitive to one set of needs is to be in a position to see still further needs not being met. Thus the more one loves the greater is the demand which love places upon him and the more he realizes how impossible it is ever completely to fulfill it.

The same is true with respect to the organization of society. A society is really an attempt to embody on a larger scale the principles of co-operation and mutual support involved in individual relationships. Love between individuals has its social counterpart in the provisions for security and mutual assistance established by the community. The history of man is the long story of the attempts to actualize such ideals as justice, freedom, equality, and security. Where many individuals are involved there are necessarily many competing interests to be reconciled. The numerous ways in which such reconciliation may be effected are the various forms of social order. Our point is that none of these forms perfectly or completely satisfies the demands of all members of the group, and that upon every actual form of social organization stands the judgment of some higher ideal.

There is no society which in any aspect could not be improved upon. In any given case the particular ways in which the ideals would be envisaged would depend upon circumstances and in many instances would be obscure. But that some reform or improvement is always in order can hardly be doubted. This is certainly obvious in terms of widening the area of human co-operation -- in uniting families into peaceful communities with equitable distribution of responsibilities and privileges, and then creating from these the larger communities of states and nations, and finally developing from these a world society dedicated to the fullest realization of every member of the human family. This is evidently a never-ending task, in the accomplishment of which each stage of achievement provides the opportunity for the next higher stage. There could be no ideal for a nation until there were smaller social units ready to unite and there can be no ideal for a world society without a prior actualization of national communities.

What is thus true in the pursuit of knowledge or in the field of human conduct and social organization is also true in the realm of artistic creation or appreciation. Beauty is inexhaustible. The manifestations of beauty are never perfect or complete. No work of art ever expresses the full dimension of the experience of the beautiful. Thus beauty is always an ideal which can never be reached. The artist constantly endeavors to express what he feels, but his forms, whether in music, in painting, in marble or in concrete never fully succeed. So also there is no work of art which is not capable of ever new interpretations and insights. To be sure, art differs from science in that the individual work of art stands by itself in a way that scientific facts do not. The latter always drive one on to generalization and to new formulations of hypotheses, while the former is in one sense a completed whole. A work of art is finished in a sense that a fact, which is grist for the scientist’s mill, is not. Yet it is still true that a work of art possesses unfathomable depths and that no artist can feel satisfied either with having expressed his insights fully, much less with having exhausted the possibilities of artistic expression. In fact there is probably no area of human endeavor where the phenomenal richness of possibility is so apparent as in art, and where the sense of incompleteness is more evident.

The question may, of course, be raised as to whether the world is really inexhaustibly rich in possibilities or whether its appearance as such may be due merely to the relatively minor place man has in the whole scheme of things and to the magnitude and complexity of the world in comparison with man and his works. Just as it might well be predicted that basic natural resources of the earth may be exhausted in the relatively near future, leaving the human race impoverished or even extinguishing it, so it might be argued that eventually scientific discovery could come to an end or that some utopian scheme of social organization might be achieved and that the perverseness of the human heart would be eradicated. At present such perfectionist hypotheses seem improbable. However this may be, we are in all areas of experience confronted with the practical inexhaustibility of existence and with the awareness of imperfection and incompleteness in all that we achieve.

This is all our argument requires. For we only intend to point to certain universal experiences out of which religion springs. And as we shall presently indicate, this sense of imperfection is one such experience which human beings do actually have. One could speculate as to what difference in religious ideas and practices would result should the possibilities turn out to be limited. In certain respects they would differ from those which depend upon the assumption of limitlessness. The form of the analysis of religion would remain the same, though the detailed conclusions would differ. Since our main interest in this book is to demonstrate an intelligible approach to religion, we need not dwell long on such alternative hypotheses which in the nature of the case cannot at present be tested.

The question just raised is made more interesting by the fact that in present-day mathematical physics the belief has grown that the world may be finite, both in spatial extent and in temporal duration. And there have been numerous gloomy predictions, stemming from the "law of entropy" or of increasing unavailability of energy, to the effect that the world is "running down" and will eventually be unable to support any living things. All these suggestions from physics weigh on the side of limitation. Some, such as the theory of finite space, suggest the idea of a sort of spatial completeness. Others, such as the running down of the world, suggest rather the limitation imposed on actual achievements in comparison with possibilities dependent upon unlimited availability of energy. According to this theory, there would be a peak in possible development, and then a decline as the conditions of life became unfavorable. Even in this case, though, it might be that new possibilities could open up in another cosmic era where some more favorable natural law would pertain.

Enough has been said to indicate why we assert that the sense of imperfection is both a universal and a central experience. Perfectibility is implicit in the conditions of every human life. It is a necessary aspect of the human situation. Furthermore, it is implicit in every realm of human experience. The sense of imperfection is not simply one kind of experience among others; it is an aspect or dimension of every possible human experience.

We can briefly indicate the relation of the experience of imperfection to the four previously discussed fundamentals of religious experience. The experience of imperfection presupposes the experience of change, of dependence, of order, and of value. Change merely raises the question of the ground for the appearance of the new. Imperfection, on the other hand, implies something about the extent or depth of possibility. Dependence is related to imperfection in that the possibilities as they are actualized come as gifts rather than as our own creations. Order expresses the fact that both the actual and the ideal and their relationships are aspects of the structure in which all existence is necessarily involved. Imperfection implies the progressive fulfillment of ideal orders, but it also involves the corresponding destruction of lower forms in favor of higher ones. Imperfection presupposes value in that it arranges the values of existence into an order of preference. It involves a sense not only of value but of higher and lower values.

A considerable variety of standards for evaluating possibilities is actually employed, and in everyday life the standards assumed are usually not explicitly recognized. It will perhaps be useful to suggest now one standard by which the value of various possibilities may be assessed, and therefore to provide a basis upon which a rational understanding of the meaning of imperfection may be gained.

The basis for such evaluation has already been suggested in previous chapters in the concept of community. As pointed out earlier, community refers to the relating of different entities so as to achieve unity-in-difference and difference-in-unity. This means in the first place absence of uniformity. Mere uniformity lacks the contrast essential to community. Community is only possible where there are real differences between the constituent elements. But in the second place community requires also a binding principle. There is no community where the constituents exist in isolation or in pure opposition. Community is the harmonious inter-relation of distinct entities.

The degree of community, then, is determined by at least four factors: (1) the number of different elements involved, i.e. the extent of the community, (2) the strength of contrast between the various elements, (3) the unifying links between these elements, and (4) the balance between factors (2) and (3). If any of these factors is weak, there is a low degree of community. There is a high degree of community to the extent that each of them is strong.

With this principle of evaluation in mind, we may now make explicit the meaning of the experience of imperfection. This means that every situation in which a person finds himself suggests a situation where a higher degree of community would prevail. It means that every condition of things is seen as possessing less community than it might. It means that to every actual situation an ideal situation characterized by a higher degree of community will correspond.

From the experience of imperfection some of the most basic traditional religious ideas arise. Most important is the idea of an infinite standing over against the finite world. There have been different interpretations of the concept of the infinite. Often it is a vague concept meaning "very large" or "beyond imagination". It seems clear that a finite being like man could not comprehend what the infinite is, for comprehension, as the word itself implies, means to "grasp fully". But if man is himself limited, how could he fully grasp the unlimited? The infinite cannot therefore mean any determinate thing, for then it would be limited, since determination and definition are forms of limitation. What then, does the infinite mean? It would seem reasonable to conclude that this is a way of designating the inexhaustible nature of the world. The infinite, from this point of view would not be a thing but a way of signifying the limitlessness of perfectibility in the nature of things.

The problem of the infinite has been and still is a difficult and important one not only in philosophy and theology but in mathematics. It is a disputed question as to whether or not there is an "actual infinite". The view suggested in the last paragraph is that there is not, and that "the infinite" is a way of speaking of the process of ceaseless envisaging of ideal possibilities beyond present actualities.

In theological language it is usually said that God is infinite or perfect. This is generally taken to mean that there is a supernatural being who is free from the imperfection that besets nature in all her forms. Within the conditions of actual existence from which all of our conceptions must necessarily be taken it is obviously impossible to imagine what such a being would be like. We can only know existence as perfectible. However we cannot know anything which is by nature perfect or complete. Traditional theology assumes that such a perfect being exists but that we cannot know him by our ordinary means of knowledge. Hence a new mode of apprehension called faith is invoked to make him available, or a new mode of communication called revelation is assumed to relate him to human life.

There is, of course, no way of testing such assumptions. What is clear, however, is that the only possible basis for them to arise on is the experience of imperfection. These doctrines are speculative ways of expressing the fact that life always comes to us with the stamp of incompleteness and with the suggestion of further ideal possibilities. The infinite God or the perfect God might with a minimum of speculation be taken simply as a symbol of the limitless wealth of possibilities inherent in existence.

Similar comments can be made regarding the idea of God as the Absolute or for that matter concerning the philosophic notion of the Absolute. Generally this term implies some sort of static perfection, some completed system of reality. It may alternatively be taken as an expression for the perennial perfectibility of the experienced world. In other words the statement "God is Absolute" may be taken as a way of saying, "There is no condition of the world which is not subject to improvement", or "The world as it is imperfect but limitlessly perfectible".

Sometimes reference is made to "The Truth" or "The Good", as though these were complete embodiments and fulfillment’s of all the partial truths and imperfect goods of the world. Again it is necessary to postulate some supernatural realm if such entities are to have residence. Or they may be taken as symbols of the endlessness of the process of searching for truth or goodness and of the unlimited heights of achievement either in science or in the life of moral conduct.

The idea of God as transcendent also grows out of the experience of imperfection. Transcendence means beyondness, and the transcendence of God may mean either that there is a being wholly beyond the world or that the world may always be experienced as having the character of beyondness -- of an unattained ideal surpassing the attained actuality.

The sense of imperfection leads to a concept of divine purpose. If values can be arranged in a scale of relative excellence:, then there is some direction or tendency or ultimate standard in which all values are involved. This is thought of as "God’s plan" for the world or the basis for asserting the ultimate righteousness of which all lesser values are a dim reflection or a pale imitation. The standard of community, for example, suggests a ground for describing the ultimate purpose of things. This means, if it is true to the facts, that all values tend to be confirmed and extended to the degree that they conform to the standard of community and that they tend to lose power to the extent that they contradict community. Such a standard, if it can be found, provides the answer to the question of the relativity of values raised in Chapter VI.

The experience of imperfection underlies the whole prophetic criticism of idolatry. An idol is any finite object to which is ascribed final meaning or ultimate worth. To have an idol is to deny with respect to it the principle of imperfection and to give up the criticism of it by a higher ideal. The message of the prophet is always a message of transcendence -- a pointing to possibilities higher than the present actualities and an assertion of the essential principle of perfectibility in things. Prophetic condemnation is never mere destructive criticism. It is always the pronouncing of judgment upon the actual in the light of a higher ideal.

The experience of imperfection implies what Tillich calls "the Protestant Principle". This principle is simply that no human idea or institution or condition can ever be made final, ultimate, or absolute, but that every such finite order must remain under the criticism of higher possibilities, at every level of achievement. That is to say, perfection is never an actual state of things but is a process of endless transformation in which each stage is judged by a higher possibility not yet attained.

An irreligious attitude in relation to the matter of imperfection would be to hold the assumption in some form or other that no further improvement is possible. By this criterion anyone who is committed to an idea as absolutely final, or to an institution or person as infallible would be irreligious. Historically this is not true in the customary employment of the word "religious". For many religious groups infallibility and finality are the very essence of religion. However, it is clear that such an idea conflicts fundamentally with the religious experience based upon the sense of imperfection as described in this chapter. This contradiction is one that has been a source of constant confusion and tension within and amongst the historic religions themselves.

Obviously irreligious, even from the standpoint of the absolutist religions, however, is the cynical attitude that rejects the validity of ideals and the reality of value distinctions. If the world is what it is and there is no better or worse then there is no sense in speaking of ideals or of the perfectibility of existence. Such cynicism is, unfortunately, fairly widespread in modern times. Its cause lies in large part in the attempt to interpret all experience in purely mechanical terms, ignoring or explaining away the value-experiences which are the most important aspect of human life. Such preoccupation with mechanics in realms where more appropriate concepts are required is fatal to any true understanding of the world, much more to a comprehension of the religious dimension. The remedy for such cynicism consists in the recognition of the necessity for more adequate conceptual schemes and in sufficient reflection upon the experience of imperfection.

Even if ideals are admitted, some may be so preoccupied with the world of present fact that they fail to see the significance of ideals. Scientific people may become so absorbed in describing the world as it is that they forget the meaning of that perfectibility which is the very ground for the scientific enterprise itself. Practical people may become so absorbed in the business of getting along in life as it is that they lose the sense of the higher possibilities for which every actual achievement is only a preparation. It is not a simple thing to avoid such practical irreligion. Perhaps one answer to it is the sustaining power of the religious community and the symbolic power of customary religious practices, serving to remind the worshipper that there is a better possibility beyond every present attainment.

It is not necessary to discuss in any detail -- as has been done in the previous three chapters -- the point that from the standpoint of intelligible religion the basis for understanding must be constant reference to the universal experience of imperfection. In the light of such a foundation the varieties of interpretations arising in the various religious systems may be fruitfully discussed.

Turning finally to the attitudes typically associated with the religious experience growing out of the sense of imperfection, perhaps the most obvious one is hope. Hope rests upon envisaged possibilities yet to be actualized. It is built upon the conviction that there is more still to be achieved. Yet curiously enough this experience may also lead to the opposite of hope, that is, to despair. For the tension between the ideal and the actual may be so great that the ideal seems impossible of actual fulfillment. Despair is one of the elements in religious experience, but its presence does indicate the need of other elements in order that it may be transmuted into hope. One of those elements is the sense of dependence, by which the burden of accomplishment is lifted and a free reception of power for realization is made possible. Another element comes from the element of persuasiveness in the experience of value.

Another resulting attitude is humility. The humble person never regards himself as having final answers. He is provisional and tentative in his judgments, recognizing that the world as he knows it is only a very partial and fragmentary view. He also knows that the achievements of himself or of his group are very imperfect ones and that further improvements are possible without limit.

Being humble he is also tolerant. He understands that the partiality of his own view blinds him to the partial merits of other views. Hence he grants to others the right to their own sincerely held convictions and tries to supplement his own understanding through learning how others think and act.

Summary and Prospectus

We have now completed a brief analysis of five fundamental experiences in which religion is rooted. This has been done in each case by (1) identifying the experience in question, (2) suggesting some of its various forms and some of the more immediate problems connected with it, (3) pointing out its universality and centrality, (4) discussing some of the chief traditional religious ideas by which this experience is expressed and interpreted, (5) stating the contrasting meaning of irreligion, (6) emphasizing the necessity of reference to the root experience if religious discourse is to be intelligible, and (7) mentioning some of the attitudes of mind connected with the experience.

There is no claim that these five experiences are the only five which are basic to religion. There are other possible analyses and other ways of discriminating the fundamentals. Furthermore, there are intimate relationships between the experiences described above. Actually such distinctions as we have made are necessarily artificial, since experience is an indivisible whole, and such aspects as we have discussed are abstractions from the whole.

While a number of traditional religious ideas have been briefly interpreted in the above analysis, the organizing principle in each chapter has been the experience under discussion. In the third part of this book an attempt will be made to employ the basic experiences to interpret more systematically a series of traditional religious ideas and practices. That is, in the third part the organizing principle will be these concepts rather than the experiences. The latter will now be employed as needed as an interpretive basis.

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