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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 8: God


Traditionally the most important single religious concept has been that of God or of gods. It is necessary, therefore, in achieving an intelligible religious view to discuss the significance of this idea. This is not a simple task because of the almost endless variety of different god-ideas which have been and still are held.

Generally speaking, a god is a supreme object of religious devotion. It is from the god that the various inspirations and benefits of the religion are believed to derive and it is to him that various obligations are due. The character of the god is therefore best understood by reference to the whole complex of experiences which constitute the religion in question. This suggests that the idea of god is not really a primary religious concept, but is dependent on the particular nature of religious experiences. The experiences come first, and various ideas of gods or of a God emerge to summarize, symbolize, and interpret them.

The idea of god has had a long history. At least in the western world the general line of development has been from primitive animism (belief in many spirits inhabiting natural objects) through polytheism (belief in several gods) towards monotheism (belief in one God). Among primitive peoples the spirits are invoked to explain phenomena which are especially mysterious or exciting or momentous. Any unusual natural phenomenon may be regarded as evidence of the activity of a spirit. Storms, running water, unusual shapes in rocks or trees, fire -- these and many other phenomena signify to primitive men hidden spiritual powers.

In the polytheistic stage the gods are in general no longer so localized and so intimately tied to particular happenings in nature. Tribal life suggests tribal deities whose major functions are the protection of the social group in battle and the securing of necessary food and water. The gods may also -- as in Greek mythology -- have a somewhat independent existence, often quite remote from concern with human beings. On the other hand, they may represent certain dominant human interests such as love, war, and agriculture.

Monotheism arises when out of the multiplicity of divine beings one is first selected as supreme among many and ultimately as the only God. Under monotheism all the powers and attributes of the many spirits or gods are taken up into the complete power and perfection of the one high God.

We need to answer the question: "What does the word ‘God’ mean?" But before doing so it should be noted that the objection is often raised that God cannot be defined. It is said that to define him would be not only impious but impossible, since definition implies limitation and God is without limitation. This is an inadequate argument, because without some sort of definition of what the word "God" signifies it becomes a meaningless and unintelligible sound. To say that God is without any limitation is to say that there is no God at all, for to have any nature or any character or any meaning there must be limitation to this rather than that. It is both an intellectual and a religious duty to frame the most precise possible definition of the word "God".

Let us then return to our question, "What does the word ‘God’ mean ?" To answer this we should first consider how the meaning of any concept is established. How, for example, could one explain the meaning of the word "love" ? It could only be done by describing the various kinds of circumstances in which the experience of love was felt and stating as many as possible of the feelings and attitudes accompanying the experience.

Or, in a different area, the meaning of the concept "electron" could only be established by describing the various experiments which must be performed if the observations resulting in the formulation of this concept are to be obtained. In general we may say that the meaning of any concept can be stated only by describing the experiences in which its use is appropriate. This means that we must identify the kinds of experience in which the word arises as a means of intelligible communication.

This remark suggests a special difficulty in specifying the meaning of the word "God". There has been such a wide variety of experiences to which various groups have applied the word throughout human history that a different meaning attaches to every use. The same is true of many other concepts. "Love", for example, is a word with many meanings. But it is doubtful whether many words, including "love" have had as long and varied a history of meaning as the word "God". So complex has been this history that some have suggested that the word should be dropped and some less confusing concept or concepts adopted instead. While such a suggestion may have theoretical value, it does not help much practically, since the word "god" continues to be widely used and to serve as more or less useful means of communicating religious ideas. Our task, therefore, is to specify what the word communicates, and to show how to clarify the meaning and to reduce the confusion attending its use.

The discussion of meaning above shows that the meaning of the word "god" can only be specified by reference to those experiences in which the use of the word has been agreed to be appropriate by a particular group. Thus, for example, the concept "water-god" may be applicable in the language of primitive people in connection with the experience of astonishment at the appearance of a bubbling spring, full of life, inexhaustible, and without apparent origin. Or "god of justice" may arise within the experience of the impulse towards equity in the life of organized society. As one considers the more advanced stages of religious development, specification of the experiences to which the word "God" is relevant becomes more complex.

The analysis in Part Two suggests one way in which an approach may be made to an intelligible meaning for the word "God". Since meaning depends upon the assignment of relevant experiences, the five fundamentals of religious experience may be taken as providing basic meanings for the concept of deity in a universal religion. The religion is universal because the experiences are universal -- in contrast, for example, to the limited experiences involved in the definition of nature spirits or tribal deities. Let us proceed then to state the meaning of the word "God" in these terms.

First, with regard to the experience of change: When one considers the fact of change and seriously faces the question of the origin of the new and the destiny of the old, it is appropriate to use the word "God".

Second, with regard to the experience of dependence: When one becomes aware of the derived character of all existence and seriously asks the question concerning the sources of being, it is appropriate to use the word "God".

Third, with regard to the experience of order: When one recognizes that all existence is constructed with a "given" order and pattern, it is appropriate to use the word "God".

Fourth, with regard to the experience of value: When one is moved by attracting or repelling powers in different situations so as to become aware of the dynamic character of his existence, it is appropriate to use the word "God".

Fifth, with regard to the experience of imperfection: When one is conscious of the greater value possible in comparison with any actual situation, it is appropriate to use the word "God".

We come now to an important point. We have used the same word "God" as appropriate to five different fundamental experiences. Does this mean that the word as used here has five different meanings? Surely there are by this definition five different aspects of the one word, since the experiences themselves are distinct. But is there some essential connection between these aspects? If there is not, then why should the same word apply in all five experiences?

The answer is that there is an essential connection, making the use of the one word appropriate. To understand the connection, it is only necessary to recall the discussion in Part Two of the relationships between the five fundamental experiences. All five were shown to be different aspects of every possible human experience. The sources of being upon which all existence depends ultimately involve the answer to the question generated by the awareness of change. Furthermore, the nature of these sources is disclosed in the various orders of existence, each of which appeals to man as a value, and yet beckons to still higher ranges of value yet unactualized. The connection between the five fundamentals is that they are necessary components of every human experience, each of which has its unity in the fact of conscious awareness.

This leads us at once to an understanding, through the analysis of experience, of the traditional doctrine of the unity of God. That God is one and not many means that the various experiences by which the meaning of the word "God" is defined are not separable but always accompany one another. By this is not meant that the conscious process of asking the questions about change, recognizing dependence, and the other three fundamentals are all simultaneously at the focus of attention. The processes of thought do not proceed like that. What is meant is that implicit in every human experience are all five of these types of experience, and that one cannot fully explore any one of the five without coming upon the other four also. For example, one cannot fully experience the fact of order without becoming aware of its newness, its derivation, its value, and its imperfection. Similarly with each of the other fundamentals.

In contrast with such a view of the divine unity, the more primitive beliefs in many spirits or gods were based upon multiple experiences which had no essential connection with one another. For example, there is no necessary connection between the experience of religious awe in the presence of a thunderstorm and the feeling of surprise at the rustling of leaves in a "sacred" tree or of respect for a person endowed with unusual powers of perception and thus regarded as "holy". Monotheism depends upon the discovery of certain ultimate experiences all of which have an inner relatedness that welds them into a unity. The five fundamentals selected in Part Two as a basis for interpreting religious experience were chosen without regard for their possible connections That they should thus prove to be integrally related so as to constitute an essential unity is a kind of empirical justification for a monotheistic religious view.

It is important to see what is implied in the definition of the word "God" which has been outlined just now. "God" does not refer to any determinate object, since such an object would involve certain special kinds of experience. It would never be disclosed in every human experience. Thus, God is, from our viewpoint, more like a disclosure of the underlying nature of everything experienced, and not just a thing experienced. God is not a special kind of being, but something necessarily involved in all kinds and conditions of being. This does not mean that God is everything, for to say that would be equivalent to saying he is nothing. It does mean that God is the name applied to a set of definite and intelligible aspects of the world made apparent in the experience of everything in it. God is a kind of dimension or complex of dimensions made manifest in all our experience.

In most discussions of God the primary focus is on the question of his existence. It has commonly been assumed that to be religious or not depends upon whether or not one "believes in the existence of God". Actually the prior question concerns the meaning of the word "God". There is no use in discussing the problem of existence if the problem of the meaning of the word has not been settled. Many discussions of existence get nowhere because there is no prior clarity regarding meaning. Often the parties to the discussion have different meanings for the basic concept involved.

If the word "God" is defined in terms of experience, as suggested above, the problem of existence is already solved. For anything which is defined in actual human experience is thereby shown in some sense to exist. That is, the clear statement of the actual experiences in connection with which the word "God" is to be used is itself warrant for the reality of that to which the word refers. The real question is: In what sense does God exist? or What kind of reality does the experience reveal? In other words, the real question, after God is defined, is not his existence but his nature.

This matter will be clearer if we point out that the same considerations apply not only to God but to anything at all. Thus, for example, suppose one wishes to ask about the existence of a unicorn. We must first define what we mean by "unicorn". A definition of the basis of experience must start from the fact that the word "unicorn" is only appropriate in connection with certain experiences of imaginative understanding, not in connection with any actual sense experience. Then to the question, Does the unicorn exist? the answer should be, yes, the unicorn exists. Then the question comes, But in what sense does he exist? or What is his nature ? To which the answer is that he exists in imagination and serves such and such poetic functions. The unicorn has been chosen because he, like God, is usually accused of not existing. In point of fact, he has a real "spiritual" existence and through the power of imagination has exercised definite influence in the course of history. There is, of course, a great difference between the existence of God and the existence of the unicorn. The difference is as pervasive and profound as the difference between the experiences by which the two concepts are defined.

This same argument leads to the conclusion that in some sense even the nature spirits or the many gods of polytheism exist. It is possible in each case to discern definite experiences with which these divine beings were associated. It was right for the groups who shared these experiences to name deities to symbolize them. There were real powers at work on men as they contemplated the majesty of nature or felt the impulse towards tribal unity or responded to the demand for moral improvement. These powers received the names of gods.

That with the advance of civilization there has been a "twilight of the gods" does not mean that the powers that were the gods have disappeared, but only that their names have been changed Thus, today a thunderstorm is interpreted as a meteorological phenomenon and "explained" in the categories of science rather than as the voice of an angry god. While it would be foolish to give up the meteorological explanation for the theological one, it should be said that there may be important aspects of the storm, such as its relation to the powers of nature on which life is dependent and the sense of awe inspired by it, which are present in the latter interpretation but wholly lacking in the former. Hence there is a truth even in primitive theological interpretations which may be needed to complete the more "scientific" current explanations. In a religious view such as that outlined in this book, the aim would be to include the permanently valid insights of both the earlier and the later modes of interpretation.

Many readers will be familiar with some of the traditional "arguments for the existence of God", such as that everything has a prior cause, but that the causal chain cannot be continued back indefinitely, so that there must somewhere be a First Cause; or that since there are various degrees of perfection there must be a Perfect One by whom all lesser degrees are measured; or that all change in a thing is caused by something else which leads eventually to some Prime Mover. A classic statement of such arguments was made by Thomas Aquinas. It would not be difficult to show that these arguments contain hidden assumptions and logical lapses which invalidate them as demonstrative proofs. However, they are significant from our viewpoint because they may readily be transformed into experiential foundations for defining a universal God. For example, the causal argument is not really a demonstration of God’s existence, but a statement of the experience that everything which exists comes as a gift and thus suggests the question concerning the ultimate sources of being. That such an experience occurs is one of the roots of the idea of God.

The argument from degrees of perfection is not really a demonstration of God’s existence, but a statement of the experienced perfectibility of all things, which provides another God-defining experience. Similarly the argument from motion is the counterpart of our discussion of the religious meaning of the experience of change. Our criticism of the traditional "proofs" is partly that they do not prove what they claim, but even more that they usually proceed on the assumption that the God demonstrated by them will turn out to be the particular deity endorsed by a certain religious group. Thus, the God supposedly proved by Thomas Aquinas turns out to be the Perfect Being of traditional Christian theology, already well known and unquestioned on the basis of other sources of assumed religious knowledge. By remaining true to actual and universal experience in defining God, this prior identification of what is to be proved is avoided.

We are now ready to deal with some of the aspects of the nature of God. One of the most common characteristics attributed to him is omnipotence. This is sometimes taken to mean that God is a Being with absolute will, so that he can do anything he wishes, without qualification. Such a view is not in harmony with the experienced order of the world. An unqualifiedly omnipotent God would be a God without character. Only if the divine powers are exercised according to some ordered plan can he be said to have any ‘’character". According to the experiential definition, the omnipotence of God simply means that the experience of change, dependence, order, value, and imperfection reflect the nature of all possible existence. That is to say, whatever can possibly come into being comes by virtue of the inexhaustibly rich, changing, valuable order of which we are dependent parts. To say that God is omnipotent means that whatever is possible in the nature of things may be seen as an illustration of that experience by which God is defined. God does not do the impossible, because one of the concepts in terms of which he is defined is the order of the possible out of which all new things proceed and to which they return. For God to do the impossible would be to contradict his nature.

Another attribute is omnipresence. This does not mean that God is like a rarefied gas which has become diffused throughout the universe. Experientially, it means that there is no situation in which the fundamentals of religious experience do not pertain. Thus the divine omnipresence is a theological interpretation of the universality and centrality of the fundamentals by which the religious attitude is defined. That is to say, there is no person and no aspect of his life in which the awareness of change, dependence, order, value, and imperfection, together with their implications, may not be experienced.

The attribute of omniscience is not as easily interpreted. In the pious imagination this refers to a Cosmic Mind who is consciously aware of all that has happened or ever will happen. Such a picture does not connect closely enough with a basis in experience. Experientially omniscience is related to the ordered process by which all things come into being. That is to say, things are experienced as happening intelligibly rather than haphazardly. Or more accurately, the world process shows itself as susceptible to what seem to be limitless possibilities of intelligible analysis. Whether at the moment we know it precisely or not, there is thus apparently a "truth to be known" about everything that is. To say that God is omniscient is therefore to say that the world is experienced as intelligible order, or to say that all that is appears as intelligible. It needs to be added, however, that the divine omniscience is not a direct outgrowth of experience, because there is no guarantee that the world is completely intelligible. Omniscience can only be used to express the at present apparently limitless possibilities of intelligible ordering of experience. It is an outgrowth of the experience of imperfection in the realm of truth.

In the realm of moral values, the experience of imperfection gives rise to the idea of the divine holiness. Just as omniscience means that all existence is regarded as intelligible, so holiness means that all action is involved in some moral order and that every moral achievement, however worthy, stands under a higher judgment. Holiness is thus in the realm of the good what Truth is in the realm of knowledge. Just as "God the Omniscient" is not a particular Wise Being but a dimension within experience of limitless intelligibility, so "God All Holy" is not a particular Righteous Being but a dimension within experience of limitless moral perfectibility.

The attributes of God as Perfect, Provident, Absolute, and Infinite have already been sufficiently discussed. The attribute of "transcendence" was also mentioned, as referring to the awareness of beyondness, of possibility in contrast with actuality, involved in the fundamental religious experiences. But God is also said to be "immanent". This means that he is not "beyond the world" in such a way as to be outside human experience. If he were, there would be no sense in talking about him. God is beyond the world in the same sense that possibility is beyond actuality, or that the richness inherent in things is beyond present fulfillment. But God is also immanent in that he is defined in terms of specifiable human experience. He is an aspect of the one world of which we are a part and which we know in our varied experiences.

Religiously it is important to maintain both an immanent and a transcendent view of God. Immanence secures the relevance of the beyond to the actual conditions of existence. Transcendence secures a dynamic and tension towards a fulfillment beyond the actual conditions. Religions of pure immanence lead to complacency. Religions of pure transcendence lead to a feeling of irrelevance and despair. Emphasis on experiences of order and value suggests the immanence of God. Emphasis on change and incompleteness suggests transcendence. Dependence unites immanence with transcendence. For a full experience of both immanent and transcendent elements all five fundamentals of religious experience are necessary.

This discussion of God as immanent and transcendent leads to a mention of God as natural or as supernatural. The distinction between natural and supernatural will be discussed at some length in Chapter X. Suffice it to say here that God is "supernatural" in the same sense that he is transcendent and that he is "natural" in the same sense as he is immanent. In regard to the nature of God, the two sets of terms may be taken as synonymous.

In Chapter III there was some consideration of God as Creator. There it was pointed out that a doctrine of divine creation is a religious interpretation of the experience of change. Probably the favored doctrine in western religious thought has been the idea of "creation out of nothing". This doctrine denies that creation is simply the giving of form to otherwise formless stuff, but the production de novo of the beings which make up the world. Originally this was thought of as a series of original divine acts through which the world as it essentially is now was brought into being. The theory of evolution changed that, so that all except the most conservative now regard creation as a continuous process, but generally still as "out of nothing". The doctrine of creation "out of nothing" is a way of symbolizing the experienced fact of real newness. Change means that what was not has come to be, and it is not possible to deny it by tracing causal connections. The new is still new, no matter how good its connections. The "out of nothing" in the tradition simply means that what is cannot be wholly accounted for on the basis of what was. Something new has been added. The objection to the phrase "out of nothing" is that it denies reality to whatever was the ground of the new. If we take account of the possibilities inherent in the world, and recognize that the full understanding of the world requires not only a catalogue of the actual, but also the latent possibilities, past and future, then it is hardly right to say that creation takes place "out of nothing". Rather, creation takes place out of the dynamic relation between the actual and the possible and the creativity of God is a symbol for the experienced reality of the appearance of the genuinely new.

Another aspect of God as creator was mentioned in Chapter VII and deserves fuller treatment here. According to modern physics, the energy of the physical world tends to become more and more random and unavailable (the Second Law of Thermodynamics). This means that if the present laws of nature hold good, there must have been a time when energy was at a maximum degree of orderly organization. The calculation of this time sets a limit to the past duration of the physical universe. It has been suggested by some scientists and theologians that this provides a confirmation of the religious doctrine of creation. From our point of view, this would be so only in the sense that the original state of things would represent a world-condition of maximum possibility, pregnant with future development, with a minimum of spent possibility in the form of transpired history. It would not mean that a God essentially "outside of" and "apart from" the world "made" it out of nothing and set it going on its downhill path. Such a view is meaningless from the point of view of experiential understanding. With regard to these physical speculations, however, it is important to remember that they are based on the assumed constancy of present natural laws through all time (which may not actually be the case) and on the analysis only of the limited range of phenomena now forming the province of physics, in accordance with the limited set of concepts at present used in this science. The ultimate correctness of such speculations is therefore open to considerable question. Added scientific discoveries may radically alter the picture -- as seems not unlikely, since the conclusions reached are scientifically unsatisfying to many. But, even more important, it should be recognized that a religious view of life, based as it is on universal and central experiences such as we have described, has only a remote connection with these speculations regarding the primordial history of the physical cosmos. Certainly the latter are not the basis for the understanding of the basic meaning of the religious doctrine of creation.

Our final discussion in this chapter will deal with the idea of God as a Person or as personal. In normal language "a person" means a human being. But no one would seriously assert that God is a human being. (Except in some statements of the doctrine of incarnation -- on which see the brief discussion in Chapter XIII). Therefore, it follows that within the normal use of language God is not a Person. To use that designation is only possible if one alters its meaning so as to exclude important features of human persons. The trouble with using such altered meanings is that the exclusions are seldom made explicit, with the result that God is regarded simply as an imaginary Great Man, and this leads to a religious view which is not only filled with incongruities and impossibilities, but also serves to alienate people with trained minds.

The case is different with the attribute "personal". "Personal" in common usage means relevant to persons, or involved in the most characteristic activities or concerns of persons. To say that God is personal, therefore, means simply that the experiences by which God is defined are ones in which there is direct involvement and relevance to persons. If now the five fundamentals of religious experience are examined, it will be seen that in each case distinctively personal elements are involved. A person is said to be creative, and it is precisely in the experience of change that the meaning of creativity is understood. A person is essentially one who is aware of relationships -- who is conscious of self as over against not-self -- and it is the experience of dependence which provides this awareness. A person is a thinking animal, with power to perceive his world as an intelligible order A person is free, in the sense that he is determined by the relative values of alternatives. Finally, a personality has a transcendent dimension, a vision of ideals beyond every actual attainment. Creativity, sociality, intelligence, freedom, and transcendence -- these major characteristics of personality -- are exactly the five elements involved in the fundamental religious experiences by means of which God is defined. These experiences are ones in which personality is most fully realized. This means that the experience of God is the essence of experiencing what it means to be personal. Or, more briefly, it means that God is personal.

The world as it meets one in religious experience is a person-producing and person-enhancing world. Any encounter of this kind is a personal encounter. Therefore God is personal. Impersonal encounters are experiences of the relatively static, the unrelated, the random, the irrelevant and the conservative. Those experiences in which man’s highest powers are exercised are personal experiences, and it is these which we have designated as the fundamentals of religion.

One of the important aspects of what it means to be personal is the possibility of communication. This leads to a discussion of prayer and worship which will be taken up in Chapter XI. Suffice it to say now that an analysis of this subject leads to the further support of the idea of God as personal.

The identification of basic religious elements in universal experience thus provides a firm foundation for an intelligible view of God and for an interpretation of the traditional doctrines. It is important in such an analysis not to relapse into the childish pattern of thought by which God is conceived of as a great Being alongside other beings. Rather it must be constantly remembered that the word "God" stands for certain specified qualities present in every experience. It provides a symbol for certain dimensions in the ultimate nature of the world as we encounter it.

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