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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 10: The World Beyond


Most forms of religion have included some reference to another world beyond or above the world of everyday experience. To many people, in fact, ideas and expectations concerning this other world are the essence of religious belief. They cannot conceive of a religion worth the name which ignores or excludes such ideas. Religion, if it is anything at all, to the average person is a set of beliefs about the "supernatural", "the eternal", "the future life", "heaven and hell", "immortality", "resurrection", or the "Day of Judgment". It is therefore important to indicate an approach to the interpretation of these ideas in the light of such an analysis of religious experience as we are here attempting.

Let us first consider the question of the "supernatural". In its crude form the idea of the supernatural is essentially a geographical conception. The "other world" is another place, "above" or "below" the world in which we live. Such a view presupposes the ancient two- or three-story concept of the universe -- with the flat earth in the center, the "heavens" above and usually various forms of nether regions either in the depths of the earth or below the earth. It is difficult to see how such a view could be maintained after the Ptolemaic view of things was overcome by the Copernican revolution of thought which displaced the earth from the center of the universe. Strangely enough, however, the popular mind still clings to such a geographical notion of the other world. Of course our best-attested scientific world-view shows that there is only one "space-time continuum" within which everything occurs. There is no evidence for any other world in the geographic sense.

Recent speculations in physics resulting in theories of a finite world of space-time have however been taken by some philosophers as warrant for belief in some infinite reality "beyond" the finite world, upon which that world is dependent. There is no space to go into this question here. Suffice it to say that a clear understanding of what the physicists mean by the finitude of the world precludes any deduction from it of anything "beyond" the world. There is therefore no possibility of reviving a quasi-geographical idea of a world beyond from modern physics.

Another meaning associated with the supernatural is that it refers to certain extraordinary, astonishing, or fear-inspiring things. Because primitive men fear thunder and lightning, certain kinds of animals, and dead things, they may ascribe supernatural powers to them. The tribesman’s idea of mana or of inherent "wonderful power" in things and the various taboos which apply to their use are an expression of such a belief in the supernatural. Rudolph Otto analyzed the basic element in religion in his book The Idea of the Holy as a compound of fear and of fascination in the presence of overwhelming mystery.

Regarding such a view of the supernatural two things should be said. First, it does accord with one of the basic elements in religion as discussed in Chapter 3 in the analysis of change. The serious consciousness of change implies the "shock" of the appearance of the really new, and this raises the question, What is the source of the new? The full awareness of what the fact of change implies is precisely what has often been meant by encounter with the supernatural. "The supernatural" is the answer given to the question concerning the source of the new and the destiny of the old. The supernatural is the name given to that from which the new comes and to which the old goes. This does not, of course, require us to think of a "place" of origin and destiny. But it does, so to speak, suggest a "dimension" in the nature of things.

The world in its full reality, including possibilities yet unfulfilled and actualities now lost to the past, is more than the momentary view of it yielded to present vision. The world is more than it appears to be in any single-time cross-section. It has a depth and a richness even beyond the, power of imagination to conceive. It is out of this depth that the surprising things occur. It is this mysterious and sometimes frightening source that may be called the supernatural.

The second thing that should be said regarding this meaning of the supernatural is that the surprising and frightening phenomena are really no different in essence from what is generally called "natural". When understood in their full significance, even so-called natural happenings are surprising and awe-inspiring. And conversely, even the initially most surprising phenomena can by repetition and investigation be "naturalized" so as to excite no wonder. It would therefore seem that while there may be an important religious element in the experience of surprise, wonder, and fear of the extraordinary, the events themselves may not be permanently classified "supernatural" as opposed to "natural".

A third meaning sometimes attached to the concept "supernatural" is the realm of "mind" or "spirit" as opposed to the material order. It is true that some distinction between the mental and the material needs to be made. Attempts to reduce mind to matter or matter to mind lead to equally unsatisfactory results. Yet mind and matter are not really separate realms. There is no "spiritual world" over against the physical world. Mind and matter are constituent aspects of the same world. The two aspects are inextricably interrelated. Mind has a material basis, just as life does. And material things have some mental aspects, even if they be only their intelligible structures. Even what is called "psychic research", involving the attempt to communicate with the "spiritworld" requires physical media including sense impressions. Mental phenomena are the subject of natural inquiry just as much as physical occurrences. Of course the methods of psychology may differ from the methods of physics, but both deal with the same world -- the one "natural" world. The element of truth in this view of the supernatural is the obvious fact that religious experience is only possible to beings with mental or spiritual capacities, i.e., to human beings. But it does not follow that all mental experience is religious, nor is religious experience without a material basis.

A similar analysis would invalidate the distinction between the natural and supernatural based on the difference between the "seen" and the "unseen" world. On this basis electrons would be supernatural, since they cannot be seen. But if it is replied that the effects of electrons can be seen, it must be pointed out that the effects of love and of the impulse to goodness are also visible. It is clear from such an analysis that this distinction will not stand up under examination.

Nor can we accept the idea that the natural is the realm of scientific inquiry, while the supernatural is what lies beyond possible scientific knowledge. From our empirical viewpoint everything which can be intelligibly spoken about must be subject to scientific inquiry, understood in the broadest sense. This does not mean only physics or even physics and biology. It includes also the sciences of mind and of society. By scientific method we mean all ways in which reliable, communicable knowledge based on experience in every area may be gained.

There is no possible area of human experience which lies beyond scientific inquiry in this sense. It must be acknowledged, however, that questions such as those raised by the awareness of change are not usually included among the inquiries considered appropriate to science. Surprise at the new and the lure of the unknown are certainly part of the scientist’s experience, but they are not generally regarded as suggesting questions for his science. In thus sense religion deals with something "supernatural" (as opposed to the scientist’s concern with the "natural").

Sometimes the supernatural is taken as the realm of values as opposed to the realm of natural fact. The experience of value is one of the bases of religion, as shown in Chapter VI. It is therefore easy to understand the traditional linkage between value and the supernatural. We have been at pains to show that value is actually one kind of fact, so that the usual distinction between fact and value does not hold good. Values are powers of confirmation or negation arising in the inter-relations of persons with various aspects of their world. These values and the structural inter-actions upon which they are based are natural facts and should not be relegated to a different "realm" from other natural facts.

A somewhat better case can be made for the supernatural as the realm of ideal possibilities as opposed to the realm of the actual. This meaning of the supernatural is involved in the experience of imperfection (See Chapter VII). Because the world as it is always appears capable of improvement, it is feasible to distinguish between the actual world (as natural) and the ideal world (as supernatural). Or more accurately, the supernatural is that dimension of the real world by which it is seen as limitlessly perfectible. By virtue of this supernatural dimension there is always an imagined better world serving both as judgment on the present and invitation for the future. The objection to calling this "supernatural" is that ideals are not really separate from the actual world, but are firmly rooted in it. The actual world is shaped by the ideal, so that the ideal is quite natural, essential, and integral to the actual world.

This is, of course, in large part a question of coming to agreement about the use of language. Generally the concept of the supernatural has been poorly defined. It may be used, if meaningfully defined, to refer to particular aspects of the world as experienced. It cannot within the context of experience apply to "another world" in any clear sense. It usually carries the connotation of opposition to the natural or transcendence of the natural, and this implies various forms of limitation on the natural, including the suggestion that certain aspects of the one real world are not "natural". Probably the confusions resulting from this are such as to make the use of some other set of distinctions preferable. We can then speak of the one world which we experience in various of its aspects and we avoid the temptation of unintelligible discourse about other worlds of which, if they are really "other", we can obviously have no experience or knowledge of any kind.

By far the most important source of religious concern for a "world beyond" has been the contemplation of death. Human beings naturally cling to life, and the witnessing of the death of others, especially those near and dear, and the anticipation of one’s own passing away compel reflection upon the meaning of these events. That life itself is generally a value is evident from the way in which living beings seek to sustain and preserve it. The belief in a world beyond, where life may continue past its earthly span, unthreatened by the hazards of this world, is one of the ways in which this demand for preservation finds expression. In western religious thought, this belief has usually taken the form of a doctrine of immortality of the soul. According to this view, a person is thought to consist of a union of body with soul. At death the body disintegrates and the liberated soul takes up its abode in the world beyond -- in a realm of spirits free from the prison-house of matter.

The first problem which such a view as this raises concerns the idea of the soul. The naïve concept of the soul is that it is something like an invisible organ connected with the body during life but having a more or less distinct and separate existence within the body and, after life, capable of leading a completely independent existence. Sometimes the soul has even been regarded as having a particular location, such as the heart or the brain. The scientific account of man does not agree with such an idea of soul. According to this account, the human being is a single total organism with many specialized functions, amongst which are thinking and feeling (generally regarded as operations of the soul in the traditional view). Thus the soul is not an organ with a semi-independent status, but (assuming the term is used in a scientific description at all) at most the term applied to certain aspects of the functional or structural nature of the total organism. This is essentially the view advanced by Aristotle, for whom the soul was simply the principle of organization of the living body. If this is the case, it follows that there can be no soul apart from a body, and that in particular the death of a human being involves the disintegration of the whole organism, including its organizing principle, the soul.

As far as our actual experience goes, there are no disembodied souls or spirits. At least that is the most widely accepted scientific view. The exponents of psychic research think they have some evidence far the presence of such spirits, but most careful students of the matter are skeptical of this conclusion.(I do not wish to underestimate the significance or validity of some of the carefully done experiments in para-psychology, involving such phenomena as precognition and thought transfer. The findings in these new fields of inquiry may possibly require important modifications in the scientific account of human thought, but not, as far as now appears, in the direction of re-establishing a simple body-soul duality.) If the spirits were really without bodies, it would seem impossible anyway for them to communicate with us, since normally physical media are required for communication. If we accept the conclusion that there is no actual evidence for disembodied spirits, then either they do not exist or they occupy a realm of being -- a world beyond -- which is inaccessible to us and about which we can know nothing. If we really can know nothing about such a realm, there is no basis upon which to talk or think about it. Everything we may say must be fancy and ungrounded speculation.

If we are to rest on the solid ground of communicable experience, we must return in our discussion of immortality to the basic experiences which give rise to the belief. It is the experience of change which is relevant here. The belief in a world beyond, where the souls of the dead go, is an attempt to answer the question about the status of what has been but no longer is. Even if the soul is regarded as the organizing principle of the body, the question still applies: What becomes of that formative principle ? It should be apparent, however, that the question about the destiny of the soul is merely one special case of the general question: Where does anything that passes away go ? Passing away is not something which occurs at the moment of what we call death. Every instant, the world by the very fact of change is in process of ceaseless passing away.

In the case of a human being, what we call death is only the culmination of many earlier deaths. It occurs when unfavorable balance between organizing and disorganizing factors occurs, in favor of the latter. But in older people this final collapse of organization has been preceded by numerous failures of function, which are deaths of a kind. And even in a young person, where the integrative factors are in the ascendancy, it is still only a relative preponderance of creative over destructive factors. At every age there are ceaseless passings away.

Furthermore, "the soul" is a principle which is never the same at any moment in a person’s life. For the organizing principle of the person is conditioned by the many factors which enter into his day-by-day experience. The whole person, including the soul, grows, matures, and passes away. It follows from this that for each person there is no single, unchanging entity called the soul, of whose destiny within and beyond the body we may speak. We can refer intelligibly only to the history of a total complex organism called a human being -- of the incessant coming into being and passing away of its powers, functions, and structures.

The problem of immortality is only one example of the fundamental problem of change. There would appear to be no reason for singling out the instance of passing away for special treatment. Indeed, if there is to be a world beyond, peopled only with the spirits of those who have died, then we shall have to charge the nature of things with flagrant favoritism. For what is the destiny of the other souls -- of animals and plants, which are also living beings with principles of organization? And what of the principles of organization of inanimate things which crumble to dust? They also may have been worthy of enduring and they had their own kind of formative principles.

In short, if we seriously face the fundamental problem of change, any world beyond which is postulated in answer to the questions raised by it must include not only the souls of the deceased but the whole vast company of the forms of things that were but no longer exist. Furthermore, why should only the soul be immortal ? Bodies, too, are valuable and worth preserving. When we think more closely on the problem, it becomes difficult to distinguish between bodies and souls. For we cannot speak of a formless material substance. Everything -- non-living or living, conscious or unconscious -- is what it is by virtue of its form; yet it is the form of something involving a material aspect.

If we do not wish to speculate about this other world of which we can have no experience here, it is still important to recognize the religious dimension of the problem to which the doctrine of immortality is an attempted answer. We are impelled again, at the least, to recognize that the complete reality of things is richer and more profound than their immediate, contemporary aspect makes them appear to be. Which is to say that the past is more than a mere memory, just as the future is more than a mere anticipation. What that more is we cannot say in detail. But it is from this reality richer than it appears to be that there come unexpected and ever-fresh creations.

Immortality is not really a religious idea when it stands apart from the idea of grace, that is, when the destiny of the souls is not seen as ultimately one with their origin. Without grace, belief in immortality is irreligious because it reflects central concern with the selfish preservation of the self. Much popular belief in immortality is almost wholly self-centered. It represents the final attempt of concern to save one’s own life. A religious belief in immortality reflects not a concern for self-preservation but a love of God. Such immortality is not so much one’s own continued existence as life-in-God. The center of attention is no longer self, but God. In terms of fundamental experiences, this means a vivid sense both of the implications of change and of dependence.

Dependence involves recognition of the sources of one’s being as the answer to the problem of change. This unites destiny with origin in the one awareness of the deeply significant reality in which our lives participate. Added to this are the experiences of form, by which we are reminded of the manifold yet definite character of this reality; the experience of value, by which our personal involvement in it is determined; and the experience of imperfection, by which the unbounded heights of possibility may be imagined. In this many-faceted religious experience the selfish concern for individual preservation is overcome and replaced by a self-forgetful yet self-fulfilling participation in the extraordinary resources out of which all existence proceeds. It is this kind of experience which perhaps best explains the meaning of the traditional term "eternal life" -- which is now not conceived as an extension in time of our personal existence but as a new dimension of existence into which one can enter during his natural life. That new dimension is revealed through such experiences as we have described as the fundamentals of religious reality.

Traditional western doctrines of the world beyond have generally included a distinction between a "heaven" for the righteous souls, and a "hell" for the wicked, sometimes with a "purgatory" for those who must undergo purifying punishment before entering heaven. As we have pointed out, these ideas do not hold in any geographical sense. What they do is to add a moral dimension to the problem of the destiny of the soul. The character of individual destiny now becomes conditioned by the character of the life lived in the body. In the light of such fundamental experiences, these doctrines refer to the relationship between the quality of life and the degree to which one participates in the new dimension already spoken of. The good life is one which maximizes community and this kind of life opens up most widely the world of value, of myriad forms, of limitless possibilities. The evil life is one which frustrates community and thus blinds one to this richness. The life of community links one with the creative sources of being. The self-centered life leads to isolation and stagnation. By this interpretation, "heaven" is participation in community and hell is isolation and frustration of community.

Heaven means the expansion, fulfillment, and realization of the potentialities of existence. Hell means the walling off of the self which results in impoverishment and death. Heaven is the condition of harmonious co-existence. Hell is the condition of contradiction and estrangement. Heaven is the source of being. Hell is the ground of annihilation.

Two other closely related answers to the question raised by death should be briefly discussed. One is resurrection and the other reincarnation, sometimes called metempsychosis. Immortality is essentially a Greek idea. Resurrection is a concept Hebraic in origin, and reincarnation is characteristic of the belief of most oriental religions. The doctrine of resurrection is that man’s destiny is to die but one day to be raised again to life, not as a disembodied spirit, but with a body -- usually the original one possessed during life.

Hebrew thought developed this idea rather than immortality, first, because the Hebrews had a vivid sense of the goodness of material bodily existence; and second, because they understood the necessary unity of the person not as a soul-in-body but as a whole living, feeling, thinking personality. This is far more congenial, for both reasons, to modern thought than is the Greek idea. While it is impossible in a scientific age to consider any literal acceptance of the doctrine of resurrection, it does point even better than the doctrine of immortality to some of the fundamentals of religious experience mentioned above. It means that the significance of an individual life is not measured simply by its coming and going in the passing panorama of existence. Rather it is determined by its participation in and exemplification of the rich resources from which all being springs. Furthermore, this significance is not simply a matter of the mental life but includes the whole life of man, bodily as well as spiritual. The resurrection is a symbol, as it now can be seen in retrospect, for the showing forth of the full significance which within the partial experiences and understandings of man’s finite life could never become clear. The idea of a "Day of Judgment" is the symbolic expression for the now hidden meaning of every life within the whole context of world history -- the whole context, since the full implications of any life will never be known apart from its working out in the whole of the historical and existential process.

The doctrine of reincarnation is interesting because it attempts to provide an answer not only to the question of human destiny but also of human origin. If death poses the problem of "whither", birth poses the problem of "whence". Both are real and baffling questions to which the reincarnation teaching claims to supply a simple answer: New souls are simply old souls in new bodies. The character and the limitations of each soul are however determined by the earlier life-histories of the soul (law of karma). This is a much neater and more logical system of explanation of origin, destiny, and differences of character than are either immortality or resurrection. Religiously and ethically it has not appealed generally to the west because it undermines the moral earnestness of the only-one-chance view of the soul’s destiny, and because it does away with the idea of a God who continually creates new things, including souls. The main trouble with the doctrine of reincarnation is that it does not seem to be true to the facts. We have no evidence at all for it and every reason to deny it on the basis of what we do know about the mechanisms of reproduction and inheritance. The interest for us in this doctrine is primarily that it illustrates further the importance and persistence of the questions raised by the human experiences of change and of dependence.

It is often claimed that a literal belief in conscious personal survival beyond death is necessary for either a meaningful or a moral earthly life. It is said that if this life is all one can look forward to, nothing at all is worthwhile and that the amoral law of the jungle will be the inevitable rule of behavior. It is difficult to see by what logic such conclusions follow. The "meaning" of life depends primarily upon the immediate forms and values in existence, including the relationships in terms of which life is established in community. Values are experienced realistically as valuable regardless of their final and unknown destiny as well as that of the valuer. Temporal stability may indeed be a positive value to certain persons in certain situations, but it is by no means the only value, nor is it necessarily always a positive value. Change itself has values. It is also a matter of historical record that countless generations of people in many vigorous cultures have lived meaningful and ethically robust lives without any belief in continued personal existence after death. It may also be added that the analysis of religion based on the five fundamentals discussed in Part Two holds good whether or not such a belief is maintained.

We have been largely concerned thus far with the doctrines of a world beyond as they relate to the destiny of the individual. A final word may now be added regarding the destiny of the race as a whole. The traditional concept of the "next world" is not only that of a place where individual souls go after death. It includes also such an idea as the "Kingdom of God" as a condition of things in which God’s complete reign will be set up and evil and death will be permanently overcome. According to this idea, there is a world lying beyond this one as its fulfillment and culmination. A non-theological version of this idea is the belief in automatic or inevitable progress, resulting in the final establishment of some sort of utopian order. The most obvious contemporary example of this is Marxian utopianism, with its accompanying doctrine of the dialectic.

In terms of the fundamentals of religious experience, these doctrines must be interpreted chiefly in the light of the experience of imperfection. That the world always presents itself as limitlessly perfectible leads to the idea of a "perfect world" towards which the actual world may be tending. Perfectibility implies an ideal state of things standing in contrast to the actual state of things. It is the whole set of such imagined ideals which enters into the formulation of the ideas of a state of consummate perfection.

There are two important problems which now arise. The first stems from the fact that the consciousness of inevitable imperfection is easily converted into a belief in some actual state of perfection lying beyond the present actual imperfect world. Of such a state we have no knowledge. All ideals of a better world are merely improvements of the actual world and are themselves subject to improvement, if the world should prove to be limitlessly perfectible. Under this assumption, there is no final state of things either as a determinate present ideal or as a culmination within time. The experience of imperfection, truly understood, is therefore both a source for idealism and a denial of utopianism.

The second problem concerns the relationship between good and evil in the historical process. Progress means the enlarging triumph of good over evil. We have defined good and evil in terms of desire and have then suggested that various goods may be arranged in order with reference to an assumed sovereign good called community. The question of the final triumph of good is the question regarding the extent to which community is sovereign in fact and also as an hypothesis or basis of inter-action. To what extent is the desire for community actually and ultimately dominant over the desire for values which may deny or frustrate community? The facts of human perversity are only too plain, and it is by no means clear that by any processes within our control or within reasonable forecast human nature may be fundamentally improved.

On the other hand, community is self-consistent in a way that no lesser goods are. In fact, community is by its very definition the state of self-consistency, mutuality, harmonious inter-relation of individual personalities. Therefore there is some reasonable presumption that the world process may proceed in such a way as to maximize community -- i.e., to establish conditions of maximum self-consistency, as between person and person and person and his communal relations.

Part of the process by which this will take place will be the conflicts as between those whose interests are interests to limit community. Such conflicts are partly destructive but also partly educative and preparatory for more comprehensive community. Ideas such as the Kingdom of God are expressions of confidence in the ultimate triumph of community, i.e., in the long-run victory of good over evil, or the final establishment of progress. This means that the experience of imperfection will not be seen merely as a vision of what might be but as an invitation and motivation to participate in the transformations which will tend to bring the ideal closer towards actuality.

Regarding the long-range balance between good and evil, however, it is important to remain open to the empirical evidence. It is not possible now to say whether or not the value of community will exert a more powerful persuasion in human life than other seemingly opposed values. There is the possibility that the world process may have epochs of decline as well as of advance. According to our present knowledge of physics, as already pointed out, the Second Law of Thermodynamics presents us in the material realm with the picture of a running-down universe which will ultimately be impossible for human life. What the final word will be on such matters as well as on the problem of resolving conflicts in nature and society we do not now know enough to say.

Because of the problematic character of the idea of progress within world-history, there has arisen the idea of a world of consummation lying "beyond history". Being outside the time sequence, it is usually called an "eternal kingdom".

Since all experience necessarily takes place within the time sequence, it is not possible to speak meaningfully about anything which is outside time. Such ideas, therefore, of a kingdom beyond history must be either nonsense or metaphorical ways of speaking of certain aspects of temporal experience. For example, the statement ‘`There is a perfect kingdom beyond history", which is literally nonsense and incomprehensible, may be understood to express symbolically the inevitable human experience of imperfection. The phrase "There is a perfect kingdom" expresses the reality and the power of the ideal. The phrase "beyond history" expresses the recognition that no ideal within history is the final one.

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