return to religion-online

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 12: Church, Bible, Prophecy, and Miracle


In the last chapter the major features of the characteristic message of Christianity were described. In this and the next chapter certain related matters, also largely within the context of the Christian tradition, will be considered.

First, there is the question of the Church. Superficially regarded, the Church is merely one of the many social institutions existing within civilization. It represents the association of persons with common religious or social interests and participation in various customary practices characteristic of their particular group. The real problem is: What underlies these organizations and what determines the particular form of their practices ?

One of the essential elements in the historical development of the Christian Church was the Jewish idea of the "Chosen People". The Hebrews, taught by their religious leaders, regarded themselves as in some sense God’s special people. They considered that he had chosen them as the only recipients and custodians of the one final divine law. Sometimes they regarded themselves as selected for special divine favor, through the guarantee of victory over enemies, or social stability or economic prosperity. Sometimes their special position was seen to entail not only privilege but responsibility. In some of the prophets, notably the Second Isaiah, this responsibility was interpreted in terms of a religious mission to all peoples of the earth.

The idea of a Chosen People has usually seemed repugnant to the liberal spirit, particularly in a democratic society where the ideal of equality runs strong. There is nevertheless a deep truth in it which can scarcely be denied. In the case of the Hebrews it is simply a matter of historical record that this people, in some respects alone amongst all of the peoples of the ancient world, possessed religious insights which were destined to endure and to become formative principles of the mighty stream of western civilization. The moral and spiritual contributions of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Canaanites, or even Egyptians -- at their height so preponderant in power and influence as compared with little Israel -- have been negligible in the long run. In comparison with these other contemporary powers, in the sphere of moral and religious insight, the Hebrews were a special people. All history argues that nations, like individual persons, are in important respects not created equal.

The consciousness of being chosen by God is fundamentally a powerful experience of value. It comes as a result of "being laid hold on" by a dominating ideal whose far-reaching and enduring quality is vividly recognized. All great ideas have this characteristic. They are great precisely because they are immensely persuasive, because they are seen to be applicable to very wide and varying circumstances and peoples, and because they suggest further possibilities lying beyond the more immediately apparent ones (experience of imperfection).

Being chosen also involves a deep consciousness of dependence. The values to which one is dedicated are regarded not as human creations, but as gifts. The Jews never thought of the laws of their society as created by that society or by its leaders for purposes of order and convenience. Moral principles were never regarded by them merely as satisfying rules of behavior. They believed the Law was given to them, and they dramatized this conviction through the biblical narrative about Moses receiving the tablets from the very hand of God on Mount Sinai.

It is for scientific inquiry to answer the question: Why were the Jews the Chosen People ? It is a fact that in the religious sense they were unique, just as in an intellectual sense the Greeks were a Chosen People. The reasons for these facts are many and complex, but in principle there is no barrier to discovering them. Psychological, sociological, anthropological, geographical, and other factors combined in such a way as to generate these remarkable peoples. Certain peoples -- like certain individuals -- are so constituted as to possess in extraordinary degree special gifts for cultural creativity. In like manner, on the simpler level, certain animals or plants are so formed as to exhibit remarkable and unique properties. Just so, on the inorganic level, every element in the periodic scale has its special characteristics, and some, like the radioactive substances, have qualities of far-reaching significance in certain respects. All of these unusual and noteworthy powers are in principle explicable in terms of internal structure, antecedents, and character of inter-actions with other entities.

It follows that there is nothing inherently either unnatural or illiberal about the idea of the Chosen People. Rightly understood, it is the expression in social terms, first, of the fundamental plurality of existence, and second, of the awareness of dominant values, and third, of the sense of dependence which such awareness inspires. This idea becomes destructive when it degenerates into an exclusivistic dogma where the emphasis is not upon one’s own being chosen but upon others’ not being chosen. At this point the idea loses its religious character (in the sense of Part Two). For there is no longer a true experience of dependence, since the special privilege is regarded not as a gift but as an inalienable and exclusive right and possession. The value-experience that underlay the sense of being chosen is itself diminished, as every value which is not shared must be. But most important of all, with an exclusivist dogma the sense of imperfection is gone. Belief in the fixity and finality of the choice (of one’s own group) inevitably shuts out the limitless horizon of the idealizing process which is an integral part of religious experience.

It is clear from what has been said that the idea of "being chosen" is in reality a general religious principle, applicable to individuals as well as to groups, and in an analogous sense has relevance to all levels in the order of nature. To know that one is chosen is to be gratefully conscious of the special gifts with which he has been endowed. So understood, being chosen is not in opposition to community but is its very condition. Community requires the harmonious inter-relation of distinct entities -- all with special gifts and capacities. There is no community with absolute equality. True community involves the enhancing of the life of the whole and of all parts through the mutual recognition and appreciation of those unique contributions which each constituent can make.

The idea of chosen people is otherwise expressed through the so-called doctrine of "election". Election means that human destiny is determined by God rather than by man himself. It may apply either to groups or to individuals. Like the concept of the Chosen People, election has often been regarded as an objectionable idea because it makes the deity seem arbitrary and unjust to many. It is very difficult, however, to avoid the plain evidence of inequality in many ways, and these inequalities must be traced ultimately to whatever are the sources of being upon which life depends. That some are "elected" to fulfillment and some to frustration is, then, to be understood as a consequence of the plurality of being and of the fact of dependence. As pointed out in Chapter IV, this does not deny freedom, which means self-determination, since the self is what it is by virtue of the sources of its being.

The Christian Church is largely an outgrowth of the Jewish idea of the Chosen People. The people of Israel regarded themselves as custodians of the holy oracles of God contained in the Law. The early Christians regarded themselves as the recipients and transmitters of a new holy treasure -- the Gospel of the risen Christ. Just as the Hebrews in their consciousness of historical destiny felt themselves laid hold on by the great principles of the Torah, the Christians were overwhelmed and captured by the consciousness of victory over death and the promise of inexhaustible fountains of life to which they had secured access through identification with Jesus in the resurrection community. Just as the Jews had sometimes felt called to the task of preserving the Law for the salvation of all nations, the early Christians, with tremendous missionary zeal, were inwardly impelled to "proclaim the Gospel to every living creature". Christians regard themselves as a Chosen People in the sense that to them has been entrusted the message of God’s grace to sinful (selfish) man in Jesus, who was shown to be the Christ by his coming alive in the Christian community where, because the fear of death is gone, the rule of love replaces that grasping for security which is the cause of sin.

The Church is therefore the resurrection community. It is not a mere collection of individuals who agree to associate together. Rather, it is an organism brought into being by the unique series of events associated with the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church is no organization which certain people decided to set up. It is a living whole, brought into being by the overpowering corporate experiences of the early Christians, and continued in being through the successive regeneration of these same experiences of new life from age to age. In Christian language, the Church was created by God when he sent the Holy Spirit upon the disciples, and continues as the Church through the perennial renewal of this gift of the Spirit. Its organic character was referred to by St. Paul in the phrase "the body of Christ". The body has many "members", each differing in function, but each also contributing to the good of the whole. This organic conception is another way of expressing, in the sphere of human relationships, what we have consistently designated by the word "community".

The claim of Christians is therefore validated only in so far as it is really true that they possess a unique and powerful treasure-house (the Gospel) from which new life (the Holy Spirit) is available for the healing, restoring, and recreating of sick, delinquent, and perishing men. To a certain extent this claim can be validated, but there are also serious limitations to which it is subject. We may now add, in the light of the above discussion of the Chosen People, that the Christian claim becomes invalid at the point where it becomes exclusive. The assertion that "outside the Church there is no salvation" must be rejected on religious grounds as well as on the clear evidence of history and of everyday life. That the historic Christian community has made mighty contributions to the life of our society cannot be doubted. (Some of these contributions have been evil.) But that this community is the sole means by which man can be renewed on the deepest levels of his life is hardly a credible position. The traditional reply to this has been to make a distinction between the visible Church (the Church as a social institution) and the invisible Church (the community of those who have been restored to new life by faith in Jesus as Christ, whether they belong to the visible institution or not). Such a distinction has real merit, but it does not answer the question as to whether there may not be other channels of "salvation" (in almost any sense that can be intelligibly specified) than that which stems from the historic events connected with Jesus of Nazareth.

There can be no claim of a Church universal until the principle of exclusion is overcome in favor of an all-embracing principle of community. This would imply the grateful recognition of the powerful sources of moral insight available through the experience of the Jewish people and the revitalizing power resident within the Christian Gospel, but also the rightful and needful contributions of other peoples and historic religions to the fulfillment of the highest potentialities in existence.

Closely related to the Church is the Bible. The Bible is the Holy Book of the religious community. There is a reciprocal relationship between Bible and Church. In the book are recorded the key events, central teaching, and ritual regulations governing the life of the community. Thus the Bible is a product of the Church. On the other hand, the book is in turn the source of the tradition which ensures the continuity of the religious community through the generations. In this sense the Church is a product of the Bible. Historically, the religious community of Israel preceded the production of a collection of sacred writings and the earliest Christian community came before the New Testament writings. In both cases the Scriptures were written expressions of the basic experiences characteristic of the respective religious groups. This does not invalidate the assertion that once the Scriptures were produced (step by step in a long process of literary and social evolution), they were powerful factors in guiding the course of the religious community.

A body of sacred writings gains authority through its demonstrated power of bringing to expression the dominant and enduring attitudes characteristic of the religious group. Out of a vast body of oral or written material, through long testing, a certain few selections are made, generally not by an official body so much as by the decision of the community itself as evidenced by degree of use or disuse, and these become the sacred canon. This observation is important because it emphasizes the fact that the authority of Scripture is generally not (as often maintained by the opponents of traditional religion) arbitrarily imposed but is by common consent out of the long experience of the group. From this we conclude that the familiar idea of the special character and sacred quality of the Scriptures in comparison with other writings is a way of expressing in doctrinal form the well-tested superiority of the holy writings in respect to the religious life of the group. Amongst traditional religious ideas, that of the sacredness of Scripture is one of the most empirical in character.

The sacred writings of all the great religions have the power, in unusual degree, of stimulating the kinds of universal experiences which we described in Part Two. For example, the Old Testament is dominated by the conviction of Israel’s dependence upon God and by specific illustrations from history of the consequences of that dependence. In its pages the reality of change is recognized and the deepest questions of beginnings and endings -- of creation and destruction -- are constantly confronted. It is pervaded by the sense of the order of the creation, with a definite physical, living, and moral structure which set the conditions of man’s life. It is the record of values passionately espoused, and of visions of better things not yet achieved. Similarly with the New Testament, which carries out most of the themes of the Old Testament within the context of a new historical situation introduced by the coming of Jesus. An examination of other sacred writings would show their peculiar fitness for expressing and inspiring the fundamental experiences by which we defined universal religion.

This leads to an interpretation of the doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. The obvious meaning of this is that the Scriptures were not human creations, but were specially given by God. The extreme form of the doctrine asserts verbal inspiration, i.e., that the words were themselves given by God (as in Muslim or in some Fundamentalist Jewish or Christian circles). The usual form is that God in all essential features guided the production of the Bible, through human instrumentality. A literal understanding of inspiration, according to which a god delivers messages to special persons, cannot be intelligible in terms of universal experience. It can appeal only to those willing to accept the claim on the authority of others. But the doctrine can be understood rather as a way of symbolizing the peculiar power the Scriptures have of generating religious experience, as described above. "Divine inspiration" means "produced by God", and this means, in terms of our discussion of God in Chapter VIII, "arising from those aspects of the nature of things which are experienced in the five fundamentals of change, dependence, etc." Thus divine inspiration can be intelligibly interpreted to mean that the Scriptures are very particularly transparent to and vehicles of the basic experiences called religious.

According to such an interpretation there is no sharp line which divides sacred writings from all other literature. Many other works have great power of mediating the divine in essentially the same way as the Scriptures. The only claim the Scriptures have must rest upon the long experience of the group whose religious life is nourished by them.

Closely akin to the idea of inspiration is the concept of revelation. This means that the sacred writings, in contrast with other literature, are regarded as disclosures of the divine nature and will. Matters ordinarily hidden from man are made plain through the Scriptures. The revelatory character of sacred writings results essentially from their powerful exemplification of the first two fundamentals of religious experience: In the first place, there is the marked element of surprise, of wonder and amazement at the new and wholly unexpected things that have come to pass (e.g., deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt or from Babylon, the sense of a living presence among the disciples who had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion). In this respect something hidden has come to light. In the second place, there is a strong sense of dependence, in the conviction that these surprising things have been done to them and were not of their own will or making. Coupled with these two primary elements in the experience of revelation there is the opening of new and hitherto undisclosed horizons for the fulfillment of life (order, value, and especially the experience of imperfection). Thus revelation combines all the fundamentals of religious experience. Again it must be said, however, that Scripture is not the only source of revelation, in our sense of the word. While the events of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures certainly have remarkable revelatory power, we cannot deny such power to other events or to other writings. The extent of such power depends upon the particular nature of the writings, of those who use them, and of the situations in which they are produced and read.

Two problems now present themselves. The first is that when certain writings are officially accepted as the sacred canon, they tend to assume a position of finality which resists any further critical testing by corporate experience. They now become the norm for experience rather than a canon judged by experience. When this happens, it may no longer be true that the Scriptures possess intrinsic authority based on contemporary experience. Their authority may then need to be bolstered by extrinsic and arbitrary means. This has taken place with respect to most if not all of the sacred writings of the historic religions. Conditions of life have radically changed since ancient times. It is therefore extremely difficult for the average person so to translate the biblical view into his own idiom that the ancient experiences become relevant to him. For this reason the ancient writings often tend to obscure rather than to illuminate the religious dimensions of experience. To the normal difficulty of penetrating to a more profound level of understanding is added the burden of thinking in terms of both an ancient and a modern world-view. This is not to deny that the sacred writings contain insights of permanent significance. But it is in order to ask whether there is not an imperative in every age for the production of "sacred" literature which will express -- possibly better than the ancient writings -- the deepest religious insights and experiences of civilization. Our analysis of religion and of the meaning of inspiration would suggest an affirmative answer to this question.

The second problem is that of the plurality of sacred books. Each religious group tends to exalt its sacred canon to a leading or to an exclusive position. Obviously everyone cannot make his claim good. Orthodox western religions have accorded a unique status to their particular Bibles. For each of them there is only one holy book, provided by God for the ultimate religious guidance of man. Such exclusive claims are in the same class as claims of exclusive Churches. The two claims generally go together. The only intelligible solution to this problem would seem to be to admit the relative religious value, based on experience, of each group’s scriptures for its own corporate life, but to recognize that no book has final authority. To claim finality is to deny the basic religious principle implied by the experience of imperfection, and (as was shown above in connection with Church exclusiveness) to destroy the other basic elements in religious experience as well.

Among the important components of the sacred writings are the oracles of the prophets. It is often thought that the function of the prophet is to forecast the future. While there is some truth in this, it does not do justice to the real meaning of prophecy in the Old Testament. The true significance of the prophets of Israel was that they were able to discern the deeper meaning of historical events. They were "seers", i.e., those who see deeply into the meanings of events. They were interpreters, who understood what lay beneath the superficial and usually deceptive appearances. Their interpretation was not only a matter of predicting consequences. They were as much concerned with pointing out the meaning of past events and of present situations as with the future.

The Christians, in their zeal to find confirmation for their claim that Jesus was the Messiah, unfortunately obscured the original and really authentic meaning of Old Testament prophecy by seeking to show that the prophets had foretold the coming of Jesus. While there are in the Old Testament prophetic proclamations of a Messianic Age to come, only by the most narrow and literalistic special pleading can the specific foretelling of Jesus be defended.

Prophecy in its true sense is important because it furnishes an excellent illustration of some of the fundamentals of religious experience. The most striking thing about the prophet is his sense of divine commission. He does not regard himself as his own agent but as a spokesman for God, who instructs him to deliver messages to his people. This sense of commission is simply a well-developed consciousness of dependence. It is also a powerful experience of value. The prophet is one who feels that he is grasped or impelled by a demand placed upon him. He has a total commitment, which comes from being wholly and unequivocally caught up by an ideal. It is also as though a key has slipped into place and a door has been unlocked towards future possibilities. The prophet has a keen sense of present imperfection and a vivid apprehension of a better order beyond. Thus he is able to pronounce judgment on the existing order, threatening destruction of every order which resists the pressure of a higher level of community, and holding out the promise of a glorious new age to all who are faithful to this demand.

The prophet is an interpreter because he is able to see the religious dimension in what appear to others as ordinary events. He actually carries out in a particularly complete and faithful way the pursuit of the implications which are present in all experience if profoundly examined. The prophet is in this sense a "religious genius". But this does not mean that he is actually a specially designated agent of God with a relation to him that others cannot have. His genius lies in his ability to discern more clearly what is open to all to see and understand in the universal experience of the race. To be sure, some events are more provocative of religious insight than others, and it is these upon which the prophet chiefly draws. But it remains true that the prophet’s experience is not different in kind from the experience of any other man, and that his greatness and relevance lies not so much in his unique capacities as in the fact that he does represent the universal religious perspective implicit in the experience of every man.

Prophecy is one of the characteristic components of Scripture. Another is accounts of miracles. Miracle stories are also, found outside the sacred canon. In the popular mind the miraculous element is chiefly what makes a religion sacred. To many people religion without miracles would not be religion, and the Scriptures without miracle stories would not be a holy book. The word "miracle" is usually understood to mean any astonishing, extraordinary, inexplicable event which is regarded as signifying the activity of divine agencies.

There are miracles of many kinds. "Nature miracles" are events which appear to contradict the established order of nature, such as the stilling of a storm at sea. Another kind -- healing miracles -- are especially common in the reports. There are miraculous restorations of the dead to life (resurrection stories) which in the case of Jesus is the central Christian miracle. There are communication miracles, in the form of supernatural visions and revelations (usually to prophets or seers). Some miracles are regular in occurrence (e.g., the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament, according to the Roman Catholic view), while some are unique (as in Christ’s resurrection). Some have a moral purpose (as the parting of the sea for the deliverance of the Israelites), while others have none (the withering of the fig tree cursed by Jesus). Some miracles are worked directly by God, while others are performed by holy men -- prophets, apostles, or saints.

The conditions favorable for belief in miracle reports are several: a strong religious conviction, a vivid imagination, a pre-scientific or non-scientific view of the world, and discontent with the conditions of everyday life as a result of boredom, oppression, or want.

There are several ways in which miracle reports may be interpreted. The orthodox view is that they are direct evidence of supernatural intervention and must be believed without question. A second view is that miracles are due to the operation of natural laws not yet discovered or perhaps of laws now known but not understood by those who reported the miracles. A third view is that miracles are faith-symbols, that they are dramatic representations of the inner meaning of events to those who witnessed them with the eye of faith.

It is actually necessary to deal with each kind of miracle on its own merits. No doubt many of the phenomena of nature, once regarded as miraculous interventions, are now understood as regular parts of the cosmic order. Probably many of the reported miraculous healings did occur. We are only beginning now to understand some of the mechanisms by which emotional and physical factors are inter-related, and therefore to possess a rudimentary explanation of faith healing. Some miracle reports -- especially the most exaggerated ones -- must surely be taken as nothing more than products of the pious imagination. It is also important to remember that most miracle stories come from a pre-scientific age, in which there was no conception of a uniform order of nature. The world was regarded as directly governed by spiritual powers, as a man controls his body. It was therefore taken for granted that "signs and wonders" would occur.

How shall we interpret miracles in the light of our analysis of religious experience? First let it be said that a blind acceptance of such stories simply because they are in the Bible or attested by Church authority has no place in an intelligent religious outlook. In the second place, we cannot and should not, even or especially in our religious outlook, abandon the search for the intelligible structure of the natural order through orderly scientific means. Miracle stories which conflict with well-tested scientific evidence are to be regarded as extremely improbable. Miracles which can be explained by natural means should be analyzed in that way. Miracles which are neither in conflict with scientific evidence nor explicable by known natural laws should be regarded as stimuli for further inquiry. But in the third place we should not be so intent on the orderly structures of nature that we lose sight of the essential religious meaning of miracles. This leads to their interpretation as faith-symbols, as mentioned above. Miracle stories are fundamentally ways of expressing the conviction that the nature of things is not just what it appears to be, but that there are resident in the world hidden depths and heights of possibility, for which from time to time there is at least some evidence. They point to the fact that life is full of surprises and that for those who have eyes to see there is untold treasure of latent richness which may come into being.

This leads us back to the fundamentals of religious experience. The implications of change are especially relevant to the understanding of miracle. In fact, one does not really understand the religious meaning of change until he sees it as miracle. Change is the perennial source of miracle. The supreme wonder is that the wholly new emerges -- apparently from nowhere. The questions raised by the fact of change are expressed in the recognition that a miracle has occurred. In this sense the pre-scientific interpretation of surprising natural phenomena as miracles is really more perceptive than the routine acceptance of every occurrence as part of an invariable law-abiding order of things. What is required in intelligible religion is to preserve an appreciation both for the principle of order and for the acknowledgment of wonder in the presence of the new.

Miracles also need to be understood in the light of dependence. For the miraculous is always regarded as something that happens to one. It is a gift, wholly unexpected and unprepared for, not a human achievement but a contribution from the endlessly rich sources of being. Furthermore, by its novelty miracle impels a recognition of order, not in the sense of a regular occurrence, but as a given structure or condition which is this rather than that. Miracles represent the perception of unexpected orders in existence. Again, miracles always arise in situations of intense value-experience. In fact, the overwhelming surge of new life which comes when one enters -- usually quite unexpectedly -- into a profound value-relationship has all the quality of a miracle. There is truth in such a familiar phrase as "the miracle of love". The surprising gift of a vivifying new human relationship is a miracle. Finally, miracle implies the opening of new horizons. It is not the immediate event in itself which is miraculous. It is the power some occurrences have of raising the curtain upon endless vistas of higher possibilities which makes them miracles, i.e., which makes it possible to appear miraculous. Thus the experience of imperfection also contributes to the understanding of the miraculous.

This analysis leads to the conclusion that miracle, so defined, is the essence of religion. There is no deeply religious experience, according to our interpretation, which is not miraculous. Intelligible religion need not (as some would recommend) deny miracle. Rather it would appear that miracle freed from literalistic and unscientific connotations and re-interpreted in the light of fundamental experience is an essential to significant religion.

Viewed 61109 times.