In the fabric of this concluding number of the first volume of Zygon, two major themes are interwoven: the warp threads are the attempts to describe the nature and function of religion; the woof, the attempts to make sense of the values of human life in the face of the fact of death.
In the first number of this volume, physicist Sanborn C. Brown commended testing religious ideas of good and evil by looking at their outcome in extreme conditions. Certainly death is an extremity of life and its values; and it may be that a prime test or selecting agent in the evolution of religions in human cultures has been the death of those that cannot handle death. Both archeological and psychobiological evidences lead us to conclude that finding a solution to the anxieties caused by mans growing awareness of the paradoxical dilemma between his inherently supreme valuation of life on the one hand and his destiny with death on the other has been a prime function of religions for more than one hundred thousand years.
Religion is one of the cultural universals of mankind. The universality of religion shows clearly enough that religion satisfies some deep-seated and vital need of the human psyche. Émile Durkheim, one of the greatest students of comparative religion, maintains that It is inadmissible that systems of ideas like religions, which have held so considerable a place in history, and from which, in all times, men have come to receive the energy which they must have to live, should be made up of a tissue of illusions. How could a vain fantasy have been able to fashion the human consciousness so strongly and so durably? Surely it ought to be a principle of the science of religions that religion expresses nothing which does not exist in nature; for there are sciences only of natural phenomena. An evolutionary biologist is driven by such statements to enter the ground which angels fear to tread—what are the evolutionary origins of this need so obviously inherent in human nature?
The philosopher Whitehead (1941) said that the lives of individuals may seem to be passing whiffs of insignificance. Hartshorne (1962, 1963), another philosopher, describes religion as mans acceptance of his own fragmentariness. Man overcomes his transience and insignificance by becoming, at least in his imagination, a part of some sublime and eternal life. The anthropologist Malinowski has stated this very clearly: The existence of strong personal attachments and the fact of death, which of all human events is the most upsetting and disorganizing to mans calculations, are perhaps the main sources of religious belief. The affirmation that death is not real, that man has a soul and that this is immortal, arises out of a deep need to deny personal destruction, a need which is not a psychological instinct but is determined by culture, by co-operation, and by the growth of human sentiments.
Is, then, an individuals life something more than a passing whiff of insignificance? May it have some meaning? There will never be a convincing, definitive, doubt-proof answer to this question. An influential school of philosophy cheerfully proclaims that the question is meaningless. People nevertheless persist in asking this question. I agree with Crane Brinton that to urge them to stop doing so is as pointless as to ask them to do without sex relations. …
Theodosius Dobzhansky is professor of genetics at Rockefeller University.
There are certain issues in the interaction between science, religion, and death that I do not intend to treat. I do not intend to give a historical or scholarly treatment of this issue. I do not intend to analyze the way science has modified the handling of death in the various religious traditions. I do not even intend to speak for all liberal opinion and practice in these matters. I intend to adhere to the only area in which I can speak with authority: the way science has conditioned my own personal beliefs and expectations in relation to death; the way science has affected my own ministry to those faced with death; and the conclusions I have reached as to the attitudes of other people in these matters, deriving from my own first-hand experience.
Whatever qualifications I have to speak on these matters derive from some thirty years in the ministry, twenty-five of them in Unitarian and Universalist pastorates and the balance with the Disciples of Christ. But my experience with Protestant and fundamentalist faith and practice relates to the first thirty years of my life, since I was born and reared in its traditions and institutions and educated in its schools. Thirty years against twenty-five years is a sufficient balance of experience between the liberal and conservative traditions in American religion and that amorphous midland that drifts between the poles. I have studied with some scope the religious ways of other peoples in these matters, but I am not equipped to describe how science has altered their belief and practice. So I will stick to my own personally known world.
The major influence of science upon death comes out of that pervasive action that science has imposed on all areas of faith and practice. Science has fundamentally altered the way we look upon the phenomena of the world and has altered the evaluation of our own opinions and prejudices relating to them. In this, the area of death is only a particular instance of a general occurrence. The scientific attitude and the scientific method have altered the aura and the presumptions of all areas of belief and faith. …
Kenneth Patton is minister of the Unitarian Society of Ridgewood, New Jersey, and the Charles Street Unitarian Meeting House, Boston, Massachusetts.
Darwinism: Foundation for an Ethical System? by Robert S. Morison
Last years¹ centennial interest in Charles Darwin refreshed our minds on the importance of his place in the development of modern biology, and indeed of modern thinking generally on the nature of man. Familiarity with the doubts, misgivings, and outright hostility with which his ideas were first received by defenders of traditional morality still makes it hard to notice that what Darwin destroyed with one hand he may well have restored to us with the other—and in a form considerably more appropriate to mans present needs. Darwins theory of evolution makes at least two important contributions that fall squarely in the field of mans historical preoccupation with religious and ethical speculation.
First, he came up with a thoroughly rational and acceptable explanation of death. In fact death is the very heart of his entire system. The death of all living things is not only required to make room for new and better experiments in living; it becomes the directing force of the creative process. In the long run, the less satisfactory organism dies earlier and therefore has fewer offspring than do his superior contemporaries.
Admittedly this is a hard rule, and carried to extremes, as it was in the nineteenth century, it gave too facile a sanction to the iron law of laissez faire economics. Nevertheless, for many of us it is a good deal easier to accept than the classical theological paradox of an all-wise, all-powerful God, giving and taking away life with random inscrutability. …
¹ 1959. This article is reprinted from Christianity and Crisis, August 8, 1960; copyright 1960, by Christianity and Crisis, Inc.
Robert S. Morison is director, Division of Biological Sciences, Cornell University.
Coping with Death in Western Religious Civilization by Jerome R. Malino
It was a haggard and disconsolate King Saul who sought out the Witch of Endor with a request that she violate one of the kings own laws in summoning to his presence the spirit of Samuel the prophet. The prophet had conferred the kingdom upon him and had, in anger, taken it away because of Sauls trespass against the word of the Lord. The woman cried out in terror when she saw a godlike being appear before her. Samuel was in the guise of an old man dressed in a robe, and his first words to Saul were words of rebuke: Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?
Samuel had presumably been summoned from Sheol, the final resting place of all the dead, high born and low born, rich and poor, kings; and commoners. On being summoned up by the woman of Endor, Samuel apparently became aware of his surroundings and of the king who sought his counsel. Until that moment the dead Samuel had been in a state of unconsciousness, forgetfulness, and silence. The dead shall not praise thee nor those who descend into silence, wrote the psalmist, for those who completed their earthly span were assigned to a slumbering eternity, denied communion with God, and protected from intrusion by biblical legislation against recourse to sorcerers and diviners. The author of the 139th Psalm tells us that there is no escape from the spirit of God even in Sheol, but Gods spirit could bring no animation to the countless generations doomed to an everlasting quiet. Surely there was nothing attractive to the living in the future that lay before them after death. It was but an empty, unenviable eternity devoid of meaning and irrelevant to life. …
Jerome R. Malino is rabbi of the United Jewish Center of Danbury, Connecticut.
On Life and Death and Immortality by James Peter Warbasse
Recalling our knowledge of biology and physics, the substances of which the human body is comprised are elusive materials. They have been thought of as solid with volume and ponderability; but, as we look into the starry heavens with the eye of the physicist, we realize that substance is about as solid and ponderable as the universe itself, with each solid element composed of universes within universes, the ultimate of which still eludes the conception of substance. Modern science finds the smallest known material thing, the atom, is a universe within which electrons, protons, and neutrons swirl about in orbits comparable to the orbits of the heavenly bodies—a vast constellation which, when reduced to categorical terms, is a collection of forces, electrical in nature. What space they fill and what ponderability they exhibit reside in their power of electric attraction and repulsion and in the waves and substance they emit. Disorder in the constituent forces of the atom, like disorder in the cells of the animal, can result in its destruction. In the case of a certain disorder or disease affecting the integrity of the atom, a veritable hell is to pay—or Hiroshima, at least. It suffers violent death. In the loss of health in the animal body, the event may not be cataclysmic, but it might mean the loss of Einstein, Newton, or Galileo—perhaps even more calamitous. Just what is death? In current terms, the world over …
The late James Peter Warbasse was a surgeon and also president of the Rochdale Institute.
The Problem of Religious Inquiry by Henry Nelson Wieman
Religious thought today is undergoing profound reconstruction because human existence is undergoing revolutionary transformation. Rarely in human history has this combination of fluidity in religious thought and transformation of human existence been so propitious for creative developments in the field of religious inquiry.
A problem can be discussed profitably only if there is agreement on what the problem is. When there is no agreement on the issues to be discussed, the interchange resolves into confusion and controversy. Religious discussion in great part has been of this sort because the participants are not concerned with the same questions. Some are concerned with what transcends all of time and space, others with a cosmic process that pervades all of time and space, still others with human ideals, still others with interpretation of the Bible, and still others with the nature of human existence.
The basic religious problem is commonly interpreted in such a way as to make these areas exclusive of one another so that the several fields of inquiry become controversial rather than contributory to one another. Searching what transcends all of time and space for answer to the religious question yields a very different answer from searching the fullness of all time and space, which is called the total cosmic process. Searching human ideals yields a very different answer from the two just mentioned; whereas if we search actual human existence as the only area where the answer can be found, what is found in the other three areas cannot be the answer sought. Human existence versus human ideals yields different answers depending on whether we search ideal possibility or the existential condition.
In considering these five different areas where answer to the religious question is sought, the case of the Bible is different from the others. If it is studied merely as one source of information, making a subordinate contribution along with other sources in solving the religious problem, it need not be considered as authoritative. When it is accepted as the supreme authority, its message must be constantly reinterpreted as our knowledge is expanded and our valuing consciousness is transformed.
The remaining four areas of inquiry—transcendence, cosmic process, ideals, and the creativity in human existence—will yield very different answers. They cannot all be right because they are contrary to one another. If one is accepted as the dominant guide in directing and shaping the thrust of human power, the consequences will determine the fate of man. This is so because power under human control, due to modern technology and techniques of social organization, has become gigantic and rapidly increasing. Consequently its wrong use will produce consequences beyond recovery.
This shows the paramount importance of religious inquiry in our time and consequently the importance of reaching some agreement on what is the central question to be answered and where this answer is to be sought if a true answer is to be found.
The first step in understanding any problem is to understand what generates it. So we ask: What generates the religious problem in the special form it assumes for our time? …
Henry Nelson Wieman is professor emeritus of Christian theology, University of Chicago.
In Genesis we are told that in six days God created the heavens and the earth and all that is contained therein. Naturally the process is described in human terms, for that is all the people of that age could understand. We now know that what happened was far more marvelous. What was created was merely atoms and the laws they obey. But these atoms had almost sublime properties. Under the laws of chance, without external direction, they formed assemblies which had the properties of life. These assemblies of life, again without direction from outside the system of atoms and the laws they obey, evolved step by step into higher forms, reaching finally the stage of man with a brain capable of understanding the laws of nature and using them for the improvement of his own condition and that of his species. The sublimity of this process consists in the fact that the initial creation did not produce definite beings but merely a capacity to be, which would forever lead to the creation of more and more advanced forms of life and social systems. This continuous creation is the objective of life, religion may be considered as mans effort to take part in this eternal process, and science supplies the methods by which that can be done.
H. B. Phillips was formerly professor and chairman of the department of mathematics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was one of the founders of IRAS.