Howard L. Parsons on Naturalist vs. Supernationalist Perspectives on Value

The question of significance or value for man in his cosmic setting is the question of the great religions. This is man's "ultimate concern." Tillich uses the term "being grasped" to characterize the state of faith or ultimate concern, an essential, necessary, and universal condition of man. [36] In principle I can accept this. But Tillich does not analyze what it is we are and ought to be grasped by. Indeed, he puts it beyond observation all form, space, and time. Moreover, he holds that man can do nothing about acquiring or influencing this ultimate concern. [37] Tillich, like Barth and others, is reacting to the extreme modern view that man is independent in his nature and creates his own values: he insists on the objectivity of value and God. Modern man follows in the tradition of the medieval mystics and idealists like Schleiermacher (who is both medieval and modern, since he puts God in the soul via "experience"). But once God then is located in man, there is no longer any need for the traditional term, and so modern thought tends to become anthropological—nach Art von Feuerbach—rather than theological. Yet a full anthropology, which sees man in society, history, and nature, in the full stretch of space and time, might bring modern humanism to affirm, in a new and qualified way, some of the assertions of ancient religion.

What am I "grasped" by, what am I dependent on, at the deepest root of my being? What stands under me there, that I may understand as the ground of my stance? I am grasped by the chair I sit in, the terrain I walk on, the gravitational field that holds me in place. I am grasped by my children, my wife, my parents and grandparents, my friends and enemies, my fellow citizens, and indeed the whole vast complex of this onrolling system of the human species, life, and, in its ever-widening horizons that escape the eye, nature. If deity is what ultimately grasps me, it must be this, or something intimately related to this—as Bruno and Spinoza saw. When the prophets spoke with flaming judgment and tenderest compassion, they evoked these concrete relations of man to man and man's duty in them and betrayal of them. And Jesus divided the sheep from the goats accordingly:

For when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger you took me into your home, when naked you clothed me; when I was ill you came to my help, when in prison you visited me. [38]

Instead of choosing between extreme subjective or objective views of man and value (spiritualism or materialism, as erstwhile conceived) or extreme religious views (modern individualistic humanism or neo‑orthodoxy), we can and ought to pursue and develop the interactional, dialectical view of man and value. In this, deity can then be variously defined: as those invariant conditions which make possible the creation of value; as the generic structure of all values; or as the power (process) by which values are generated in a way in which man cannot foresee or control.

We owe it to a naturalistic philosopher of religion, Henry N. Wieman, for calling our attention to this latter concept. [39] Historically, the gods have been seen as powers that work good in ways that we cannot, as when a poet like Lucretius, praying to "life‑giving Venus . . . the guiding power of the universe," calls upon her for inspiration. [40] Are there such powers? Of course there are; but our modern empirical Humean eye, so sharp and clever, has led us to miss them. When I write, swim, or love, they come into play. We must look to the passive voice in grammar for indications that it is not subjectively deliberate action that determines our actions altogether. "I am being written"; "I am in swimming"; "I am in love—loving, being loved." By the unconscious movements of glands, reflexes, nerves, muscles, bones, pen, paper, water, air, etc., I (as will and intelligence) am enabled to contribute what I can to the organization of the whole complex. In love I experience perhaps insights and new mutualizing relations that I did not plan on or desire. In solitude, where social relations are internalized, profound transformations may occur, as in Tolstoy's great story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. These transformations may not always be of value. Indeed, demonic unconscious powers may be at work, as Baudelaire recognized in that "special satanic grace" of the painter Brueghel. [41] But if they are of value, shall we not say they are divine activities? And if evil, then demonic? Of course we can control such activities, within limits, though history tells of some men and women "possessed" by them. Even Socrates speaks of the divinity within him, "which is a kind of voice" and first came to him as a child. [42] We can prevent ourselves, at least to some degree, from participating in the creativity that works, in love or in art, when conditions are right—or we can consciously promote it. But because participation is a transaction, we cannot, as the medieval alchemist would, extract gold out of lead or give up what we have without first being given to. The divine, as Martin Buber has reminded us, is most likely to be found between man and man—and, we should add, between man and nature and man and the movement of nature. Once insights and relations have emerged in man—as they may in solitude, where social relations still are—we still can cherish or reject them, develop or suppress them. Man rises or falls as he works or does not work with such creativity.

Man is ultimately concerned about both life and death; he seeks the partnership of the gods and fights the powers of darkness. In his traditional religious orientation the balance of this concern shifted toward death and warding off its threats; in the modern view, the balance has shifted toward life and securing its promises. This does not mean that religion is born of fear and that when fear dies religion dies. It means only that the specific character of man's generic concern has changed from ancient times to the modern period.

So far as we know man is the only being who ceremonializes the fact of death. [43] He is the only being who shows sharp awareness of individuality, time, fulfillment, mystery, dependency, and death, and who endeavors to cope with the anxiety engendered by this awareness. He is the only religious animal; for religion is just this awareness at the level of deep concern, and man's reaction to it. It is false to say that such awareness, intermixed as it is with anxiety, is neurotic and illusory. Neuroses, which appear in every culture, naturally appear in religion, as they do in many phenomena of human existence. Man responds religiously to his condition when he puts his whole being in question and asks for the significance of his existence. He puts it into question and seeks an answer because he can signify to himself his own limits—in his knowledge, in his values, in his uncertain identity, in his smallness, in his loneliness and estrangement, in his frustration, in his impotence, in his change, in his old age and death, in his bereavement of loved ones and precious values. The traditional religious way of coping with such anxiety has called for belief in an individual soul, in the immortality of the soul, and in supernatural beings. (Gautama rejected these, and Jesus made them secondary; but religions have a way of not following their founders.) A scientific attitude does not as such dissolve this awareness; it only proposes to deal with it by understanding and control of natural things, events, and orders for the sake of human value. Such control, however, does not mean loss of nurturing contact with the world. On the contrary, it means opening windows upon that world, and walking out to meet it, and entering into personal relations with it, in such ways that what was otherwise dark now yields us strength, joy, and ecstasy. Most of traditional religion has confounded man's dependency on the capricious forces of nature and despotic social systems with superstitious ideas and myths. Most religious thought has deepened the darkness of man's natural and social enslavement. A humanistic science dispels that darkness by the light of knowledge. It proceeds in the spirit of Shakespeare: "there is no darkness but ignorance." But, as for Shakespeare, understanding and control do not diminish the sense of dependency, finitude, and wonder.

What is the origin of the awareness of which we speak? To seek the answer to this question is to seek what man is. The answer given by the traditional religions and cultures is that since man is oriented to a supernatural order his essence or "spirit" must be supernatural—and thus cannot be dependent on the body. That is why during the middle ages the Christian religion, like the Greek and Egyptian before it, forbade anatomical studies, and why, during the late middle ages when dissection was allowed on strangled prisoners, the subject's head was removed first—since the brain was held to be the seat of the soul—and the physician did not touch the body but instead read from Galen as the parts of the body were exposed by a servant. [44] The error here was to conclude that since man believes in spirits, he must be spiritual—or, as Plato put it, since man has ideas (like mathematical notions) that are not embodied, man must be a non‑bodily spirit. The error persisted (and still persists) until it became plain that sign‑processes constitute the underlying mechanism of all "spiritual" processes and states (memories, dreams, visions, voices, etc.); and that these arise in‑the‑body‑in‑transaction-with-things‑and‑persons. The slow discovery that mind or personality (anima, spirit, soul) is a natural activity occurring in space and time and subject to observation and analysis—a discovery accelerated about 1900, with Freud, Pavlov, Külpe, and Watson—ranks with the discovery of Wöhler in 1828 that organic compounds can be made out of inorganic molecules. Just as living forms are unique structurings of non‑living forms and thus function uniquely, so the human form is a unique structuring of living forms and functions uniquely.

Man, as we have said, is a symbolizing being. To symbolize is to produce signs; and a sign is anything functioning to prepare behavior toward something at the moment not a stimulus. Thus man can symbolize to himself and others things remembered and things anticipated, things past and things to come, things dreaded and things hoped for, deeds done and deeds to be done, persons dead and persons yet unborn, values gone yet recollected in tranquillity, and the vast domain of possibilities that people the romantic imagination—all that might be, that is yearned for, and that may be tragically wept over. Thus man can symbolize his own self, separated from others and the world, integral and untouched; the passage of time, along with his own aging, his passing, and the passing of epochs and worlds; his own possibilities for fulfillment, emptiness, and death; the treacherous stretches of the unknown, within his depths and in the impenetrable beauty, darkness, and doom that surround him; his own transience and weakness as he stands under the starry heavens and sees the galaxies rush outward; and his own swift end and oblivion. The poignancy of these feelings is sharpened by his tender mammalian nature, gentled and nurtured in the bosom of a family, where in childhood time is unending play, and where he is deeply conditioned to develop needs for others in love, leisure, and work. That is why religion, as primitive man's response to these feelings of loneliness in a creature profoundly dependent and interdependent, has postulated father and mother gods in heaven and on earth: they are the man‑child's rock, refuge, and everlasting arms.

The traditional religious response was matured, through centuries of myth and ceremony, to fulfill this deep human need for others. It was effective, in an indirect way, in putting man in touch with the sources of his being. But its mistake lay in a confusion about its symbolization. It mistook things symbolized for thing real, and sought supernatural answers to natural questions. Men have always known what they needed, even if through a glass darkly, but they have not always known how to find it. Moreover, religion became a natural response to an abnormal situation, namely, an oppression on earth that required heavenly gods, both as illusory relief from the oppression and as sanction for it. Religion has been "the spirit of an unspiritual situation." [45]

The blind alley of religious superstition developed not only from man's fears of natural forces and social conditions in class societies but also from man's peculiar biological makeup. The very brain of man makes possible the storage and recall of large amounts of qualities, forms, and symbols as well as, in imagination, seemingly endless combinations of these. Thus man has lived in a greatly inflated symbolic sphere, much more populous with images and symbols than necessary for the meeting of his practical needs and often peopled with imaginary and horrendous beings, terrors, and hopes having no correspondence with the external world. Sensory practice and interaction with the world of existing people and things would test such symbols for their truth; but social convention, vivid imagination, and class structure militated against that. Hence symbols reverberating inside the heads of men proliferated their own internal systems quite apart from the external world. This "supernatural" world of religion, postulated as a real domain beyond the sensible or "mundane" world, has been no more than the world of images and symbols in the big and hyperactive brain of Homo sapiens. But just as some savages do not locate their headaches in their heads, so religious men have not located their symbolic systems inside their skulls and have reified and projected them in the form of a supernatural and alien world. Such men did in fact live in an alienated world of nature and society, but only indirectly perceived and signified that alienation in their symbolic systems.

Where then shall we look for the solution? Moses, Confucius, Gautama, and Jesus were correct in directing men's attention and action to the existential world where men live and move and have their being—to their familial and institutional relations, to their psychological life of motivations and values, and to their relations of dependency and interdependency with their fellow man and nature. But they did not go far enough. They knew nothing of the intricate mechanism of the body and its evolutionary origins in nature, or of its ecological relations to nature. They knew only vaguely, at best, the workings of the unconscious and the import of interpersonal relations for the health of the individual. They knew no science. Moreover, they lived and taught long before modern industry, technology, war, cities, and mass ideological revolutions.

Nevertheless, the historical religions, in the guise of myths, have carried within their traditions the conviction that man lives and lives well within the keeping of powers and relations that make him and give meaning to his existence. These have been located within the depths of man's soul: "Atman is Brahman" [46]; in man's relation to his fellow man: "the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Lord thy God" [47]; and in man's relation to the universe: "only he who makes no distinction between himself and other things and follows the great evolution, can really be independent and “always free.” [48]

If man's spiritual life is natural, the key to man's fulfillment lies in a study and control of his natural activity. If his profound need is for creative interaction and interdependency, detached and attached with others and the rest of nature—then his task and responsibility is to create the conditions by which that creative interaction can be released and fulfilled. If man feels anxious, alone, and impotent, the answer does not lie in the world of symbols abstracted from living intercourse with the world—though this is the answer which the mentally ill give themselves, since the world gives them no answer. The answer lies in a return to the sources of man's creation and growth, i.e., in man's relations to other persons, to nature, and to the whole evolving system which creates man and which he creates. Here man the Evolved Evolver is involved with that wider Evolving in the attitude of both freedom and responsibility. The broad lines of man's fulfillment and commitment are already indicated there. But they demand man's wisdom and courageous action to be made explicit and complete.

Jean‑Paul Sartre expresses a typical modern mood when he writes that the discovery that God does not exist and guarantee values, makes us forlorn. [4]9 How religious this reaction is—or rather, how post‑religious! It assumes the old supernatural posture, in order to reject it. It laments a dead God. It still bears the weight of centuries of the religious superstructure of thought and feeling, even after that weight has been intellectually lifted. For modern man is like a slave, still bent from a burden that he has long since been liberated from.

If God is dead we have nowhere to go for our values except to our own choices; hence the anguish of "choosing all mankind." [50]

But the forlornness of modern man is in a sense the forlornness of historical man, i.e., urbanized man in class society. "Little we see in nature that is ours," said Wordsworth. That is the mood of industrial man, herded together in cities where his instinct of workmanship, his natural dispositions and needs to see and handle and transform natural objects, to deal directly and perceivingly and intimately with others, have been attenuated and starved. (Hence the compulsive, ritualistic cultivation of food and sex and mob activity.) We are forlorn because we have been robbed of our home in nature and society, the home that we grew up in for billions of years. This robbery that class urbanization has committed is compounded by the dissolution of our religious mythologies, which provided, in the absence of pre-historical, pre‑urbanized mythologies, a distorted but still useful orientation to the sources of our being. On top of this, class society has split man down the middle of his being, divorcing him from himself and from even those closest to him in the family. With both Nature and Spirit dead, where shall we turn?

I have already indicated the answer. Sartre's own forlornness and anguish, which are the honestly faced consequences of an almost reckless courage, would be mitigated if he saw man in his natural setting, as a bio‑social‑ecological creature and creator. If we turn to the creativity of man and man, i.e., socialized man, constructing nature to suit his own nature—we shall have our hands more than full, and shall be situated in a place where man is not lost but is found.


36. Dynamics of Faith, New York: Harper, 1958, p. 99.

37. Ibid., pp. 11, 38, 109.

38. Matthew 25: 35‑36. A New English translation.

39. The Source of Human Good. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1946.

40. On the Nature of the Universe, trans. Ronald E. Latham. Baltimore: Penguin, 1951.

41. "The Satanic in Bruegel," Curiosités esthétiques. Paris, 1869.

42. Apology, 31.

43. Clyde Kluckhohn, "Anthropology," in What is Science?, ed. James R. Newman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955, p. 344.

44. Howard W. Haggard, Devils, Drugs, and Doctors. New York: Pocket Books, 1946, p. 149.

45. Karl Marx, Toward the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Feuer. Garden City: Doubleday, 1959, p. 263.

46. More exactly, "Tat tvam asi" (“That art thou!”), in the Chandogya Upanishad, 6.8.6. The Thirteen Principal Upanishads, trans. R. E. Hume. London: Oxford University, 1934, pp. 246 f.

47. I Samuel 25: 29.

48. Hsiang‑Kuo Commentary. Quoted in Fung Yu‑lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy. New York: Macmillan, 1950, p. 229.

49. Existentialism, trans. Bernard Frechtman. New York: Philosophical Library, 1947, p. 25.

50. Ibid., p. 22

SOURCE: Parsons, Howard L. Man East and West: Essays in East-West Philosophy. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1975. xi, 211 pp. (Philosophical Currents; v. 8) This excerpt, pp. 179-185. (Footnotes have been converted to endnotes.)

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