Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Visit from John Dewey

On June 7, 2013, John Dewey (as portrayed by yours truly donning fake mustache and academic robe) visited our congregation and shared his views about religion and faith.  I composed this using information from his life and his own words selected from his book A Common Faith, published in 1934.  In the following "speech" I have not highlighted or differentiated words I've added for transitions, etc.  Most of these are Dewey's words.  Others that I've added for introductions or transitions will be pretty obvious!  So with those disclosures, may I introduce philosopher, psychologist, and educator extraordinaire --- (and a personal hero) --- Professor John Dewey.

Good Morning and thank you for inviting me here to speak to you today concerning a topic that is significantly important.  First of all, I need to disclose to those of you who may want to claim me as a Unitarian that I never joined your group, although many of my friends were Unitarians.  I did tell my wife, however, to call the Reverend Donald Harrington, a Unitarian minister and a friend, when I died.  She did and also requested that my friend, Max Otto, a Unitarian philosopher, be the speaker at my Memorial service which was held at a Unitarian church.  So I guess you may be able to claim me in death if not in life. 

Now just because I did not claim a particular religion at the time of my death does not mean that I was not a religious man.  I was certainly raised to be religious.  Oh, you may be interested in knowing that my father was raised as a Unitarian and my mother was raised as a Universalist.  They became Congregationalists, though, and I was raised in a strict Congregationalist household. 

As a faculty member at the Universities of Minnesota and Michigan, I led Bible Study groups and contributed articles to the Congregationalists’ magazine, the Andover Review.  If you look at my early writings on ethics, psychology, and social psychology you will see references to Christ and Christianity.  But in my early 30's I began moving from Christianity to a different kind of faith which I will discuss with you today.  I still used religious language in my writings, however, and many believe that enabled me to communicate with a public that would have been turned off by a more aggressively secular or skeptical writer. 

Although ideas about my faith were sprinkled or implied in other writings, I addressed these more directly in this little book. A Common Faith, published in 1934.  I’m pleased to say that it is still in print!  Now you will note in this book and in my remarks today that I do not use the gender neutral terminology that you all are careful to use today.  However, I applaud your efforts in this regard. 
If I could stay with you longer, I might be able to make that transition.  For as you can see, I have already made the transition to talking with a southern accent.

In any case . . . When I wrote this book I saw mankind divided into two camps regarding religion. 
You may say that it seems that way today as well.  Religions have traditionally been allied with ideas of the supernatural, and often have been based upon explicit supernatural beliefs.  There were many people then, as there are today, who hold that nothing worthy of being called religious is possible apart from the supernatural. They vary in their doctrines and creeds.  But they agree in the necessity for a Supernatural Being and for an immortality that is beyond the power of nature. 

The opposing group consists of those who think the advance of culture and science has completely discredited the supernatural and with is all religions that were allied with belief in it.  But they go beyond this point.  The extremists in this group believe that with elimination of the supernatural - not only must historic religions be dismissed but with them everything of a religious nature.

So you have these two groups who differ greatly.  But, there is one idea held in common by these two opposite groups: identification of the religious with the supernatural.  Now in my book and in our discussion today, I shall develop another conception of the nature of the religious phase of experience, one that separates it from the supernatural and the things that have grown up around the supernatural. The heart of this conception is that there is a difference between a religion and the religious; between anything that may be denoted by a noun and the quality of experience that is designated by an adjective.

I do not suppose for many minds the dislocation of the religious from a religion is easy to effect. 
Tradition and custom, especially when emotionally charged, are part of the habits that have become one with our very being.  For a moment, let’s drop the term religious and think about how we accommodate, adapt, and adjust to various life circumstances.  We accommodate ourselves to various changes in the weather.  Plays in a foreign language are “adapted” to meet the needs of an American audience.  But there are also adjustments in ourselves in relation to the world in which we live that are much more inclusive and deep seated.  It is the claim of religions that they effect this generic and enduring change in attitude.  I should like to turn the statement around and say that whenever this change takes place there is a definitely religious attitude.  It is not a religion that brings it about,but when it occurs, from whatever cause and by whatever means,there is a religious outlook and function. 

Now most of you know how important education is to me.  And I believe that understanding and knowledge also enter into a perspective that is religious in quality.  You see, faith in the continued disclosing of truth through directed cooperative human endeavor is more religious in quality than is any faith in a completed revelation. 

Of course most religions now hold that revelation is not completed in the sense of being ended. 
But religions hold that the essential framework is settled in its significant moral features at least, and that new elements that are offered must be judged by conforming to this framework.  Some fixed doctrinal apparatus is necessary for a religion.  But faith in the possibilities of continued and rigorous inquiry does not limit access to truth to any channel or scheme of things.  It does not first say that truth is universal and then add there is but one road to it.  It trusts that the natural interactions between man and his environment will breed more intelligence and generate more knowledge provided the scientific methods that define intelligence in operation are pushed further into the mysteries of the world, being themselves promoted and improved in the operation.

There is such a thing as faith in intelligence becoming religious in quality – a fact that perhaps explains the efforts of some religionists to disparage the possibilities of intelligence as a force.  They properly feel such faith to be a dangerous rival.  Yes, the mind of man is being habituated to a new method and idea: What is the way to truth? It’s the road of patient, cooperative inquiry operating by means of observation, experiment, record and controlled reflection. 

Now you might point to some aspect of our world that science has not explained and contend that this is evidence of the supernatural. The argument that because some province or aspect of experience
has not yet been “invaded” by scientific methods,it is not subject to them, is as old as it is dangerous. Time and time again, in some particular reserved field, it has been invalidated. 

It is more to the present point, however, to consider the region that is claimed by religionists as a special reserve.  It is mystical experience.  What of mystical experience? There is no reason for denying the existence of experiences that are called mystical.  On the contrary, there is every reason to suppose that, in some degree of intensity, they occur so frequently that they may be regarded as normal manifestations that take place at certain rhythmic points in the movement of experience.  But there is no more reason for converting the experience itself into an immediate knowledge of its cause than is the case of an experience of lightning or any other natural occurrence. 
It is sometimes held that beliefs about religious matters are symbolic, like rites and ceremonies.  This view may be better than that which insists upon a literal understanding of all religious texts.  But as usually put forward it suffers from an ambiguity.  Of what are the beliefs symbols?  For example, historic personages, such as Jesus or Mohammed, in their divine attributes may be said to be symbolic of the ideals that enlist devotion and inspire endeavor.  But, the ideal values that are symbolized by them may also mark human experience in science and art and the various modes of human association: they mark almost everything in life that rises from manipulations of things as they currently exist.

Now many admit that the objects of religion are ideal in contrast with our present state.  What would be lost if it were also admitted that the reason they have authoritative claim upon conduct is because they are ideal?  The assumption that these objects of religion exist already in some realm of Being seems to add nothing to their force, while it weakens their claim over us as ideals, in so far as it bases that claim upon matters that are intellectually dubious. 

What I’m trying to get to – is the need for God.  We need God because we need the ideals.  But do we need the Being?

So what do we mean by the word God? On one score, the word can mean only a particular Being. 
On the other score, it denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions. 
(I realize that sometimes my explanations can be a little dense.)
What I have been criticizing, though, is the identification of the ideal with a particular Being, especially when that identification makes necessary the conclusion that this Being is outside of nature, and what I have tried to show is that the idea itself has its roots in natural conditions;
it emerges when the imagination idealizes existence by laying hold of the possibilities offered to thought and action.  The aims and ideals that move us are generated through imagination. 
But they are not made out of imaginary stuff.  They are made out of the hard stuff of the world of physical and social experience.  The locomotive did not exist before Stevenson, nor the telegraph before the time of Morse.  But the conditions for their existence were there in physical material and energies and in human capacity.  Imagination seized hold upon the idea of a rearrangement of existing things that would evolve new objects. 

Moreover, the process of creation is experimental and continuous.  The artist, scientist, or good citizen depends upon what others have done before him and are doing around him.  All of these considerations may be applied to the idea of God, or, to avoid misleading conceptions, to the idea of the divine.  All of these ideals are further unified by the action that gives them coherence and solidity.  It is this active relation between ideal and actual to which I would give the name “God.”  I would not insist that the name must be given.  However, in a distracted age, the need for such an idea is urgent.  It can unify interests and energies now dispersed; it can direct action and generate the heat of emotion and the light of intelligence.  Whether one give the name “God” to this union,  operative in thought and action, is a matter for individual decision.  But the function of such a working union of the ideal and actual seems to me to be identical with the force that has in fact been attached to the conception of God in all religions that have a spiritual content; and a clear idea of that function seems to me urgently needed at the present time. 

This focus on God as defined in this manner, may also decentralize the focus on man.  Both supernaturalism and militant atheism tend to downplay or denigrate nature and emphasize mankind. 
A humanistic religion, if it excludes our relation to nature, is pale and thin, as it is presumptuous, when it takes mankind as an object of worship. 

You may ask, why not just declare as our faith -  “Agnosticism?” Agnosticism is a shadow cast by the eclipse of the supernatural.  Of course, acknowledgment that we do not know what we do not know
 is a necessity of all intellectual integrity.  But generalized agnosticism is only a halfway elimination of the supernatural.  Its meaning departs when the intellectual outlook is directed wholly to the natural world.  When it is so directed, there are plenty of particular matters regarding which we must say we do not know; we only inquire and form hypotheses which future inquiry will confirm or reject.  But such doubts are an incident of faith in the method of intelligence.  They are signs of faith, not of a pale and impotent skepticism.

If you hear nothing else today, hear this:

We doubt in order that we may find out, not because some inaccessible supernatural lurks behind whatever we can know. 

Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.  These are all the elements for a religious faith that shall not be confined to sect, class, or race.  This is a positive, practical, and dynamic faith, verified and supported by the intellect and evolving with the progress of social and scientific knowledge. 

And, SUCH - A - FAITH has always been implicitly the common faith of mankind. 

Thank You!