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Thursday, October 30, 1997

The religious availability of John Dewey's God.

Alfred North Whitehead comments famously in Science and the Modern World that Aristotle's doctrine of the Prime Mover "did not lead him very far towards the production of a God available for religious purposes" (173). The same charge has, of course, been leveled at Whitehead and at other philosophers bold enough to propose metaphysical descriptions of God. People often complain that philosophers present too complex a picture of God, but Whitehead cautions that it may be the very simplicity of modernist notions of God that thwarts the religious response. "As a rebound from dogmatic intolerance, the simplicity of religious truth has been a favorite axiom of liberalizing theologians," he writes in Religion in the Making. "It is difficult to understand upon what evidence this notion is based . . . To reduce religion to a few simple notions seems an arbitrary solution to the problem before us. It may be common sense; but is it true?" (73-74). Whitehead spoke these words in 1926 in King's Chapel, the venerable Unitarian church in Boston. Early twentieth-century Unitarians were undoubtedly vulnerable to the charge of proceeding by a process of theological subtraction, boiling their religion down into what one Unitarian Universalist has called "wholesome abstraction."

Whitehead's contemporary, John Dewey, also identifies a weakness in the tendency among liberal theologians to reduce religion to a simple foundation. In A Common Faith (1934), Dewey writes, "There is much talk, especially in liberal circles, of religious experience as vouching for the authenticity of certain beliefs and the desirability of certain practices . . . It is even asserted that religious experience is the ultimate basis of religion itself" (10). But whereas Whitehead draws attention to the metaphysical characteristics of a God available to the modern mind, Dewey draws attention to the pragmatic value of a modern notion of God for an increasingly secular culture. Rejecting a supernatural or ontologically prior God, Dewey defines God as the "unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and to action" (42). So we must ask: Is Dewey's God available for religious purposes?

The collapse of belief in a traditional God poses a serious dilemma for Western civilization. Dewey observes that a growing number of educated people "think the advance of culture and science has completely discredited the supernatural and with it all religions that were allied with belief in it" (1). The danger here is not the loss of the supernatural: Dewey considers the concept of the supernatural — that which stands outside the natural world — to be the defining limitation of traditional Western faith. Rather, the danger is that everything understood to accompany belief in the supernatural — "everything of a religious nature" — may also be dismissed by thinking people. As the scientific worldview takes more and more of the world into consideration, the arena for knowledge of the supernatural shrinks first to the world of the purely subjective and private experience of individuals, and eventually into vacuity as psychology and physiology overtake even this arena. If everything traditionally associated with the supernatural — the virtues, the moral traditions, the arts and contemplative sensitivities, indeed, even the institutions of the church and synagogue — cannot be liberated from the sinking ship of supernaturalism, then Western civilization will lose much of its depth and vision.

Dewey proposes two basic reformulations to aid the renewal of the religious dimension in modern life. The first reformulation is a careful analysis of the word "religion" itself. "There is no such thing as religion in the singular," he writes; "There is only a multitude of religions" (7). Each religion involves its own beliefs, practices, and institutional forms, and each religion describes religious experiences in particular ways — with such variety, in fact, that Dewey believes a comparative study will reveal no beliefs, practices, or forms common to all religions. Each religion accommodates or acknowledges only certain experiences as properly religious.

The decay of Christianity and Judaism among educated people is partly due to the fact that these religions "now prevent . . . the religious quality of experience from coming to consciousness and finding the expression that is appropriate to present conditions, intellectual and moral" (9). Dewey distinguishes a religion (with its specific content and recognizable religious experiences) from the religious, which is an attitude that can characterize any human experience. The distinction is important because Dewey rejects the liberal Christian notion that there is such a thing as a specific kind of experience which is religious experience. Any experience can be religious, not by virtue of its content but rather by "having the force of bringing about a better, deeper and enduring adjustment in life" (14). Dewey clearly approaches the problem of religious experience from the American pragmatist tradition of assessing ideas for their efficacy in life. (William James is of course famous for examining the "varieties of religious experience," but he also emphasizes the difference each experience makes instead of emphasizing the conceptual truth or content of those experiences.) This shift from assessing the intellectual content per se to assessing the overall qualitative effect of an idea in life is also characteristic of Dewey's second reformulation.

Dewey also reformulates the idea of God. Because the rise of modern science has undermined the credibility of the two great Western faiths, he looks to science for a clue to this new reformulation. Science, he observes, is a method and not a body of doctrine. "There is but one sure road of access to truth — the road of patient, cooperative inquiry operating by means of observation, experiment, record and controlled reflection" (32). Any particular conclusion made along the way may be discarded as new occasions demand without challenging the soundness of the method of inquiry. Religious questions, according to Dewey, ought also be pursued using the explorative methods of science. Our loyalty belongs properly to a method, not to a set of conclusions. This method is cooperative, critical, empirical, experimental, and reflective. It steadfastly rejects a settled content for religious truth. But God remains the object of faith, even though a modern faith as Dewey describes it avoids treating the object of faith like a thing. God is an ideal, or, properly speaking, the "unity of loyalty and effort evoked by the fact that many ends are one in the power of their ideal, or imaginative, quality to stir and hold us" (43).

Dewey does not follow Whitehead in treating ideals as metaphysically real; instead, he simply proposes that the possibilities available to us can take on the quality of the ideal. "Things unrealized in fact," which "come home to us and have power to stir us," are ideals (43); the ideal "emerges when the imagination idealizes existence by laying hold of the possibilities offered to thought and action" (48). In other words, as the religious qualities of various experiences yield imaginative ideals that animate life, the imagination also responds to those ideals. This ideal quality of our imaginative ideals, as it were, arouses our hope and excitement and draws us forward through the imagination into new or renewed ways of living. The response to the ideal is worship.

The style of empiricism that enables one to speak of an ideal, non-supernatural, non-ontological God gathers its ideals from a humble test: when people sense that the value of an experience exceeds what has gone before, they also sense the possibility of betterment generally. So long as the lure of continued advance and continued cultivation of human goods obtains, there will be continuing grounds for the idealization of God. Only a breakdown of confidence in the possibility of expanding the good threatens this view.

It is important to note that Dewey's empirical faith requires confidence in the ability of human beings to recognize and revere the grand moments in all of human experience, and to carry forward those processes apparent in the accomplishments of the human past. Without a sense of history, all novelty would appear trivial; with a sense of history, however, novelty stands in relation to past accomplishment and can be valued progressively. Because the past yields evidence for the emergence of new value — in the continual emergence of artistic creativity, scientific curiosity, and even in new human relationships — one may even continue to draw from the religious traditions of the past insofar as one treats their conceptualizations and practices as embodying the process of cultivating the ideal. The past cannot be viewed as the repository of final truths, but as the fertile ground of emergent ideals and accomplishment on which we build. Dewey's method invites modern people to sympathize not with worn-out doctrines but with the sense of something greater-yet-to-come which has enlivened every human accomplishment.


Written for Unitarian Universalist Theologies, Paul Rasor, Andover-Newton Theological School, October 30, 1997. This essay is the intellectual property of Christopher L. Walton and must be fully and properly cited when used as a source in your own writing or you are committing plagiarism. The proper citation is:

Walton, Christopher L. "The Religious Availability of John Dewey's God." Philocrites. 30 Oct. 1997. <>.

Works cited

John Dewey. A Common Faith. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1934.

William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Longmans, Green, 1902; Modern Library, 1994.

Alfred North Whitehead. Religion in the Making. New York: Macmillan, 1926.

———. Science and the Modern World. Lowell Lectures. New York: Macmillan, 1925.

Copyright © 1997 by Philocrites | Posted 30 October 1997 at 5:00 PM

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