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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?

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Posted by Philocrites, October 30, 1997, at 05:00 PM

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