One of the notions most precious to Christians is that they have
access to a level of truth not available to others. Their ultimate truths
may not be provable or even arguable - but they are confirmed by faith.
The doctrine that Christian truths have been revealed by God to those
with faith has been at issue since the earliest times. But it took John
Dewey and others to question the very possibility that truth is
available to anyone at all as something static and final, in some sense
perfect and eternal.
Dewey was born in Burlington, Vermont, in the United States. Reading
was his favourite past-time since he was somewhat shy in early life. He
did not shine at school and was uncertain about what to do with his life
when he graduated from Vermont University.
At first he taught at a school in Oil City, Pennsylvania, before
borrowing $500 from an aunt to begin a professional career in philosophy
at John Hopkins University. By 1904 when he moved from Chicago to
Columbia University he already had a sound nationwide reputation for his
work in philosophy and education. R J Bernstein writes that later
Wherever Dewey lectured he had an enormous influence ... [which]
extended not only to his colleagues but to leaders in almost every
field ... more than any other American of his time, Dewey expressed
the deepest hopes and aspirations of his fellow man ... [through] a
rare combination of acuteness, good sense, imagination, and wit.
Dewey's stroke of imagination was to put aside the suggestion that
truth is derived from propositions. Ever since Pythagoras, philosophers
had held that certain mathematical statements are perfectly true. For
example, once you and I realise that 2 + 2 = 4 it becomes an obviously
Dewey was influenced at first by G W F Hegel who thought knowledge an
organic whole of which no part is perfect until the whole is complete.
But he could not follow Hegel's proposal that there is an Absolute or
eternal world other than the one we know by experience. For Dewey, the
object of knowledge is the ordinary world as we know it. Truth is
"instrumental" because it helps us cope with this real world.
Dewey held that our task is to enquire into new possibilities in our
environment, and to continually test accepted ideas, values and
institutions. The final test is usefulness, not abstract coherence.
To abandon the search for absolute and immutable reality and value
may seem like a sacrifice. But this renunciation is the condition of
entering upon a vocation of greater vitality. 
If Dewey's approach is developed into a working system, the basic
tenets of traditional Christianity are put under considerable strain.
To take a particularly testing instance, few Christians would deny
that murder is always wrong. If asked why that should be so, responses
might range from quoting the Ten Commandments to citing the Golden Rule,
or both. Thus murder might be understandable or even justifiable in some
exceptional circumstances - but it is always morally wrong.
Dewey and pragmatists like him would put this sort of absolute to the
test in three ways:
This reasoning (if reasoning it is) distorts the very nature of
human experience. We are beings who act. Thought is of little value
until transformed into actions. It is pointless to drum up ring-fenced
propositions and then claim to have discovered truths. Nothing is true
until acted upon.
To take an extreme example, consider the efficacy of prayer. It is
supposed to be a primary way for Christians to practice their faith.
Dewey would suggest that prayers for the sick are of no account until
the praying person does something for a sick person. Until then,
prayer remains merely a thought in a person's head.
His suggestion seems correct of the face of it. But some propose
that the point of prayer is not to do something "out there"
(for example, influence God in some way or other). Its purpose is to
do something "in here" - that is, to condition or influence the
praying person so that when we do encounter a sick person, we will be
motivated to care for him or her. Prayer as it were fixes actions in
us, making it more likely that we will
act when the appropriate time comes.
To claim that one has access to truths which can combine into a
unified system called "the truth" is to bay for the moon. Life
consists of overlapping contexts, each of which has its own unique
validity. To suggest, for example, that music isn't "true" until we
have analysed it down to the last harmony is plainly nonsensical.
One implication is that claims by Christians to have answers for every
human situation are grossly overblown. Life is not like that.
Experience is organic, not a patterned response to immutable laws,
whether or not so-called divine in origin.
If Dewey is correct in this, then a contention that a person can
come to God only through Jesus of Nazareth is highly suspect. Life is
too complex for this to be true. Christianity may be one
way to (as it were) meet God - but the complex, intertwined nature
of the world indicates that it is unlikely to be the only
We are all faced every day by unresolved situations. To begin
to resolve them requires that we use the rich corporate fund of
experience available to our society. In addition, modern people have
the experimental methods of the sciences to help make sense of the
blooming, buzzing confusion we call life. Cultural wisdom and
experiment both involve a process of practical inquiry through which
we formulate provisional solutions to life's problems.
It is plainly false, therefore, to suppose that there are ready-made
answers lying around for us to discover and use. Inquiry must use
social experience - but no knowledge is absolutely fixed. It is all
open to be criticised, revised or even abandoned.
For example, the claim made by the Church that truths formulated 1
500 years ago in Turkey by Paul of Tarsus must be applied to each and
every culture throughout the rest of time and space starts to fall
part if this is correct. Each society brings to truth its own
Therefore each time a Christian doctrine is absorbed by a new
culture, it is bound to metamorphose into something different. That's
how truths come about, says Dewey. Moreover, no truth is likely to
remain constant in either expression or meaning over great stretches
of time. The nature of society is that it changes constantly,
sometimes fast, sometimes slowly. But it does not
Dewey wrote about many aspects of modern American life, including
art, logic, education, democracy, ethics and social philosophy. Looking
back over more than fifty years, it is clear that his outlook has
mutated and developed considerably.
If anything, the ground upon
which he built his pragmatic system has become less solid, more shifting
and uncertain. The basics of human experience are now too complex to
provide the kind of ground for pragmatic truth that Dewey hoped for.
Psychologically, it is now recognised that human beings are not
predictable. While some broad aspects of behaviour are shared by most
people, the variations on established social norms are significant. And
when it comes down to the more subtle aspects of each unique person,
predictability flies out of the door.
In other words, the
"experience" on which Dewey based his views may be too varied and
idiosyncratic to be of great practical use. There is no such unified thing
as generalised "experience" upon which to base one's understanding of the
world. If there is such a basis, then perhaps what we generally term
"science" is the closest we can get to it.
The social wisdom and
norms through which each of us is supposed to gain knowledge of reality
has, if anything, become even more shifting and uncertain than the
psychological arena. Social change is now so rapid that the social
"knowledge" of one decade may not be entirely useful in the next. Far from
being a reasonably solid and enduring guide to human experience, social
wisdom is now too impermanent for us to place more than a temporary trust
It could be said that as much change has come about in the 20th
century as in the previous 500 years. Nevertheless, each of us still copes
with the world using experience collated into "social wisdom". But who is
to say which era provides the sort of social wisdom which can be called
knowledge? Why, for example, should the social experience of democracy be
intrinsically more true than social experience enshrined in a monarchical
Dewey proposed that scientific experimentation provides us
with a way of clarifying our experience, of reducing or eliminating
inbuilt biases and misconceptions about reality. Insofar as it does this
it can be taken as a good guide to truth in a wide range of social and
He could not have foreseen that our understanding
of science, and therefore of objective truth itself, would be radically
transformed only a few years after his death. Thomas Kuhn and others have
pointed out that science comprises paradigms rather than permanent truths.
No set of evidence is ever complete or final, since the very way we
perceive it can change overnight.
So, for example, Einstein's
insights into the nature of the universe now allow us to perceive the
world in a way which both incorporates and yet entirely supercedes the
older Newtonian paradigm. Newton's gravitational laws still work, but they
make sense only in the wider context of Einstein's General Theory of
Relativity. In other words, even the apparently solid "facts" of science
shift and change depending on the ways in which we perceive reality. It is
now being recognised that even Einstein's paradigms are likely to be
superceded (but not necessarily modified, just as he superceded but did
not modify Newton).
Despite this, Dewey and his acolytes
successfully restated the ancient idea that there is no such thing as
absolute truth, that we have only provisional conclusions upon which to
base our behavioural choices. What works today may not work tomorrow. What
seems obvious today may be superceded by another, equally obvious, way of
perceiving our world.
The increasingly widespread understanding of
truth as shifting and impermanent does not please those for whom Christian
tradition is an anchor against flux and uncertainty. They tend to bewail
what they perceive as an ongoing precipitous slide into relativism and
scepticism in the West.
On the one hand are those seeking refuge in what they broadly term
"faith" - by which they appear to mean that certain Christian traditions
must be held as absolutely true. On the other hand, Christians who
immerse themselves in contemporary thought and who understand thinkers
like Dewey find it difficult to reframe traditional teaching in
Given the nature of both science and the societies in which it
flourishes, many now think that only a radically reframed Christian view
of the world will survive in the long run. If Dewey is correct, this is
a distinct possibility.
 The Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
 The Quest for Certainty quoted by John Macquarrie in
Twentieth-Century Religious Thought, SCM Press, 1963