Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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John Dewey (1859-1952)
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. [1]

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 incontestable truth.

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. [2]

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 way.

  3. 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 individual essence. 

    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 remain constant.

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 in.

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 system?

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 personal matters.

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 meaningful terms.

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.
[1] The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Collier-Macmillan, 1967
[2] The Quest for Certainty quoted by John Macquarrie in Twentieth-Century Religious Thought, SCM Press, 1963

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