For Dewey and other progressives the Christian faith is both too rigid and inadequate: too rigid to allow for neces- sary adaptation to the changes of circumstances, and its teachings are inadequate to answer these changes. I’m using the present tense because Dewey’s thinking is the thinking of today’s progressives. Don’t think of Dewey solely as an educator. He was in truth intent on bringing a fundamental transformation of our country, one that was at odds with our Founders. In John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America, Tiffany Jones Miller explains some of this contrast.
In the founders’ view, by contrast, the natural rights of the individual correspond to a series of natural duties, the scope of which vary with the social relationship in question. Thus, while parents are obliged to promote the comprehensive good or welfare of their children, and to sacrifice their personal concerns accordingly, the obligations they owe unrelated adults are far more minimal — e.g. to refrain from interfering with their freedom, to honor contracts with them, and, at the out- side, to promote their (mere) preservation. Beyond these duties, individuals are entitled to pursue their own concerns, a right that government, in turn, is obliged to respect. While individuals are free to assume a more robust obligation to unrelated others, as through a church, government itself is not the agent for advancing it.
From Dewey’s (and the progressives’) standpoint, so minimal an understanding of obligation allows men to pursue a degree of selfishness that is develop- mentally primitive and hence morally disgusting. The progressives’ view on this matter is particularly obvious in the scorn they heap upon the free market, an economic system animated by the selfish, and hence base, profit motive, but they viewed virtually every aspect of life in America — e.g. the prevailing interpretation of Christian Scripture and worship of God, the aim and methods of education, the physical layout and architecture of our cities and towns, the pattern of rural settlement and the character of life within it, the use of our natural resources, etc. — in the same light. The way of living inherited from the American founding was, in short, a cesspool of selfishness.
In 1930 Dewey wrote What I Believe, an article Jonah Goldberg called “his brief for a secular religion of the state.”1 In it Dewey redefines faith and directly challenges Christianity.
Faith was once almost universally thought to be acceptance of a definite body of intellectual propositions, acceptance being based upon authority—preferably that of revelation from on high….Faith in its newer sense signifies that experi- ence itself is the sole ultimate authority.
Dewey throws down the gauntlet and declares his rationalism by going on to say the scientific method “is the sole authentic mode of revelation.” Dr. R. C. Sproul discusses the rationality of Christianity here, and he further defines rationalism here, discussing Hegelian rationalism in the second paragraph.You can read my own reasons as to why I believe Christianity is true here, and why I believe the Bible is God’s authoritative and true revelation here.
Dewey double-downs on his challenge by writing:
Christianity proffered a fixed revelation of absolute, unchanging Being and truth; and the revelation was elaborated into a system of definite rules and ends. Hence “morals” were conceived as a code of laws, the same everywhere and at all times….
In contrast with all such beliefs, the outstanding fact in all branches of natural science is that to exist is to be in process, in change…
…A philosophy of experience will accept at its full value the fact that social and moral existences are, like physical existences, in a state of continuous if obscure change….
He consigns Christianity to dust and deigns to give churches a new way of being useful—by serving as propagandists and substituting faith in man for faith in God:
...I would suggest that the future of religion is connected with the possibility of developing a faith in the possibilities of human experience and human relation- ships that will create a vital sense of the solidarity of human interests and inspire action to make that sense a reality. If our nominally religious institutions learn how to use their symbols and rites to express and enhance such a faith, they may become useful allies of a conception of life that is in harmony with knowledge and social needs.
Dewey so firmly believed in the “disintegrating effect of knowledge upon the dogmas of the church” that he saw “The greatest obstacle that exists to the apprehension and actualization of the possibilities of experience is found in our economic régime.” Within the same article his views on the family read as the original feminist template:
Present ideas of love, marriage, and the family are almost exclusively masculine constructions….The growing freedom of women can hardly have any other outcome than the production of more realistic and more human morals.
Dewey’s treatise on faith is, in and of itself, irrational. By his own lights, if he applied the scientific method by making rigorous observations of past patterns of human behavior and experiences he would have realized the inadequacy of his “faith.” Yet he looked to the future for verification of his thinking, and his conclusion is a strawman, for having misrepresented Christianity, he declares his belief system to be the only viable one.
A philosophic faith, being a tendency to action, can be tried and tested only in action. I know of no viable alternative in the present day to such a philosophy as has been indicated.
Dewey’s belief system has been thoroughly tried and tested by its large-scale perpetration in the public school system, the universities, the media, and the political Left. The test results are written in the sorrow of individual lives who have been harmed by its consequences.
Search for a single, inclusive good is doomed to failure.
I’ve been closing these posts with a quote from Dewey, but I can’t end with such words that doom man to despair. Here is the truth.
Seek the Lord while He may be found;Call upon Him while He is near.Let the wicked forsake his wayAnd the unrighteous man his thoughts;And let him return to the Lord,And He will have compassion on him,And to our God,For He will abundantly pardon.Isaiah 55:6–7
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1Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism (Broadway Books, New York NY: 2007, 2009) 337.