Often finding books is akin to a secular miracle for me.
I'll be reading a book, then see a minor mention of another book in it, pass that mention by, then decide to flip back a few pages and revisit the mention again -- which sometimes leads me to a literary gem I never would have discovered on my own.
Such was the case with John Dewey's "A Common Faith." It's a short (80 pages, plus an introduction by someone else) sharing of lectures Dewey gave at Yale in 1934 on the subject of religion.
We tend to think of John Dewey as an educational reformer, but Wikipedia says "Although Dewey is known best for his publications about education, he also wrote about many other topics, including epistemology, metaphysics, aesthetics, art, logic, social theory, and ethics."
Well, his writing about religion was brilliant.
I'd like to share a bunch of quotes from his book, but what I want to do in this post is describe his basic message in A Common Faith with my own words. I finished the book this morning, so it is fairly fresh in my mind.
Dewey's core concept is distinguishing "religion" from "religious."
Religions almost always are founded on supernatural beliefs. This sets them apart from the rest of human experience and knowledge. Thus we need to recognize what is common both to religions and to everything else.
This is imagination. Not in the sense of wild-eyed fantasy, but in the sense of recognizing the difference between what is and what could be.
Such is what Dewey calls "religious."
He admits that using this term in such an unusual manner is going to irritate both lovers and haters of religion. The lovers won't like his new meaning of religious because it eliminates what for them is the essence of religiosity: belief in supernatural phenomena, including God, heaven, miracles, and such.
And haters of religion will object to giving any ground to religions, including a term, religious, that has meant someone who believes in a religion. Dewey, though, seems to feel that because most people in the world follow a religion, redefining the meaning of religious is the way to go.
He wants to end the division of human experience into, broadly speaking, that of (1) religions and (2) everything else.
In his view, and I agree with Dewey, the appeal of religions is that they profess broadly held aspirations such as love, charity, peace, bliss, contentment, wisdom, and so on -- yet claim that these imagined goods already exist in a perfect form.
Not here on Earth. In a supernatural sense.
Dewey strongly objects to this theological trick. He considers that this saps the will of humans to make this world a better place, since their attention is focused on following the tenets of a religion that promises heavenly delights after death, not in this life.
If the supernatural side of religions was done away with, this would free up a tremendous amount of energy to be religious -- pursuing the aforementioned exercise of imagination that envisions how progress can be made here on Earth. Like, alleviating poverty, ill health, lack of education, a dearth of artistry, community feeling.
What if, Dewey asks, people pursued bettering the lives of our fellow humans with the same zeal they devote to their religions? What if being religious -- committing to reducing the gap between what is and what could be -- came to be more important than being a devotee of the rites and rituals associated with a particular religion?
Again, the problem with religions is that they wrongly assume could be already exists in a supernatural realm.
Aside from being intellectually dishonest, since there is no convincing evidence of a supernatural side to existence, much less that it is filled with everything we humans long for, being told that the what is of this world doesn't matter much, because a better world awaits, causes religiosity to be divorced from other aspects of life.
Hence the title of Dewey's book: A Common Faith. What he is after with his redefining of "religious" is a universality of human striving that doesn't divide experience into what religions deal with, and everything else.
I guess I'll break my commitment to speak only in my own words and end with some passages from the book's final pages.
The community of causes and consequences in which we, together with those not born, are enmeshed is the widest and deepest symbol of the mysterious totality of being the imagination calls the universe.
It is the embodiment for sense and thought of that encompassing scope of existence the intellect cannot grasp. It is the matrix within which our ideal aspirations are born and bred. It is the source of the values that the moral imagination projects as directive criteria and as shaping purposes.
The continuing life of this comprehensive community of beings includes all the significant achievement of men in science and art and all the kindly offices of intercourse and communication. It holds within its content all the material that gives verifiable intellectual support to our ideal faiths.
A "creed" founded on this material will change and grow, but it cannot be shaken. What it surrenders it gives up gladly because of new light and not as a reluctant concession. What it adds, it adds because new knowledge gives further insight into the conditions that bear upon the formation and execution of our life purposes.
..."Agnosticism" is a shadow cast by the eclipse of the supernatural. Of course, acknowledgement that we do not know what we do not know is a necessity of all intellectual integrity. But generalized agnosticism is only a halfway elimination of the supernatural. Its meaning departs when the intellectual outlook is directed wholly to the natural world.
When it is so directed, there are plenty of particular matters regarding which we must say we do not know; we only inquire and form hypotheses which future inquiry will confirm or reject. But such doubts are an incident of faith in the method of intelligence.
They are signs of faith, not of a pale and impotent skepticism. We doubt in order that we may find out, not because some inaccessible supernatural lurks behind whatever we can know. The substantial background of practical faith in ideal ends is positive and outreaching.
...Such a faith has always been implicitly the common faith of mankind. It remains to make it explicit and militant.