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Concluding Remarks on Sophio-Agapism

The paradigm for visualizing the world and human society envisioned the universe as made up of matter and society as made up of isolated individuals, both of which were bound together by forces. In the realm of industry, this meant technology. In the political sphere, this meant human ingenuity put to the service of gaining political and economic power. In the thoughts of Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx, and others, there was no inherent limit to the sovereign’s power. In the hands of Nietzsche, this became a recipe for disaster because all that mattered was raw power and the desire to dominate (Will to Power).

American and other political institutions have been powerfully impacted by the Newtonian worldview, a Hobbesian view of politics focused on power and the theoretically unlimited power of the state. Just as under the influence of a mechanical view of the universe, modern thinkers were predisposed to perceive the world as consisting of small units of matter held together or influenced by forces; in politics, this worldview predisposed policy-makers to either extreme individualism or a Marxist-influenced communalism, viewing the core governmental forces as power influenced solely by economic factors, all explicable through scientific analysis. Thus, the 20th Century’s most influential political and economic theories: Capitalism and Marxism.

In recent years, a materialistic model of the world has been superseded by a model that assumes deep interconnectedness, relationality, freedom, and inner sensitivity. By the middle of the 20th century, at least physicists understood that the Newtonian model of the universe was limited and fundamentally incorrect. Today, scientists believe that the world, at its most fundamental level, is composed of disturbances in a wave field, with the result that every aspect of reality is deeply connected with every other aspect. Some scientists even believe that the world is fundamentally composed of information. Whichever view turns out to be correct, the fact remains that matter and forces are not fundamental. In theology, a robust analysis has emerged, suggesting that the world is profoundly interconnected and relationships are more essential than matter or energy. This fundamental view of reality cannot help but impact our view of human beings and society.

The insights of theoretical physics and other academic disciplines into the fundamentally relational nature of reality and the limits of a merely reductive scientific enterprise have been slowly transforming society. A newer “organic model” that sees the universe not as a machine but as an organism or a process is gradually emerging and influencing public life.  As the implications of this new worldview are better understood by citizens and politicians alike, political life and the contours of our politics and political institutions are bound to change, hopefully rationally and peacefully.

The modern world is dying, and something new is emerging. What we call “Post-modernism” is only the beginning of the change and might be better called “Hyper-modernism” or “End-stage Modernism.” The descent of modern thought into “hermeneutics of suspicion” and “deconstruction” is fundamentally critical reasoning taken to an absurd end. The inevitable result will be that reason, spiritual values, moral imperatives, and the like will reemerge as essential factors in a wise polity. The vision of the purely secular, materially driven, and scientifically managed state will wither away until it finds its proper place in a more comprehensive human polity.

In its place, hopefully, a newer vision of political reality will emerge – a constructive form of postmodernism. “Sophio-agapism” describes the philosophical proposal defended in these essays. Just as the world comprises an intricately intertwined web of reality, governments will recognize that human politics must begin with smaller units, like the family, and move organically into more comprehensive organizational units with essential but limited powers. The vision of the all-powerful nation-state that controls a territory through legal, administrative, and bureaucratic power will be proved inadequate and false. Whether this happens due to a great crisis and collapse of the current nation-state, world-state visions, or organically, through the decisions of wise leaders, depends on the decisions we all make. One thing is for sure: a wise and genuinely post-modern political order will value dialogue as much as debate and decision.

In this series of essays, I’ve tried to discuss historical pragmatism and the development of the thinking style represented by C. S. Peirce and his successors. In the process, I’ve been attempting to sketch out the contours of a sic approach to political theory and life. Briefly, the essential elements are as follows:

  1. The notion that political philosophy and political action can be reasonable (the sophio move) and serve the common good by understanding a society’s political life, the options for change available, the historical trajectory of that society, and other factors while experimenting wisely among various policy options. This is a turn away from a view of politics as primarily a matter of Will and a return to an older view that politics is mainly a matter of practical wisdom (phronesis).
  2. A communitarian viewpoint that sees all the various participants in society as part of a common community bound together not just by power but fundamentally by a willingness to sacrifice for the community, whose interests must be considered in addition to the selfish interests of individuals that make up that community (the agapic move). In particular, nurturing families, neighborhoods, mediating institutions, and voluntary societies creates social bonds that give stability and restraint to the state’s power and can accomplish goals that state power cannot achieve. Political love is fundamentally a recognition that society is a joint endeavor requiring the cooperative efforts of all participants to achieve human flourishing.
  3. Recovery of the insight that the goal of political life is to achieve progressively greater degrees of harmony among the various participants in any society. A return to viewing social harmony as the foundation of wise and just decision-making is implied by the interconnectedness of the world and the various societies humans inhabit.
  4. Recovery in the public life of the notion that universal values, like justice, are not merely matters of the will of a majority of the wheel or the choice of a single individual or ruling class, but noetic realities. These noetic realities can be studied, internalized, and applied to practical problems and extended in the dynamic process of the political life of a society. This requires the disciplined, fair, and impartial search for such values and their application in concrete circumstances by all the relevant players in society, private citizens, public officials, policy advisors, etc. The kind of moral inversion we see in the West is evidence of the need to recover a sense of the reality of ideals, such as justice—and the importance of their continuing enfolding as a part of a tradition of moral, political, legal, and philosophical inquiry by communities devoted to the unbiased search for justice.
  5. Superseding the dissolving effects of critical reason as the primary source of political thinking with a form of reasoning that involves the logical cherishing of people and institutions within the political life of a society. In modern political theory, Will and Power have become dominant, resting on a substructure of caring for others and institutions. Power alone and the Will to Power do not lead to human or social flourishing.
  6. Developing a sense of limits in public life. The historical trajectory of the political development of any society places limits upon wise and caring change. The history of a society and its trajectory also opens avenues for developing the tradition of which that society is a part. Rather than being revolutionary, sophio-agapism is evolutionary. It believes that the gradual evolution of human society guided by human wisdom and love can create a better future over time. Connected with this insight is a resistance to millenarianism of the left or right, Marxist or Capitalist. Humans cannot achieve a perfect society, but humans can improve upon the society in which they live.
  7. Embracing an abductive (scientific) and dialectical model of political reasoning and behavior that deliberately attempts to find the best rational solution for all involved, seeking the harmony of society as a whole, and resisting political life’s descent into a form of warfare by other means. Reasonable dialogue is essential for societies to recover a sense of mutual respect for differing opinions and a standard search for the best solution among available options.

Both political liberals and conservatives agree that there are fundamental problems in society and the human community. Interestingly, it may be a shared fundamental worldview that is at the root of the decay of public institutions. The idea that the world is fundamentally material and that politics is a matter of power and power alone is a profound source of irrational policies of the right and the left. If the world is fundamentally rational and relational, then all solutions that flow from a purely materialistic view of society—a view shared by extreme capitalist and socialistic theories of government, lie at the root of many of the problems we face and certainly at the root of an increasingly dysfunctional style of politics. The urgency for a new, more relational, and rational government ontology is apparent, emphasizing the potential importance of further developing the philosophical perspective of this series of essays.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Postscript for Friends:

This week brings to a conclusion a project I’ve been working on for over three years. I want to solicit comments from readers who have managed to make it this far.  A manuscript of somewhere over 300 pages exists, setting out in detail what I mean by Sophio-Agapism and its relationship to the classic pragmaticism of C. S. Peirce as well as the thought of others. Soon, I am sending it off to a professional proofreader and hope to publish it at some future point. In the meantime, I am anxious to hear from readers concerning their views. Blessings to all my friends!

Acts 1:3-13: Together with the Risen Jesus

“After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive” (Acts 1:3)

            Some years ago, the Memphis Commercial Appeal ran a story titled “Most of Us Don’t Expect Resurrection of the Body.” The article began by disclosing that while most Americans identify themselves as Christians, those who identify themselves as Christians don’t necessarily believe in the resurrection. However, the church has always believed in this doctrine, and it is found in every orthodox creed. Every Sunday, all over the world Christians meet together and affirm their faith in the resurrection.

            There are many good books in which the authors defend the Christian faith and the resurrection. To name a few, C. S. Lewis wrote a book titled Miracles defending the resurrection. [1] Josh McDowell compiled a book entitled, Evidence that Demands a Verdict. [2]  The physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne wrote The Faith of a Physicist, in which he makes a scientist’s defense of the resurrection. [3] Lee Strobel, in his book, The Case for Christ, gives a reporter’s defense of the resurrection. [4] It is fundamental to Christian theology and Christian faith that the resurrection of Jesus was God’s vindication of his sinless life – proof of his victory over sin and death. Each time we say the Apostles or Nicene Creed, we affirm our belief that Christ rose from the dead, and that we too will be resurrected in the last day. [5]

The Argument from Changed Lives.

The resurrection is important. You see, Christ’s victory over sin and death, the resurrection, is also proof of our victory over sin and death. It is because of the resurrection that we Christians can live confidently amid danger and adversity. It is because of the resurrection that we can have hope amid trials. It is because of the resurrection that we can proclaim with the apostle Paul, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus!” (Romans 8:38).

There are many arguments for the resurrection. My favorite is this: The most significant argument for the truth of the resurrection is the changed lives of the disciples who formed the church, left their homes, and went to the ends of the world – and their graves – proclaiming the risen Christ. Formerly afraid and hiding, they were now willing to face great opposition resulting from their claim that Jesus was alive.

In this blog, I do not intend to regurgitate the arguments others have made. Instead, I want to discuss a practical question, “How can we experience the power of the new life of the resurrected Christ in our lives?”

Better Together with the Risen Jesus

           Dr. Luke begins the second volume of his biography of Jesus and the history of the early church with a brief review of the final days before Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Earlier, in Luke, Paul described the betrayal by Judas (Luke 22:47-48), the denial of Peter (Luke 22:54-62), the death of Jesus (Luke 23:44-46), and the flight of the other disciples. Luke then narrates the events surrounding the resurrection – the angels’ appearance to the women in the Garden, Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the Road to Damascus, and the Twelve in the Upper Room. Luke describes Jesus’ telling them that they were to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Luke 24:44-49). Finally, he describes Jesus’ ascension into heaven and the disciples’ return to Jerusalem (Luke 24:53).

            In the first chapter of Acts, Luke again recounts a story of the resurrection. He takes time out to reinforce in readers’ minds the fact of the resurrection. [6] Jesus, we are told, appeared to the disciples on many occasions after the resurrection. In First Corinthians, Paul gives a summary of these appearances, saying that Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve, then to more than five hundred people at the same time, then to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to Paul (see, 1 Corinthians 15:5-8). [7] In just a few weeks, the disciples, who were discouraged, despairing, and disbursed, came together and boldly proclaimed that Jesus was the Messiah and had risen from the dead.

From Despair to Courage

The disciples went from being a scattered, dispirited, discouraged group of former followers of Jesus of Nazareth to being filled with the Holy Spirit. They became a “Band of Brothers” whose exploits the world will never forget. [8]They were ready to face anyone or anything in the name of Jesus. Where there was danger, they possessed courage. Where there was persecution, they possessed fortitude. Where there was opposition, they possessed endurance. Faced with death, they had faith in God and hope for eternal life.

Isn’t this what we desire for our lives? Don’t we wish we could live free of petty fears and petty desires? Don’t we wish we were free to share the love of God with others as Jesus could and did? This morning, I want to highlight three ways we can experience the power of the resurrection in our lives.

Wait for the Holy Spirit

The first thing we must do is to wait for the Holy Spirit. We can imagine that, after they became convinced of the resurrection, the disciples were anxious to begin the business of proclaiming the rule of Christ. Luke gives us some inkling of this when he recounts that the disciples asked Jesus, “Is now the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?”(Acts 1:6). In other words the disciples were saying, “Now that you have returned, can we get started defeating your enemies?”

The fact is, we Christians don’t always understand what God is doing or when and how God intends to do it. We can be overly anxious to get along with the plan before God has fully revealed to us what the plan is, much less what he wants us to do and how he wants us to do it. We can have difficulty waiting.

Many of you know that I am impatient. Once I’ve figured out that there is a problem, I am ready to start solving it, sometimes before God is ready. I’ve noticed that God often reveals some of his plan to me, but not enough for me to get started. I have to wait on God. God likes to teach us patience by asking us to wait. We learn to wait for Jesus to send his Spirit of Wisdom, Love, and Power before we act.

The Power of Meeting Together.

As Christians, we need to learn to wait on God, but waiting does not mean doing nothing. There was plenty to do during the days and weeks between the resurrection and the promise of the Holy Spirit and its arrival. Our text tells us that Jesus continued to appear to them and to teach them, giving them instruction concerning the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus taught, and the disciples listened and asked questions, such as “Is now the time when you will restore the Kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6). [9] As we wait for Jesus to empower us in some area, we can still do a lot. We can gather together for worship. We can study our Bibles, attend church, do small group Bible studies, and volunteer in some ministry. We can grow in our understanding of God, of God’s ways, and of God’s call on our lives. While we wait, we can grow closer to Christ and his people.

Some years ago, my former church participated in 40 Days of Community in small groups. Each person experienced a simple daily Bible study, a time of sharing in a group, perhaps a discipleship group or Sunday school class. Each had the opportunity to engage in one of several small service projects. In other words, we had the opportunity to grow together as disciples and work together as Christians. It was life-changing for many people.

Most of the Christian life is spent between tremendous spiritual experiences. Most of the time, we aren’t on the mountain top. We are slogging through the jungle of everyday life, trying to make ends meet, raising children, taking care of other human beings, watching over parents growing old – just trying to show a little of God’s love to those around us. If we are wise, during these ordinary times, we will be a part of some kind of small group of Christians as we share our lives and our faith in small but life-transforming ways.

Pray for the Presence of God.

The most important thing we can do when we meet is pray. Our text tells us that after Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples gathered together in the Upper Room and prayed. It says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14). I want to mention two things about this verse.

First, if we desire to live Spirit-empowered lives, we must pray constantly.

Second, not only do we need to be in continual prayer, but we need to be constantly praying in unison with others. We need to meet with other Christians occasionally to pray together. If we want to see the power of God in our marriages, we need to pray as couples. If we’re going to see the power of God in our families, we need to pray in our families. If we want to see God at work in our ministry, like the choir or the band, we need to pray together as a choir or a band. If we want to see God at work in our congregation, we need to pray as a congregation.

Over and over again, I’ve seen the truth that prayer is the key to unlocking and releasing God’s power into a situation. Sometimes, that prayer is one of confession. Sometimes, it is a renewed prayer of intercession. Sometimes, it is a prayer of thanksgiving. Sometimes, it is a prayer of desperation. Whatever the circumstance, prayer is the key to unlocking God’s power.

I’ve also noticed that God often waits until we are willing to be just a little desperate in our prayers. God does not want pro forma prayers. He wants prayers of the heart. I think God listens more to our hearts than to our words. He is often waiting for our hearts to align with his will. I wish I had a story to illustrate this, but the truth is that most of the stories I could tell are so private that I can’t share them. Nevertheless, I have seen the power of God to unlock the solution to problems that, humanly speaking, were impossible to solve.

Conclusion

            What does the resurrection mean? Oswald Chambers, in his daily devotional, My Utmost for His Highest says this about the meaning of the resurrection, “When our Lord rose from the dead, he rose to an absolutely new life … And what his resurrection means for us is that we are raised to his Risen Life, not to our old life.” [10] The resurrection means new life – a different kind and quality of life. The resurrection means we can live the kind of God-filled life that Jesus lived.

            Most of us spend our lives isolated and burdened by old hurts, unresolved guilt, shame, bad habits, and the like. The resurrection is God’s promise that we don’t have to live as we always have. We are not predetermined by our biology, or by our family, or by our past. We can experience a new kind of life, even if we have to live with some of the consequences of the past. I love the contemporary a song “Christ Alone”. One of the verses goes like this:

No guilt in life, no fear in death
This is the power of Christ in me.
From life’s first cry to final breath
Jesus commands my destiny
No power of hell, no scheme of man
Can ever pluck me from his hand
‘til he returns and calls me home
Here in the power of Christ I stand. [11]

            This is the promise – Guilt about our past does not have to determine our lives. Fear of the future does not have to drive us. This means, especially, that fear of death – that fear which drives so much of human life, is gone. [12] To live in the power of the resurrection is to be free of that fear, and from any other fear, for we know nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Therefore, we need not fear others. Freedom from guilt means freedom from shame – shame that separates me from God and others. The resurrection means we are free to live joyfully as part of the Community of the Spirit – Christ’s church.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] C. S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: McMillan, 1947). See also, Mere Christianity (London: Fontana Books, 1952).

[2] Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Colorado Springs CO: Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972).

[3] John Polkinghorne, The Faith of a Physicist (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996). These are his Gifford Lectures in the form of a book.

[4] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998).

[5] I mention the Nicene Creed (325 AD) because it is the universal creed accepted by Eastern and Western Christians. It is one of the official creeds of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In the Nicene Creed, as in all orthodox creeds, it is affirmed that Christ was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and that we, too, will be raised on the last day.

[6] See, William Barclay, The Acts of the Apostles 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955).

[7] Although there are differences among the Gospels concerning the details of the resurrection, they are united in a general pattern: the women first discovered the empty tomb, then Peter and perhaps John or the two on the road to Emmaus saw the Risen Christ, then the remainder of the disciples. Paul adds that there were appearances to many disciples and, last of all, to Paul (I Corinthians 15:3-8).

[8] See, William Shakespeare, “King Henry V Act IV. Scene III in The Collected Works of William Shakespeare (New York: Garden City Books), 581: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he today that sheds his blood with me/ Shall be my brother, be he e’re so vile./ This day shall gentle his condition:/ And gentlemen in England now abed/ Shall think themselves cursed they were not here….” (Emphasis Added).

[9] Jesus’ answer was a polite “No,” as he reminded them that no one knows the day or the hour of Christ’s final return (see Acts 1:6ff).

 

[10] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest. (Grand Rapids: Discovery House Press, 1992), selection for April 8.

[11] This version of “Christ Alone” was recorded by Newsboys in their 2003 album, “Adoration”.

[12] William Willimon, “Acts” in Interpretation: A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox, 1988), 19-20.

Dewey 5: Dewey on God and Religion

Candid portrait of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey standing in a wooded area, 1935. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

During the last few weeks, I’ve been examining the work of the pragmatist John Dewey. Dewey’s form of pragmatism involved what he called instrumentalism, which briefly sees human thinking as instrumental in nature. He was raised in a Christian home and continued his religious faith into adulthood. Unfortunately, his philosophical studies and other intellectual commitments caused him to leave the Christian faith. By 1894, he had given up his Christian faith and became what he called an “unregenerate philosophical naturalist.” Charles Darwin and the emergence of evolutionary theory profoundly influenced this transformation. Darwinism, with its non-explanatory approach to the world and the emergence of human life, played a pivotal role in Dewey’s loss of belief in the supernatural.

As Dewey aged, he worried about the sustainability of portions of the intellectual and social projects to which he was committed. He came to see the need for a kind of philosophical underpinning for his commitments. He felt the need to develop common ground between religious and non-religious people to create a more just society. It was in this vein that he wrote A Common Faith. [1] Although I will be critical of some aspects of his program in this blog, I share both his concerns and his hope that a way can be found to build a common ground between religious and non-religious people and various religious groups.

Instrumentalism

Dewey’s form of pragmatism emphasized the instrumental character of human reason in solving practical problems. His view was naturalistic and did not involve the need for supernatural explanations. In this, Dewey differs from Charles Sanders Peirce and Josiah Royce. (In fact, it was the nominalist and naturalistic views of William James and John Dewey that caused C. S. Pierce to develop his brand of pragmatism, which he called “pragmaticism.”) Dewey was not interested in speculative philosophy or metaphysics, not in final or ultimate truths or realities, but in the practical application of philosophy to produce a better human society. In this, one might call Dewey a humanist in the best sense of the word.

Dewey’s Anti-Supernaturalism

Dewey’s form of pragmatism bordered on what we might call scientism. Dewey believed that science and modern scientific modes of human inquiry involved a fundamental change in the human condition and how humans adapted to life’s problems. He thought that a pragmatic humanist social agenda opened up hope for a better future. In this sense, Dewey is a typical post-Enlightenment thinker. In particular, Dewey was highly suspicious of any supernatural explanation for any phenomena.

The word “Supernatural” can easily be misunderstood. The term is derived from Medieval Latin “supernaturalis,” which is derived from the Latin “super” (above, beyond, or outside of) and “natura” (nature). Thus, by its etymology, reference to the supernatural does not necessarily indicate a diminution of nature or science. Instead, it refers to something above or beyond science. Not surprisingly, Dewey would be inclined to focus on the supernatural as involving something magical or exceeding the laws of nature in common religion. Even today, one finds a great many people who do have a magical view of Christianity and other faiths. However, a magical faith is not the only kind of faith.

Many Christians believe that God created an orderly universe filled with natural laws that must be understood and which control a great deal, in fact, most of the operations of human life. On the other hand, our everyday orderly, mechanical world rests upon both a quantum world and, for people of faith, was created by God, who stands above nature as its creator. In this sense, God is “above” or “beyond” nature (supernatural) as the transcendent ground of the created order, which God has created to have its independent laws.

Dewey’s Later Religious Ideas

In his book, A Common Faith, Dewey discusses three aspects of religion as he attempts to find common ground between those who possess religious faith and those committed to a naturalistic view of reality:

  1. Dewey distinguishes between religions and religious experience,
  2. Dewey advances the idea of God as the creative intersection of the ideal or possible and the real or actual and
  3. Dewey seeks to encourage the infusion of the religious as a pervasive mode of experience into democratic life.

In advancing these ideas, Dewey tried to find a way between those committed to a historical religion, such as Christianity, Catholicism, and Protestantism, and those who believed that advancing culture and science has rendered religions unnecessary. Dewey hoped he could find common ground between these two groups so that they could work together for the common good. We can certainly agree with Dewey’s intentions regarding this.

Religion vs. Religious

He advances his argument by distinguishing between religion and religious experience. Religion involves those ions and activities that are associated with any religion. For example, Christians have worship services, usually on Sunday. These worship services typically involve some kind of a liturgy, contemporary or traditional. Most of these worship services involve using scriptures believed to be of a divine origin. In almost every religion, there is also a kind of theology. That is to say, there is a group of beliefs held in common by the religious group. This might be the basics of the Christian faith, what are sometimes called the Five Sola’s of Protestantism, the Eightfold Path of Hinduism, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Torah of Judaism, or any other statements of essential religious belief.

This is not what Dewey means by religious experience. In A Common Faith, Dewey advances the idea that it is a part of human nature to have religious experiences in the sense of emotions and ideals of harmony, wholeness, inspiration, peace, comfort, and undivided engagement with the world. Religious experiences are diverse and might be inspired by reading poetry, making scientific discoveries, walking a picket line, or climbing a mountain. Such religious experiences create attitudes that help us commit more fully to our highest values. [2] Interestingly, among religious people I know, this kind of experience would not be deemed religious but like a religious experience. Why? Because religious experience is, by its nature, fundamentally an experience of the divine, not that of some portion of creation itself.

One author describes Dewey’s attitude as follows:

The highest religious attitudes, to Dewey, are (1) reverence for nature as the whole of which humanity is a part, and an understanding that we must cooperate with the natural world rather than attempt to dominate it; and (2) faith in the ongoing growth of humanity: growth in knowledge, wisdom, compassion. [3]

At the risk of sarcasm, what Dewey proclaims as “religious experience” seems a good bit like what the sociologist Robert Bellah describes as “Sheilaism.” Sheilaism is the kind of self-created abstract religion that demands nothing and has little content so common in our society. Here is how Bellah described Sheila:

Sheila Larson is a young nurse who has received a good deal of therapy and describes her faith as “Sheilaism.” This suggests the logical possibility of more than 235 million American religions, one for each of us. “I believe in God,” Sheila says. “I am not a religious fanatic. [Notice at once that in our culture any strong statement of belief seems to imply fanaticism so you have to offset that.] I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Sheila’s faith has some tenets beyond belief in God, though not many. In defining what she calls “my own Sheilaism,” she said: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.” Like many others, Sheila would be willing to endorse few more specific points. [4]

Dewey has examined his own mind and described the religious experience of the human race in general as his personal preference—or what he personally thinks would be best in spiritual experience.

Against what Dewey refers to as “religion, he postulates the notion of the religious. Being “religious” refers to human experience that has no necessary connection to any religious institution, social organization, or system of beliefs. This experience occurs “in different persons in a multitude of ways” and generates a feeling of harmony with oneself and the universe that, at its core, entails a profound change and transformation in the person’s entirety. [5]

As helpful as it is for understanding, this distinction is ultimately useless in practice. Being religious is almost always, in fact, inevitably connected with a religion. There is, in practice, no distinction between being religious and practicing a religion. Let me explain why this is true. I am a Christian, a Protestant, and inclined towards what C. S. Lewis described as” Mere Christianity.” Most people would call me “religious.” How do they know such a thing?

They might have observed that my wife and I attend Church regularly. I read my Bible daily. I have a prayer list occupying about thirty minutes of my day daily. I pray the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed several times weekly. When away, pray the Daily Office online.  I sometimes practice a form of contemplative prayer. We go on Mission Trips periodically. I teach Sunday School when asked. Although I am retired, I occasionally preach at other churches and help around the church we most regularly attend. My character as “religious” is embodied in my religion and its beliefs. While one can distinguish my faith and mystical connection with God from these various practices, they are not separated in actual life.

The same might be said of my friends who are Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, and the like. Like me, they have beliefs embodied in certain practices, without which their religious character would not exist.

Dewey’s God

In A Common Faith, Dewey wanted to construct an “idea of God” that could form a basis for the cooperation of religious groups (in his day, primarily Christian Protestantism and secular humanists, like himself, in a common project of improving humanity. Here is the way he describes his vision of God:

The import of the question extends far. It determines the meaning given to the word “God.” On one score, the word can mean only a particular Being. On the other score, it denotes the unity of all ideal ends arousing us to desire and actions. Does the unification have a claim upon our attitude and conduct because it is already, apart from us, in realized existence, or because of its own inherent meaning and value? Suppose for the moment that the word “God” means the ideal ends that at a given time and place one acknowledges as having authority over his volition and emotion. The values to which one is supremely devoted, as far as these ends, through imagination, take on unity. If we make this supposition, the issue will stand out clearly in contrast with the doctrine of religions that “God” designates some kind of Being having prior and therefore non-ideal existence. [6]

The problem with Dewey’s analysis begins with his definition of God, which states that “the ideal ends that at a given time and place one acknowledges as having authority over his volition and emotion.” This is precisely what theists do not believe. God is not my deepest belief that I should be a good spouse and father, a good citizen of my city-state and nation, or any of the like. Belief in God is belief in a person who stands outside of me and whose very being relativizes my self-chosen values.

In Dewey’s use, God is not a being. God is a name that I assign to my own ultimate concerns. In other words, Dewey is a religious nominalist. “God” is a convenient general word to describe my moral and other ultimate preferences. I must confess that I detect a bit of Whitehead in Dewey. For Whitehead, God is an Eternal Object, but unlike other Eternal Objects, God is an actual existence as the fountain of all values incorporated into evolving reality. Here is Dewey’s way of putting it:

The idea that “God” represents a unification of ideal values that is essentially imaginative in origin when the imagination supervenes in conduct is attended with verbal difficulties owing to our frequent use of the word “imagination” to denote fantasy and doubtful reality. But the reality of ideal ends as ideals are vouched for by their undeniable power in action. [7]

Two aspects of this definition leap out at the reader:

  1. Dewey’s fundamental pragmatism. God exists because it has a power to direct human action.
  2. “God” is an abstract ideal that exists as a unification of all human values.

Compare Dewey’s definition of God with this language from Whitehead:

This nature conceived as the unification derived from the World of Value is founded on ideals of perfection, moral and aesthetic. It receives into its unity the scattered effectiveness of realized activities, transformed by the supremacy of its own ideals. The result is Tragedy, Sympathy, and the Happiness evoked by actualized Heroism. Of course we are unable to conceive the experience of the Supreme Unity of Existence. But these are the human terms in which we can glimpse the origin of that drive towards limited ideals of perfection which haunts the Universe. [8]

God in Whitehead is also “a unity of values focused on ideals that give meaning to human and natural existence. God is “realized” in the evolving process of the world (realized activities). This is close to Dewey’s position in A Common Faith.

Conclusion

As always, there is much to learn from Dewey. Ultimately, I think his project fails as a unification of secular striving and religious striving. However, as a vision of cooperation, it remains a valuable starting point in the common search of religious and secular people for a better and more just world.

I have almost certainly not done complete justice to the subtlety of Dewey’s argument. He was a great philosopher, and I hope to return to his religious views in a future post. I do recommend A Common Faith to my readers. It’s not an easy book to read and has been much criticized by secular as well as religious people; nevertheless, it is an attempt to find common ground.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Dewey, A Common Faith (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1934).

[2] Kate Lovelady “Monday notes from Kate: John Dewey’s A Common Faith (November 28, 2011)

https://www.ethicalstl.org/monday-notes-from-kate-john-deweys-a-common-faith/ (downloaded, May 27, 2024).

[3] Id.

[4] Robert Bellah, “Habits of the Heart: Implications for Religion” http://www.robertbellah.com/lectures_5.htm (downoaded May 27, 2024).

[5] A Common Faith, at 17.

[6] Id, at 42.

[7] Id, at 43.

[8] Alfred North Whitehead, (“Immortality” in  The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, ed.  P. A. Schilpp, (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1941), 697–98

Dewey 4: Instrumental Logic and Public Policy Formation

Candid portrait of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey standing in a wooded area, 1935. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

It should be evident that the notion that reason has an instrumental function and that logic is instrumental has significant consequences for the development of public policy and the conduct of public debate. Rational public discourse cannot simply involve an attempt to gain enough public support that one’s personal ideas can be enacted into policy. From a sophio-agapic point of view, public policy formation begins with identifying a problem. Ultimately, it is about adopting strategies and tactics that will lead society to a better state. [1] As to justice, public policy is finally about the gradual evolution of a more just society in a way in which all citizens’ rights are protected and enhanced. As such, it is an essentially logical process. Dewey put it this way:

It is reasonable to search for and select the means that will, with the maximum probability, yield the consequences which are intended. It is highly unreasonable to employ as means, materials and processes which would be found, if they were examined, to be such that they produce consequences which are different from the intended end; so different that they preclude its attainment. [2]

Applied to the realm of public discourse, this principle can be stated as follows:

Public policy is unreasonable if it adopts policies and processes that, under examination, are likely to produce consequences contrary to the public good and the intended result.

Political actors must be willing to subject their views to criticism and modify their policies where the best evidence indicates that the public good intended cannot be acquired by the means chosen. This inevitably involves a logical and reasoned approach to public policy development, not simply enacting policies that more special interest groups favor.

Wise public policymaking involves using all forms of logic. Political actors must guess what the wisest public policy is (hypothesis). They must gather facts that either support or do not support our hypothetical public policy. Finally, in reaching our conclusions, we must ensure they’re not deductively incoherent. This is a part and parcel of proving or disproving the hypothesis.

Deliberation and Enhanced Common Sense

We have already seen that abductive logic proceeds from a perceived problem to a hypothetical proposal for the solution of the problem to a testing of that problem. Where ideology is allowed to determine the adoption of solutions to political problems, ideology or preconceived notions are improperly allowed to determine results. Here is how Dewey puts the problem:

But in social matters, those who claim that they are in possession of the only sure solution of social problems often set themselves up as being peculiarly scientific while others are floundering around in an “empirical” morass. Only recognition in both theory and practice that ends to be attained (ends-in-view) are of the nature of hypotheses and that hypotheses have to be formed and tested in strict correlativity with existential conditions as means, can alter current habits of dealing with social issues. [3]

Here, we have clearly stated the fundamental problem with much modern political discourse. Both those on the political left who favor collectivist solutions and those on the right who favor unlimited personal freedom believe themselves to possess the only sure scientific solution to political problems. Therefore, they do not see the need to consider their proposals as hypotheses that must be checked against reality to ensure that they work in practice.

It is not enough for there to be debate, discussion, argumentation, or even conversation and dialogue. The conversation has to be conducted to evaluate public policies and choose rational means to test them before adoption, or at least before adoption in such a way that the consequences might be disastrous. In this vein, more judgments cannot be excluded from the evaluating process since they are part of the complex and intricate existential and potentially observable and recordable material that makes up the facts of the case. [4]

Wherever political conclusions are taken to be a priori true or determined by ideological, philosophical, or other commitments, the process of reasonable policy determination is bypassed. Do we put it this way as respects, classical laisse faire economics:

In consequence, the three indispensable logical conditions of conceptual subject-matter of the scientific method were ignored; namely, (1) the status of theoretical conceptions as hypotheses which (2) have a directive function in control of observation and ultimate practical transformation of antecedent phenomena, and which (3) are tested and continually revised on the ground of the consequences they produce in existential application. [5]

This failure of logic can be seen in both the ideological commitments of the right and the left, Marxist and Capitalist. Once again, Dewey is clear:

A further illustration of the demands of logical method may be found in other current theories about social phenomena, such as the supposed issue of “individualism” versus “collectivism” or “socialism,” or the theory that all social phenomena are to be envisaged in terms of the class-conflict of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. From the standpoint of method, such conceptual generalizations, no matter which one of the opposed conceptions is adopted, prejudge the characteristic traits and the kinds of actual phenomena that the proposed plans of action are to deal with. [6]

This conclusion is at the root of the sophio-agapic program. Whenever ideology supplants wise policy adopted to serve the best interests of all of society (the maintenance and creation of social harmony), there has been a failure of both logic and consideration of the best policy to undergird society.

The Deliberative Process

In matters of practice, there is no substitute for reason and deliberation in the consideration of alternative courses of action. Dewey understands that wherever practical issues are involved, and especially in matters involving political deliberation, the fact themselves and the situation itself continually changes:

Preliminary to offering illustrations of what has been said, I shall summarize formally what is logically involved in every situation of deliberation and grounded decision in matters of practice. There is an existential situation such that (a) its constituents are changing so that in any case something different is going to happen in the future; and such that (b) just what will exist in the future depends in part upon introduction of other existential conditions interacting with those already existing, while (c) what new conditions are brought to bear depends upon what activities are undertaken, (d) the latter matter being influenced by the intervention of inquiry in the way of observation, inference and reasoning. [7]

Deliberation about policy matters takes place in an evolving environment, sensitive to whatever actions are taken, subject to new conditions, and influenced by observers intervening in the situation using inquiry. This may seem not easy to understand, but I think it can be illustrated most adequately by examples from foreign affairs. Political actors make decisions in an ever-changing political environment where multiple nation-states are interested.  No international situation remains constant. There is constant change. Every action, however small, taken by international actors impacts others who will then change their behavior somehow. Finally, the fact that a nation is considering a change in policy influences the entire situation. This involves a constant process of evaluating and examining the various alternative courses of action available in an ever-changing environment. [8] Generally, policy policymakers have a state of affairs they wish could be created (for example, ending a conflict in the Middle East); even this policy goal can be and is subject to change as policymakers, change, and different policies are enacted. The result is that political decision-making, at best, is made in a volatile and rapidly changing environment.

Conclusion

Dewey should be taken seriously in a sophio-agapic understanding of political life. Since all human reasoning, including political rationale, must be conducted reasonably, restrictions are placed upon dialogue. It is also fundamental to a socio-agapic understanding of politics that decisions should be tested to ensure they are correct before being implemented on a grand scale. As Dewey puts it: “Unless the decision reached is arrived at blindly and arbitrarily, it is obtained by gathering and surveying evidence appraised as to its weight and relevancy; and by framing and testing plans of action in their capacity as hypotheses: that is, as ideas.” [9]

All of this involves the condition that dialogue be conducted reasonably and rationally. This takes us back to the fundamental meaning of dialogue. The Greek roots, “dia” or “through” and ‘logos” or “reason” indicate that dialogue is not a mere sharing of opinions. Instead, it is sharing logical views to reach a deeper understanding of the truth about a matter under deliberation. When one deliberates, one considers carefully all of the factors necessary to reach a conclusion. Wise decision-making involves the capacity to deliberate effectively. Once again, deliberation is an essentially social exercise, especially political decision-making. Balancing different social interests, achieving social harmony, and considering the consequences for those impacted are all part of a wise deliberative process.

From Peirce and James, Dewey has a “scientific and instrumental” view of knowledge that includes a kind of fallibilism that recognizes that our ideas, however well attested by reality and comprehensively accepted, can always be wrong and need revision. This excludes any sympathy for totalitarian undertakings in philosophy, politics, education, or any other field of inquiry. This part of Dewey’s philosophy is of increasing importance in our society, in which there are so many loud voices, left and right, who are sure of the truth about their own opinions and are contemptuous of the views of others. Where the advice of Dewey is ignored, there is a failure of logic, an increase in social conflict, and increasing contempt for opposing views—all phenomena we experience in American society today.[10]

The practical difficulties in the way of experimental method in the case of social phenomena as compared with physical investigations do not need elaborate exposition. Nevertheless, every measure of policy put into operation is, logically, and should be actually, of the nature of an experiment. For (I) it represents the adoption of one out of a number of alternative conceptions as possible plans of action, and (2) its execution is followed by consequences which, while not as capable of definite or exclusive differentiation as in the case of physical experimentation, are none the less observable within limits, so they may serve as tests of the validity of the conception acted upon. [11]

I could not more clearly state the sophio-agapic approach to public policy formation than the statement above. All public policy is in the nature of a social experiment, nearly always enacted where significant alternatives are available. Therefore, any given policy should not be seen as irrevocable or logically necessary but merely hypothetical. In executing such policies, policymakers should be conscious of the potential for error and, therefore, should be careful to evaluate the consequences of the policy and reverse courses if it turns out to have been unwise. This is the essence of a wise approach to policy initiatives.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1938), at 498.

[2] Id, 10.

[3] Id, 497. A generalization in the form of a hypothesis is a prerequisite condition of the selection and ordering of material as facts. Id, at 498.

[4] Id. “The notion that evaluation is concerned only with ends and that, with the ruling out of moral ends, evaluative judgments are ruled out rests, then, upon a profound misconception of the nature of the logical conditions and constituents of all scientific inquiry. All competent and authentic inquiry demands that out of the complex welter of existential and potentially observable and recordable material, certain material be selected and weighed as data or the “facts of the case.”

[5] Id, 506.

[6] Id.

[7] Id, 162-163.

[8] Id, 170.

[9] Id,161.

[10] Id, 507.

[11] Id, at 509

Ecology and Leadership

This week, I spoke to an old high school friend who is interested in ecology. This friend has been critical in the past of my tendency to be interested in strictly religious and philosophical matters, forgetting the practical importance of such urgent matters as caring for our environment. My friend knows that I accept this criticism as valid. Eventually, it is my plan to write a chapter in a book I’m working on dealing specifically with the details of a Christian response to the problems raised by environmental degradation. It is an important topic that deserves all of our attention.

As we talked, I made a comment that exemplifies what I truly believe. It is difficult to write about issues like global warming because it is very difficult to understand the science and to discriminate between what I would call “politically and economically motivated science,” left and right, and the actual relevant facts.

Nevertheless, I don’t think the science involved fundamentally matters a whole lot in the end. Why do I say this? I say this because it seems to me that Christians are required to carefully use the precious resources of our planet so that they may be available for future generations. Christians are called to be stewards of the world God has entrusted to our care and servants not just of ourselves and our own selfish desires and needs, but also servants of generations to come.

It doesn’t take a lot of investigation or analysis to know that our culture is attached to the production and consumption of things. Some of these things are material, and others are what we might call experiences. Yet, in some way, all of this gathering of things and experiences gets in the way of life, relationships with other people, family, and friendships. The search for affluence and personal pleasure in the form of consuming things and experiences sits at the root of much of the dysfunction of our society—and I think of a good bit of our neurotic tendencies.

A second theme of recent blogs is our tendency to attempt to achieve (and permit to be achieved by others) a kind of leadership that focuses on power and not on servanthood. We desperately need servant leadership in government, business, nonprofit organizations, churches, and other institutions. The single, most important black cause of our cultural decline is the lack of true servant leadership that identifies problems and undertakes the difficult task of solving them in an honest and straightforward way.

To respond to my dear friend’s concern, this week, I decided to republish one chapter of a little book I published some years ago. In Centered, Living/Centered Leading: the Way of Light and Love, I undertook a Christian paraphrase of the Chinese Tao Te Ching, a marvelous book that has meant much to me over the years.  [1] In this book, I rephrased the Tao Te Ching on the left side of each two pages and did a small Christian reflection based upon a Bible verse on the right side.  The purpose was to illustrate just how close the ethics and leadership of Christianity and the Tao Te Ching are. While I did have to make some changes to the Tao to reflect my Christian faith, the fact is most of the time, it was unnecessary.

This week, the blog is simply Chapter 27 of that book. I chose this passage because it gives a simple metaphor for the wise life as concerns ecological matters: “A skillful traveler leaves few marks on the path.” Those of us who want to be skillful stewards of the environment, need to constantly remind ourselves that we should not leave too many “marks on the world”. To be a good steward is to use resources wisely and conserve resources as much as possible.

Here is the Chapter from the book:

Chapter 27

A skillful traveler leaves few marks on the path.
A skillful orator wastes few words when speaking.
A skillful business person instinctively calculates profit.

A skillful sailor ties knots that do not unravel.

A skillful dancer has instinctive grace on the dance floor.
A skillful, prudent person follows the Way through life.

A wise person seeks the best for everyone,
rejecting no child of the One Who Is.
A wise person cherishes Creation,
seeking the best for the lowliest creature.

This means embracing Deep Light.

This means suffering with Deep Love.

Therefore, the wise person reaches out to the foolish; the good reaches out to the wicked.

Rescuing the foolish and the broken, the wise shepherd embodies the Word.

Cherishing all things, wise shepherds follow the Great Shepherd.

This is the dark, mysterious path of the Way.

So from now on, we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though once we regarded Christ this way, we no longer do so. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, and the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation . . .(2 Corinthians 5:16–18 [NIV])

Nurture and Help Others Grow in Love

            We live in a wasteful society. Materially, this results in “garbage on the trail” of our lives. Mentally, we are surrounded by words, from talk radio, to television, to music, to media and information on the Internet. We have abundant possessions, perhaps too many. Much of what we see, hear, and possess keeps us from seeing what is really important. To be wise, we must remove the clutter from our lives.

            The wise person realizes that people are the most essential thing in life. Jesus is the one who “came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). Saving people and assisting them in achieving a wise life are the most important things Christ-Followers can do. For Christ-Followers, reaching out to the suffering and lost in word and deed of mercy is central to the wise life.

Jesus tells the story of the prodigal son to suggest that God never abandons anyone, however far they have strayed (Luke 15:11–32). Lao Tzu says that the wise rescue the foolish and wandering. How would your priorities change if you took this seriously?

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered, Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love Rev. Ed. (Permisio Por Favor/BookSurge, 2009, 2016). It is available on Amazon.

Dewey 3: Common Sense, the Examined Life, and the Tao

Candid portrait of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey standing in a wooded area, 1935. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

Last week, I noted that John Dewey believed that all human logic has both a natural and a cultural foundation. As a pragmatist, Dewey is committed to the notion of community and its importance in human relations, including its importance to logical and scientific thinking. Thus, he says:

THE ENVIRONMENT in which human beings live, act and inquire, is not simply physical. It is cultural as well. Problems which induce inquiry grow out of the relations of fellow beings to one another, and the organs for dealing with these relations are not only the eye and ear, but the meanings which have developed in the course of living, together with the ways of forming and transmitting culture with all its constituents of tools, arts, institutions, traditions and customary beliefs. [1]

In this concise paragraph, Dewey masterfully introduces the intricacies of decision-making in the political sphere. He underscores the challenges politicians face navigating their decisions within a specific cultural environment. This environment is a complex tapestry of societal artifacts, traditions, customs, beliefs, and attitudes towards governance and each other. Altering this inherited cultural milieu is a Herculean task, one that often spans generations. In the brief tenure of any policymaker, this is a reality that must be acknowledged.

Dewey agrees with Aristotle that human beings are by nature, social animals. As social animals, humans create situations and social environments that emerge from, but on a distinct level of reality from, the natural world. The human capacity for thought, logic, creativity, moral decision-making, and like make of human beings, a distinct and unique entity and human culture different thing from the natural environment.[2] Sitting at the root of human uniqueness is the fact of human languages. Human beings are capable of developing science systems and communicating information through those sign systems. [3]

Language occupies a peculiarly significant place and exercises a peculiarly significant function in the complex that forms the cultural environment. It is itself a cultural institution, and, from one point of view, is but one among many such institutions. But it is (1) the agency by which other institutions and acquired habits are transmitted, and (2) it permeates both the forms and the contents of all other cultural activities. [4]

Human language is the basis of human culture and every human, cultural institution, including the political and legal institutions of any society. Language is the agency by which these institutions can be created and maintained.

Common Sense vs Examined Language

Human languages have multiple uses, two of which are the special significance in politics:

  1. Sitting at the base of all specialized languages is what might be called the common-sense language of a people. The common-sense language of a people refers to those largely unexamined fundamental concepts that a group holds tacitly and which inform its judgments. For example, in America, it’s taken for granted that individuals should be free, and this freedom involves the ability to say and do what we please. This is a tacitly held fundamental, common-sense idea of almost all Americans.
  2. The second kind of language that we must deal with is what we would call scientific language. This is the language we use that is subject to experimentation testing as to its validity and limits. Contrary to common sense language, what Dewey calls “scientific language” is what we might call “examined language”. Examined Language is a language that has been examined to see just how far common sense is correct and can be applied. For example, in the law, the fundamental common-sense notion of freedom finds a restriction when I use my freedom to scream ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.

Upon examination, there are limitations found inherent in our common-sense ideas, and some of them are even shown to be false. These limitations are relevant to political discourse. Dewey analyzes the difference as follows:

The resulting difference in the two types of language meanings fundamentally fixes the difference between what is called common sense and what is called science. In the former cases, the customs, the ethos, and spirit of a group are the decisive factors in determining the system of meanings in use. The system is one in a practical and institutional sense rather than in an intellectual sense. Meanings that are formed on this basis are sure to contain much that is irrelevant and to exclude much that is required for intelligent control of activity. [5]

In addition to the limits of common sense, human beings are not merely rational, sign-producing, and sign-using biological computers. In the human person, there is a special role for ire, emotion, and (I would) say the full range of moral and spiritual constituents of the human personality. Dewey put it this way:

Another phase of the problem is brought out by the part played in human judgments by emotion and desire. These personal traits cook the evidence and determine the result that is reached. That is, upon the level of organic factors (which are the actively determining forces in the type of cases just mentioned), the individual with his individual peculiarities, whether native or acquired, is an active participant in producing ideas and beliefs, and yet the latter are logically grounded only when such peculiarities are deliberately precluded from taking effect. [6]

In other words, human decision-making is inevitably impacted by organic factors, and by the entire emotional makeup of human beings. In my judgment, Dewey makes an error when thinking that logic must preclude these factors from taking into effect what logic should do and do seek to be certain that the emotional and spiritual components are in fact, rational. As everyone knows, not every emotional or spiritual or moral conclusion of human individuals is rational. This does not mean that they should be excluded from the realm of logical inquiry or, in the case of political inquiry, from public debate.

Common Sense and Political Deliberation

I’ve already distinguished between common-sense language and what I’ve called examined language, which includes language that we would call scientific, that is, language that has been subject to the kind of inquiry and verification that we associate with science. I’ve also mentioned that our common-sense view of many situations almost amounts to a presupposition to see certain things in certain ways. But the phenomena of common sense are more complex and more important than that mirror summary.

Dewey talks about common sense as follows:

The use of the term common sense is somewhat arbitrary from a linguistic point of view. But the existence of the kinds of situations referred to and of the kind of inquiries that deal with the difficulties and predicaments they present cannot be doubted. They are those which continuously arise in the conduct of life and the ordering of day-by-day behavior. They are such as constantly arise in the development of the young as they learn to make their way in the physical and social environments in which they live; they occur and recur in the life-activity of every adult, whether farmer, artisan, professional man, law-maker or administrator; citizen of a state, husband, wife, or parent. On their very face they need to be discriminated from inquiries that are distinctively scientific, or that aim at attaining confirmed facts, “laws” and theories. [7]

Human common life would be impossible without common sense. In fact, where common sense begins to deteriorate, there’s almost always a kind of social chaos that ins. Lawmakers, for example, have to rely upon common sense or what might be called traditional interpretations of the Constitution and nearly all of their deliberations. There are times when changes need to be made, and those fundamental assumptions, those common-sense ways of looking at things, need to be questioned. But most of the time they do not.

This particular insight cast great doubt upon the postmodern project or what is sometimes called the deconstructionist project of deconstructing all common sense, true as mere bids for power. Social institutions and legal principles simply reflect the common experience in common understanding of the human race from its inception. This is fundamental to what I have called a socio-agapic view of politics. That is to say, the idea that the family is important, that children should take care of parents, and that parents should take care of children, that people should work hard for a living, and a vast number of important social ideals and institutions reflect the common sense of the human race over millennia.

Just to give one example, the prohibition against murder was not simply a prejudice and plot and acted into law by a group of people to subordinate the views of another group of people who happened to believe in murder. Murder is prohibited because it has been the universal human experience that murder causes social instability and violence. In order to control violence, murder needs to be controlled. This is a simple and obvious example, but there are many other examples that are not so simple, nor are they so obvious.

Dewey properly recognizes that there are limits to common sense, and being a modern post-enlightenment thinker, he is not inclined to grant common sense its full range of applicability. Partially, this is due to a recognition of the cultural variability of many common sense ideas. Dewey recognizes that common sense varies from culture to culture in some ways. The virtues of nomadic tribesmen in seventh-century Arabia are not necessarily the common-sense virtues of a person living in Los Angeles, California, in the early 21st century. His point is as follows:

One has only to note the enormous differences in the contents and methods of common sense in modes of life that are respectively dominantly nomadic, agricultural and industrial. Much that was once taken without question as a matter of common sense is forgotten or actively condemned. Other old conceptions and convictions continue to receive theoretical assent and strong emotional attachment because of their prestige. But they have little hold and application in the ordinary affairs of life. [8]

Obviously, Dewey has a point here. However, my caution would be that his point can be, and often is massively overstated in our society. For example, there’s no question that many of the proverbs of the Old Testament were created in a culture far different from ours. Nevertheless, in almost every matter of daily existence, they continue to provide great guidance. The same could be said of Oriental wisdom literature, the wisdom literature of the ancient world, generally, and the wisdom literature of other world religions today. Fundamental notions like the importance of honesty, sobriety, hard work, faithfulness, harmonic human relations, and other aspects of common sense may not have a hold on ordinary life, but they should have.

C. S. Lewis, the Tao and Dewey

In his book, The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis used the Chinese philosophical term “Tao” to encompass what he considers to be the broadly accepted, traditional moralities of both Eastern and Western cultures—including Platonic, Hindu, Taoist, Christian, and others. [9]  The Tao involves a ground to objective value in which certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things human beings are. [10]

This Tao or “Way” is described by Lewis as follows:

It is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself. It is Nature, the Way, and the Road. It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the way in which things everlasting emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time. It is also the Way which every human being should tread in imitation of that cosmic and super-cosmic progression, conforming all activities to that great exemplar.”[11]

Lewis argues that this Tao, or Way, is the basis for all objective principles and, therefore, of human virtue. In short, the Tao refers to the belief “that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” [12] Throughout The Abolition of Man, Lewis argues that modern abandonment of the Tao endangers society by producing Men Without Chests. That is to say that items of wisdom and morality are not entirely matters of convention; they are embedded in the way things are, and the fact that different societies construct certain moral and practical matters differently does not in any way eliminate the reality of common sense solutions to human problems developed over centuries.

Conclusion

I am afraid that this week’s blog may imply a wholesale rejection of Dewey. It does not. It simply indicates a limitation in his work and a flow. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, issues a needed corrective. Dewey is a materialist. According to this view, “the world of facts is without any inherent trace of value, and the world of moral judgments and much traditional wisdom is without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.” [13]  

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis defends the legitimacy of the Tao or “Way, and outlines the moral and intellectual confusion that derives from a radical subjectification of moral judgments and the irrational nihilism that results from pressing the materialistic argument too far. In other words, Lewis argues, and I would agree, that the modern world is in constant danger of irrational and illogical behavior resulting from the complete privatization and relativization of moral judgments. If one wishes to see the end result of the contemporary view, one might look at the moral condition of much of American politics and education, perhaps especially the current violence on American campuses and the irrationality of much of our political discourse.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1938), 42.

[2] Id, at 43.

[3] Id, at 44-45.

[4] Id, at 45.

[5] Id, at 50.

[6] Id. Dewey would not agree with my insertion of the importance of spiritual, moral, and emotional factors into the action of human decision-making. He is a determined material list. The limitations of what he is saying here is precisely that rather than seeing the human person as a radical unity of all levels physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, he reduces everything to the material level.

[7] Id, at 61.

[8] Id, at 64.

[9] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York, Collier Books, a division of Macmillan, 1955): 28. For a Christian interpretation of the Chinese Tao, see G. Christopher Scruggs, Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love rev. ed. (Shiloh Publishing, 2016),

[10] See Lit Charts, “The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis at https://www.litcharts.com/lit/the-abolition-of-man/terms/the-tao (downloaded May 7, 2024).

[11] Abolition of Man, at 28.

[12] Litcharts, at footnote 10 above.

[13] Abolition of Man, at 32-33.

John Dewey 2:Beyond Sharing (or Screaming) our Opinions.

Candid portrait of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey standing in a wooded area, 1935. (Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images).

This week, I had a series of blogs on my mind, ranging from my practical analysis of our policies in the Middle East to a meditation on discipleship to continuing to dialogue with John Dewey regarding political philosophy. In the end, I decided that I was going to devote this week’s blog to John Dewey and the subject of logic and public policy formation. As with my last blog, I’m somewhat dependent upon the work done by Donald Gelpi in his masterful work, The Gracing of Human Experience and a friend for suggesting that I read him. [1]

Last week, I devoted myself to his notion of conversion that goes far beyond spiritual conversion to the conversion of the mind, the heart, the morals, and the politics of Christians. His philosophical analysis of conversion can be applied to secular and religious conversions. He proceeds with his analysis by looking at some of my favorite philosophers, including C. S. Peirce, Josiah Royce, Herbert Mead, and John Dewey.

Readers of the blog will remember that I am attached to the notion that our political culture suffers from a lack of authentic dialogue. It is to say that so much of our politics assumes that the political process is all about debate, argument, voting, and winning or losing. As one of my professors in college put it, “Politics is about power.” At the time, I agreed. However, as the years have gone by, I find myself disagreeing at a fundamental level. Politics is about power. However, democratic politics cannot be conducted without community, dialogue, and the search for mutual understanding. At its deepest level, politics is about community.

The subject of logic plays a vital role in dialogue. In a democracy, often people think of dialogue as various people and groups just saying what they believe. They don’t have to have a reason for what they think; what they’re considering doesn’t have to be logical; it’s enough that they have an opinion. At some level, this is a harmless illusion. However, for progress to be made, dialogue has to proceed on the assumption that we are searching for practical solutions to social problems, which will be revealed to us as a result of a process of inquiry.

Three Modes of Logical Inquiry

Most people are familiar with two methods of logical inquiry: “induction” and “deduction.” Peirce introduced a third, intermediate logic called “Abduction.” All human thinking, if it is to be valid, must consist of manipulating signs in one or more of these three logical ways. [2] Briefly, the three methods can be defined as follows:

  1. Induction. Inductive reasoning begins with specific observations and proceeds to a generalized conclusion that is likely but not certain in light of accumulated evidence.
  2. Deduction. Deductive reasoning begins with general rule and proceeds to a guaranteed specific conclusion in a limited case. If the original assertion is true, the conclusion must be valid in deductive reasoning.
  3. Abduction. Abductive reasoning begins with limited and necessarily incomplete observations and proceeds to the likeliest possible explanation for what experiencehas revealed.

Abductive logic yields the kind of daily decision-making that does its best with the information that can be acquired, which often is incomplete and draws a conclusion based on the best available evidence. It then tests its findings.

Abduction and Reasonable Inquiry

Importantly, abductive reasoning is at the center of a scientific approach to understanding and at the center of other forms of intellectual progress as well. Neither induction nor deduction can provide intellectual explanations of phenomena. All scientific inquiry begins with a problem and one or more hypotheses or ideas about the best answer or solution to the problem. This has important implications because it “dethrones” the positivist notion of knowledge as based upon “the facts alone.” Instead, all facts are identified and interpreted within some interpretive framework. Science, for example, is interested in developing and analyzing facts. Still, those facts are developed and analyzed within a theoretical matrix of reasonableness based on the scientific method.

Science is not the only area of life in which one has to reason from a hypothesis to a conclusion that can be tested against the facts. This is, for example, what detectives do when solving a crime. (“I think the Butler did it; now I have to find evidence that supports that conclusion.”) It is essential in business. (“I think this new product will sell; however, before investing a lot of money, I need to do market research to be sure I’m correct.” It is true in law. (“I think the right way to structure this transaction is as follows. But I need to test out whether or not my theory is correct.”) It’s true in Government. (“I think the best policy in this situation would be to raise taxes, but I still have to think and discover what facts are in support of my opinion.”)

Fallibilism and Humility

In addition to testing, I have to remain open to the possibility that my hypothesis is false and thus accept the existence of contrary facts. This involves two crucial principles that underlie abductive inquiry:

  1. Fallibilism. All wise thinking includes the possibility that I might be wrong. Fallibilism holds that no empirical belief (theory, view, thesis, etc. ) can be conclusively proven in a way that eliminates the possibility of error or limitations. There always remains doubt as to the truth of any empirical matter.
  2. Humility. Understanding that human understanding is limited, partial, and often wrong, I humbly open my mind to evidence contrary to my ideas.

Unfortunately, American public debate sadly lacks both a sense of the limits of human knowledge and humility about human availability and openness to contra views. This is why, even in families, it is difficult to have rational discussions about specific political figures at this time.

Abduction and Dialogue

Deep within the logical views of both Peirce and Royce is the notion that all thinking is tripartite. First, outside of myself, there is a reality being investigated (the object). Second, there exist my ideas (or my group’s ideas) about that object. Finally, there is the interpretation of my ideas (or my group’s ideas) of that reality by a third party, who is the interpreter.

In many ways, this is the most complicated area of all in public discourse. In a nation of 300 million people, it shouldn’t be surprising that there are thousands of interpretations of the same reality. There are many different interpretations of any one group’s ideas about any political reality. Public officials, if they are to act logically and wisely, have to somehow analyze, usually in groups, that reality and all the various ways in which it is interpreted and, from that, develop a course of action (the policy choice).

The Logic of Dewey

This gets me to the role of logic in the thought of John Dewey. John Dewey considers his view of logic as “instrumentalism.” [3] That is to say, logic exists as an instrument by which human beings make decisions. Because Dewey was a materialist, he considered that our notions of logic have two sources:

  1. First, the universe’s evolution created species that survive a way of looking at reality that was pragmatically useful for survival. That pragmatic way of looking at reality in the quest for survival is a natural source of logic.
  2. Second, all human beings exist in a human society that has evolved over time. Certain ways of thinking and looking at reality were conducive to that society’s success and its challenges. Thus, culture is also a source of logic. [4]

In other words, deduction, induction, and abduction did not emerge from some ideal realm, as Plato might have thought. Still, instead, these forms of reasoning evolved as a part of human beings facing reality and trying to adapt successfully to that reality and the challenges it presents. If we go this far with Dewey, we can see a natural connection between logic and political theory. Demanding that our public debate be rational and logical is just part of demanding that it successfully lead to policies that serve the common good.

On a purely instrumental level, we can see the importance of Dewey’s insight. However, I don’t think either Pierce or Royce would have entirely agreed with Dewey’s conclusions, nor do I think that they are consistent with the deepest understandings of modern science. For them, the universe itself displays a kind of rationality, from its inception, rationality, that we see logically developed in the mathematics of, for example, quantum physics. This rationality that is embedded in the universe is in some way prior to any human evolutionary rationality, and any human culture.

From a Christian perspective, the universe demonstrates an underlying rationality because it was created by a logical and rational creator, who, in love, created the universe that we are privileged to discover on a number of levels: scientific, religious, cultural, economic, political, and otherwise. This does not mean that aspects of this rationality that we observe in the universe is not a matter of evolutionary success. On the assumption that evolution and the gradual development of human culture were built into the potential of the universe from its very first days, then one believes it over millions of years, the rationality that we observe in the universe and in human culture gradually ever so gradually emerged over time.

The great British physicist turned religious scholar, John Polkinghorne, put it this way:

Certainly, our powers of thought must be in such conformity with the everyday structure of the world that we are able to survive by making sense of our environment.  But that does not begin to explain why highly abstract concepts of pure mathematics should fit perfectly with the patterns of the subatomic world of quantum theory or the cosmic world of relativity, both of which are regimes whose understanding is of no practical consequence whatsoever from humankind’s ability to have held its own in the evolutionary struggle. Nor does the fact that we are made of the same stuff (quarks, gluons and electrons) as the universe serve to explain how microscopic man is able to understand the microcosm of the world.  Some fairly desperate attempts have been made along these lines nevertheless showing how pressing is the need to find an explanation for the significant fact of intelligibility. [5]

This observation sits at the ground of my view that Christians ought to be able to engage in public life and public discourse and state their views on Christian grounds, so long as those views are stated logically and with reference to the reality of other positions. We cannot necessarily expect that strictly Christian views will be accepted in every matter of public debate, and in fact, we should be consciously aware of the fact that our views might be wrong, but nevertheless, Christians should be entitled to state their views on public matters.

Instrumentalism and Public Policy

It should be obvious that the notion that reason has an instrumental function and that logic is in itself instrumental has important consequences for the development of public policy and the conduct of public debate. Public policy is about adopting strategies and tactics that will lead society to a better state. As such, it is an essentially logical process. Dewey, while not directly talking about politics and political theory, put it this way:

It is reasonable to search for and select the means that will, with the maximum probability, yield the consequences which are intended. It is highly unreasonable to employ as means, materials, and processes that would be found, if they were examined, to be such that they produce consequences that are different from the intended end, so different that they preclude its attainment. [6]

Applied to the realm of public discourse, this principle can be stated as follows: Public policy is unreasonable if it adopts policies and processes that, under examination, are likely to produce consequences contrary to the public good and the intended result. In public life, politicians should be willing to subject their views to criticism and modify their policies where the best evidence indicates that the public good intended cannot be acquired by the means chosen.

Wise public policymaking involves using all the forms of logic suggested above. We must guess what the wisest public policy is (our hypothesis). We must gather facts that either support or do not support our hypothetical public policy. Finally, in reaching our conclusions, we must be sure that they’re not deductively incoherent. This is a part and parcel of proving or disproving the hypothesis.

Conclusion

I will spend a couple of more blogs on the fascinating question of the role of logic in public policy. It’s a subject that I think deserves our attention. We live in a society where the media and other specific instruments often promote a kind of decision-making based on what “I want” (or what my group wants). This kind of decision-making does not lead to sound public policy. It needs to be replaced. Furthermore, all ideologically driven policy formulations will likely be unsuccessful because they arrive at a reasoning process based on what I think an ideal society should look like. Both Marxist and hyper-capitalist policy thought are subject to weakness.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Donald L. Gelpi, The Gracing of Human Experience: Rethinking the Relationship between Nature and Grace (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001).

[2]. This section of the blog relies on my analysis of Peirce in G. Christopher Scruggs, A “Sophio-Agapic” Approach to Political Philosophy: Essays on a Constructive Post-Ideological Politics (Unpublished Manuscript, 2024).

 

 

 

[3] John Dewey used this term to describe his version of pragmatism. In this sense, logic is an instrument for evaluating ideas and policy alternatives. This is to be distinguished from instrumentalism, which refers solely to the means and use of power.

[4] John Dewey, Logic: The Theory of Inquiry (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1938), 23-60.

[5] John C. Polkinghorne, Science and Creation: The Search for Understanding (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), 30.

[6] Logic, at 10.

How Grace Transforms Everything

Some weeks ago, a new friend suggested I read Donald L. Gelpi’s The Gracing of Human Experience: Rethinking the Relationship between Nature and Grace. [1] In this blog, I will not go into the details of his thoughts but instead focus on his analysis of the holistic power of grace to transform human persons. Why is this important for laypersons? It is important because all Christians, to be the kind of disciples we want and intend to be, need to be transformed, not just spiritually, but in our minds, ways of thinking, cultural attitudes, political attitudes, and other ways. The gospel does not transform only a part of me. It transforms all of me.

The Dynamic Process of Conversion

The dynamic process of conversion takes more than one form, each of which reinforces the other. For the purposes of our discussion, let’s look at the following kinds of conversion:

  • Religious conversion impacts our view of the nature of the world and ultimate reality.
  • Intellectual conversion impacts how we think and visualize the world and ultimate reality.
  • Affective conversion impacts our emotional life and our affections
  • Moral conversion affects how we view questions of value and ultimate moral claims.
  • Socio-political conversion impacts how we see human society and human culture.

These various forms of conversion are not separate but rather exist in a dynamic relationship with one another. As our religious beliefs change, our way of thinking changes. As our thinking changes, our emotions change. As our emotions change, our morals change. As our morals change, the way in which we see humans, society, and culture changes. This interconnectedness is a testament to the comprehensive nature of grace’s transformative power.

I decided this week to insert a little graphic that illustrates the dynamic form of conversion. It would go something like this:

 

The point of the graphic is to illustrate the absolute interconnectedness of a conversion experience.

In the past, I’ve had an opportunity to talk about the interconnectedness of reality. At the deepest levels of reality, things seem to exist in a state that physicists call “entanglement.” If this is the case, it should not surprise us that human beings exist in a complex, interconnected dialogue between the various universes they inhabit: religious, intellectual, emotional, moral, and social-political. These universes can be separated for purposes of analysis, but they cannot be separated for purposes of everyday life. Therefore, a change or conversion in any of these universes automatically results in a change in all of the universes.

Or at least it should.

The World Turned Upside Down

In Acts 17, we read the following concerning Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica:

The next day, they journeyed through Amphipolis and Apollonia and arrived at Thessalonica. Here, Paul entered a synagogue of the Jews, following his usual custom. On three Sabbath days, he argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and quoting passages to prove the necessity for the death of Christ and his rising again from the dead. “This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you,” he concluded, “is God’s Christ!” Some of them were convinced and threw in their lot with Paul and Silas, and they were joined by a great many believing Greeks and a considerable number of influential women. But the Jews, in a fury of jealousy, got hold of some of the unprincipled loungers of the marketplace, gathered a crowd together, and set the city in an uproar. Then they attacked Jason’s house in an attempt to bring Paul and Silas out before the people. When they could not find them, they hustled Jason and some of the brothers before the civic authorities, shouting, “These are the men who have turned the world upside down and have now come here, and Jason has taken them into his house. What is more, all these men act against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king called Jesus!” (Acts 17:1-9, J. B. Phillips).

The complaint against the first apostles was not simply that they proclaimed Jesus the Messiah of Israel. That would not necessarily have turned the Roman world upside down. after all, Pilate put up a sign reading, “King of the Jews” on Jesus’ Cross. He did not seem a bit threatened by the claim.

The message that Jesus of Nazareth was a universal Messiah whose salvation was for everyone, in every place, and among every ethnicity was what turned the world upside down. This Messiah was to be the name above all other names, and all secular authorities must bow under his authority, even the Emperor (Philippians 2:10-11).  This is the claim that provoked opposition, then and now.

Many commentators have noticed that this proclamation had political and religious significance. Up to that time, political leaders were apt to believe their authority was absolute. that time, political leaders were apt to think of themselves as gods. They often thought of their authority as ultimate. In Jesus Messiah, that claim disappeared. Caesar’s claim to be a god was a false claim. The God of Israel was the one true God. Caesar’s claim to be the ultimate authority on this earth was false. Jesus Christ was the ultimate authority on this earth. If the apostles’ claims were true, then the foundation of the Roman Empire and many empires before that time was undermined.

Our World Turned Upside Down

The same is true today. If Jesus is the true Messiah, and if God’s nature was fully disclosed on the cross, if God really is love, then many of our presuppositions must change. Power is not absolute. Governmental power is not simply a matter of a winner-take-all contest. Our conversion to Jesus Christ changes everything. We can’t believe in the golden rule, “he has the gold rules.” We can’t believe that “Might means right.” We can’t think anything we do is justified because “The end justifies the means.”

Our conversion to Jesus Christ changes everything—or it was intended to. We can resist this change, and many of us do—all of us do at some point in our lives. We refuse to change the way we think, do business, relate to our spouses and family, and relate to others in our churches. We can also refuse to change how we view our culture, its institutions, and others in our society. When we do this, we deny the power of the gospel and the gospel itself. We refuse to change the way we treat people in our churches. Refusals indicate that we are not being converted as we should be. When we do this, we are refusing to allow God by the Holy Spirit to change us in our entire being. We deny both the power of the gospel and the gospel itself.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Donald L. Gelpi, The Gracing of Human Experience: Rethinking the Relationship between Nature and Grace (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001). Gelpi, a distinguished Jesuit scholar at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley from 1973 until his death, was a well-known Catholic author. In particular, he was an expert on the thoughts of C.S. Peirce, Josiah Royce, William James, John Dewey, and other pragmatists. My friend thought that I would profit from reading this book. Gilpi is a difficult author to read because he works in the twilight zone between philosophy and theology constantly moving between both disciplines.

Mead 3: The Ideal “Universal” Society

This blog’s regular readers understand that the author opposes any “this-worldly” form of millenarianism, secular or religious. Many of the worst episodes of human violence are rooted in the human desire to achieve a perfect world within the boundaries of human history. This has been true throughout human history—and sometimes true of Christians.

In the 20th Century, the cataclysmic barbarity of Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and a host of others found its roots in the mistaken belief that we can create a perfect world. Since the Enlightenment, human beings have been increasingly entranced by an unfounded hope that human beings can create an ideal society. Left and right politicians promise, and perhaps even occasionally work for, such a world. The results are uniformly disastrous. Churches and religious leaders can and have fallen into this trap. We can create a better world with wisdom and love for one another, but humans cannot make a perfect one.

The Hope for a Secular Paradise

Last week, I primarily dealt with conflict and integration in human society. This week, we will examine Mead’s notion of a “Universal Society.” Near the end of his discussion of conflict and integration, Mead states the following:

The human social ideal—the ideal or ultimate goal of human social progress—is the attainment of a universal human society in which all human individuals would possess a perfected social intelligence, such that all social meanings would each be similarly reflected in their respective social consciousness—such that the meanings of any one’s social acts or gestures (as realized by him and expressed in the structure of his self, through his ability to take the social attitudes of other individuals toward himself and toward their common social ends or purposes would be the same for any other individual who responded to them. [1]

Several aspects of this statement must be unpacked before we examine Mead’s views on achieving his notion of a universal human society.

  1. Mead accepts the Enlightenment notion of the inevitability of human progress.
  2. The world is evolving in accordance with the laws of nature, and human society is evolving according to the unwritten law of progress. In this, Mead reflects Darwin’s influence without fully applying the difference between cultural and biological evolution. In the case of biological evolution, all that is promised is survival of the fittest. In cultural evolution, such a “tooth and nail” notion ignores the fact that humans can actually create a worse future for themselves and the human race.
  3. At the core of Mead’s philosophy is the belief in human perfectibility, or more specifically, our capacity for a degree of “perfected social intelligence.” This term encapsulates our ability to understand and interpret social meanings and to align our actions with these meanings for the betterment of society.
  4. A perfected human social intelligence involves a unity of the acts and gestures of one’s individual self (“I” and “Me”), the social self of all other individual selves, and the social self of society as a whole regarding commonly held social ends or purposes. [2]

In my view, none of this is realistic or attainable, and an attempt to do so can result in foolish behavior, a loss of freedom, and suffering—the exact opposite of what those who make such an attempt desire.

Human Empathy

Underlying Mead’s argument is the human capacity to identify with one another in what he would call an “organized social life process.” [3] Mead understands that modern democratic societies have not reached the point where individual citizens can put themselves into the attitudes of those with whom they have relationships and whom they affect. [4] His argument, however, is based upon the presumption that it is at least theoretically possible, although there are obstacles and no society today has been able to achieve the kind of social solidarity envisions.

At this point, I think it might be good to put another word to this phenomenon: empathy. Empathy is the human ability to sense how another person is feeling and what they may be thinking and intellectually appreciate the reasons for human behavior. Empathy is crucial because it allows human beings to enter the emotional and thought world of another human being in a limited way. It is fundamental to such diverse practices as leadership, counseling, and even writing a popular book.

It doesn’t take a lot of experience to know that human empathy is limited. Every parent understands that they have some capacity to feel the pain and suffering of their children, but it’s imperfect. Every spouse knows the same. As one gets further from familiar relations, the problem gets even more severe. Pastors understand that they cannot fully enter the pain and suffering of counselees, so they must be careful about what they say and do. Business leaders understand that it is impossible to completely empathize with the problems of employees. Government leaders have the same experience. Our human capacity for empathy is limited, not just by our individuality but also by our selfishness and self-centeredness.

Societies cannot be built upon the hope that humans can fully enter into one another’s experiences on a social basis. We cannot. We can hope for a degree of wisdom and love in how we treat other people despite the fact that our interests and understanding will never be fully aligned. The problem is not that modern democratic societies or any other societies have not developed the capacity for complete understanding of and identification with the other. The problem is that it’s impossible.

Christians have an additional reason why we do not think a viable society can be built on human empathy or the human ability to enter into another individual’s mental, physical, and other worlds in a self-giving way: human sin, finitude, and brokenness. The human problem isn’t that some people do not have sufficient empathy. The human problem is not that some people act in selfish ways. The human problem isn’t that some people suffer from excessive anxiety and grasp too much money and power. The problem is we all do.

Children and Castes

Mead continues his analysis by examining the relationship between children and adults, especially between educators and children. [5] To be effective, teachers must empathetically enter the life world of those they teach. Interestingly enough, I have observed that when an adult teacher fully identifies with the children they are teaching, they emotionally regress or fail to mature as they should as adults. They get stuck in immaturity. As a pastor, I have seen this repeatedly with youth workers. Once again, this does not mean that we do not respect children, including respecting their limitations, emotional, physical, and mental. Any good teacher does. However, no good teacher believes it is enough to empathize with the student.

The second category Mead discusses is perhaps even more problematic. He begins to speak of “castes.” Most people are familiar with the Indian caste system, an absolute, impenetrable, and humanly unfair system of social stratification. Mead takes this concept and extends it to other relationships, particularly economic relationships. Once again, motivated by the best possible intentions, he muddies the waters instead of clarifying the situation. There’s a significant difference between “castes” and “achievement-oriented positions.”

Most of the time, there is an elite in churches, businesses, governments, academia, and other institutions. Much of the time, that elite has earned its way to a position. Of course, anyone who’s worked in any organization understands that political, social, and other injustices occur. Such injustices need to be addressed. But it’s a mistake to think that achievement-based excellence is some kind of a cast that excludes other people unfairly. [6] Mead seems to understand the limits of his analysis. For example, he notes, “Insofar as specialization is normal and helpful, it increases concrete, social relationship relationships. Differences in occupation do not themselves build up castes.” [7] Yet, his analysis leaves the impression that much of modern Western society’s social and economic inequity stems from this problem.

Selves and Societies

At the route of the problem of human social organization, the unbridgeable distinction between Selves and Society. Although human beings depend upon one another and civilization depends on our ability to unite in common endeavors, human self-centeredness, and selfishness inevitably color and render partial human social integration.

In a wonderful passage, Mead analyzes this problem:

The “social” aspect of human society – which is simply the social aspect of the cells of all the individual members taken collectively—with its concomitant feelings on the parts of all those individuals of cooperation and social interdependence, is the basis for the development and existence of ethical ideals in that society; whereas the quotes, “a social” aspect of human society – which is simply the asocial aspect of the cells of all human members taken collectively – with its concomitant feelings on the part of all these individuals of individual individuality, self-superiority to other individual selves, and social independence is responsible for the rise of ethical problems in that society. [8]

It is important to understand what he is saying and its limitations to unpack this paragraph.

  1. Mead defines the social aspect of a society merely in terms of the collective interaction of individuals. This is a classic statement of the modern view that individuals exist in purely external relationships with other individuals. Any such view inevitably ends up defining the existence of individuals in terms of power.
  2. Ethics is based upon a social consensus, the collective views of individual decisions concerning morality.
  3. Any society’s ethical problems stem from “asocial” aspects of human life instead of the social aspects of human life.

I believe meat is an error in all three of these beliefs. First, he’s already indicated that he understands that human beings grow out of social institutions, beginning with the family. If this is to be taken seriously, human individuals have no priority over human societies. Societies and human individuals exist in a kind of dynamic relationship. Individuals are important, and society is essential.

Second, the modern world was built upon the belief that human reason would be able to identify instead of human ethics that were agreed upon by all reasonable people. The history of the last 300 years shows that delusional. Our modern debates over abortion or a case in reasonable people on both sides hold diametrically opposed positions that cannot possibly be unified. The view against abortion did not grow out of a social consensus. In fact, in Greco-Roman society, there was no boundary against it. Instead, it grew out of something else: the belief that the sanctity of life was derivative of God’s love for every human being. Christians opposed the social consensus of their day on precisely that basis. My view is that ethics is a portion of wisdom. This is why studying the past and the decisions of the past, including wisdom and literature, is so important. When the writers of proverbs speak about sexual immorality, they do so based on the entirety of human history and the general experience of every human society that unbridled sexual gratification is foolish.

Finally, it doesn’t seem to me that you can say that the problems of human society stem from the “asocial” aspects of society unless you want to use the word asocial as a synonym for human self-centeredness, sin, and anxiety infinitude. If you’re going to do that, you can’t think of these things as aspects of human nature that can be overcome and extinguished. You think of them as things that must be dealt with and controlled. The writers of the Constitution had such a view. The whole system of checks and balances of American democracy has to do with the view that no one is trustworthy. Therefore, everyone has to be subject to constraints and limitations.

Conclusion

I’m going to have to leave me for a time. I’m writing a novel and must concentrate on the story. Nevertheless, I cannot leave his book without discussing his views on human time embeddedness and its consequences for human thinking. Mead was a student of Einstein and. understood that human beings are inevitably embedded in time and space and are therefore limited in their reasoning by their position in the space-time continuum. In a rather brilliant section of the book, he notes that humans always perceive the present based on the past and always understand the past based on the present. In other words, there is no unfiltered, scientific” understanding of the past. Our past is a constantly changing mental construct, as we’ve reflected upon it, as is our anticipation of the future. Even our current perceptions are immediately colored by all of the relevant perceptions from our past. [9]

Just to give a simple example of this, this morning, I was walking to get some exercise. I passed by a unique fence of multicolored wood. I immediately saw that it was a fence. Then, I noticed it was not like most of the wooden fences I am familiar with. The angles of the wood were different. The colors of the wood were different. Every fence influenced my understanding of this particular fence I could remember having seen. As I walked on, I continued to ponder fences in our neighborhood. I noticed other fences. I compared them with my mental picture of the fences I had just seen. But no fence was in my immediate consciousness except the one I was gazing at at that moment.

This has powerful implications for wisdom in public life. We are all colored by the attitudes, education, prejudices, and other factors of our past in our political views. Our hopes also influence our current political views for some future political situations. But we live in the present and must act in the present.  The only way to overcome those prejudices is to adopt a pragmatic attitude toward politics. As we think about past situations, we have to scrutinize them to be sure that we have the best understanding of what occurred and how effective a former policy was that we could have. We have to overcome our colored knowledge of that past. On the other hand, as we gaze at our preferred future, we also must act wisely. Instead of making massive changes, we must experiment and ensure our hoped-for future can be obtained.

I was a pastor for years and served in liberal and conservative denominations; I have friends on both sides of the political arguments. I’ve gradually come to the view that I am not. I’ve also come to the view that my friends are not right concerning many matters. I’ve concluded that none of us know what to do next. As we move into the future, our best move is to closely examine an action’s likely consequences and carefully monitor our success or failure. If we can do that, left and right, there’s hope for a better future.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology rev. ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 270-271.

[2] At this point, Mead’s argument’s weakness becomes evident. After 300 years of Enlightenment thinking, no evidence exists that such a situation can be peacefully obtained. The fact is that people have widely divergent notions of what is involved in social progress and what any “ideal universal society” should look like. Many of these divergent notions are not only divergent; they are opposed to one another. Abortion, transgender issues, the degree of economic freedom individuals should possess, the degree of censorship the government should be able to employ, all these and more have vastly divergent proponents.

[3] On Social Psychology, 271.

[4] Id, at 282.

[5] Id, at 272.

[6] [6] Id, at 272-273.

[7] Id,

[8] Id, at 275-276.

[9] Id, at 328-341.

Mead 2: On Society and Social Institutions

Last week, I ended by uniting George Herbert Mead’s views with those of C. S. Peirce and Josiah Royce via the notion of dialogue. Human beings exist in constant dialogue internally and between themselves, others, and the culture in which they live. This “triadic dialogue,” first suggested by C. S. Peirce and expanded by Josiah Royce, is not unique to Mead. It is, however, foundational to the kind of abductive, scientific view of how society might function.

Such a view undermines any political philosophy based on power. Dialogue is essentially a rational process, not a process of the will. It is essentially anti-Nietzschean. Dialogue presumes human beings can make sensible changes as they interact within a social context. This aspect of the pragmaticists’ thought gives hope that our society can overcome its fascination with power and will to power and move towards a more harmonious and equitable future.

One of my readers kindly asked me to bring the discussion forward with a discussion of Mead’s approach to political life, which I will try to do. Before launching off into the attempt, I think a reminder is essential: This blog tries to be sympathetic to every writer whose views are examined but also to recognize their place in the history of ideas and not require writers’ (or political actors’) views or actions which their position in history renders impossible. Mead writes in the early 20th Century, in an America that no longer exists. He also wrote before the famous failures and crimes of communism and the failure of the post-World War II socialist economies of Europe, which were required to open themselves to more competition to overcome stagnation and a loss of competitiveness. He also writes before the fragmentation of American society so evident in recent years. His social location is academic America in the early 20thCentury.

Selves and Society

For Mead, society and social institutions emerge in a dynamic relational process by which humans (“I’s”) constantly dialogue with and adapt to their surrounding culture. The initial culture for most human beings is a family consisting of parents, grandparents, and others who first influence the emergence of the child. Every child develops a self-image as it learns to adapt to the culture and perceptions of those who raise it. There is a constant internal dialogue between the emerging self (“I”) and the socially endorsed view that an individual has of themselves (“Me”).

This dialogue between self and society continues throughout life as humans adapt to their ever-changing environment. In a complex society such as ours, individuals are faced with the challenging task of navigating the social expectations and customs of an ever-more-complex hierarchy of institutions, familial, economic, educational, political, and other, each of which influences and is influenced by the other. This intricate web of societal interactions and influences provides a rich, stimulating environment for intellectual exploration and understanding.

Emergent Universality

Mead notes that human social institutions are of various sizes. He notes that Americans, with their native love of size and success, have long given institutional priority to larger institutions. [1] This love of the large and our intuitive belief that size and universality are both critical and positive can fail to understand that the large and universal can undermine the smaller foundations upon which they rest.

Mead believes that Rousseau’s notion of “The Will of the People” implies the gradual emergence of a “Universal Will of the People” and institutions that reflect that universal will. In his day, the League of Nations represented an attempt to create an organization in which a universal will could be institutionalized. [2] The failure of the League of Nations and the development of the United Nations after World War II can be seen as another attempt to institutionalize this universal will. Perhaps more importantly, creating a host of international administrative agencies, courts, service organizations, NGOs, and the like reflects the same impulse. [3]

Since Darwin’s time, all philosophy has been influenced by and must account for evolution. Mead represents one attempt to do so in the area of social psychology. Lurking behind his notion of emergent universality is the idea that human social organization is “going somewhere” in an evolutionary process. Mead understands that the evolution of human societies is not the same or subject to the same forces as natural evolution. The evolution of human societies involves the activities of reflexive human beings and the choices they make.

Religious and Economic Universality

Mead believes that human history reveals two universalizing processes reflecting this tendency. First, there is the emergence of “Religious and Economic Universality,” a phrase that refers to the impulse to achieve a universal or all-encompassing order in religious and economic contexts. I think that this particular analysis is flawed. From the beginning of human civilization, there has been what I would call a tendency to seek political universality as kingdoms and empires sought to expand their boundaries. Examples are the movements from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas in the ancient world.

Similarly, there has been an impulse to expand economic influence and trade throughout history. Marco Polo’s story is one of hundreds of stories of ancient trade explorers. Throughout history, wherever a political subdivision has been created, a kind of economic universality emerges within that empire—and beyond as that empire seeks to expand its economic life.

Mead also examines the expansion of religious groups with a universalizing tendency as they claim or desire universal scope. Mead uses Islam as an example of a religion that uses all available social means, political, legal, cultural, and military, to achieve a universal Islamic society. [4] In reality, many religious groups, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic, and others have expanded their reach, often following the path of armies or economic expansion. How Islam finds its way to Indonesia is a story of a religion following ancient trade routes. Similarly, European and American missionaries followed European nations’ economic and political expansion. However, I believe this is a secondary phenomenon in most cases.

In any case, human history provides many examples of groups seeking to dominate other groups and universalize their particular social beliefs, forms, and organization. As communities come into conflict with one another, there is a constant impulse to seek domination. [5]

Self and Society

Underlying society’s constant turmoil and change is the continual interplay between the self and culture—and, in the case of most individuals in a complex society, between selves and the innumerable societies in which they participate. In the Western World of Mead’s day and the international community of our day, there is a constant interplay and adjustment of individuals and groups to one another. Often, this is expressed in terms of military activities. One thinks of the current struggles in Gaza and the Ukraine as examples.

Just as human beings seek to assert their egos in private life, in the life of nations, governments struggle for superiority and domination. With domination comes a degree of affluence and other kinds of social superiority. This, in turn, provokes additional conflict. Nevertheless, in the struggles of various societies for dominance and security, there is the potential for rational and non-violent accommodation and negation. [6]

Conflict and Integration

The process of social interaction and the drive for greater and greater social organization results in conflict in and among all human societies. Anyone who has been married understands that even the smallest family unit cannot avoid periodic conflict. In analyzing the role of conflict in human societies, Mead makes a distinction between two different social situations that impact the degree and dangers of conflict:

  1. Conflict within and among groups with some degree of commonality
  2. Conflict within groups where there is either. There is no degree of commonality or even outright hostility.

The first situation occurs where some degree of common life, social solidarity, and friendliness exists. In such situations, conflict arises within an underlying degree of shared values and cooperation. In the second situation, the factors that tend to moderate and make rational accommodation possible are either absent or weak. Instead, there is a degree of hostility, distrust, a lack of common life, social solidarity, and friendship. [7]

This distinction illuminates the difficulty the United States is having at the current time. Since the Second World War, and especially since the late 1960s, there has been a decline in common life, social solidarity, and friendliness among social groups. There are many reasons for this. Two that come to mind are the increasing lack of shared religious and moral values and the increasing concentration of wealth and power in society. The lack of shared spiritual and ethical standards and economic disparity make it difficult to feel that social and political life is fair or just. At the same time, a historically unique degree of conflict among classes, races, religions, and other groups has emerged in America. This situation points to a need to rebuild the common life of the nation in such a way as to increase the fragile bonds of common life, social solidarity, and friendliness.

Mead recognizes an inevitable degree of hostile behavior in any society, including the modern nation-state. A society’s legal system usually moderates this inevitable degree of latent and actual conflict. [8] The ability of any legal system to curb conflict is dependent upon (i) an underlying degree of lawful cooperative behavior in situations where there is or might be conflict, (ii) a degree and extent of conflict that existing institutions can handle, and (iii) a degree of trust in the fairness of existing institutions. I believe here, too, we see room for improvement and a warning concerning our current tendency to tolerate certain forms of unlawful behavior, an increasing level of social conflict, and the erosion of trust in the fundamental fairness of the legal system.

Conclusion

I am going to extend this series to one more blog next week. Mead is the least appreciated of the pre-World War II pragmatists. His views are important because he further develops Peirce’s communitarian foundation of pragmatism, which Royce extended. He deepens Royce’s analysis of the nature of human communities and provides deep insight into the interplay between individuals and social groups.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology rev. ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 255.

[2] Id, at 262-262.

[3] The failure of the League of Nations and the various corruptions of the United Nations and other international agencies reflect a continuing inability to find workable forms for institutionalizing this universalizing impulse, or perhaps it reflects the fact that no such “universal human institutions” of a governmental type are feasible at this time in history.

[4] On Social Psychology, at 256-257.

[5] Id, at 259.

[6] Id, at 259.

[7] Id, at 264-265.

[8] Id, at 265.

George Herbert Mead and the Social Self

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is the least known of the American pragmatists. He published numerous articles during his lifetime but not a more extensive work. His classic work On Social Psychology was published after his death as a compilation of his writings. [1] The second reason Meade is not well-known as a pragmatist is that he is better known as a founder of social psychology. Nevertheless, he taught philosophy at the University of Chicago and was a sought-after philosophy teacher there.

Mead is important because he represents a communitarian approach to pragmatism partially in the lineage of Alfred North Whitehead. His approach to social thought is evolutionary and informed by the notion that society is always in process. Thus, he participates in what is sometimes called “constructive postmodernism.”

Mead is finally well known because he was a disciple of perhaps the most influential pragmatist in political theory, John Dewey. Dewey and Mead were close friends, and Dewey considered him one of the brightest people he had ever met.

Mead’s Connection with Peirce

Mead’s understanding of the human self was deeply influenced by the work of Charles Sanders Peirce, particularly his semiotic approach to human thought. Mead developed the term “gesture” to show how language grows out of our human capacity to point and make gestures. Languages are merely “gestures” converted into signs.

Mead believed the human self develops primarily due to its capacity to use human language. He saw the process of language, the ability of human beings to think in signs, as essential to the unique capacity of human beings to have both an ‘I’ and a ‘Me,’ that is, to have a self and a social self. Nevertheless, he also saw human thinking as a social experience. Human beings achieve selfhood through interacting with the social circumstances in which they are born.

Process and Evolution

Like Peirce, Whitehead, Bergson, and others, Mead is influenced by evolutionary theory and its implications for human thought and society. He is also aware of and influenced by Relativity Theory and Quantum Theory and understands impact onns for human thought and social philosophy.

Like the emergence of human society, the emergence of that self is an evolutionary process. The modernist view is that society is simply an amalgamation of self-creating individuals. To Mead, believing the human individual is merely the product of material social forces is simplistic. There is an interaction between human selves and society, out of which, in a dynamic process, human beings and human societies are formed.

Order and Change

The order of society is a constant tension between what might be termed the forces of revolution and the forces of order. Mead put it like this:

That is the problem of society, is it not? How can you present order and structure in society and yet bring about the changes that need to take place, or are taking place? How can you bring about those changes in an orderly fashion yet preserve order? To bring about change is seemingly to destroy the given order, yet society must change. That is the problem of incorporating the method of change into the order of society itself. [2]

Here, we see the impact of evolutionary thinking and the French Revolution on Mead’s thought. Mead considers human society to be a constantly evolving organism, and he is, in this way, influenced by Darwin. He sees that the institutions of any given society must change. In this, Mead is a post-Enlightenment/post-French Revolution thinker.

On the other hand, Mead also sees that change in any given society cannot occur in such a way that it destroys its fundamental order. The results of this way of thinking were evident in the French Revolution and are apparent in our own culture today. There is more to progress than revolutionary change. There is also the preservation of the best ideas of the past. In this sense, Mead is in league with thinkers like Edmund Burke, who see the danger of revolutionary ideologies.

As a pragmatist, Mead is interested in discerning how change can be managed in an orderly process in which human beings can continue to flourish and there can be harmony in an ever-changing social order. In the tradition of Peirce, Mead believes that a scientific way of managing change, that is, an orderly process of investigation, trial and error, hypothesis, experiment, and change, is the best method for societies to move forward. In this sense as well, Mead is anti-ideological. He would be utterly opposed to contemporary ideological politics, left and right.

Finally, Mead distinguishes evolution as it occurs in nature and the kind of evolution one sees in society. Natural evolution is, by its very nature, purposeless. On the other hand, human social evolution can be both orderly and purposeful because it is the product of decisions by rational human beings. Because human beings can reflect, they can adapt to change in an orderly manner that protects the interests of society ividual participants. [3]

Selves and Society

Human beings have a unique reflective capacity to have both an ‘I’ and a ‘Me,’ that is, to have a self (I) and a social self (Me). It is unique to human beings that we can mentally see ourselves as objects of our thought. This is a “reflexive capacity.” We can reflect upon ourselves, our beliefs, actions, successes, failures, character, and lack of character. This reflective capacity is essential to developing the social and individual selves. This reflexive capacity is lacking in lower animals, which means the characteristics of human selves and society are unique. [4]

Humans can see themselves directly and indirectly through human thought, which inevitably involves signs. As a result of their capacity for “self-dialogue,” human beings can see themselves from the viewpoint of others in society. It is that interaction between the “personal self” (I) and the social self (Me), and the reflexive capacity of humans that gives human beings the unique capacity to make moral judgments, to create order or disorder, and to grow.

This kind of thinking is preparatory to social action by any individual and social change. Our ability to have an “inner conversation” about circumstances and decisions inevitably allows us toakind of personal and social dialogue about the desirability of any particular social change.

For Mead, human selves emerge in a kind of dialogue with society. The organization of the human community proceeds the emergence of any particular self. Human beings are born into a social matrix that existed before they were born, before they became conscious, before they began to make decisions, and before they could influence that social matrix. In other words, needs thought is essentially communitarian. Human beings are born into a community, and the nature of that community has powerful influences over what kind of person and what kind of event “I” that person becomes.

Pragmatism and Process

At this point, the process aspect of Mead’s thought becomes important. He puts it like this:

In other words, the organized structure of every individual self within the social process of experience and behavior reflects and is constituted by the organized relational pattern of that process as a whole; but each individual self–structure reflects and is constituted by a different aspect or perspective of this relational pattern, because each reflects this relational pattern from its own unique standpoint so that the common social origin and constitution of individual selves and their structures does not preclude wide individual differences and variations among them, or contradict the peculiar and more less distinctive individuality, which agent of them, in fact possesses. [5]

This characteristic of Mead’s thought is essential to understanding individuals’ capacity to be founded in a specific social context and dynamically change it. While it is true that individual selves emerge from a social context, it is also true thavidual self is a distinctive part of the pattern of society as a whole.

Fiforemostmentally, each human being has a particular genetic Whichc makeup differs from every other human being. Therefore, on a physical levelvidual self has the inevitable result of changing society and the capacity to change that society intentionally.

Second, each self has a different perspective from everyone else in society. Everyone who participates in a large society, such as ours, may not make a tremendous difference, but each individual does make a difference. As human selves emerge through a process of dialogue with society, that is, as the “I” continues to be in dialogue with its social self (Me), that individual self has the inevitable result of changing society and the capacity to change that society intentionally. Participating in a large society like ours may not make a significant difference, but each individual does make a difference.

Selves and Society

As previously indicated, Mead believes that human beings do not make themselves. Instead, they become cells in the context of human society. Human civilization is made possible by the generalized social attitudes of that society, which individuals internalize. Nevertheless, human beings are not Ottomans determined by their society.

Human society, we have insisted, does not merely stamp the pattern of its organized social behavior upon any of its individual members so that this pattern becomes likewise the pattern of the individual self; it also, at the same time, gives him a mind, as the means or ability of consciously conversing with himself in terms of the social attitudes, which constitute the structure of his self and which embodied the pattern of human societies organized behavior, as reflected in that structure. And his mind enables him in turn to stamp the pattern of his further developing self (further developing through his mental capacity), upon the structure or organization or organization of human society, and thus in a degree to reconstruct and modify in terms of his self the general pattern of social or group behavior in terms of which his self was originally constituted. [6]

Thus, society both forms individuals and is formeds by them. Society both molds individuals and is molded by them.

Conclusion

Next week, we will continue to examine the thought of G. H. Mead as it impacts politics and social change. The formation process of human beings, society, and social change is profoundly semiotic. Human beings exist in a constant dialogue internally and between themselves, others, and the culture in which they live. This “triadic dialogue,” first suggested by C. S. Peirce and expanded by Josiah Royce, is not unique to Mead. It is, however, foundational to the kind of abductive, scientific logic view of how society might function.

Such a view undermines any political philosophy based on power. Dialogue is essentially a rational process, not a process of the will. It is essentially anti-Nietzschean. Dialogue presumes human beings can make rational changes as they interact within a social context. It is this aspect of the pragmaticist’s thought that gives hope that our society can overcome its own fascination with power and will to power.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology rev. Ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1964).

[2] Id, at 21.

[3] Id, at 31.

[4] Id, at 201.

[5] Id, at 234-235.

[6] Id, at 251, footnote 2.

Lent 6: By His Stripes, we are Healed

In his great work, Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien describes the return of Aragon, the king of Gondor. Before entering the city, he fights a great battle outside its walls against the servants of the evil Sauron. The weapons of Sauron are incredibly destructive. As the wounded and weary are brought into the city, an old woman cries out,

Would that there were kings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said, in old lore, the hands of the king are the hands of the healer.  And so the rightful king shall be known. [1]

And so as the rightful king, Aragon, enters the city, full of wounded and weary souls, Gandalf, the Wizard, proclaims:

Let us not stay at the door, for the time is urgent. Let us enter! For it is only in the coming of Aragon that any hope remains for the sick that lie in the House. Thus spoke Iorith, the wise woman of Gondor:  The hands of the king are the hands of the healer, and so shall the rightful king be known. [2]

In The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of The Lord of the Rings, we are introduced to Aragon of Arathorn, a ranger—a solitary soul—a man condemned to work at the fringes of civilization, fighting the forces of Sauron from the shadows in obscurity. Bilbo Baggins is at first afraid of Arathorn. In the end, he is revealed to be a king—the true king of Gondor.

Our Unrecognizable Messiah.

The story the Bible tells is not very much different. There was once a rabbi who had incredible powers of teaching, healing, and exorcism. To those who knew him, to the crowds, he didn’t seem like the Messiah for whom they were looking. He was not from an influential family. He wasn’t a lawyer. He wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t a member of the military establishment. He wasn’t even part of the religious establishment. He was an outsider. Yet, when the people heard him preach and saw his mighty acts, they would exclaim, ‘Who is this man?’ In Mark, the crowds ask

 “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits, and they obey him (Mark 1:27).

They could not recognize this Messiah but knew Jesus of Nazareth was no ordinary person.

The Human Condition

The Jewish people believe that we human beings suffer from poor health and physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional illnesses as a result of sin—as a result of the fact that we are not in a state of peace with God, nature, others, or with ourselves. This lack of shalom infects our happiness and the stability of human society. It is a sickness of the soul.

Jesus warned his disciples,

Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell (Matthew 1028).

Jesus’s healings were, as the New Testament reminds us, signs that he is the rightful Messiah, the Anointed One who can and will deliver us from the greater ill of our alienation from God, others, and ourselves. Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophetic voice recorded in Isaiah:

He grew up before him like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, and there was nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Yet, surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:2-5)

The message that the Messiah will be a healer is part of what scholars call the “Servant Songs.” Over and over, Isaiah refers to one who is to come and who will be a faithful servant of the Most High. Some scholars believe these prophecies were intended to refer to Israel, but the church has always believed they referred to Jesus Christ.

Why is this Jesus of Nazareth our Messiah?

This weekend, we celebrate the central act in the Divine Drama of the Bible, the conclusion of the story of the Messiah God sent not just for the Jews but for all people. It is good to remember the character of this Messiah.

First, the Messiah entered into our human condition. Isaiah says, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot like a root out of dry ground” (53:2). There was an old Jewish proverb, “Can anything could come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Galileans like Jesus, were considered to be uncultured rural hillbillies. Jesus’ father was a carpenter. He was conceived out of wedlock. This is cultural “dry ground” as far as the Jews are concerned. If Jesus had been born in Jerusalem, the son of a high priest or a wealthy family, say the family of Caiphus, the high priest, well, it might have been reasonable to consider him Messiah. But that was not the case.

Second, the Messiah entered our physical limitations. Jesus, Isaiah 53 goes on to say, “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance, that we should desire him (53:2). David, the great king of Israel, is described explicitly to us, is having been handsome. (I Samuel, 16:12). If Jesus had been extraordinarily physically beautiful, it might have been easier to accept him as a Messiah. But he wasn’t. He was just an ordinary looking person—maybe a bit like Jethro Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies.

Third, the Messia experienced all our human problems. Isaiah says, “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (53:3). It was the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would go from victory to victory, but this Jesus of Nazareth did not. His life was one of rejection and pain. He was not always victorious, respected, esteemed, and put in leadership positions. He failed, was disrespected by the leaders of the people, and rejected by the nation. It didn’t make any sense to the Jews that God would send such a Messiah. This was Messiah, who identified with ordinary people, with ordinary limitations, abilities, and the ordinary suffering of human life.

Most Americans desire to live in constant health and happiness. As a result, we also don’t want a Messiah who suffers, is rejected, is in pain, and ultimately dies. We want a Messiah born of a fine family who lives a life of glowing popularity and success. If we returned today, we would be just like the Jews of Jesus. We would not want a Messiah without affluence, physical attraction, success, and nobility.

That kind of Messiah is not the Messiah who came to Israel; it is not the kind of Messiah who will come to us. Our Messiah suffers what we suffer. Our Messiah enters our human condition and shares it. Our Messiah suffers with us and with the world. Our Messiah is the one who dies in our dying and rises again in our rising. Fortunately for us, our Messiah assumes our problems, who “is pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and suffers the punishment that we so richly deserve (v. 5).

Our Healing Messiah

Isaiah 53 reveals that the wounds of the true Messiah will heal us. This is the Messiah we so often reject. There in Isaiah, we have, in miniature, written centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the gospel’s message: It is by the life and death of Jesus Christ that our healing can be accomplished. Our sins, shortcomings, and physical and emotional ills can be healed based on his life, death, and resurrection. “By his stripes, we are healed.” Our healing is accomplished based on the work of another – based on the suffering of God in Human Flesh. What we cannot do and never could do, God does.  This is the good news of the gospel.

In Lord of the Rings, Aragon heals the man he will replace as leader of the people. When Faramir awakes, he says, ‘My Lord, you called me. I come. What does the King command?’ Aragon replies, ‘You are weary. Rest a while, and take food, and be ready when I return.” The woman beside Faramir exclaims

 King? Did you hear that? What did I say? ‘The hands of the healer I said.’ And soon the word had gone out from the house that the king was indeed come among them, and after the war he brought healing; and the news ran through the City.[3]

The hands of the king are indeed the hands of a healer. Perhaps you know someone who needs healing. Be of good cheer; the hands of the Messiah are the hands of a healer. Perhaps your family needs healing. Be of good cheer; the hands of the Messiah are the hands of a healer. Perhaps your business or your country needs healing. Be of good cheer; the hands of the Messiah are the hands of the healer.

Let us enter this Easter Season welcoming the one who suffered for our salvation.

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York, NY: Ballentine Books, 1965), 166.

[2] Id, at 169.

[3] Return of the King, 173.

Lent 5: Avoiding Blind Eyes and a Hard Heart

People are always intrigued by the prospect of Jesus’s Second Coming. Some groups anticipate that Jesus will return, not unexpectedly but in a way they have already imagined. He will come as the Just Conqueror, riding upon a white steed and triumphing over the enemies of God. This view is widely promoted in popular literature about the Second Coming. Years ago, a popular adult teacher in one of our congregations fervently advocated this view, dedicating many weeks to teaching Revelation and the Second Coming from this perspective. The topic arose in a class I was teaching at the time. I have always believed, and still do that we cannot predict how history will conclude or how Christ will defeat evil. However, his first coming might offer insights into attitudes we should avoid.

Missing the Messiah

The Jewish leaders of the day “missed” the coming of the Messiah because he did not meet their expectations as to what the Messiah must be like and must do. Jesus constantly taught the people and did what John calls “signs,” visible evidence of his divine nature. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and changed lives that could not be changed otherwise. However, he did not raise an army. He did not support the religious status quo. He did not preach rebellion against Rome and any other Gentile rulers. Most importantly, he did not physically attempt to create an earthly kingdom of David. All in all, the leaders of the Jews and most citizens did not think of him as the expected Messiah.

After his triumphant entry, John records an exchange between Jesus and the people’s rulers, who were already plotting to kill him. Judas had already determined that Jesus did not meet his expectations and was becoming willing to betray him (12:4). The chief priests were also plotting against him and Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead (v. 10). Then, Jesus entered the city on a donkey as had Solomon the Son of David years earlier as the crowds cheered him (v. v. 12-18). This solidified in the minds of the leaders of the people their desire to get rid of Jesus (v. 19). It was near Passover, and Jesus’ fame was such that even Greek-speaking Jews had heard of him and wanted to meet him (v. 22). Jesus responds by prophesying his death (v. 24-28). None of this endeared Jesus to the Scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the teachers of the law, or the Priests.

            It is in this context that John records the following:

Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet: “Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

For this reason, they could not believe because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn—and I would heal them.”

Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him (John 12:37-41, emphasis added).

In other words, the false expectations of the leaders of the people left them blind to who Jesus was and what Jesus was doing in their midst. Their expectations had hardened their hearts to the Good News that the Kingdom of God was at hand.

Missing the Messiah Today

When asked about the signs of the Messianic Kingdom by a class member that day in the 1980s, I disappointed their expectations that I would talk about the Anti-Christ, the European Union as the New Roman Empire, the locusts as helicopters, and the rivers of blood at Armageddon, Christ coming in Clouds of Glory and the like. I responded that we should be careful about our expectations so that we do not mess up the Second Coming, just like the Jews missed the First Coming. Given all we know about Christ, I expect the Prince of Peace to come in Peace. If he has an “Army of Angels,” I suspect there will be no violence. I suspect that the God who is love will end history just as he has promised—by a victory of love over hate, peace over violence, reason over chaos and terrorism, justice over tyranny, and goodness over evil. In other words, I suspect without knowing that God will act as God often acts: in a way we can only imagine and could easily miss or misinterpret unless we are careful.

Conclusion

The Philosopher Charles Peirce, whose work I have reviewed in the past in these blogs, did not like the Revelation of St. John. He thought it an angry and bloodthirsty book describing a God in complete disparity with the God of Love found in the Gospel and Letters. [1] There is a point to what Peirce, who was reasonably devout, says. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the point is based on the same misreading of Revelation that I find in other writers: A failure to take seriously the symbolic nature of the book and the likely true meaning of the symbols.

As an example, the Robe dipped in Blood has on it the blood of the cross, and the sword coming from the mouth of the victorious Messiah is most likely the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Spirit of Love, for God is Love (Revelation 19:13-15). One day, I would like to write a complete piece on Revelation and the true meaning of the symbols used in the book to show people why we should not look for a “Warrior King” at the end who will reveal a God different from the God already disclosed to us as Jesus Christ. This underscores the need for open-mindedness and respect when interpreting the book of Revelation, as it is a complex and symbolic text that requires careful study and reflection—a reflection that cannot ignore who Jesus was and how Jesus acted and encouraged us to act.

As we come to Easter 2024, we might ask God to remove our false ideas of who God is and how God should act in history. During an election year, perhaps it is even more than ordinarily crucial for Christians to think clearly about the phrase “God is love” and its meaning. No one of us (certainly not me) knows “the times and the seasons” of God. Jesus tells us that there are some things known only to the Father.  “No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the Son himself. Only the Father knows. (Matthew 24:36). Our job is not to know what God will do but to live with Faith, Hope, and Love amidst what God is doing now (v. 36). Lent is the season in which we take time to contemplate just how far short we fall of the Faith, Hope, and Love Jesus embodied.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Edward C. Moore, “Evolutionary Love” in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings (New York, Harper & Row, 1972), 237.

Lent No. 4: On A Mission of Love

My devotions this Lent have centered on the Kingdom of God and the surprising nature of the Messiah when he appeared. His ministry began like this: Early on, Jesus went home to visit his native city of Nazareth, where he attended the local synagogue, as was his custom. In Jesus’s day and time, when a visiting Rabbi came to a local synagogue, it was common to ask the visitor to read from the Torah and say a few words.

Jesus was on a Mission of Love

After being asked to read, Jesus opened the books of the Torah and read from the Prophet Isaiah, where it says:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed and to proclaim the Year of the Lord’s Favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

Then, he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the person who handed it to him, and in front of everyone, said, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21b). Here, in just a few words, Jesus summarized why he came and what he intended to do:

  1. He intended to proclaim the good news of God’s love; and
  2. He intended to demonstrate the Gospel by caring for the needy, freeing people from spiritual bondage, and showing people the light of God’s wisdom. And that is precisely what Jesus did. He preached and taught the good news. He proclaimed with words of power a release for those in captivity to powers and principalities. He taught and demonstrated the secret wisdom of God.

The text Jesus read that day is part of a more significant passage from Isaiah 61—a passage that happens to be the passage I was reading on the day I began this series of blogs, now four years long, on political theology and philosophy. It begins:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and open the prison to those who are bound, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion—to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

Then comes the verse that began my labors of the past years:

They shall build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations (Isaiah 61:1-4).

Christians do this by building God’s Kingdom of love in their lives and the lives of others.

The Kingdom Program of Jesus

How is the Kingdom of God to come into the world? How are we to repair the ruins and devastations of our society? As Jesus said goodbye to his disciples at the end of his ministry and the end of his last meal, he shared what they were to do: “Love one another as I have loved you,” and he described for them the content of that love, “Greater love has no one than this, that he give up his life for his friends” (John 15:12-13). The method (the “how”) by which we accomplish the mission and ministry of Jesus is to demonstrate sacrificial love to others. The church of Jesus Christ is on a mission—and that mission is a mission of love shared with the world. That is the simple key to reconstructing our families, neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, and nations.

The key to accomplishing Jesus’ mission of love is pretty simple: We have to learn to love the way Jesus loved, and that means we need to practice loving God and others.

This brings us to the Great Commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-39; Mark 12:30-31). The “alls” in all this scare us. How can I love God with “all my heart,” “all my soul,” and “all my mind,” and how can I love my neighbor, whom I barely know, more than I love myself? We all sense that we can’t accomplish all this under our power, no matter how hard we try. That is where Grace and the Holy Spirit come into play.

Finally, there is this Great Commission: “Go you therefore into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 26:18-19). Our first thought is, “You mean God wants you and me to go everywhere in the world, live as itinerant evangelists, and preach?” That seems too much.

A former pastor of my former church, Bob Crumpton, whose funeral was Saturday, when he preached on this text, was helpful when he reminded us that in Greek, the form is a participle and that an equally good translation is, “As you are going….” In other words, “As you are going about your day-to-day life wherever I take you, make disciples.”) [1]Being on God’s mission of love is mainly being open to God’s leading and sharing God’s love as we follow God wherever we are and wherever we are going. It is a lifestyle.

How to Love the Way Jesus Loved

In this blog, I want to share some simple, practical things we can do to sense the love of God in our lives and reach out to others as part of God’s mission of love. First, let’s look at the big picture. There are three things we need to do to be about God’s mission:

  1. The first thing is to develop a deep love relationship with God.
  2. The second is to develop deep love relationships with others.
  3. The third thing is to put the love of God to work in our day-to-day lives.

Love God; Love Others; Put that love to work in our day-to-day lives: This is the key to sharing the love of God with others as we have seen it in Jesus Christ.

Practical Ways We Can Be a Part of God’s Kingdom Mission

            Once we have the big picture in mind, the next question is, “What concrete things can we do to be about this mission?” There are a lot of things we might do, but here are just a few: [2]

First, Have a Daily Meditation Time. If you want to grow in Christ-likeness, the first thing to do each day is to set aside no less than fifteen minutes, and possibly thirty minutes or more, to study scripture personally and pray for others. If you go to any Christian bookstore, there are many devotional guides that you can use to develop the habit of a quiet time. Secular bookstores have many such devotional guides.

Over the years, many people have begun by using Oswald Chambers’s My Utmost for His Highest as their first guide. [3] The best way to begin praying daily is to make a prayer list and begin praying the names of the persons and needs on the list. After a time, you will add your names, and you may begin to listen to God silently, allowing God’s love to fill your heart.

Second, Grow Closer to those Closest to You. It is really hard to have a good relationship with God if you don’t have good relationships with those closest to you. Parents, spouses, children, and family are the closest people to us. And they are worth some time and energy so that we can develop better relationships with them.

Third, Be Regular in Worship. In most churches, on an average week, just over half of Church members attend. Worship is a weekly discipline that empowers us to continue in the Christian life. I liken it to filling up my car. About once a week, I fill up my car. It won’t run forever on that one tank, but it will run for a while. We need weekly communal encouragement in the Christian life and a weekly infilling of the Holy Spirit to keep going. If you want to be filled with God’s love, come to worship and participate with all your heart.

Fourth, Participate in a Smaller Group. As I mentioned a minute ago, we all need relationships to grow. We need relationships with spouses, children, parents, and extended family. We also need small group relationships. We need relationships of Agape Love with other men and women, other young people, and people with whom we can share our Christian walk, hopes, dreams, successes, failures, temptations, and the rustling of the Spirit in our souls. In many of my churches, we had Circles of Concern, Presbyterian Women’s Circles, a Men’s Group, small group Bible Studies, DiscipleBible Study classes, Reunion Groups, Life Groups, Prayer Groups, and other small groups.

Frankly, what small group or groups you are in is not important. What is important is that you are in one where you can share God’s love with other people.

Fifth, Participate in a Ministry within the Local Church. Those who have done The Purpose Driven Life study know that one essential of Christian growth is to have some ministry with others inside the local church. [4] It is in the local church, as we share God’s love with others, that our faith takes a big step forward. When we minister to others, we reach beyond the people we are like. In small groups, in family, and in Bible studies, we choose with whom we share God’s love. But, when we move out into ministry, we enter that time when God decides, and we have to love those whom God puts in our path – even if we don’t like them.

Finally, Be a part of Some Mission Outreach. Many mission opportunities are available to Christians to share God’s love outside the local church. My former church was a part of Soup Kitchens, the Memphis Interfaith Hospitality Network, Memphis Union Mission, and a ministry to children in schools and apartments near our congregation. We were part of Living Waters for the World and had active mission programs in Honduras, Ghana, Mexico, and the Philippines. We are part of the founding group for Casa Mami, an orphanage in Mexico.

Mission is where we reach out beyond the walls of our local church and share God’s love with those in need in some way. Mission is where we share Christ beyond the walls of Advent to touch lives with the gospel of life and with the love of God in Christ. I don’t know how many of our members are engaged in a mission beyond the walls of Advent, but it is a pretty large number, indeed a couple of hundred people. But that is not enough. Mission – reaching out to others in the name of Christ – is one more step in being a part of God’s Mission of Love to the world.

Conclusion

There is a lot more to building the Kingdom of God than one short blog can capture, and there is also more to building the Kingdom than any one person can do. That is why the church and real, authentic Christian community are so essential. Jesus did not try to live the Christian life alone. He lived in a community with the disciples. We are not Jesus, and we need the constant challenge, love, support, and encouragement of the Body of Christ even more.

Jesus went to the Cross as an act of love. He did so to offer a way for the human race to restore its broken relationship with God, other people, and the world. His chosen vehicle is finite, limited, and sometimes selfish people, just like you and me. His structure for accomplishing this mission is the church. As we enter the final two weeks of Lent, let us ponder the concrete things we can do to be more effective and open disciples of the one who gave himself for us.

Copyright, 2007, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved.

[1] In Greek, a participle, which is the form used, can be an imperative (“Go!), but it can also be temporal (“As you are going”). That is the point that Dr. Crumpton liked to make. I develop this quotation from Robert  in Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (Richmond, VA: Living Dialog Ministries, 2024).

[2] Of course, there are many important things disciples of Jesus do. This is not an exhaustive list; it is just a beginning. I dealt with this in Crisis of Discipleship: Renewing the Art of Relational Disciple-Making (Richmond, VA: Living Dialog Ministries, 2024).

[3] Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for his Highest Orig. copyright, (Westwood, N.J.: Dodd, Mead and Co/ Barbour and Company), 1935).

[4] Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002)

The Danbury Letter, Freedom of Religion and Speech, and Dialogue

This week, I decided to leave Lent for just a moment and return to a prior blog on the subject of Church and State separation. The origin of the expression “separation of church and state” derives from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association. In 1802, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote a letter to Jefferson voicing concern that their state constitution lacked specific protections for religious freedom.

In the letter, they wrote, “What religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”

Background to the Letter

To fully understand the concern of the Danbury Baptist Association, it’s important to go back into history. The concept of freedom of religion that we Americans take for granted much of the time, did not exist in Europe of their day. Originally, all of Europe was Roman Catholic. The state and the church existed in a symbiotic relationship. Neither was inclined to allow challenges to its authority.

The Protestant Reformation shattered the religious unity of Europe, leading to the emergence of two powerful groups: the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches existing within the boundaries of the various European States. Within the Protestant movement, there were divisions, one of which was the Baptist, a minority in Europe and the United States at the time, and often persecuted. Virginia, originally a crowned colony, had the church of England as the established church.

Religious Freedom. All Protestant groups feared that the United States would emulate Europe and create an established church. The Anglican church, of which leaders like Washington were members and which was powerful in Virginia, was a prime candidate. These Protestant groups were adamant that the United States did not have an established church.

Political Involvement. Of equal importance is the fact that the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church and the various kingdoms of Europe often resulted in the suppression of opposing opinions, religious and secular. The church in the state often worked in tandem to be certain that opinions of which one of them did not agree, were suppressed. In England, where many of the colonists were from, the Church of England took the place of the Roman Catholic Church during the Reformation. There were strong connections between the church of England and the king. Views that were unacceptable to either were suppressed. The Baptist had been one of those groups. In other European countries, for example, France, protestant groups were also persecuted.

In the colonies, the churches enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom. Pastors from the pulpit would criticize governments, policies, and other matters. They defended their own theological positions, often using words that were extremely critical of their opponents. In particular, many of the protestant groups, criticize the Roman Catholic Church and any established church. Naturally, they did not want to give up this freedom.

One example is the American Revolution. Pastors played an important role in the lead up to the revolution, and many served in Washington’s army. As an example, in 1774, wto full years before the Declaration of Independence, the Provincial Congress of Massachusetts stated:

…we cannot but acknowledge the goodness of Heaven in constantly supplying us with preachers of the Gospel whose concern has been the temporal and spiritual happiness of this people…and do therefore recommend…that they assist us in avoiding that dreadful slavery with which we are now threatened…[1]

Jonas Clark, Pastor of the Church in Lexington, Massachusetts, was a case in point.  He actively authored many papers recording the town’s position on liberty.  Without him, there may have been no “shot heard round the world!” [2]

The point is not to argue the precise details of the causes of the American Revolution or its support. Economic, political, religious, social, cultural, and other factors at work in the American Revolution. Nevertheless, churches played a role with other institutions in the circumstances surrounding the American Revolution.

Jefferson’s Response

Jefferson, who was by no means the most religious of the Founders, himself a deist, responded to the letter defending religious liberty:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. [3]

Several things about this response are immediately evident. First, Jefferson speaks of “natural rights.” He believed that freedom of speech was an inherent natural right of people that should not be interfered with by the government. Second, as a result, the government should not suppress matters of faith and worship or the public expression of views. Third, the government retains the right to enact laws and compel compliance for the benefit of society.

The Purpose of the Phrase “Wall of Separation”

Contrary to much current opinion, the phrase “a wall of separation” was not intended to indicate that religion should not influence opinion on issues. Instead, it was used to affirm free religious practice for citizens. In our society, the phrase is too often used to deny religious people the right to speak about their views in public life. It’s a mistake. One good example has to do with the run-up to the American Civil War in the North; pastors were among those most urgent about ending slavery. Another good example is the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the 1960s. Many Civil Rights Movement leaders were pastors who voiced their religious convictions about segregation.

This week, I wrote an old friend about a personal story related to these events. Not many years ago, one of those pastors, who was quite elderly, broke down in tears during a Presbyterian meeting. He had lost his job during the 1960s supporting segregation and couldn’t understand why people would not allow him to express his views on other public matters in our day and age. It was pretty touching. This pastor was accused of being a racist on the floor of the Presbytery over a matter unrelated to race. I was present that day and saw that pastor and others of his generation bow their heads in anguish.

The Practical Purpose of the Blog

We live in times of social unrest about many issues. There are divisions between secular people and among Christians concerning many matters of public importance. Abortion, sexuality, war, capital punishment, and many other issues divide us. I’ve argued in different places that the solution to this problem does not lie within our current method of handling conflict. Currently, we fight battles in government and media, elect the majority, and they oppose their views upon society. This is only the end of a wise process of public decision-making.

Over the last four years, I have been trying to promote what I call a sophio-agapic, or “love and wisdom,” pragmaticist approach that uses dialogue as a foundation for decision-making. In an unpublished book I am writing, I make the following point:

Many commentators have written on the lack of effective dialogue in Western Society today. In Congress and State Legislatures the degree of open hostility and unwillingness to compromise and dialogue about serious problems are endemic. More concerning is the fact that dialogue has become increasingly impossible in families, neighborhood associations, churches, and other mediating institutions and organizations. Even debate is ineffective if either no one is listening or, as is increasingly the case, everyone has made up their mind before the debate begins. A lack of authentic community dialogue results in poor decision-making and gridlock. It is also responsible for the increasing alienation of many people from the values of a democratic society. [4]

I might easily be wrong, but I believe that our democracy’s health requires that we return to the process of building community, discussing issues with respect for the opinions of others, allowing minorities to express their views freely, and seeking compromise. Public debate seeks a vote to finally determine an issue. Dialogue involves a conversation to bring clarity and a complete understanding of the options to the parties to a dispute. This consists of the potential for compromise among alternatives.

I had lunch this week with a friend who has different political and religious beliefs from my own. We were able to discuss some pretty significant issues. Neither of us was convinced of the position of the others. We did, however, come to some understanding and even drew closer in our evaluation of a political situation. This is the benefit of dialogue. Dialogue cannot wholly replace the give-and-take, the push-and-shove, the policy decisions, and the reversal of policy decisions that characterize politics. It’s not even a guarantee of decision-making. It’s simply a guarantee of a better decision-making mode and a better chance of avoiding policy errors.

In our nation, such dialogue will be between secular people and religious people and among various religions and sects within religious groups. Both secular and religious people will be convinced of the truth of their ultimate opinions about reality. They will also be confident of the truth about many views on social issues. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi reminds us, the search for truth always involves a public declaration of what one believes and the willingness to defend one’s intuition.  It also comes with the desire to examine one’s position and its factual and theoretical support and be willing to modify one position based upon new information. The purpose of dialogue is to facilitate that process.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Verna M. Hall, Christian History of the American Revolution, (Chesapeake VA: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1976), 402 found at https://heritageministriesky.com/2019/01/17/pastors-inspired-the-american-revolution-3/ (downloaded March 7, 2024).

[2] Id.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, “Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists The Final Letter as Sent” (January 1, 1802), downloeaded from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danpre.html (March 7, 2024).

[4] G. Christopher Scruggs., A “Sophia-Agapic” Approach to Political Philosophy:  Essays on a Constructive Post-Ideological Politics (Unpublished Manuscript, 2024).