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.


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.


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) (downloaded, May 27, 2024).

[3] Id.

[4] Robert Bellah, “Habits of the Heart: Implications for Religion” (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.


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.


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 (downloaded May 7, 2024).

[11] Abolition of Man, at 28.

[12] Litcharts, at footnote 10 above.

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