Friday, March 9, 2012

John Dewey on faith and inquiry

A passage from philosopher John Dewey's A Common Faith (1934):
Understanding and knowledge also enter into a perspective that is religious in quality. Faith in the continued disclosing of truth through directed cooperative human endeavor is more religious in quality than is any faith in a completed revelation. It is of course now usual to hold that revelation is not completed in the sense of being ended. But religions hold that the essential framework is settled in its significant moral features at least, and that new elements that are offered must be judged by conformity to this framework. Some fixed doctrinal apparatus is necessary for a religion. But faith in the possibilities of continued and rigorous inquiry does not limit access to truth to any channel or scheme of things. It does not first say that truth is universal and then add there is but one road to it. It does not depend for assurance upon subjection to any dogma or item of doctrine. It trusts that the natural interactions between man and his environment will breed more intelligence and generate more knowledge provided the scientific methods that define intelligence in operation are pushed further into the mysteries of the world, being themselves promoted and improved in the operation. There is such a thing as faith in intelligence becoming religious in quality -- a fact that perhaps explains the efforts of some religionists to disparage the possibilities of intelligence as a force. They properly feel such faith to be a dangerous rival.
Nearly eighty years on, and Dewey's point is still, er, on point.

The Dewey passage especially resonated with me since I recently finished An American Religion by Harold Bloom. It's curiously instructive to read the two back-to-back. Bloom is (was?) a curmudgeon in the deepest sense who grouses too frequently about political correctness, but he got in my good books by characterizing contemporary American religious fundamentalists not as "fundamentalists" but rather as "Know Nothings" carrying on in the destructively anti-intellectual spirit of those 19th century populists. I knew the anti-intellectual streak in American society went back a ways, but it still pulled me up short to encounter a serious thinker (Dewey) grappling with it nearly a century ago.

There have always been people so disoriented by the pace of social change that the only response they can muster is a reflexive and irreflective insistence on turning the clock back to a presumed better day. Technology being an accelerant of change, today's conservative response (and I mean "conservative" in its most basic sense as a desire to preserve what is rather than to embrace novelty for its own sake) worldwide is correspondingly sharp.

Does the conservative response have value for humanity?

It's tough to say it does. In principle, slowing our headlong rush to the future in order to take stock of who we are and what kind of world we're creating would be a great thing. However, too much conservative rhetoric is focused on elevating faith in organized religion over all else. Not only does that devalue and thus impair support for scientific research, but the accompanying siege mentality of many sects (of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, for instance) in these tough times contributes to a balkanization of humanity and increases strife between faiths to dangerous levels. Absolutely the last thing humanity can afford is a war over who has the keys to heaven (or Nirvana, or ...). And yet, that's where the apocalyptic rhetoric of many end-times clergy, echoed by their political henchmen (Rick Santorum, for instance), would lead us. (A lot of Muslims would argue that the U.S. has already led us there, with Iraq and Afghanistan as prime exhibits for the prosecution.)

As long as conservatives worldwide put their trust in holy writ rather than human intellect, conservatism cannot contribute to solving our problems. To the contrary, its regressive and anti-intellectual attitude will only make things worse.

Dewey knew that. Would that more of us today also did.

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