The Idea of God

[The following is an excerpt from: An Awkward Echo: Matthew Arnold and John Dewey]

an wkward echoBoth Matthew Arnold and John Dewey have often been accused of being agnostics, if not quite atheists, but neither of them ever completely rejected God. Arnold thought of God as “the Eternal not ourselves that makes for righteousness,” but if asked to prove the existence of such a God he merely deferred to practical experience.

But if they [the masses] ask: “How are we to verify that there rules an enduring Power, not ourselves, which makes for righteousness?”— we may answer at once: “How? why as you verify that fire burns,— by experience! It is so; try it! you can try it; every case of conduct, of that which is more than three-fourths of your own life and of the life of all mankind, will prove it to you! Disbelieve it, and you will find out your mistake as surely as, if you disbelieve that fire burns and put your hand into the fire you will find out your mistake! Believe it, and you will find the benefit of it!” This is the first experience. [i]

A rather homely response and not particularly convincing. Dewey responded in A Common Faith.

A humanistic religion, if it excludes our relation to nature, is pale and thin, as it is presumptuous, when it takes humanity as an object of worship. Matthew Arnold’s conception of a “power not ourselves” is too narrow in its reference to operative and sustaining conditions. While it is selective, it is too narrow in its basis of selection—righteousness. The conception thus needs to be widened in two ways. The powers that generate and support the good as experienced and as ideal, work within as well as without. There seems to be a reminiscence of an external Jehovah in Arnold’s statement. And the powers work to enforce other values and ideals than righteousness. Arnold’s sense of an opposition between Hellenism and Hebraism resulted in exclusion of beauty, truth, and friendship from the list of the consequences toward which powers work within and without.[ii]

by joveDewey is quite right in noting that something of Jehovah continues to reside in Arnold’s conception of God (one should be quite surprised, frankly, if it did not). More telling, however, is Dewey’s comment on the duality in Hellenism and Hebraism which separated beauty, truth and friendship from the qualities of God. But most appealing to Dewey surely was the phrase he carried forward verbatim,— “power not ourselves,”— for as he notes it removes the presumptiveness of replacing God with humanity and realizes the much needed resolution of the problem of pluralism,— the need for an idea of God that involved simultaneously a sense of God as the highest of monads, who encompassed the greatest breadth of the good without attempting to subsume into the idea of God the whole of the system of monads.

mushroom0005But why would a pluralistic system need “the idea of God” at all? When Dewey set aside metaphysics, I believe, he felt that, equally, he had set aside the varied pressing questions of theology,— and most particularly proofs of the existence of God. Such proofs may have meant much to Aquinas and Spinoza; in our age they still seem awkwardly relevant to a few, although today’s arguments have become, let us be honest, rather crude and unnuanced. For Dewey, however, such questions could be set aside along with metaphysics (although he intriguingly holds on to teleology in his conceptual uses of evolution and progressivism).
The idea of God, however, could not be so easily set aside,— pragmatically such an idea does exist apart from any proof of the existence of God. The idea of God, as Arnold tried to show, could be understood in an active sense,— when we act, when we engage in that world of conduct,— we step outside the inner walled world of our mind, and we realize that the world in which we act contains not only ourselves, but that “something not ourselves” which we could only see in dull shadow when locked within our own minds.

Pluralism demands an accounting of that “something not ourselves” because without such an accounting we have either dissolved into a unity or fragmented into a chaos. Education, then, if it is to be pluralistic, must deal with this “something not ourselves.” Now whether we call that “something not ourselves” God, or humanity (which, as Dewey pointed out, is grossly presumptive), or nature (which is pantheistic and leads us back to monism), or, generically, “the idea of God,”— still we will have to deal with it. As for proofs, pragmatically speaking, I think both Arnold and Dewey were right,— something rather trivial and small-minded adheres to both the proofs and counter-proofs of God’s existence. (I have often said, jokingly,— well, half-jokingly,— that I have little problem believing in God, I just wish someone could prove to me that atheists exist.)

heavenBut God also has a role in pluralism that is quite difficult. God is, in many ways, conceptually, the foundation of our sense of authority. Often that sense we have of “something not ourselves” comes out of the belief that beyond us resides an authority, telling us what to do, how to behave, who to be, what is proper conduct, what is not,— and today we are inclined to ask, “by what right does this authority exist?” and perhaps, all too quickly, to respond, “such authority has no right of existence at all.” As we have already seen, however, Dewey saw the need for some sort of authority residing within the province of education, allowing that only when something of such an authority is present can a true possibility of freedom find expression. The common question we hear today when we attempt to resolve this question of authority is, “Who says so?” as if we expect some particular individuals, or some shrouded conclave of hegemonic devils, to raise their hands and say, “Oh, that was us. We’ve decided we are the reigning authorities on this matter and, of course, we’re sure you will cooperate,— and thank you very much. Have a nice day.”

But this question (“Who says so?”) has the unfortunate effect of diverting us from more fruitful questions such as, “Is this a reasonable expectation?” “What will result from my compliance or my failure to comply?” “What are my alternatives?” “How might I suggest alternative actions?” “What will I lose, what gain, by acting in accordance with this authority?” and most important, “What action should I take?”

“What should I do?” is a much more meaningful question than, “Who should I blame for having dared to presume the authority of telling me what to do?”

Ultimately, the concept of “something not ourselves” continues to reside in the question “Who says so?” Almost as if, in lieu of a benignant God, it would seek to create a human devil. The question, “Who says so?” is a highly moralistic question, dependent (perhaps co-dependent is the right term) upon that system of morality that adheres to an absolutist authority. Dewey offers us a much more practical, pragmatic, course when he suggests that we respond critically and actively to that authority which resides within any system,— and so within ourselves.

silhouette[An after thought added for this posting:]  I do not propose that we should suspend the Foucaultian sense of outrage entirely, or deny that at its most hateful and cruel the oppressive act is the most dehumanizing of all actions,— but I am not prepared to accept that all acts of authority merit such extreme response.  And we seem to overlook that our new divinities — liberty, equality and fraternity — make demands upon each other that are, as often as not, indistinguishable from the less perfidious of civil institutions, and, at times, in our zeal, in our passion, in our love, we can affect a frightening, even if progressive, cruelty and oppression.  Think only of the tension between equality and liberty,— set aside how both can be so unkind and uncivil to the fraternity of our communal lives,— then surely one must see that the authority of progress must carry forward the hard weight of oppression with much greater care, civility and sympathy than it has in its critically blasted past.

[i] Arnold, Literature and Dogma, 1873, pg. CPW 6:370.

[ii] Dewey, A Common Faith, 1934, pg. lw.9.36-37.

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