A Theistic Reconstruction of Dewey’s Reconstruction of Religion

in A Common Faith


Paul Qualtere-Burcher


John Dewey argues in The Quest for Certainty  that a new instrumental way of thinking, founded in the successes of the scientific method, could be extended to all human endeavors—the process of reconstruction.[1]  In A Common Faith he attempts such a reconstruction of religion.  Much of his critique of the religion of his times is equally or more applicable to present day religion, so a re-examination of this reconstruction remains timely and important to people who believe religion may have a valid positive role to play in society.  But I believe Dewey’s reconstruction of religion has received far less attention than his theories of education because Dewey reconstructs religion in a non-theistic way.  He argues that historical religious institutions may need to be abandoned and defines God as ultimately a product of our imagination.[2] 

This atheistic conclusion is obviously antithetical to people of faith who would otherwise share many of his other concerns about religion as it is now practiced.  This paper seeks to wrest the reconstruction of religion from Dewey, but to remain true to his principles of reconstruction—that is, to start again beginning from a theistic worldview and attempt a Deweyian reconstruction.   In one sense of course, this premise is itself counter to Dewey’s philosophy given his objections to theism itself, but two of the major arguments Dewey uses against maintaining theism fail using Dewey’s own philosophy and method of critique.  So if Dewey’s response to theism is unsuccessful on its own terms, then the possibility of a theistic reconstruction seems again open.  Beginning with an examination of Dewey’s response to theism sets the framework for a theistic reconstruction that can then parallel much of Dewey’s own work in A Common Faith.


I.  A Theistic Response to A Common Faith     


Dewey uses much of the first section to show that faith, or as he calls it “religious experience” is explicable naturalistically—that is, without recourse to faith having a transcendent object as most people of faith believe.  His purpose is not to eliminate religious experience, because Dewey is quick to acknowledge the benefits that the “adjustment” to the world that people can experience with faith can be real, beneficial, and long lasting.[3]  Rather he wishes to remove a transcendent God from the experience of faith, so the benefits can still be enjoyed without recourse to an object that lacks empirical verifiability.  Although he claims that his explanation of religious experience as originating in the imagination is “incidental,” it is actually crucial to his argument that religion should be reconstructed non-theistically.[4]  The implicit claim is that his explanation of religious experience is more plausible, and for Dewey this can only mean empirically verifiable, than a theistic explanation.  In fact, before positing his theory of religious experience he criticizes faith in God as non-empirically verifiable:

In reality, the only thing that can be said to be proved is the existence of some complex of conditions that have operated to effect an adjustment in life, an orientation, that brings with it a sense of security and peace.  The particular interpretation given to this complex of conditions is not inherent in the experience itself.[5]


 Dewey recognizes that if he is rejecting the commonly held belief about the origin of the experience, he must offer some alternative to it.  It is the power of “imagination” that Dewey uses to explain the force of religious experience without taking recourse to any power aside from the subject and its relation to the world.  Dewey sees imagination as a synthetic force of consciousness that allows us to unify both a sense of self and the world without direct experience of either.[6]  But for Dewey the power of imagination goes far beyond mere conceptual unification of “self with the universe.”[7]  Imagination has the power to “adjust” the self to the world—make a potentially positive realignment of the relation that allows one to face difficulties with an inner strength:

…it is something more than a mere Stoical resolution to endure…It is more outgoing, more ready and glad, than the latter attitude…And in calling it voluntary, it is not meant that it depends upon a particular resolve or volition.  It is a change of will conceived as the organic plenitude of our being, rather than any special change in will.[8]


The imagination, in a state of religious experience, “composes and harmonizes” in a way that is both “voluntary” and yet not a direct act of will.   He argues that the leap to a transcendent God by “religionists” is an understandable psychological error based upon a lack of acknowledgement of the importance of imagination.[9]

His description of imagination also places it beyond conscious control:  we do not choose to see ourselves and the world as unified wholes—they come pre-synthesized that way to us by imagination.  Neither do we will ourselves to feel better about our place in the world through the “adjustment” that characterizes religious experience.  It happens seemingly “to” us, and we therefore attribute it to an outside cause, rather than a part of our own mind that is not open to our inspection and control.

But how are we to understand Dewey’s argument that gives so much power and function to imagination?    If he is doing a “philosophy of the mind” as his basis for making faith experience a product of imagination, then his own critique of Kant would seem to apply now to his work:

Its work is done behind the scenes.  Only the result is observed …These (operations) are as inaccessible to observation as were the occult forms and essences whose rejection was a prerequisite of development of modern science.[10]


The claim here is not that Dewey’s use of imagination exactly parallels Kant’s a priori structuring of conscious experience, but that both are equally inaccessible to empirical verification, and solve a problem by giving the mind a synthetic quality that occurs prior to conscious thought.  Obviously the mind synthesizes, and this can be experimentally examined—but Dewey goes far beyond the experimental psychology of his day, or even the present day in giving “imagination” both synthetic and “whole being adjustment” ability.  The imagination is capable of changing the relation between the synthesis of self and the synthesized world without any intrusion of will or awareness.  His faith in psychology reflects his underlying presupposition that ultimately everything is explicable by science, or accessible to the scientific method of inquiry.  In fact, seventy years after A Common Faith, psychology comes no closer to explaining the faith experience naturalistically. To believe in creationism one must ignore a well-founded, empirically verified body of knowledge.  To believe that faith can have a transcendent object requires ignoring no such body of scientific knowledge. Dewey has resorted to a metaphysical structure, to banish a metaphysical God. 

A simple restatement of Dewey’s version of the history of religion, and the need to reconstruct it is that religion arose out of fear and impotence to change the forces that imperiled primitive pre-scientific humans, and that this superstition now hinders human development.[11]  Dewey argues that although the different religions arose out of a common fear, and that they share no other essential qualities—their views of the nature of God, worship, and our moral responsibilities are vastly different.[12]

            The origins of religion are anthropologically unknowable, but religion is universal among early humans, and religious motivations can certainly be examined after recorded history begins.  Religious historian Karen Armstrong refutes Dewey’s claim about the purpose of religion in her book The History of God.[13]  Both here and in later works she argues that the major world religions of today arose in a response to the social injustice of an increasing stratified agrarian society:

…prophets and reformers arose who insisted that the virtue of compassion was crucial to the spiritual life:  an ability to see the sacredness in every human being, and a willingness to take practical care of the most vulnerable members of society became the test of authentic piety.  In this way, during the axial age, the great confessional faiths that have continued to guide human beings sprang up in the civilized world…Despite their major differences, these axial religions had much in common:  they all built on the old traditions to evolve the idea of a single, universal transcendence; they cultivated an internal spirituality, and stressed the importance of practical compassion.[14]


This passage corrects Dewey’s view of the history and nature of religion on several points.  Justice and compassion carry greater explanatory force in history for the origins of religion than does fear.  Furthermore Karen Armstrong is arguing that religions differ in cultural details and historic evolution, but that they still carry a common underlying message.  This is important to both sides of the argument because if religions are simply a human response to a fearful environment, than Dewey is right that that response can be as varied as the history of human cultures. But if religion is an attempt to translate an experience of the transcendent into the world some common thread in this response would be expected.  Armstrong argues that compassion and cries for social justice are ubiquitous in the major world religions from the axial age until today.

Despite making historical claims about the origins of religion, Dewey presents an unrecognizable, ahistorical version of God in A Common Faith.  A “supernatural being with powers” is a gross simplification of any religion’s description of God.  Although Dewey would be equally rejecting of a more theologically nuanced characterization of God, the polemical nature of his writing here is revealed in his choice of descriptors, and simplistic representation of the object of faith. 

In his other writings, he represents God as a metaphysical entity, an actualized ideal, or living Platonic form.[15]  While this is an historical understanding of God, there have been theologians and mystics throughout history that would reject it:

For Judeo-Christianity, God is not a person in the sense Al Gore arguably is.  Nor is he a principle, an entity, or “existent”:  in one sense of the word it would be perfectly coherent for religious types to claim that God does not in fact exist.  He is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves…God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.[16]


Dewey incorrectly interprets non-metaphysical, theologically sophisticated understanding of God as a modern retreat in the face of recent scientific and philosophic responses to theology.[17] Christianity lacked metaphysical and otherworldly origins.  Jesus and early Christians believed in social change, not another world where they would receive rewards:

The Christian belief in heaven originated after the death of Jesus with the idea that he had been taken up into heaven or exalted…But the good news of the “kingdom” of God was news about a future state of affairs on earth when the poor will no longer be poor, the hungry will be satisfied and the oppressed would no longer be miserable.[18](italics original)


 In fact, the metaphysical God of Aquinas is neither original nor modern; it represents the attempt of medieval philosophy to unify Greek thought and Christianity.[19] Terry Eagleton rejects Dewey’s concern that religious faith produces a source of eternal meaning and otherworldly reality for believers:

Religious fundamentalism is the neurotic anxiety that without a meaning of meanings, there is no meaning at all…Someone who thinks this way is simply the prisoner of metaphor.  In fact, a great many believers reject this view.  No sensitive, intelligent religious believer imagines that non-believers are bound to be mired in total absurdity.  Nor are they bound to believe that because there is a God, the meaning of life becomes luminously clear.  On the contrary, some of those with religious faith believe that God’s presence makes the world more mysteriously unfathomable, not less.  If he does have a purpose it is remarkably impenetrable.  God is not in that sense the answer to the problem.  He tends to thicken things rather than render them self-evident.[20]


Dewey seems to have had only a metaphysical, “metaphorical” image of God.   He cannot imagine a God that does not represent an “answer to the problem”.  Even his concern that all religions must contain a “Supernatural Being” and a claim of immortality[21] ignores that Judaism has neither such tenet in its principles of faith. [22] He is concerned that religion creates an “ideal” reality that then stifles human efforts to improve conditions here on earth.[23]  Both of these concerns have real validity within the history of religion, but both are similarly countered within religion as it has been actually practiced.  The works of Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Romero, and Dorothy Day have made Dewey’s concerns appear unfounded.[24]

Here is where an agreement between Dewey and a theistic reconstruction can begin.  Dewey and fundamentalists share a version of God that is clad in metaphor and metaphysics.  The God Dewey attacks is a God recognizable to some people of his time and to people today.  But it is only one competing understanding within the religious community, and Paul Tillich an important theologian of the twentieth century was, from a place of theism, arguing against this same view of God:

All the qualities we attribute to him (God), power, love, justice, are taken from finite experiences and applied symbolically to that which is beyond finitude and infinity.  If faith calls God “almighty”; it uses the human experience of power in order to symbolize the content of its infinite concern, but it does not describe a highest being who can do as he pleases.[25]


Although Dewey would ultimately reject even a non-metaphysical God because this too is non-empirical and unscientific, it is not a God that impedes human progress by setting itself up as the source of meaning, or answers to the human condition.  Furthermore, it is wrong to think that a non-metaphysical God does not still leave people of faith with a sense of empowerment or even duty to seek to improve the human condition along lines that Dewey would share.  This claim is empirically verifiable in the sense that many of the early Christians, Jewish prophets, and twentieth century reformers would find Dewey’s description of the God of religion unfamiliar and not consistent with their faith, and yet this same faith underpinned their efforts to concretely better the condition of humans here on earth.

            What Dewey does not seem to appreciate is that although he seeks to eliminate a belief in a non-empirical transcendent God, his own philosophy retains elements such as imagination that are equally beyond experimental proof. This is to suggest that if Dewey does not overreach—and the claim that faith is naturalistically explained is an example of this—there can still be room for a theistic reconstruction of religion.


II.               Theistic Reconstruction

Beginning again with a description of God, both Dewey and Tillich would agree that a fundamentalist “prisoner of metaphor” conception of God is ultimately detrimental to faith.  Dewey writes that, “…the present depression in religion is closely connected with the fact that religions now prevent, because of their weight of historic encumbrances, the religious quality of experience from coming to consciousness…”[26]  Tillich also argues that myths and metaphors must be recognized as such—myths must be “broken,” but can then be retained as myth.[27]  Tillich believes that “demythologization” is critical to the survival of monotheism, and central to Christianity’s origins:

Christianity denies by its very nature an unbroken myth, because its presupposition is the first commandment:  the affirmation of the ultimate as ultimate and the rejection of any kind of idolatry.  All mythological elements in the Bible, and doctrine and liturgy should be recognized as mythological, but they should be maintained in their symbolic form…[28]


Tillich is contending that myth and symbols that are not recognized as such become impediments to faith, because they are ultimately human creations; they are metaphors for an infinite ineffable transcendence—a stand-in that can be mistaken as the real actor.

            Although Dewey seeks a naturalistic explanation for faith experience, he also recognizes that the faith experience is denigrated by a “superimposed load of a particular religion.”[29]  In this sense there is no argument between Tillich and Dewey that faith is both valuable and that religious institutions potentially stand in the way of faith by adding inessential elements.

Although their reasons are different, both Dewey and Tillich affirm faith, and see a “demythologization” of faith as essential to its preservation.  The reconstruction of religion could begin in this project which involves a re-education of the community of believers into the historical mythologies of their religious institutions.  To break down the sedimentation of historical accident may leave people of faith recognizing the common core that Karen Armstrong made reference to—the major religions all arose to press for compassion and a righting of oppression and injustice—an urge that itself arises from the experience of God.  Jesus would not have hanged retarded men and children convicted of capital crimes in Texas, and Mohammed would not have flown planes into the Twin Towers.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for some of their professed followers.

So Dewey is correct that religion’s record as a socially progressive instrument is indeed tarnished, this then is ultimately the most important aspect of religious reconstruction.  Dewey does believe that progress is not individual—it is collective, and religious faith can, or perhaps must, play a role in the development of a better society.[30]



[1] John Dewey.  The Quest for Certainty  (Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1988).

[2] John Dewey.  A Common Faith.  (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1934).  Dewey wonders whether we may need to begin anew with religious institutions on page six and this definition of God which he then continues affirm throughout the text appears on page 43.

[3] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  14.

[4] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  13.

[5] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  13.

[6] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  19.

[7] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  19.

[8] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  17.

[9] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  19.

[10] Dewey.  The Quest for Certainty.  231.

[11] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  24.  This argument is also made in great detail in The Quest for Certainty, chapter one.

[12] Dewey.  A Common Faith.   4-5.


[14] Karen Armstrong.  The Battle for God.  (New York:  Ballantine Books, 2000).  xiv.

[15] John Dewey.  Reconstruction in Philosophy and Essays.  (Carbondale and Edwardsville:  Southern Illinois University Press, 1988). 142.

[16] Terry Eagleston.  “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching” London Review of Books.  October 19, 2006. 32.

[17] Dewey.  A Common Faith.   30-31.

[18] Albert Nolan.  Jesus Before Christianity.  (New York:  Orbis Books, 2006). 58.

[19] Thomas Aquinas.  The Political Ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Edited by Dino Bigoniari. (New York:  Hafner Press, 1953). Vii.

[20] Terry Eagleston.  The Meaning of Life.  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007). 77.

[21] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  1.

[22] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_principles_of_faith   last revision June 2, 2007.

[23] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  46.

[24] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  46.

[25] Paul Tillich.  Dynamics of Faith.  (New York:  Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1957).  47.

[26] Tillich.  Dynamics of Faith.  9.

[27] Tillich.  Dynamics of Faith.  50.

[28] Tillich.  Dynamics of Faith.  51.

[29] Dewey.  A Common Faith.  12.

[30] Dewey.  The Quest for Certainty.  244.