Click for: CSSHS Archive Main Page
Vol. III • 1980

Conflict-Action-Growth vs. Rest in God
An Appraisal of John Dewey
from the Biblical Creation Perspective
by Ellen Myers

Part I
Dewey's Life
Dewey's Organizational Involvement
Dewey and Communism
Dewey's Religion. Pietism, Liberal Protestantism, Atheism

    Part II (to be continued in the next issue)
    Dewey's Philosophy
    A. Dealing with Truth
    B. Activity versus Rest
    "The Quest for Uncertainty"
    A. Evolutionist, Lawless, Monistic Continuity and Process Philosophy
    B. Can You "Just Lie Back on It?"
    C. "The Quest for Uncertainty"
    Summary and Conclusion

The eminent American evolutionist philosopher John Dewey was born in 1859, the year of publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, and died in 1952. Dewey is acclaimed as one of America's greatest philosophers not only by his still numerous dedicated followers but also by at least one contemporary Christian thinker (Hendrik Hart, 8) who ranks him with the greatest philosophers of all time while yet pointing out the irreconcilability of Dewey's thought with Biblical Christianity. Dewey has also come under bitter and sustained attack by defenders of traditional education and by politically individualist libertarians.

Dewey's philosophy is a detailed and consistent outworking of faith in a self-contained evolutionist universe in which all things are one monistic whole in a process of constant and endless flux or "reconstruction." All notions ofthe supernatural or absolutes are dropped as superfluous. The God of the Bible and His creation ex nihilo, man's Fall, and redemption by Christ are hence also relegated to the intellectual rubbish heap of obsolete superstitions perhaps functional in their day but now expendable. According to Dewey, man's role is to control the world and its only and self-validating function, growth, by intelligent action. Man is now to be the agent of progress, not its patient as he was in his primitive and unscientific past. His action is to be evaluated by its consequences according to the method of inquiry and verification established in the natural sciences, namely, the experimental method of the modern laboratory. This philosophy of growth under scientific action by man sounds plausible and appealing in our age, although World Wars I and II and the horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulag Archipelago have dampened giddy secular humanist expectations of unbroken social and scientific progress.

Traditional speculative philosophical analysis and reflection about supposed antecedent and immutable reality behind and/or above the observed phenomena began to wane in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries with the rise of nominalism, empiricism and modern scientific inquiry. Dewey urges that all remnants of the traditional "spectator theory of knowledge" be supplanted by "learning by doing" in which thought is but a mode of action or instrumental to growth. Truth in the sense of ultimate immutable reality or "Being" does not exist for Dewey. For him truth is at most "warranted assertion." (Dewey: Logic, The Theory of lnquiry, 546)

Because of its internal consistency Dewey's philosophy is invulnerable to attack by philosophies which themselves partake of evolutionist faith yet inconsistently attempt to salvage elements of non-evolving "Being" behind or above empirically observed changing appearances. Dewey's intellectual development proceeded from outward adherence to his mother's fundamentalist discipline combined with his church's liberal Protestantism to remnants of intuitionist theism, Hegelian idealism and eventually to his mature monolithic evolutionist-naturalist "instrumentalism." Invariably he turned from the one to the next because of perceived internal inconsistencies. Acquaintance with Darwinian evolution theory during his undergraduate student years was the most significant turning point in his thought.

Dewey, a modern Heraclitus in his denial of any immutability in the universe, is plausible precisely to the extent that modern monistic, naturalistic evolution from simple to complex entities by random processes is accepted. Against this modern Heraclitus-in-evolutionist-scientist garb, a priori logical postulating of immutable "being" or of moral absolutes in the manner of Plato, Aristotle, or Kant is powerless. Attempts to oppose evolutionist instrumentalism by Christian precepts couched in impersonalistic terms borrowed from such aprioristic philosophers also miss the mark, falling short of the Personal, Sovereign God-Creator-Sustainer of the the Bible who is other and more than mere impersonal "form," being," "prime mover," "first cause" or "life force."

The hour has come and now is where we can prevail against naked, unashamed and consistent enemies such as Dewey only by an equally naked, unashamed and consistent stand on nought else but God Himself, His creation ex nihilo and His continual sustenance as the conditio sine qua non of all that is, according to the Scriptures.

This stand also provides the alternative to Dewey's concept of human action. Seen from the Biblical creation perspective, the evolutionist concept of the universe as conflict-action-growth was initiated by Satan tempting man to fall away from God in the garden of Eden, substituting his own judgment for God's. It is therefore the outworking of man's sin and hence evil, The Godordained meaning, goal and purpose for man is to abide and rest in God and His will. Idleness and passivity are not involved here; rather we are to exercise confident and perfect freedom and dominion over all the work of God's hands in Christ in Whom we are restored in God's image in which we were originally created. For us, then, our program of action is to manifest our returning, abiding and resting in God - to reveal God and Christ in and through us. God intends our whole existence now and in eternity to be the joyful and perfect manifestation of His Day of Rest crowning His creation of all things for His pleasure (Genesis 1:31; Exodus 20:9-11: Revelation 4:11).

To epistemologically self-conscious and consistent believers in a selfexisting naturalist evolutionist universe on the other hand, conflict-action growth is but the outworking of the motion, force or dynamism inherent in this present world, culminating in man's intelligent directive action. Our Biblical concept of sin and evil based upon God and His Person and character which man was created to reflect perfectly must be meaningless to such as Dewey who disbelieve in our God and hence also disbelieve in man's identity as the creature made in this God's likeness. Indeed since evolutionism posits constant flux, it denies all identity in principle including man's. This is why a merely formalistic or professed Christian "faith" like Dewey's own in his youth not holding to Christ Himself known person-to-person (John 17:3; John 15:5) must fail. Like the seven sons of Sceva who could not cast out evil spirits by relying upon mere hearsay knowledge of Jesus (Acts 19:13-16), nominal Christians with mere hearsay knowledge of the God they claim to manifest/ reveal cannot cast out entrenched false teachings of evil spirits now. In endeavoring to substantiate the foregoing I shall describe Dewey's life, work and intellectual development with emphasis upon his strengths of character and the agreement of his views with the spirit of his time in order to account for the enormous world-wide impact of his person and thought.

Any choice among Dewey's works for purposes of discussion within the narrow confines of a small monograph is extremely difficult because of the huge mass and wide range of his writings. Since Dewey's detrimental influence upon education as seen from the Christian perspective has been competently discussed by others it has not been dealt with in this paper. His thought in this area is in any case a consistent and thorough application of his overall philosophy as any reader of his Democracy and Educarion will confirm. My use of quotations will show which works about Dewey were most helpful to my own discussion. References and page numbers in parentheses after quotes refer to the bibliography at the end of this paper.

I was originally motivated to this study by the remark of a friend who ascribed his rejection of professed Christian belief to reading Dewey in his student days. By God's grace may this paper be helpful to such as my friend and to fellow Christians in their own defense of the faith.  


John Dewey preached unceasing practical action, and he faithfully practiced what he preached. As the pioneer of "relevance" in American philosophy and education he sought to make every moment of his long life relevant to his society. If this sounds like a eulogy, No matter how one may evaluate the content and effect of Dewey's work, even a cursory biography will convince any student of Dewey's undeniable personal generosity, integrity, diligence, perserverance and singlemindedness.

Dewey's writings comprise some forty books and many hundreds of articles. One comprehensive listing of his published works shows nearly one thousand (Schilpp). The first translation of a Dewey work appeared in 1900. Between that year and 1967, 327 separate translations into 35 languages appeared (Dykhuizen, 322), witnessing to Dewey's enormous international influence. In addition he carried on extensive private and scholarly correspondence, most notably with Arthur F. Bentley and with psychologist Adelbert Ames, Jr. He remained physically vigorous until his late eighties; a photograph shows him happily wielding an axe while chopping wood at his rustic summer retreat in Nova Scotia at that age.

After completing his graduate studies and receiving an appointment to the faculty of the University of Michigan, John Dewey was married to Alice Chipman in 1886. They had six children of whom two died in boyhood. After the death of their second son the Deweys adopted an Italian boy. Dewey's aged parents made their home with him and his wife from 1891 to their respective deaths. Alice died in 1927 after a period of mental disorientation Dewey bore patiently (Eastman, 680). Dewey remarried in 1946 when he was 86. He and his second wife, Roberta Lowitz Grant, a widow of 42, adopted two Belgian children orphaned in World War II. By his second marriage Dewey forfeited his right to his first wife's estate.

Dewey traveled widely to lecture at foreign universities. He went to Europe in 1895, 1904, 1928, 1929 and 1930. He visited Russia for three months in 1928. He lectured in China between June 1919 and March 1920, and again at the National University of Peking in 1921. He was invited to lecture in Japan for three months in 1919. Sidney Hook tells us in an engaging aside that he quietly refused to accept the Order of the Rising Sun, the highest honor the Japanese government could award a foreigner, after the Japanese lecture tour. "He was motivated," Hook says, "by the feeling that to be a citizen of a democratic community was a sufficient political distinction for Americans." (Hook, 6) In June 1924 he was invited to Turkey as consultant on education to President Mustapha Kemal Ataturk who modernized the country after World War I. He went to South Africa in the summer of 1934 under the sponsorship of the Carnegie Corporation to participate in a conference on education as one of twenty-five specially invited overseas speakers to lecture on the adaptation of education to the changing needs of society. He lectured at the University of Mexico in 1926, visited Mexico in 1927, and went there again in 1937 as the head of a special inquiry commission to investigate the Stalin-instigated slander campaign against Leon Trotsky. As we see, most of this traveling, lecturing and special work was done when Dewey was between 60 and 78 years of age. Most of his travels were followed up by extensive reports on his work, his impressions or investigations written for publication. Hook comments:

Dewey's international stature is also evident from his invitation by the University of Edinburg to deliver its annual Gifford lectures in 1929 (which lectures are the contents of one of Dewey's most important and most influential works, The Quest for Certainty), and from the award of an honorary doctorate to him by the University of Paris in 1930, which in so doing described him as "the most profound and complete expression of American genius." (Eastman, 671)

His official career apart from these special tasks would have absorbed the labor and interest of any ordinary man. Dewey's undergraduate work was done at the University of Vermont. He next taught high school in Pennsylvania and Vermont from 1879 to 1882. He then did graduate work in philosophy and psychology at John Hopkins University from 1882 to 1884, the last year as a graduate instructor in philosophy. Upon receiving his Ph.D. degree he taught philosophy at the University of Michigan from 1884 to 1888. He then chaired the newly established department of philosophy at the University of Minnesota, but returned to the University of Michigan to assume the chairmanship of its philosophy department in 1889 upon the untimely death of his former teacher, friend, colleague and predecessor, George Sylvester Morris. He remained at this post until accepting the chairmanship of the philosophy department at the fledgling University of Chicago where he served from 1894 to 1904. Here Dewey established his famous experimental laboratory school to introduce and perfect his system and methods of "progressive education" which has been with us ever since. Personal misunderstandings and conflicts brought about Dewey's resignation in 1904 and subsequent appointment to chair the department of philosophy and psychology at Columbia University in 1905. He also held a seat on the faculty of Teachers College upon the request of its faculty and trustees, Here he remained fully active until 1930, as Professor Emeritus in residence with somewhat reduced duties till 1939, and finally with merely advisory functions from 1939 until his death in 1952.  


Throughout his life Dewey was actively involved in a multitude of organizations. Until moving to Chicago in 1894 he was active in the Congregational Church and the Students' Christian Association. He was one of nineteen charter members of the Michigan Schoolmasters' Club when it was founded in 1886 and served as its vice president in 1887 and 1888. He faithfully attended faculty meetings and meetings of student clubs related to his field of study, serving, for instance, as president of the Philosophical Club at the University of Chicago during 1895-96, and regularly attending the meetings of the University's Pedagogical Club until he left for Columbia University in 1904.

His work in general psychology in which he took a life-long interest resulted in his being elected president of the American Psychological Association for 1899. The then four-year-old American Philosophical Association elected him president for 1905. Dewey served as chairman of Section L (Education) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and was elected its national vice-president in 1909. He was always strongly interested in teachers' organizations. On February 28, 1913 Dewey was invited to address the organizational meeting of the Teachers League of New York. His chosen topic, significant as an expression of his own views of a teacher's role in society, was "Professional Spirit among Teachers" and dealt in part with teachers' responsibility as leaders and directors in the formation of public opinion (Dykhuizen, 145). In 1916 Dewey helped bring the Teachers League of New York into the American Federation of Labor, and he was among those who led anti-Communist teachers out of the local group when it was about to be controlled by Communist elements (Dykhuizen, 146). Dewey was an active supporter of social settlements such as the famous Hull House in Chicago founded by Jane Addams, a lifelong friend, and the Henry Street Settlement on New York's lower east side led by Lillian D. Wald.

Dewey helped found and was the first president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915. This organization's first endeavor was to set up a Committee of Inquiry to investigate reported unfair treatment of faculty members at the Universities of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Utah, Montana, Colorado and Wesleyan. The University of Pennsylvania case involved Scott Nearing. Whitaker Chambers reports on this particular instance as follows:

Chambers goes on to describe Nearing's brief involvement with the Communist party which he soon left, being "an extreme individualist... simple and sincere... in fact his own species of Christian socialist, moved primarily by pacifism." (ibid) The basic issue, of course, is that of academic freedom and its proper foundations. We shall return to it later in this paper.

Dewey helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920. When it was infiltrated by Communists in the 1930's, Dewey resigned from it. He endorsed and morally supported its main efforts until his death though never resuming his former responsibilities in ii (Dykhuizen, 170-173). In the 1920's Dewey joined the League for Industrial Democracy, which had been founded under the name of Intercollegiate Socialist Society by Upton Sinclair in 1905. Dewey served as its president from 1939 to 1941, was named Honorary President in 1941, and continued to be consulted on its activities until his death (Dykhuizen, 223).

Dewey's prominence in these three organizations as well as his support of such social action efforts as Hull House reflect his political views which we might call "liberal" today. They border in many but not all respects upon full-fledged socialism.

I see the main components of Dewey's political orientation as the following:

All these components are compatible with an exclusive stress upon practical action in solving problems as they arise. Such practical action is then judged by its results, and hence is thoroughly pragmatic in spirit and a fitting embodiment of Dewey's conflict-action-growth philosophy.  


Closely tied to Dewey's political liberalism is his attitude towards Communism. It was ambiguous enough to provoke hostility from both Communists and anti-Communists. Communists were furious at Dewey for his chairing the Committee for Cultural Freedom in 1939 to curtail Communist propaganda in higher education and the news media (Dykhuizen, 294-5). Dewey spoke out in public against the pro-Communist propagandistic slant of a famous World War II movie, "Mission to Moscow." We have mentioned his resignation from the ACLU and the Teachers League of New York over the issue of Communist infiltration. His chairing the Inquiry Commission investigating Stalinist slander of Trotsky could not help but increase Communist hostility. He knew that his ideal of unrestrained democracy was incompatible with Communist practices where Communism is in power.

But this is notthe whole story. After his trip to Russia in 1928 Dewey wrote six articles published in New Republic, a left-liberal magazine, in November and December 1928. He wrote that the Communist Revolution of 1917 was a revolution of heart and mind, this liberation of a people to consciousness of themselves as a determining power in the shaping of their ultimate fate.

He further asserted that the energies released by Marxist theories and expectations coping with domestic and international realities, rather than Marxist doctrines themselves, would be the decisive factor in fashioning the future of Russian national life. He believed that the United States government should recognize the Soviet government because to do otherwise would keep the Soviet and American peoples separated, prevent their mutual understanding and knowledge, and be "close to a crime against humanity." This stand prompted the American Federation of Labor at its November, 1928 national convention to expunge its previous tribute to Dewey after its vice president, Matthew Woll, denounced Dewey as "a propagandist for Communist interests." (Dykhuizen, 238-239.)

Speaking from the Biblical creation perspective we must single out Dewey's suggestion, made in the same article, that the most instructive way to view events in Soviet Russia was as a great "national experiment" whose outcome was still in doubt, as one of his most flagrantly unbiblical opinions. Man created in God's image is not, qua his manhood, a proper subject for wholesale "experimentation." Even more strictly individual "experimentation," such as testing an individual's behavior, aptitude in simulated social or work situations, or reacting to untried medicines or medical operations, should never be done without the informed consent of the individual man or woman involved.

Informed consent, of course, is impossible when (as Dewey says about Soviet Russia) the result of the "experiment" cannot be even approximately anticipated. The human "subjects" involved should never be used as means to other human beings' ends. But only man's creation in God's image provides a sufficient absolute foundation to rule out such exploitation. Secular morality, beset by the fundamental problem of defining man's identity, or of what it presently calls "personhood," is of necessity always open to read this or that category of human beings out of protection against being treated as "subhuman" and hence both expendable and exploitable. The categories black slaves, Jews, the pre-born, the aged, the aristocrats, the "bourgeois," the capitalists, the handicapped, the feebleminded, the "natives," or whatever - change through history. The evil principle disregard/denial of man being created in God's image and likeness and therefore absolutely special and superior qua his/her humanhood in God's eyes (Genesis 9:6) is the same.

The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell whose views coincided in many respects with those of his personal friend Dewey pointed out the fundamental compatibility of Dewey's philosophy of conflict-action-growth ("instrumentalSm") with the philosophy of Karl Marx. In his masterful critique of Dewey's Logic: The Theory of Inquiry Russell quotes a classic statement written by Karl Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach (1845):

Russell immediately comments: "Allowing for a certain difference of phraseology, this doctrine is essentially indistinguishable from instrumentalism. (Schilpp, 143)

Whitaker Chambers whom we quoted a moment ago was a former Communist who joined the Communist party while a student at Columbia University in the early 1920's, that is, at the same time that Dewey was teaching there. I believe that the following description by Chambers of the intellectual climate in which Dewey's philosophy flourished as well as of the basic tenets undergirding that philosophy is correct:

Lest we be accused of slanting Dewey's views to fit the analysis of one of necessity opposing him on theistic-Biblical grounds, let us lastly turn to a significant and widely disseminated document in which Dewey himself took part both as initiator and co-signer. The document is the famous Humanist Manifesto I. It first appeared in The New Humanist, May/June 1933 (Vol. VI, No.3). Paul Kurtz, editor of The Humanist, tells us in the preface to the re-issue of Humanist Manifestos I and II:

In 1933 a group of thirty-four liberal humanists in the United States defined and enunciated the philosophical and religious principles that seemed to them fundamental. They drafted Humanist Manifesto I. . . It was concerned with expressing a general religious and philosophical outlook that rejected orthodox and dogmatic positions and provided meaning and direction, unity and purpose to human life. It was committed to reason, science, and democracy. (Humanist Manifestos 1 and 11, 3) The thirty-four humanists include John Dewey (HM I and II, 11). The following excerpts are of relevance to our discussion (although the entire document ought to be familiar to any informed Biblical creationist):

Note the religious tone of the entire document speaking throughout in the name of "religious humanism." Note that denial of creation is its very first assertion, the fountainhead of its credo, the cornerstone of all its teaching.

Note the recurrent emphasis on modern science and its achievements. Note the haziness in defining man's identity and personality.

Note how the determination of all values is made to hinge upon man's own "intelligent inquiry" as the only and therefore highest authority for "any and all realities." In this statement in particular we find full affirmation of what Chambers told us about the spirit of the age in which Dewey's philosophy flourished, and which it in turn reinforced.

It is reasonable to conclude that while Dewey was not a Communist, his philosophy is compatible with Communism, or if you will Marxist philosophy, to the extent that both view the world as conflict-action-growth through self-existing, self-contained naturalistic evolutionist processes, which are now increasingly directed by man.  


Dewey was born and raised in Vermont of old New England farmer ancestry. His father was in his fifties when Dewey and his brothers were growing up. He was easy-going and somewhat indifferent with regard to his sons religious nurture. Dewey's mother Lucina, on the other hand, "had been won over to the evangelical pietism that had taken hold in many pans of the country around the middle of the century" in her youth (Dykhuizen, 6). Coughlan, writing about the philosophical and religious development of young John Dewey from a thoroughly secular perspective, gives us more details about Lucina Dewey's conversion experience:

Lucina Dewey seems by all accounts to have been an unusual woman. Her family had been in New England since the seventeenth century, and by her generation their religion had evolved into a comparatively cool, urbane Universalism. Sometime in her late adolescence, however, Lucina had gone out to Ohio to visit another branch of the family, also Universalists. There she had made a new friend, another girl, and with her had begun to go to the local revival meetings. Her relatives wrote home to Vermont, warning her father to send for her, but he wasn't quick enough. Lucina was converted, and she came back to Vermont a pious evangelical. (Coughlan, 3-4)

The label used by Dykhuizen, "evangelical pietism" may be misleading, especially when used by an unbeliever in describing expressions of the Christian faith. Lucina Dewey is described as kind and generous, but also narrow and strict in her religious views. She taught her children Bible stories, condemned dancing, card-playing, pool, billiards, drinking, gambling and forbade her sons these activities as well as visiting places where they were allowed. She also regularly took them to Burlington's First Congregational Church where liberal Protestantism held sway. Coughlan, more perspicacious than Dykhuizen, wonders whether in doing so she "may have had some misgivings" and adds the following pertinent reflection:

Whatever her misgivings might have been, Lucina Dewey urged her son to join this liberal Protestant church when he was eleven years old. It was she who wrote for him the following application for membership; I think I love Christ and want to obey Him. I have thought for sometime I should like to unite with the church. Now, I want to more, for it seems one way to confess Him, and I should like to remember Him at the Communion. (Dykhuizen, 6)

Dykhuizen calls this note "typically pietistic." I would take exception to this statement, yet I do agree that elements of "Pietism" are present in Lucina Dewey's post-conversion practice of Christianity. Since her influence is obviously crucial in the life of John Dewey and to our understanding of his later total rejection of Christianity, I believe a necessarily brief discussion of the movement historically known as "Pietism" is pertinent here.

Pietism began in Germany in the seventeenth century as a reaction to the rationalism and the dry intellectual theological hair-splitting aptly called "Protestant scholasticism" in the wake of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648). Its "founder" a misnomer, for one of its prominent features is virtual absence of outward organization was Philip Jakob Spener, a theology professor (1635-1705). It flourished especially in the next century both in Germany and abroad under Spener's followers Francke and Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760) (Latourette, 894-897). The seventeenth century Jansenists have been called the "Pietist movement" among French Catholics (Brown, 25-26). The French scientist-philosopher Blaise Pascal was very close to them. His Memorial the record of his conversion experience on November23, 1654, is reminiscent of John Wesley's record of his conversion, the "Aldersgate experience" of May 24, 1738 pursuant to the preaching on Luther's Commentary on Romans by "pietist" Moravian Brethren, a group founded and headed by Count Zinzendorf. It is worth quoting from John Wesley's journal:

What is involved is personal, transforming knowledge of the Living God in Christ, like Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus which transformed him into the Apostle Paul. That such personal transforming knowledge of God in Christ is necessary yea, is itself eternal life we have on the authority of Jesus Christ Himself (John 3:3, 5, 7; 17:3).

Pietism always gloried in the Bible as the literal, inerrant and infallible Word of God to guide our lives under the authority of God the Holy Spirit Himself rather than man's reason or institutions, which have a subordinate place in individual guidance and corporate worship. Pietism also always gloried in zealous evangelistic outreach to the lost who never yet heard the Gospel or who are merely nominal, professed members of established churches.

Because its genuinely converted adherents had and have a lively awareness of God's grace and love transforming their hearts and lives (the "I felt my heart strangely warmed" of Wesley, or the "May I never be separated from Him eternally" of Pascal's Memorial), they show forth the unquenchable desire to worship this gracious and loving God in public prayer, testimony and song. "Pietists" are also known for their practical charitable outreach combined with evangelism, again undeniably the mark of Biblical Christianity. The pietist Francke and his successor Tholuck founded and operated orphanages in Halle, Germany. In the nineteenth century Tholuck's student George Mueller, converted to Christ through a "pietist" prayer circle (actually officially illegal at the time as a proscribed "conventicle" in Prussia with its established Lutheran "state church"), founded and operated England's first orphanages in Bristol. John Wesley's Methodists, especially through their wealthy Clapham Sect, and later through William Booth's Salvation Army down to our day, exhibited Biblical person-to-person private aid and witness to the poor.

If this were all there is to Pietism, then Lucina Dewey's note serving as young John's application for membership in a liberal Protestant church is not "typically pietistic." Her "I think I love Christ" is not the same as Wesley's "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation." The expression of assurance in Christ for salvation from sin is also conspicuously absent from the Dewey note. Its purpose, attaining membership in a liberal Protestant church, is also incompatible with historical Pietism.

But there is more to Pietism. It was also beset almost from inception with an unbiblical demand for an outward show of subjective feelings, decisions or experiences as principal, trustworthy and even indispensable evidences that one is saved. Perhaps to balance this tendency there is often an added demand for outward works, observances or practices of a generally narrow or strict character some of which may not be clearly and expressly enjoined in the Bible; and, again such outward observances or practices supposedly evidence one's being saved. Lastly, there may be an unbiblical and fundamentally defeatist separation of one's Christian life from one's "secular" life. In particular, the liberal arts, the social sciences and the humanities may be proscribed as worldly and dangerous per se and hence abandoned to usurpation by unbelievers. Thus adulterated, Pietism may become a dangerous distortion of renewal and life in Christ.

We need not doubt that Lucina Dewey was most earnestly concerned about her children's salvation. John Dewey stated in later life that his mother's constant questioning him whether he was "right with Jesus" was especially repugnant to him. He also wrote, with some justification I think: Religious feeling is unhealthy when it is watched and analyzed to see if it exists, if it is right, if it is growing. It is as fatal to be forever observing our own religious moods and experiences, as it is to pull up a seed from the ground to see if it is growing. (Dykhuizen, 7)

From his mother's brand of pietism young John Dewey turned to the liberal Protestantism he found at the Congregational Church and later in college. His childhood minister, the Reverend Lewis Ormond Brastow, went directly from this church to a professorship of homiletics at Yale where he remained to his death, from 1884 to 1913, thus influencing Yale divinity students for almost thirty years. In a textbook on homiletics published in 1914 Brastow wrote:

Liberal evangelicalism assumes that human intelligence may venture to deal with the facts of revelation and of religious experience and bring back valid results. (Dykhuizen, 7)

He emphasized that perfection in Christ is possible to men `only in our associate life" (Dykhuizen, 8). While Dewey discarded church membership along with vestiges of belief in the supernatural in his forties, the idea of mankind's corporate perfection never left him and underlies his mature (atheist) religion as part and parcel of his naturalist evolutionist presuppositions. He concludes A Common Faith (first published in 1934 when he was seventyfive) with the following famous paragraph read at his funeral (Dykhuizen, 321):

Dewey received and retained from liberal Protestantism its belief in mankind as one united whole. Not only "sect, class or race" must be abolished; the Biblical difference between believers and unbelievers, the saved in Christ and the unregenerate, must also go:

It is impossible to ignore the fact that historic Christianity has been committed to a separation of sheep and goats: the saved and the lost; the elect and the mass. Spiritual aristocracy. . . is deeply embedded in its traditions. … those outside the fold of the church and those who do not rely upon belief in the supernatural have been regarded as only potential brothers, still requiring adoption into the family. (ibid, 83, 84) Then follows one of Dewey's well-nigh innumerable statements expressing his religious attachment to democracy as the ideal mode of social relations: I cannot understand how any realization of the democratic ideal as a vital moral and spiritual ideal in human affairs is possible without surrender of the conception of the basic division to which supernatural Christianity is committed. Whether or not we are, save in some metaphorical sense, all brothers, we are at least all in the same boat traversmg the same turbulent ocean. The potential religious significance of this fact is infinite. (ibid., 84) Lest it be claimed that Dewey's position here is at odds with liberal Protestantism, I quote from recommendations of A Common Faith by well-known liberal Protestant publications: He uncovers the quickening power of spiritual renewal where it has always been found, namely, in human relations, human welfare, human progress. It becomes the supreme task of faith as a method of educational awakening to make men aware of the significance and importance of these human relations. The Churchman His search for the supremely worthful, stripped of all its traditional bias and wishful thinking, should be widely shared. Christian Century (A Common Faith, back cover) The difference between liberal Protestantism as represented by the Reverend Brastow, John Dewey and liberal Protestant publications and spokesmen in general, and the Biblical creation perspective or Biblical Christianity is the former's reliance upon man and "human relations" as essentially sufficient and sufficiently good as they are here and now. Human upward progress is confidently expected upon this basis. The Biblical creation perspective or Biblical Christianity denies that man and human relations as they are here and now give grounds for such optimism. On the contrary, they have fallen from the perfect state they enjoyed at creation by God in His image and likeness for His pleasure. Hence man's repentance and regeneration, restoration and abiding by God's grace, power and moment-by-moment sustenance is the foundation of human individual and social action. We deny that human intelligence apart from God can "bring back valid results" not only in its study of the Bible but in any area whatever. The physical (and not just "metaphorical") brotherhood of all men as originating in Adam and fallen and dead in Adam is true according to the Scriptures. But Christ Himself (and not just "historic Christianity") tells us that we must be "born again from above, of the Spirit" even to see, or to enter into the kingdom of God. We see precisely here the head-on clash between Christ and His regenerate people on the one hand, and such as Dewey or liberal Protestants on the other hand. There is an instantly obvious and ludicrous non sequitur fallacy involved in the faith of Dewey, liberal Protestantism (and religious humanism) in good-as is and self-perfectible man and his relations in a democratic society preferably embracing all mankind. It is that if people only get together and air their differences they will thereby eo ipso overcome and/or eliminate their differences. This may happen if the differences were small or non-existent to begin with. But if they were merely the tip of the iceberg of an underlying "communion gap" beneath the surface "communications gap" discussion may actually widen this gap. A communion/communications gap cannot be bridged bythe mere wish to bridge it, sincere and great as it may be. The prophet Amos says it well.. two cannot walk together except they be agreed (Amos 3:3). There is yet another fallacy involved in the democratic "common faith" mirage. Dewey, again single mindedly and consistently referring to "knowledge" as the key issue, postulates that A one-sided psychology, a reflex of eighteenth-century "individualism," treated knowledge as an accomplishment of a lonely mind. We should now be aware that it is a product of the cooperative and communicative operations of human beings living together. Its communal origin is an indication of its rightful communal use. The unification of what is known at any given time, not upon an impossible eternal and abstract basis but upon that of its bearing upon the unification of human desire and purpose, furnishes a sufficient creed for human acceptance, one that would provide a religious release and reinforcement of knowledge. (A Common Faith, 86) The fallacy is Dewey's assumption that collective decisions are wiser than decisions made by individuals. There is no guarantee whatsoever for the validity of this assumption (cf. Wrightsman, Social Psychology, Chapter 19). Nor is Dewey's "communal origin of knowledge" borne out by the history of invention/discovery breakthroughs in the natural sciences. Later generations have often discarded wholesale the scientific work of preceding generations (cf. Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions), a fact known even to grade school students learning about the Copernican/Newtonian scientific revolution, or about the overthrow of theories of the spontaneous generation of life by the work of Redi and Pasteur. At the very least this hypothesis of a "communal origin, accumulation and unification of knowledge" needs further and continuing investigation before it can possibly furnish "a sufficient creed for human acceptance." Lastly, and this is the deepest trouble with liberal Protestantism and religious humanism as espoused by Dewey, it has no absolute concept of what might count as "evil." If man is good-as-is in the here and now, and if there is no supernatural and no God, then "evil" must be that which is so called in accordance with the prevailing social consensus. Or else that which opposes such social consensus decision or definition is "evil," and in particular belief in the God of the Bible with His insistence upon perfect conformity to Himself in and through Christ.

This repudiation of God and His normative Law is also, of course, repudiation of rest or abiding in this God. Man should incessantly busy himself with "social action." It should not be assumed that Dewey's transition from his mother's evangelical-pietist influence to liberal Protestantism was entirely smooth. Hook mentions Dewey's testifying to feelings of "inward laceration" as a consequence of the dualism between the supernatural God and the here and now (Hook, 14), eased only by Dewey's later exposure and temporary adherence to Hegelian philosophical idealism under the tutelage of George Sylvester Morris. This philosophy "taught that the world was just as necessary to God as God to the world. What seemed from a theological perspective to be a natural evil the life of impulse, passion, and action appeared now to be a natural condition for the achievement of good . . . there was no standard of testing so high, or intuition so deep, that it was not itself subject to further test in subsequent experience . . . (ibid.) For Hegel, the world, properly understood, was already ideal, so that there was no rational way of choosing between different ideals in any concrete situation. The better ideal in this view was not one which proved itself in the light of foreseen consequences but one which established itself by power of sheer survival. (Hook, 15) Here we see Dewey's mature thought in a nutshell. We also see here total compatibility with evolutionist thought to which Dewey was exposed toward the end of his junior year at the University of Vermont, when he was 18. We shall let Max Eastman tell this most significant story: Toward the end of his junior year this placid process of development was crashed into by a … crisis which) was a short course in physiology with a textbook written by Thomas Henry Huxley. That accidental contact with Darwin's brilliant disciple, then waging his fierce war for evolution against the "impregnable rock" of Holy Scripture, woke John Dewey up to the spectacular excitement of the effort to understand the world. He was swept off his feet by the rapture of scientific knowledge. (Eastman, 673) There occurred due to this "crisis" what Davidheiser calls a "scholastic transformation . . . Suddenly (Dewey) led his class at the University of Vermont and won the highest grades in philosophy ever recorded in that school." (Davidheiser, 105) Another event of like importance, I believe, took place while Dewey was teaching high school in Oil City, Pennsylvania, in 1879 (he was 19 years old). He had what he later called the one and only "mystic experience" of his life. Again we will let Max Eastman, the original source reporting Dewey's own account, tell what happened:

Dewey's account of his "mystic experience" to Eastman took place in 1941. Coughlan comments that "Dewey was overeager in remembering this moment as dating the end of his religious `beliefs' (his Christianity was very much alive for another five years at least)" Coughlan, 9), and proves his point by quoting from Dewey's homily to the Student Christian Association in 1884, his first year at the University of Michigan, which contains the stern sentence serving as its theme, "There is an obligation to know God, and to fail to meet this obligation is not to err intellectually, but to sin morally." (Coughlan, 55). But from thereon Dewey became more and more liberal as did his influence upon his students. One of them reported in an interview fifty-five years later that Dewey's influence "helped me to rid myself of my old religious superstition and made me tolerant of all whom I met." (Coughlan, 88) Coughlan can even speak correctly of Dewey's "sinless ethic" by which Dewey told his students that they were "no longer under the law-free." (Coughlan, 90) The "what is, is right" lawlessness of his "mystic experience" was thus being communicated to the next generation. Total secularization of his thought and atheism was complete by the time he began to teach at the University of Chicago (1894). This was outwardly evidenced by his ceasing to attend any church whatsoever. Considering the presence of numerous men on the faculty of like mind with Dewey at this ostensibly Christian (Baptist) institution originally funded with John D. Rockefeller money and American Baptist matching funds, he was but one of many academics of his generation rejecting nominal Christianity for outright unbelief in supernatural religion. (cf. Gordon, The Leaven of the Sadducees.)

(To be continued in the next issue.)

"Conflict-Action-Growth vs. Rest in God - An Appraisal of John Dewey"
CSSHS • Creation Social Science & Humanities Society • Quarterly Journal

Main Page:  CSSHS Archives