Sunday, December 29, 2013

An Uncommon Faith

John Dewey did a series of lectures which were eventually published as a book called A Common Faith.  George Santayana, who was inclined to give other philosophers a hard time now and then, gave Dewey a hard time over that title, maintaining (or so I've read) that the faith described in the book was not common at all, or perhaps altogether too common (Santayana himself could be as obscure in his writing as Dewey, sometimes, though Santayana was clearly the better writer).  In any case, he thought the use of the word "common" inappropriate--perhaps even uncommon.  The title of this post is an effort to escape this "common" problem.

I think Dewey may have intended in using "common" in this fashion to contend that the faith he described in his lectures could be a faith all could accept, if they would but abandon the supernaturalism characteristic of religious faith and treated as religious what he believed should be and would be the focus of religious feelings and ideals once the supernatural was discarded.  He quoted Santayana on the similarity between poetry and religion (perhaps Santayana felt that to the extent Dewey extolled Santayana's idea as an example of the faith Dewey sought to instill, such faith must necessarily be uncommon as in "extraordinary").  Art, knowledge, wisdom and acceptance of our role as a part of the universe, not apart from it; these seem to be the "religious" ideals Dewey believed worthy of, or could be the result of, a common faith.

I have a certain sympathy with this view, this "faith", whether it be common or not.  I think our tendency to believe in the supernatural--which in this context would be something transcending the universe, generally a transcendent God--is unwise and unfounded.  The supernatural is something we cannot know and cannot establish.  Indeed, it's something we can't even describe or intuit or feel, being "bounded" by what we are; that's to say living creatures in the universe, parts of nature.  To the extent we purport to do so, we ascribe to the transcendent powers, thoughts, desires, intents all of which are things we experience and know of as creatures that are parts of nature, and are therefore natural themselves.

Of course, some of us also maintain that there is something transcendent about us as well, which presumably allows us to know the transcendent God if only dimly, imperfectly.  That dimness and imperfection, plainly, results from the fact that we though somewhat transcendent are too much a part of nature.  So we partake of original sin or are otherwise deficient, just as is nature itself.

This belief in the supernatural or transcendent thus brings with it a belief in our own uniqueness, as we necessarily cannot be merely creatures of the universe, parts of nature, in order to be saved.  We fail when we are too much a part of nature in this view; we succumb to our animal nature.

Interestingly, Dewey seems to feel that this tendency on our part to believe ourselves unique and special is shared by those he describes as "militant atheists."  He thinks that those who condemn not merely belief in God but religious feelings in general detach themselves from the rest of the universe as much as do theists, but in a different way.  If I understand him correctly, this is because the refusal to acknowledge what Dewey considers to be religious ideals, to be entirely materialistic, disregards the connection with the universe we must partake in to be truly what we are, i.e. creatures of the universe.  This is not clear to me, I'll admit, but I think I know what he meant by it.

Dewey seems to think that what he calls religious ideals as noted above are worthy of reverence.  Here I part from him.  Certainly they're worthy and are to be sought.  But for me, that reverence should be accorded to the amazing universe we've come to know more than ever in the past 500 years or so, but which I think is so boundless and remarkable that we still know it very little.  What we have considered supernatural may turn out to be natural (that would be a surprise).  Our moments of transcendence, to the extent that means becoming aware of something greater than we are, may be entirely natural as well; a recognition of something that's also a part of nature.

The Stoics thought this to be the Universal Reason, the controlling principle of nature, a small part of which we carry with us as beings capable of reason.  The Universal Reason was immanent in the universe, though, not beyond it, something which was material and could be such according to the physics of the time.  C.S. Peirce felt that the universe, though chaotic in its inception, has a tendency towards reason, forming reasonable relations and even laws by virtue of the interaction of its parts.

I feel they may have been on to something, but it's just a feeling and I recognize that it's just that.  Feelings don't inspire respect though they're an essential part of us (perhaps a contempt for such feelings is something Dewey felt was a weakness of the militant atheists he refers to which separates them from nature).  Perhaps if I thought I could do so without inciting ridicule or contentiousness I would venture to air this view in a certain forum I've frequented, but it is a very practical view and the practical seems to be something increasingly frowned on by those who participate in it.  Theorists are an intolerant bunch, and philosophers are nothing if not theorists; nothing but theorists, I suppose.  When one deals in contention as a job, it's no enjoyment to be exposed to it in one's free time.  Such forums are tedious if they can't be enjoyed.

Perhaps religion is an intensely practical thing just as ancient philosophies such as Stoicism and Epicureanism were practical.  Or at least religion can be and has been practical in the sense of being concerned with how we live in the universe.  That practicality began to diminish as people focused on the transcendent and a next life instead of the one we actually live.  Given social conditions in the later Roman Empire, it's likely that many were so miserable that the promise of some life other than that being lived made Christianity and the mystery religions quite enticing.  One would think that this disregard of life would dissipate as life gets easier to live, but it seems life isn't easy enough yet, or that we're still seduced by our own dreams of transcendence.

No comments:

Post a Comment