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John Dewey was a philosopher and an educational innovator. He was also a poet who loved nature, children, and his fellow citizens. He was concerned with changing the course of moral ideas so as to overcome the dualisms between mind and world, soul and body, nature and God. For Dewey, nature represented the whole complex of human desires, hopes, memories, and knowledge, in their interactions with the world. Dewey noticed that to call somebody spiritual never meant to invoke some mysterious and unnatural entity outside of the real world. For Dewey a spiritual person possessed qualities of rich, coordinated, and sensitive participation in the many situations of life. Dewey's philosophy and teachings offer much to the student of spiritual and religious development.
According to Dewey, only spiritual people have souls, and soul and spirit are not to be considered as belonging to a mythic realm; just the opposite: they are embedded in real human experiences. The natural world displays continuity, that is, a harmonious unifying order. The unification of the self, however, can never be achieved just in terms of itself. Human doings and sufferings constitute a ceaseless experiential flux, in which the self transcends itself by means of a continuous integration of shifting experiences with the totality of the universe. Such integration represents a learning process described by Dewey as a readjustment in every form of human consciousness: spirit itself informs. This is what Dewey has called learning from experience: the ability to make multiple connections between what we do to things and what we can enjoy-or suffer-from things in return. Whatever people do cannot be reduced to an individual act but represents an experiment with the world outside-a transaction. To discover such a mutual connection means to learn.
For Dewey, the idea of God represented the active relation between the ideal and the actual. The human desire to unite the two belongs to what may be considered a spiritual act. Dewey distinguished between religion and the religious; the latter was not to be identified with the supernatural. He held another conception of that aspect of experience, one that was a qualitative category designated by an adjective, the religious, as opposed to religion. For Dewey, there is no such thing as a singular religion, but a multitude of different religions; therefore, religion is posited as a collective and not a universal term. People can make choices among many religions. Some values and functions in experience may also be selected. The emancipation of certain beliefs and practices from their institutional organization and developing attitudes that may be taken toward some ideal constitute, for Dewey, the religious quality of experience. As such, this quality signifies something that may belong to a variety of aesthetic, scientific, moral, or political experiences or experiences such as companionship and friendship. The religious reorientation brings forward the sense of security and stability by virtue of creating a better and more enduring adjustment to the real-life circumstances. New values are created so as to help in carrying one through the frequent moments of desperation or depression while not submitting to fatalistic resignation.
For Dewey, an experiential situation calls up something not present directly to sense perception. Dewey emphasized the role of imagination in the process of unifying the self with objective conditions, stressing that unity, as the idea of a whole, is to be understood as an imaginative, and not a literal, idea. Imagination expands the world only narrowly apprehended in knowledge or realized in reflective thinking. Imagination exceeds faith, the latter being based on the truth of the propositions solely by virtue of their supernatural author.
Because faith always has practical and moral import, Dewey stressed the difficulty embedded specifically in the moral component. The truly religious attitude is not limited to what is actually out there; it is inspired by belief in what is possible, even if only ideal in character. The realm of the possible is much broader than an intellectual assurance or rational belief can encompass. A human is never to be taken in isolation from the rest of the physical world-what Dewey called the essentially unreligious attitude. We are parts of a larger whole, and we have the capacity to intelligently and purposefully create conditions for a continuous inquiry into the mysteries of the natural world. The faith in intelligent inquiry-by means of natural interactions between people and their environment- becomes religious in quality.
Dewey's written works provide the reader and student with much to consider, particularly those who question and seek to understand a religious attitude as compared with dogma and to understand how ethics and our moral conduct play a very important role in common faith.