Devotion offered before the Vermont State House, January 25, 2011

I obviously do not need to remind you that tonight is the state of the union address. I only mention it because I thought that for a devotional moment this morning I’d think with you for a minute on one of Vermont’s most famous philosophers, John Dewey, who would encourage a generous spirit when we listen to it and as we as a nation work into its visions.

John Dewey was born and raised in Burlington in 1859. He worshiped as a boy in the congregational church there. I like to think that it was this early experience in a community that was committed to God, and yet open minded and conversational about what that God was and what commitment meant, that shaped his philosophy. But it must be said that he remained explicitly philosophical.

Dewey is most known, I think for his advocacy of quality public education and he argued for and then put his arguments into action by founding and teaching a school, a place where children could be taught in a more social and interactive environment. In the late 19th century, a time traveler from the 1960’s would have recognized his approach which believed that students do best when they have a chance to interact with and change the curriculum to suit their needs.

But John Dewey’s deepest philosophical conviction is that in order for a society to flourish and advance it must be Democractic. Dewey wrote volumes on what it means for a society to be democratic. But he never strayed from the idea that Democracy is not merely a method for ruling through majority opinion and vote-taking. He said at one time that “Democracy is a form of government only because it is a form of moral and spiritual association.” That’s quite a statement, and to embrace it, in any way, requires we understand that Dewey means something different by his phrase, “moral and spiritual association” than “the religious” or religious observance. For him, moral and spiritual association truly meant association — the power that people, with different ideas and backgrounds, people of different orientations and skin colors and people with different religions, could freely communicate ideas, facts and experiences without suspicion and with a genuine hope for progress.

I study Dewey and I preach about Dewey because his ideas ameliorate our culture of contentiousness. His ideas encourage us to be generous with each other. “Generosity in judgment of others,” he wrote once, “as distinct from narrowness, is largely a matter of estimating what they can grow into instead of judging them on the basis of what conditions have so far made of them.”

I offer these reflections and a moment of silence on them, in with great pride in this institution’s generosity in judgment and hope in this institution’s continued care in judgment.

I invite you to a moment of silence.

Converse and work in peace. Amen.

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