Thursday, July 08, 2004

Pragmatic Christianity

I am often struck by the pragmatism that exists in the Church. Of late, I have interacted with several individuals and ideas (books, websites, and articles, etc.) where Christianity was wielded in a pragmatic fashion. In other words, faith in God was boiled down to notions like, “if it doesn’t tell me what to do from day to day, it is useless,” or the ever-present “relevance,” or even a general anti-intellectual bias. There is a set of misperceptions and fallacies in all these interpretations of the value of Christianity, but the over-arching problem is Pragmatism and it is a problem that American Christians are especially comfortable with.

What I mean when I call something Pragmatic Christianity (PC) is that it places far too much value on the practical value of a thing or on the consequences of a thing. For example, why do cars exist? Is it for our aesthetic pleasure and the possibility of intellectual reflection on “carness”? It is clear they do not exist for that purpose; they do exist for pragmatic reasons and any aesthetic pleasure is secondary. The problem with PC is that it turns our faith into something like a car. In other words, we approach Christianity as if its primary value is in its pragmatic use, and every other angle of the faith is secondary. Clearly, the Christian faith is concerned with the right kinds of consequences to our actions and ideas, but its value cannot be reduced to those kinds of things; there is far much more to Christianity than that.

To put it a little more succinctly, I believe that the tenants of Pragmatism are inconsistent with the tenants of Christianity. Pragmatism can roughly summed up as, “the value of a belief/action/idea is entirely wrapped up in its consequences.” So if I were to make a statement about reality like, “Christianity is a good religion,” the value of Christianity would be assessed only by the actions/consequences of Christians. Additionally, if I made a statement like, “Satanism is a good religion,” that statement would be judged on the same terms. So then we have judged Christianity and Satanism with the same criteria, and they can both come out great! If Satanists do “good” things just like Christians, then there is no difference between the two because the only measure of value is in practical consequences. We could put this argument in a kind of syllogism this way:

1. The only measure of a religion’s worth is in its consequences.
2. The consequences of Satanism and Christianity are the same.
3. Therefore, the value of Satanism and Christianity are the same.

This should shock Christians because we believe something vastly different from Satanists about reality. We would protest Christianity being made of equal value with a religion which turns our claims about ultimate reality on their heads. At least, we should protest.

The kicker is that there is a significant tide of Pragmatism in the American church. One of those tides is what can be generally called the “seeker-sensitive” movement. When the church growth movement speaks of success for instance, it should always be assumed that they mean numbers. In my personal contact with that theory, people will adamantly deny that connection, but their actions and values say differently. That particular search for relevance has sold out to the philosophy of Pragmatism.

One of the things I find ironic about pragmatic Christians is that the ones who think the least about the inherent value of Christianity are the ones most likely to be philosophical Pragmatists. The ones who think the least about the doctrinal distinctions of their faith are the most susceptible to denying their metaphysical and theological uniqueness by becoming pragmatists. And this is where the typical Christian-on-the-street seems to find him or herself. The average Christian has only been given the tools of a pragmatist in their churches and so they know no other kind of value by which to measure their faith. They then respond to serious Bible study and discussion with responses like, “how will this help me say no to drugs?” or “will this help me become a better husband?” Both of these are noble goals, but they are mindless reductions of the value of faith in Christ. I am convinced (maybe rather cynically so) that the vast majority of American Christians can’t answer the question, “What is the difference between a good Buddhist and a good Christian?”

Another tide of Pragmatism in the Church is the distaste for orthodox theology. More and more leaders dislike theology and the distinctions it makes. Christian theology, for instance, draws a distinction between good and evil. Many people do not like calling some things evil. Theology also draws a distinction between those who are headed to eternity without God and those who are headed to eternity with God. There are a lot of people who do not like that one, so they try to find ways to avoid that distinction. In response to not liking those kinds of distinction and proclamations, many in the church today would rather value people and their religious systems based on their supposed “goodness” and nice consequences. Hence we get pastors who would rather measure a belief system on the basis of things like non-judgmentalism and social activity than on what it believes about reality. The result is pure Pragmatism-we loose all serious distinctions between theism and atheism, between heaven and hell, and between good and evil. And if there is nothing unique about Christianity (in the serious and deep sense of unique), then there is no use in being a believer at all.

The long and the short of this point is that the search for relevance can easily become a sell out to Pragmatism. An unthinking search for the cultural relevance of the Gospel can easily lead down a path where there is no difference between the culture and the Gospel.


lahunt said...

I consider myself to be a Pragmatic Christian, but in a sort of dealing with facts sort of way. The bible wasn't written until 500 years after the death of Christ. Also that it was a council at Rome who decided which Gospels to include. But mainly that Christianity was not supposed to be institutionalised, but was subsequently supposed to be ones personal relationship with God. Criticizing another's beliefs, is how symbols like, the cross or crucifix have became such violent symbols. Wars have came and gone due to this. However, spreading ones own beliefs are perfectly fine, in my opinion.

Phil Steiger said...


Where did you get the idea the bible wasn't written until 500 years after Christ's death?

We have copies of the entire Old Testament dating close to 270 bc and copies of New Testament books dating back to about 120 ad. Even the most liberal of (serious) scholars agree the NT was completely written before about 100 ad.

You haven't been listening to Dan Brown, have you?

Anonymous said...

Hi Phil:

Enjoyed your article, you gave us this definition to consider:

"Pragmatism can roughly summed up as, “the value of a belief/action/idea is entirely wrapped up in its consequences.”

From your article I think you are looking at the negative side of pragmatism as it applies to the problems within Christianity. However, I think your defintion can be positively to Christianity as well.

Let me define Christian Pragmatism this way and I think you will see what I mean; the value of Christian beliefs, or rejecttion of those belief, is entirely wrapped up in its consequences.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:2 that "By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain." That is that the belief of a Christian, and if hold firmly to the truth, has beneficial consequences. Further, Paul goes to say in verse "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins."

If we as Christians do not hold firmly to the faith, then Christianity becomes impractical. If Christ is not raised then our faith is futile. But because we know that the Bible is true, that the Gospel is real, and the consequences of our faith is eternal life, Christianity is the only pragmatic belief there is for our salvation.

Based on Webster's definition of pragmatism as a practical approach (saving faith) to problems (sin) and affairs (of fallen man), I think we can define Pragmatic Christianity in a positive Light.

What do you think?

Best Regards,


David Morton said...

I know this is a very old article, but I wanted to commend you on your post here. I've been thinking about this for the last few days, as I've been preparing to present a talk about Paul in Athens.

The early believers had no real pragmatic reason to believe. They believed because Christ's death and resurrection were fact, plain and simple. We're blessed in the western world to have some kind of pragmatic benefit to our faith, but we would do well to remember the facts of Christ's death and resurrection as primary to our faith.

Something actually happened in space and time. Christ lived, and died, and rose from the dead. Through his sacrifice, we can come to know God. This is the truth, and the truth is what our faith is in, not the pragmatism thereof.