Pragmatism can be summed up in the expression, “do what works.” Americans are very pragmatic people, which has been an important part of our success as a nation. Henry Ford wanted a way to produce automobiles quickly and cheaply, so he invented the car assembly line. People in the Northwest, where I live, needed to make the Colombia River navigable and find a cheap source of electricity, so they dammed the river. Not only is pragmatism an approach to solving problems but an approach to life. It makes sense, especially to an American. If you want to accomplish something then the best way to do it is also the most efficient. However, pragmatism as a philosophy has some significant weaknesses.
Pragmatism is concerned with achieving an end or goal. It doesn’t ask the question, “should I use these means to achieve my goal?” Rather it asks, “will these means achieve my goal?” For this reason it is often associated with the phrase, “the ends justify the means.” In using an assembly line Henry Ford was focused on producing cheap Model T cars. He didn’t necessarily consider the effect it would have on a worker to do the same mindless task, all day, day after day. Secondly, pragmatism is often concerned with accomplishing something as soon as possible. Its focus on immediate results can leave it blind to long term consequences. When building a dam on the Colombia River, the effect it would have on salmon may have only been on the minds of a few people. Even when the long term effects are considered it is impossible for any humans to see to far into the future or to consider all the variables. Finally, pragmatism cannot tell someone what goals they should pursue, whether it be happiness or holiness.
Pragmatism has often crept into American Christianity without anyone being aware. Christian pragmatism happens when the Bible is used to determine the goal and pragmatism the means. For example, our goal is to bring people to Christ and the most efficient way to achieve this is through evangelistic crusades which can lead large groups of people to Christ at one time. Other examples of Christian pragmatism are the Church Growth movement and the attractional church model which are based on the goal of bring people into the church, using the most successful means possible. In this way our orthopraxy or right-practice forms pragmatically, instead of flowing from orthodoxy or right-doctrine/belief.
Pragmatism can creep into our personal spiritual lives as well. Take for example the experience of a “spiritual high.” Understandably we want to experience it again, but instead of recognizing it as God’s gift we try to reproduce it. Because it was unearned we become stuck in futile attempts to force the experience and come away increasingly unsatisfied. In the meantime we miss new experiences that God has for us. Another time this occurs is when someone has a particular spiritual practice that works for them, for example praying for an hour every morning. From this they conclude that it must work for everyone. The danger of pragmatism is that it can turn God into a spiritual vending machine. If we do x and y God will give us z. However, God is not a tribal deity that we can manipulate by using our Bible like a magic talisman or saying the words “In Jesus’ name”. While God’s essential character never changes, I do think he changes his methods sometimes so that we will come to love him, not the method.
In this post I have been rather harsh on pragmatism. However, I want to make clear that pragmatism is not wrong. Rather, it is a helpful tool, unless it is given to much influence in our lives. “Orthopraxy always flows out of orthodoxy,” as professor of mine used to say. Both the means and the end need to be grounded in the Bible. It is always good to ask why something is being done a certain way and only settle for reasons that are both pragmatic AND Scriptural. Ultimately, Christianity is a very pragmatic religion. It is the only one that can actually achieve what it claims to do. For example, if you want to go to heaven then accepting Christ is a excellent pragmatic choice. Modifying an analogy from C.S. Lewis to one I am familiar with make this clear. It is like hiking through the woods to a town. When standing on a hill it may look like the fastest route to a the town in to cut straight through the trees to reach it. However, in-between, and hidden from the eye, are dense thickets, swamps, and wild animals. The actual shortest possible route and the only one that guarantees arrival is the path, even though you may think yourself going farther from the town at times.