The Challenge of Pragmatism – Part 1

(April 2009 – Volume 15, Issue 3) 

If there is a common religion to be found within the Western world it surely is pragmatism – the religion of “what works?”  Pragmatism has no cathedrals; it follows no liturgy, hires no pastors and cannot be found in any listing of denominations, yet it is woven into the very fabric of the Western church.  Whether we are talking about mainline, Pentecostal, Fundamentalist, Emergent or Orthodox, it does not take much observation to realize that pragmatism is interlaced throughout each tradition.  To attempt to remove pragmatism is to pull a thread which could very well unravel the whole structure of Christianity and church life as we know it today, yet to pull on that thread we must.  The problem is that far too many of us are willing to use any approach available to accomplish our goals, even if those approaches and/or goals do not mesh with the revealed will of God.  Our creed is, “If it works it must be of God” for, after all, the outward blessing of God is the criterion by which we often measure the approval of God.  By using the standard of pragmatism rather than Scripture, we can with all good conscience live lives and develop ministries that have the appearance of wisdom but nevertheless fall seriously short of God’s standard.  We would do well to ponder the warning found in Proverbs 14:12: “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

Take for example the wildly popular and thoroughly pragmatic book Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller.  The cover of Blue Like Jazz tells us that it was written for “anyone wondering if the Christian faith is still relevant in a post-modern culture” and “for anyone thirsting for a fresh encounter with a God who is real.”  Yet Miller uses not a single biblical quote or reference and only in passing mentions scriptural situations as he purports to lead us toward an authentic encounter with God.  It is for this reason that he can sing the praises of one of the most depraved college campuses in the world (by Miller’s own admission) while telling us, “I had more significant spiritual experiences at Reed College than I ever had at church.” [1]  

Miller would have us disregard the guidance of Psalm 1:1, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the path of sinners, nor sit in the seat of scoffers,” and replace it with his own counsel because this is his “experience.”  For example, Miller tells us that he can partially agree with what Christians are saying about depravity (a teaching derived from the Bible, by the way), not because it is biblical but because of his “experience” with his own depravity.[2]  Moreover, Miller speaks of a time living with “hippies” who “smoked a lot of pot [and] drank a lot of beer,” were apparently immoral and stole food, yet “I pull them [the hippies] out when I need to be reminded about goodness, about purity and kindness.”[3]

It is not Scripture which guides Miller’s thoughts but situations that seem to work for him and appear to be in agreement with his own experience.  Pragmatism rules in Miller’s book and resonates with millions of his readers.  The Christian community has grown so used to this type of thinking that few flinch when Christian leaders, like Miller, build a whole scheme of living around what seems to be working for them. 

The Philosophical Foundation

While pragmatism is simply a way of life to most people, it is also a philosophical system.  One Christian thinker reminds us that philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

made it intellectually fashionable both to doubt that we can know reality as it is and to focus on practical things, like ethics.  Later that would be echoed in the pragmatism of John Dewey (1859-1952) and the neo-Pragmatism of Richard Rorty (1931-) [one of the originators of postmodern philosophy], who both suggest that we cannot know reality in any full and final sense; we must settle for what works.[4] 

Few people have extensive understanding of philosophy but it doesn’t take a philosopher to recognize that the prevailing attitude today, an attitude which has invaded the church, is to “settle for what works” and not be overly concerned about truth.  After all, postmoderns believe that we can never be certain of truth anyway; therefore pragmatism will have to do. But when we exchange truth for what works or, better, what we think works, we have elevated our thoughts above God’s.  Or as Gordon Clark warns, “Since God is truth, a contempt for truth is equally a contempt for God.”[5]

Whatever is making the rounds in philosophical circles usually manages to find its way into Christian thinking as well. J Gresham Machen said it well almost a century ago, “What is today a matter of academic speculation begins tomorrow to move armies and pull down empires.”[6]  One of the academic speculations which is popular at the moment is portraying modern evangelicalism as a product of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on science, reason and systematic thought. This is especially true among those embracing a postmodern form of Christianity such as the Emergent church leaders.  For example, Robert Webber writes,

Conservatives followed the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individualism, reason, and objective truth to build edifices of certainty drawing from the internal consistency of the Bible, the doctrine of inerrancy, the apologetic use of archaeology, critical defense of the biblical text, and other such attempts at rational proof… This Enlightenment paradigm produced three convictions shared equally by Christians and non-Christians: foundationalism, structuralism, and the notion of the metanarrative.[7]

By linking such things as inerrancy, apologetics, foundationalism and so forth with the Enlightenment, emerging Christian thinkers attempt to undermine these concepts in the eyes of the modern church.  If these ideas spring from Enlightenment philosophy then they can be discarded as worthless and we can march on to other philosophies, such as ones being proposed by postmodernism, or so the reasoning goes.  But the issue is not whether something we have embraced happens to agree, or disagree, with a particular line of thinking, but whether what we believe agrees with Scripture. Certainly there are elements of truth in the accusations made by postmodern Christians, even though most evangelical leaders (both past and present) attempt to filter out the deadly beliefs of the Enlightenment while retaining those parts that were helpful, such as Christianity being a reasonable faith, and truth being understandable and able to be analyzed and systematized. 

Still the criticism is valid that theology can be so standardized as to remove the wonder of God, leaving behind an outline of doctrines with no life pulsating in its veins. Countless believers can regurgitate their theological beliefs and favorite memorized Scripture verses yet know virtually nothing of dynamic Christian living.  Rote memory and sound doctrine are not equivalent to a passionate, heart-felt love for Christ – but neither are they extra baggage. Emergent thinkers and communicators provide a needed correction when they demonstrate that knowledge does not automatically lead to spiritual vitality, but they go too far when they say that spiritual vitality can be found apart from a solid understanding of the truth of God’s revelation.  This route has been traveled before, and not that long ago, with disastrous results.

From Philosophy to Theology

As a matter of fact, I believe that what we are seeing today in much of popular evangelicalism is not the residue of the Enlightenment but of Romanticism.  Historian David Bebbington tells us that in the nineteenth century a new way of looking at the world (Romanticism) arose to challenge and somewhat supplant Enlightenment thinking.  Bebbington observes, “Instead of exalting reason [as the Enlightenment did], those touched by the new spirit of the times placed their emphasis on will, spirit and emotion.  They wanted to escape the tight framework of thinking imposed by the older rational approach in order to breathe a freer air.”[8]

Bebbington informs us that it was Horace Bushnell, around the midpoint of the nineteenth century, who popularized Romantic ideas so that they began to seep into the theology of evangelicalism.   Bushnell would write, “All formulas of doctrine should be held in a certain spirit of accommodation.  They cannot be pressed to the letter for the very sufficient reason that the letter is never true.”[9]  Bushnell argued that Christian truth should appeal to “feeling and imaginative reason,” not to “the natural understanding.”[10] 

If this kind of language sounds familiar it should.  Postmoderns, including those found within the church, would feel quite at home with Romanticism, since postmodern thinking is similar.  It should therefore be carefully noted where Romanticism led evangelicals during the 1800s – straight to theological liberalism.  During the latter part of the nineteenth century virtually all cardinal doctrines of the faith were challenged or denied by the growing liberalism (derived mostly from German Rationalism and Higher Criticism) which was threatening the evangelical  church.  From the Godhead to the necessity for salvation to the existence of hell to the atonement to the inspiration of Scripture to the meaning of the gospel, every doctrine held precious by the evangelical community was gutted of biblical meaning and infused with ideas fitting the times. 

Church historian and theologian, Iain Murray, documents that Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), considered the father of theological liberalism, “adopted the Romanticism of Rousseau and the pantheism of other contemporary philosophers… [and] came forward to assert that religion is primarily not a matter of doctrine but rather of feeling, intuition and experience.”[11] “Life, not theology” became the battle cry of the Romanticized, liberal church of the 1800s.  As a result matters of belief were considered of little consequence; what was important was life and experience. Orthopracy (correct practice or living) trumped orthodoxy (correct doctrine). This was an overreaction by a Christian community which had been softened up by the infiltration of Romanticism.  True, biblical Christianity has always confirmed the necessity of both life and experience.  No church leaders I know is content with developing people whose heads are full of knowledge but whose lives are full of sin.  But the contention of conservative believers has always been that life emerges from sound doctrine; right living is never formed in a truth vacuum.  Joel Beeke had it right when he wrote, “Doctrine must produce life, and life must adorn doctrine.”[12]

The mood of our current postmodern moment, however, like the Romantics and liberals of the 1800s, is to minimize doctrine to the point of being nonessential and to maximize life and experience divorced from a theological core.  Brian McLaren, a prominent leader in the Emergent movement (21st century’s version of old liberalism), writes, “We place less emphasis on whose lineage, rites, doctrines, structures, and terminology are right and more emphasis on whose actions, service, outreach, kindness, and effectiveness are good.”[13]  McLaren would not claim that all doctrines are wrong, but since we can never be certain which doctrines are correct we must practice what he calls “generous orthodoxy,” which is little different from saying everyone is right and everyone is wrong, so let’s just get along and love everybody.   McLaren seems unconcerned that it is virtually impossible to determine what is good unless one first knows what is right.

Emergent pastor Rob Bell concurs with McLaren’s emphasis, “Perhaps a better question than who’s right, is who’s living rightly?”[14]  Bell then illustrates his convictions through the use of a trampoline.  In Bell’s illustration the springs that hold the tarp to the frame are Christian doctrines and even the most sacred doctrines (springs) are dispensable.  He offers the doctrine of the incarnation as an example, suggesting that if it could be proven that Jesus was not born of  a virgin it would not in any sense affect the Christian faith.[15]  The big question for Bell is not what is true. Instead he wants to know, “Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live?”[16]  This pragmatic question is Bell’s one essential for the Christian life.  Bell is “far more interested in jumping than…arguing about whose trampoline is better.”[17]  In other words, what matters is how we live not what we believe.  These men see no vital connection between what we believe and how we live, between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.  Having accepted this disconnect they move on to elevate orthopraxy to the exclusion of orthodoxy.  Right beliefs are simply superfluous.  How we live is all that matters.  Pragmatism reigns.

Presumably, if Bell or McLaren found a better “way to live,” they would dump Christianity and adopt that better way.  This might explain why Bell was an official participant at the Seeds of Compassion conference in April, 2008 with Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Sikh leaders, and featuring “His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”[18]   According to their website “the concluding session of Seeds of Compassion [was] a Youth and Spiritual Connection Dialogue. Global, national and local luminaries representing faiths from around the world will gather to discuss nurturing youth with spirituality.”[19]  Perhaps Bell, who was one of the “luminaries” and does not want to argue over beliefs, has found a better trampoline on which to bounce.  If youth can be nurtured better by the Dalai Lama or a Muslim Imam or a Zen Buddhist Master then trampoline upgrading would seem appropriate, since the big question for Bell, as he has stated, is not what is true, but, “Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live?”  If a better way can be found then Jesus’ trampoline would need to be replaced by the better, higher bouncing model.  Since ultimately all that matters is what gives us a higher bounce then what we believe is inconsequential and what the Dalai Lama has to offer might be superior.

“Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to life?”  It depends on how you define “life.”  Biblically there is no question – “Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  When Scripture speaks of spiritual life it is speaking of unity with God and, therefore, when Jesus says that “no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6) He is telling us that true spiritual life is the opposite of spiritual death, which is separation from God.  Life means being brought into a saving relationship with God.  At times that might experientially mean that we are overwhelmed with the greatness of God and the joys of Christian living.  At other times, life on this planet, even for the strongest believer, can be a great struggle with the forces of evil, a sinful world and our own flesh. 

Scripture never minimizes these experiences, even though it redeems them (e.g. Romans 5:1-10).  What the Word does not do is invite us to the Father through the Son in order to experience a happier existence (a higher bounce) and then trade up if we can find a better deal.  Instead the invitation to know God is based on the truth that God is real and Jesus is the only way to union with the Father (Acts 4:12).  The issue is not whether Jesus is the best possible way of living the “good life,” but that Jesus is the life and the only way to true life as defined as a relationship with God.  If we follow Bell’s formula a better way may seem to pop up every so often.  If we follow the biblical formula no such alternative is possible.  When Jesus asked the apostles if they were going to follow the crowd and abandon Him too, Peter replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).  Peter saw that Jesus was the only option if someone wanted the truth that led to eternal life.


[1] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), p. 42.

[2] Ibid., p. 23.

[3] Ibid., pp. 207-208.

[4] Brian Morley, “Understanding Our Postmodern World,” Think Biblically, Gen. ed. John MacArthur  ( Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), p.140.

[5] Gordon H. Clark, A Christian Philosophy of Education (Jefferso Md.: Trinity Foundation, 1988), p. 158.

[6] As quoted in George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 137.

[7] Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), p. 19.

[8] David Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2005), p. 148.

[9] Ibid., p. 164.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Iain H Murray, Evangelicalism Divided (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), p. 5.

[12] Joel R. Beeke and Ray B. Lanning, “The Transforming Power of Scripture,” Sola Scriptura!, Gen ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), p. 253.

[13] Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, (El Cajon, Ca: Youth Specialties Books, 2004), p. 223 (emphasis in the original).

[14] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 21.

[15] Ibid., p. 26.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.


[19] Ibid., emphasis in the original.


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