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Pragmatism: It Works for Me

This article is part of the The 5 Major “Isms” of the Modern World series.

Do What Works

The fifth “ism” that has formed contemporary culture as we know it is pragmatism, a philosophy that measures truth by its utilitarian value. It is probably safe to say that nothing is more characteristic of American thought and life than pragmatism.

This way of thinking has its roots in the philosophy of men such as John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), the British economist and social theorist whose ideas exercised a formative influence over many early American thinkers; John Dewey (1859–1952), who applied pragmatic standards to education; and William James (1842–1910), who applied the same system of thought to religion.

James attended Princeton Theological Seminary as a young man but rebelled against the doctrinaire teaching he found there and later argued that the only way to determine the truth of anything is by its practical results. He is best known for his Lowell Lectures of 1906, published as Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking, and an earlier work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. (1)

The Real Culprit

However, the chief force behind the triumph of pragmatism in the West, particularly in the United States, was not philosophy but the Industrial Revolution. The goal of industrial pragmatism is efficiency leading to low cost, rather than quality, craftsmanship, or aesthetics. The goal is to find the fastest, least expensive way of producing products and getting things done.

Pragmatism has improved living standards for millions who now enjoy the benefits of home ownership, adequate clothing, indoor plumbing, prescription drugs, cars, refrigerators, washing machines, television sets, and abundant food. But this has been achieved at significant cost! Items have become cheaper and more available, but they also tend to look alike. Quantity has marginalized quality, volume has smothered craftsmanship, and affordability has sabotaged beauty.

The most prominent symbols of the modern industrial age and its pragmatism are skyscrapers, whose soaring steel and glass frames overshadow the towering spires of the cathedrals and churches that were there before them in nearly all our large cities.

Religion that Works

Pragmatism has also had a powerful influence on American religion, as Michael Horton shows in Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism, (2) a study of the unique features of American Christianity. William James taught that the only valid test of truthfulness in religion is whether religion works. “On pragmatic principles, if the hypothesis of God works satisfactorily in the widest sense of the word, it is true,” James argued. (3)

That is the way many evangelicals approach the Christian faith today, according to Horton. The claim “it works for me” seems to justify almost any belief, quite apart from a biblical foundation. As far as evangelism and church growth strategies are concerned, anything will be justified as long as it brings people into mass meetings or the church.

Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?

James Montgomery Boice

Believing that ignorance of God and neglect of the gospel of grace are at the root of evangelicalism's problems, Boice's explanation of the five "solas" of the Reformation offer the solution for the church today.

Perhaps the worst form of modern pragmatic Christianity is the approach of the faith healers who promise health, wealth, and happiness if their adherents only employ the right techniques. Pat Robertson urges Christians to employ the “laws of prosperity,” to which, he seems to claim, God is bound. “It’s a bit like tuning into a radio or television station” he says. “You get on the right frequency and you pick up the program.” (4)

Horton analyzes this rightly when he says:

While there is a great deal of mysticism among modern faith healers, they actually eliminate mystery from miracle, making healing predictable and, in fact, inevitable (naturalistic). No longer is a miracle the spontaneous and surprising work of God, but the right use of means, as predictable as any other scientific law. When God heals, it is not an interruption of natural laws. At its core, the faith healers proclaim a naturalistic faith. Salvation and healing are both human achievements. (5)

That is a strange development for fundamentalist Christianity, which is supposed to believe in the supernatural. But it is not actually so strange in light of the vast sea of cultural pragmatism in which all Americans, like fish, seem to live, move, and have their being.

This article was adapted from Whatever Happened to The Gospel of Grace?: Rediscovering the Doctrines That Shook the World by James Montgomery Boice.

(1) William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Longmans, Green, 1902).
(2) Michael Scott Horton, Made in America: The Shaping of Modern American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1991).
(3) James, Pragmatism, 192.
(4) Pat Robertson, The Secret Kingdom: A Promise of Hope and Freedom in a World of Turmoil (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 59, 66, 67.
(5) Horton, Made in America, 47.

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