Monday, May 30, 2011

Pragmatism as a theological discipline

Over at Cranach (Gene Veith's blog) I read:

If postmodernists are right in saying that there are no absolutes of truth or morality, how can they function?  The answer, according to both the masses and philosophers such as Richard Rorty, is pragmatism.  Just do what “works.”  Don’t worry about what is true or what is good, just pursue your practical agenda.

Now pragmatism is a philosophy, an ideology, and a worldview that is utterly opposed to Christianity.  And yet many Christians adopt it unthinkingly, determining the way they worship and the things they teach according to the tenets of pragmatism.  (We want to get more people to join our churches, so let’s eliminate the obstacles to that, whether in practice or theology.)

His article went in another direction but these two paragraphs are true gold.  Those who are on the "cutting edge" of church and evangelism seem driven by an ideology when the reality is that they are pragmatic and have elevated pragmatism to the level of a theological discipline.  It is, after all, the discipline that trumps every other discipline.

Biblical theology changes from what does the Scripture say to what appeals to people, what is relevant to where people are at, and what will pack them in.  Systematic theology shifts from the connection of doctrine and truth from the Scriptures to whatever hodge podge of truths and values apply at a given moment to the situation and needs of the people and what will fill the pews.  Homiletics moves from saying thus saith the Lord and this is how it applies to our daily lives to this is what helps you achieve your goals, hopes, and dreams.  Worship is transformed from something that is directed by God and to God to what appeals to folks, what is the musical language of their heart, and what will entertain them.

Of course, I am being cynical here.  I am not following Luther and putting the best construction on this.  But as I reflect upon the myriad of things presented in District communications and conventions, in pastoral conferences and journals, and by the para-church organizations around us, the point is simple:  This is what works; do it and you will grow.

Those uncertain about the value of such pragmatism have attempted to challenge the outcomes -- no, it does not work -- when we need to be challenging the assumption that pragmatism is a valid theological discipline.  The results are not where the battle needs to be fought but in the presumption that as long as it works, it is good.  Most of the literature (books and articles) from the church growth purveyors is only peripherally connected to Scripture and doctrine.  It is very practical, very pragmatic.  Much of it follows growing churches and then attempts to distill methodology and means of duplicating what works in one place and transferring it to another. 

God knows, I want the Church (my congregation especially) to grow and it is very tempting to use at least some of what works to pack the pews.  I believe every Pastor is so tempted.  But the issue here is not how to fill the church on Sunday morning but what Gospel is proclaimed, what truth is taught, and what Church it will be.  We can easily avoid these messier questions and opt for what works, but the end result will be a full congregation of people without much of a truth or redemption to offer. Pragmatism does not work well as a theological discipline.  In fact, it erodes and destroys everything in its path until the only principle left standing at the end of the day IS "what works."


Janis Williams said...

William James' legacy to us (America's only homegrown philosophy - Pragmatism) has colored every aspect of our society. It's presence in our churches has grown like a cancer over the years.

The teaching in the Baptist seminaries in the 70s was concentrated on it. The Southern Baptists bear a large part of the blame for the Seeker Sensitivity, Church Growth stuff with which we are burdened.

Our lives are to be focused on Jesus. If only this simple fact could be pounded into our heads! The Church might then be a little less concerned with what gives the "greatest cash value."

Unknown said...

Pr. Peters,

Having heard some 650 hours of sermons from LCMS pulpits, and having pragmatism be at the forefront of two recent—I hesitate to use the term— "situations," I come to the point where I need to ask, "What does pragmatism sound like in the pulpit?"