3 Reasons to Beware the Lure of Pragmatism


How would you describe the culture of the world in which we now live?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question recently, and I think there are many ways to answer it. You might, for example, look at our culture and see a pervasive sense of victimization about it. That we are, as a people, increasingly looking for someone, somewhere, at some point to blame for everything. There is, in us, a lack of personal responsibility for the conditions in which we find ourselves.

You might also look around us and see vengeance as the predominant cultural quality. That we are, at every point, looking to make sure that so-and-so gets what’s coming to them, and in so doing, are constantly perpetuating the same vengeance back upon ourselves.

Then again, you might look around and see the characteristic of self-gratification as the predominant cultural quality right now. That is, all of us at one level or another are bowing down before what feels good and right in the moment, be it sexual gratification, greed, power or whatever.

But here’s another one. And at least for me, this quality brings these other qualities under one heading. In church, politics, school, and family, we seem to be growing into a more and more pragmatic people. That is to say, we are all just looking for what works in every arena of life. Some of that is because the philosophical bent of the day is increasingly a rejection of absolute truth for the basis of its reality. People in greater numbers are beginning to believe there is no set standard for “good” or “evil” per say. Instead, they are choosing to believe that all ethics are situational—that what might be considered good or right for one person cannot be universally accepted as good in every situation.

This system of thought has incredibly far-reaching implications. It means that any action is morally ambiguous; the context of the action must be explored to know if it’s really good or bad. Theft, murder, adultery—these actions might be frowned on, but they can’t be declared to be “wrong,” because that determination is best left to the individual. What is wrong for you might not be wrong for me. The result is that the world measures the morality of any action based on pragmatism.

If that’s true, it means the question at the back of our minds somewhere is this: “Does it work?”

This, in truth, is not necessarily a bad question. There are some points in life where you must be wisely pragmatic. This, I believe, is one of the implications of Jesus’ admonishment to His followers in Matthew 10:16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Be shrewd. Know what works in a given situation. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

But exercise that shrewdness with wisdom. And because that shrewdness must be harnessed and used rather than bowed down to and worshipped, I think there are at least three things to keep in mind for Christians as they think about “what works:”

1. Pragmatism can be a slippery slope.

Once you make the pragmatic choice, it’s easier to make the second pragmatic choice. Again, in some cases this is not only fine, but actually right. For example, as parents we must be shrewd enough to know how to discipline our children in a way that is effective. Part of that is knowing deeply the personalities of our kids, and knowing that one form of discipline might not be as effective as another in each of their cases. So we should be wisely pragmatic in this. But we should also be cautious, because pragmatism can very quickly run up against integrity. When we make a pragmatic choice and see the results, then we are more prone to make the pragmatic choice next time. Maybe the first time we did not violate any moral or ethical standards, but we inched closer to the line of doing so. So be careful, Christian. Know that your line of thinking puts you on a slippery slope, and be wary of it.

2. Pragmatism can erode the necessity of faith.

Pragmatism requires very little faith. You are, when you make the choice based on pragmatism, instead counting on things like logic, reasoning, proven patterns, and the like. And again, this is fine so far as it goes. But as we are making those choices, we should be wary of the fact that our decision-making might increasingly negate the necessity of faith. We might very well drift into always making decisions based on the most likely outcomes, and then evaluating the decision based on how positive or negative those outcomes are. The point is that sometime, somewhere, we will all be challenged to make a choice based on our moral integrity that will likely have very little positive return. In that moment, we cannot live by pragmatism alone. We must instead live by faith in the God who sees all, including our hearts and intentions, and trust Him with the results.

3. Pragmatism can make us judgmental of holiness.

When we find ourselves operating from a posture of pragmatism, we can easily become increasingly judgmental of those who refuse to do so. We might unintentionally look at those who stand on principle, unbendingly so, and consider them out of touch with reality. Having their heads buried in the sand. And once again, they might very well be. The point, though, is that when we are committed to doing what works, no matter what the compromise, the pursuit of holiness in our thoughts, intentions and actions becomes increasingly distasteful to us. Instead of being spurred along to good deeds by our brothers, we might start to look at them with bitterness and resentment and judgment.

So, Christian, be careful. Sometimes the right thing to do is what works. But many times, what works is actually a stumbling block to pursuing Jesus. Be careful, and pray for the shrewdness to know the difference.

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