My mate Phil has a nickname that we love to tease him with. ‘Pragmatic Phil’ we call him. It comes from a (typically ill-informed) Sydney Morning Herald article late last year that styled him this way.
The reason it works as a nickname for Phil is the same reason that ‘Bluey’ works as a funny and perverse Aussie nickname for redheads. Anyone who knows Phil well knows him to be a very principled pastor, and certainly no ‘pragmatist’.
That’s the way we normally think of it anyway—that there are biblical principles in ministry (and people who major on them), and then there is pragmatism, where the decisive factor is whether something works practically or not. (‘Pragmatism’ is the view that a course of action is best judged not by some external rule, ideology or theory, but according to its practical consequences.)
We usually think of principles and pragmatics as opposing forces to be negotiated or balanced in some way. There’s the urgent impulse to just do whatever is going to be effective. And there’s the nagging voice in our heads that reminds us of our biblical and theological principles.
And so it is common to speak of ‘principled pragmatism’ as the ideal middle way—an approach that acknowledges the necessity (and unavoidability) of thinking pragmatically at various points, but gives due weight to the important biblical principles that should discipline and control our sometimes rampant pragmatic impulses.
I’d like to suggest a slightly different angle for thinking about pragmatic decision-making—one that I hope might be useful as we emerge from the COVID-19 chrysalis and face a slew of decisions about what to do next and how.
The common ‘principled pragmatism’ approach assumes that pragmatism is principle-free, and requires principles to be added to it for discipline and control. And this is how pragmatism likes to market itself as well: “Never mind your theorising and your purist theological principles—I’m about smart, practical solutions that actually get results”.
All pragmatism is deeply principled. It likes to pretend that it’s not, but it is.
However all pragmatism is deeply principled. It likes to pretend that it’s not, but it is. (And in this, it is like most forms of consequentialist ethics—but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Let’s bring four of pragmatism’s principles to the surface and shine the light of day (or the light of Scripture) on them.
1. An Orderly World
The first is a general underlying principle that the world we’re operating in has a rational order to it, where effect follows cause in a predictable manner—so that it is possible to devise actions that predictably bring about certain results. Pragmatism assumes an ordered field of action, and reasonably so—this aligns not only with our experience but with the Bible’s teaching that the world was created in God’s wisdom to be a good and ordered habitat.
However, the Bible also teaches that as a result of sin and judgement, the created world is a disordered field of action, subject to futility, frustration, decay and death; that hard work produces thorns and thistles, as well as bread. The biblical principle leads us to regard the rational predictability of the world with caution, recognising that cause does not always lead to a predictable effect in a fallen world.
2. The Power of the Mind
The second principle of pragmatism is that we humans have the knowledge and mental power to master the rational order of the world, and bend it to our will; that we’re smart enough to figure out the lines of causality, and come up with solutions that work. Again, this is also consistent with our experience and with the Bible—up to a point. Mankind is indeed gifted with the powers to ‘keep’ and to ‘work’ the world (as Genesis 2 puts it). We can acquire wisdom to master the ways of life in the world (including stunning technological achievements like those described in Job 28). And this is true in ministry as well. It’s possible to observe the effects and outcomes of certain actions and approaches, to notice which ones tend to be more successful than others, and to improve the way we do things accordingly.
But the Bible also acknowledges the profound limitations to human wisdom. There is Proverbs, but there is also Ecclesiastes. We are limited at one level by our finitude—we just don’t have the capacity to know and comprehend the vast number of different factors and variables that produce different outcomes (and all the more so when we are trying to predict what people will do). We can’t see the whole (in its entire complexity, and in its overall purpose), nor can we objectively ‘see’ ourselves as part of that whole.
The Bible acknowledges the profound limitations to human wisdom. There is Proverbs, but there is also Ecclesiastes.
We are also limited by the warped and fallen minds we possess—minds that malfunction, and that are twisted out of shape by our sinful desires. We aren’t nearly as clever or as objective as we think we are. Not only is it impossible for us to predict all the effects and outcomes that flow from our actions, but we have an inbuilt tendency to interpret the outcomes in a way that justifies our actions. This should lead us to a profound humility in pragmatic decision-making—one that matches our sinfulness and finitude before God, and the vast fallen complexity of his creation.
3. Morally Neutral
The third principle of pragmatism is that methods are largely neutral, and can be experimented with and interchanged in order to achieve the best practical consequences. This too has a truth to it. Some methodological choices and actions are morally neutral in themselves (e.g. whether or not to use a microphone to speak to a crowd), and are determined by whether or not they produce a better or worse outcome in context. In Christian-speak, we would say that some things are more ‘helpful’ than others (e.g. using a microphone in a crowd of 200; and not using a microphone in a small group in your lounge room).
But in this case, the principles of pragmatism start to clash more noticeably with the principles of Scripture. We live in a good created world where many actions are morally significant in themselves, because God has ordered them to be so. This is why, for example, any form of deception or misrepresentation or bait-and-switch in gospel ministry is unacceptable, as Paul makes very clear in the first four chapters of 2 Corinthians—only the plain, straightforward, untampered-with proclamation of God’s word is worthy of the glorious ministry of the new covenant. We should only ever use quality materials and good methods—even though we might be sorely tempted (in our finitude and haste) to use some wood, hay and stubble (1 Cor 3:10-13) when it is convenient to do so, or when we think that using them will yield good results.
4. Self-Evident Goals
And this brings us to the fourth and final principle of pragmatism, and perhaps the most important to bring out into the open. What is a ‘good result’? Pragmatism assumes that ‘good results’ or ‘what works’ are self-evident judgements, and that measuring these results will be relatively straightforward—whereas neither is the case. The ‘goodness’ of any particular outcome is a value-laden judgement, based upon some principle or other. Pragmatism doesn’t openly acknowledge these principles, but it has them all the same—that is, an unstated vision of what constitutes a ‘good practical consequence’, which justifies the various actions that are undertaken to achieve it. But who is to say whether this is indeed the ‘good’ outcome we should be after? And the more general we make that outcome (‘happiness’, ‘Christian growth’, ‘God’s glory’), the more difficult it is to assess whether any particular action or method will actually achieve it.
When we approach any ministry plan or decision with a view to its practical consequences—that is, when we think pragmatically—we should ask: What is the ‘good outcome’ that is implicit in the plan we are considering? And how does that outcome relate to the various purposes and outcomes God has revealed for Christian ministry in Scripture? Does God have a more important outcome for us to pursue here? Are we neglecting or de-prioritising an outcome God considers vital in favour of one that we think is terribly important? Such questions can only be answered by apprenticing ourselves to Scripture, and learning to think like the Bible does about God’s purposes.
What all this means in practice is that whenever we think pragmatically about what we should do next—in life or in ministry—we should try to bring to the surface and reflect upon the principles that are driving us in light of Scripture. Do we have the appropriate level of confidence and humility about the predictability of the world, and our own capacity for wise judgement? What are the outcomes or purposes that we are seeking—implicitly and explicitly—and how do they relate to the various purposes God has for us and our ministries? And how should we judge the methods and materials we’re using against God’s directions for both?
This of course raises the question of what are God’s essential purposes for Christian ministry, and what essential methods and materials he wants us to use. And that is the subject I’m planning to turn to in next week’s episode.