Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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A recent survey of young people in the United Kingdom dismayed many Christian people of all denominations. It showed that young people are not interested in things spiritual. They are content with the world as it is [1].

The survey shattered an intuitive and widely held opinion that as the churches in the West decline, there is a corresponding upwelling of interest in spirituality. On this rested the hope that an entirely secular way of regarding life's joys and pains would never meet the inherent needs of most people.

It appears from these data that young people today - at least in the West, if not yet in the rest of the world - have largely put aside reliance on abstract theory and belief to inform and guide their lives. They are more interested in what works than on abstractions or taught beliefs. 

One way of understanding this trend is to look back at the strong stream of philosophical pragmatism which has deeply penetrated Western thinking since it began in the 19th century.

Pragmatism is usually attributed to Charles Peirce (1839-1914). But as H S Thayer points out, it was first cobbled together by members of the "Metaphysical Club" which Peirce, Henry James and others founded in Cambridge in the 1870s [2]. James reformulated pragmatism later, primarily as a theory of truth, while John Dewey and F C Schiller developed and popularised it.

Thayer remarks that pragmatism is America's major contribution so far to the world of philosophy.

As a movement it is best understood as, in part, a critical rejection of much of traditional academic philosophy and, in part, a concern to establish certain positive aims.

Although it is far from clear what specific line constitutes pragmatism, one way of approaching the matter is to distinguish between two main streams.

The first derives from Peirce. He thought that philosophy depends on "signs" for meaning. A sign is anything which stands for something else. Words and pictures are signs. Humanity has constructed elaborate socially standardised ways of attributing meaning - that is, a complex system of communication.

In other words, pragmatism is not a solution or answer to theoretical questions, but a practical way of solving scientific or philosophical problems. Peirce said that

... in order to ascertain the meaning of an intellectual conception one should consider what practical consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of that conception, and the sum of these consequences will constitute the entire meaning of the conception. [3]

Some say that truths can be expressed by propositions such as "Emeralds are green". The pragmatist responds by suggesting that no formula of signs is true until it finds expression in "sensible effects", in things we can see, hear, touch and manipulate. So it's useless to pronounce a "truth" that "Emeralds are green" if you have no such precious stones to refer to. Peirce held that pragmatism shows that

... almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either meaningless ... or else ... absurd

if its sensible effects can't be pinpointed.

This way of looking at life poses considerable difficulties for most Christians. They generally propose that ultimate truths can be expressed in propositions, which they call beliefs or doctrines. So powerful are these propositions that one's eternal well-being may rest upon them.

One such proposition is, "Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead". A pragmatist might ask for an example of someone rising from the dead as an indication of the truth of the proposition. This in notoriously difficult to provide - either in terms of sound history from the gospels, or from contemporary examples of resurrection. The same difficulty can be extended to almost every Christian doctrine.

The second stream of pragmatism derives from William James. It was his version that was widely received and read. Whereas Peirce was interested in concepts and their consequences, James was more concerned with the individual's experience of facts and actions. He said that

... the whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the right one. [4]

In other words, the truth of ideas is to be evaluated by one's experience. It is the "practical consequences", "usefulness" and "workability" of ideas which matter, not only the rational or logical coherence of propositions (though that matters very much). Thus when we think of an object we are lead to

... what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may involve - what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions we must prepare. Our conception of these effects ... is then for us the whole of our conception of the object. [4]

The truth of anything is only partly stated by a proposition. We must be able to locate the meaning of this partial truth in the real world. Only then can we say that we know "the truth".

This way of regarding pragmatism is an easier pill for Christians to swallow. Now it is the effect of faith propositions on the believer which matters, not their objective usefulness or consequences. Faith becomes "true" if its impact on the person is beneficial - what James called a "vital benefit" or "vital good". He thought that the "will to believe" is what matters, rather than a belief which is held because it has been verified.

This interpretation of James' pragmatism has proved a blessing to succeeding generations of theologians because it allows them to fall back on faith when reason fails. Thus Christianity can be counted valid if the effects of someone believing its propositions are good. If a person is converted and thereafter lives an exemplary life of great happiness and fulfilment, then it can be held that the faith statements he or she embraced are in themselves wholly true because they have proved themselves pragmatically.

However, it should be noted that James himself placed severe restrictions on the application of the "will to believe" which he placed at the heart of pragmatism. 

It applies only when (a) the choice of a belief at any one time is "live", or "forced" or "momentous" - not when a belief is trivial or everyday; (b) when the factors affecting the choice to believe are so balanced that reason can't judge one factor superior to any other; and (c) the results of belief are "vital", that is, critically central to a person's life. In short, James does not hold that a belief can be properly held as true despite the absence of adequate evidence supporting it.

John Dewey and others popularised pragmatism in the first part of the 20th century. They correctly noted that James in his interpretation may have confused a description of why and how people believe, with the process of trying to validate a particular belief about the world. Addressing the effect of belief is not the same as deciding if a belief is true or false.

Later pragmatists tended to follow Dewey's approach in which he developed a wide-ranging theory he called "Instrumentalism". Through it he sought a 

... precise logical theory of concepts, of judgements and inferences in their various forms

which could be put to work evaluating and reconstructing human experience as a total system [5].

Pragmatism fell out of favour in the mid-1900s. But it has recently returned in modified form as a powerful influence on Christian thinking.

It has been pointed out that there have always been two sides to theology. The one stresses right belief as the pivotal factor in salvation. The other stresses right living as the aspect Christians should focus on. One way of expressing the tension between these two approaches is the traditional contrast between faith and works.

The traditional theological debate between faith and works has now been largely bypassed in the West. It continues instead in a discussion of the nature of individual action in the context of social processes. 

That is, "salvation" has become an earthly process which each of us pursues through what we do in the context of the societies in which we live. It is less a question of what we believe, and more a question of how we behave. Beliefs are "good" or "bad" depending on what outcomes they produce.

There was a time when the Church had a primary responsibility for the health of society. The loss of this control has made it impossible to contribute to social debate in Christian terms. Despite this, says Don Browning, theology

... still has the obligation of relating its view of life to the processes and events of contemporary society, even if this must be done persuasively and dialogically and not by force of tradition alone. [6]

Christians are free to believe what they like. But they are not free to impose the pragmatic implications of those beliefs on people around them. To have any influence on the "sensible effects" of human convictions in a secular state requires that Christian solutions both make sense and work in society as it is. Persuasion has taken the place of hell-and-damnation compulsion. Efficacy has replaced sure-fire, God-given revelation.

The importance of Christian pragmatism becomes clearer when it is contrasted with two other approaches which have deeply influenced our lives in the last century or so:

  1. People have been defined by some as having meaning only in the contexts of economic or technical advancement. In other words, what we do with our lives makes sense only if we are consumers of gadgets and slaves to objects which "improve" our lives.

  2. In our thinking about life and its meaning, we make sense only when we are pursuing "truth" as scientific knowledge. Looked at another way, we are validated primarily by working out how nature operates so that we can control it, and through that control lessen or even the abolish risk.

Neither of these needs to be discarded. Rather, they can perhaps be incorporated into an all-embracing "practical wisdom" about the good person and the good society.

Practical wisdom, according to contemporary pragmatists, is the starting point of a good life. At the very least, practical wisdom not only evaluates the process by which decisions are reached, but also the practical outcome of the decisions. "Truth" is both that which is reached by proper rational thought, and also that which is right for us all.

So, for example, it may be entirely rational and therefore "true" to conclude that the most effective and efficient way of providing a nation with energy is to use nuclear power stations. But that is only half the "truth" if the practical outcomes are not adequately dealt with - such as the cost of decommissioning a plant, what to do with used fuel and the impact of low-level radiation on human health.

In the context of highly complex social processes, the modern pragmatist may protest that it is totally inadequate to maintain that traditional Christian doctrines can ever have a deciding role in life. They no doubt provide useful guidelines. But truly practical wisdom requires that Christianity take full account of two aspects:

  • First it should acknowledge that, although the past moulds and shapes the present, any truth in the context of enormously complex social processes must be able to yield not only a good outcome but also a calculated outcome. We may have good principles and doctrines. But if they don't impact society in ways we can understand, they are not much practical use.

  • Second, it should recognise that pragmatic actions derive not out of a movement from theory to practice, but from a continuous circular process involving reason, reflection and experiment. We inherit an outlook; we think about it; we wonder how it works; we make changes; and then we try out a new way.

To sum up: Charles Peirce in the 19th century pioneered a way of regarding truth which has proved influential in the West. Boiled down it amounts to the assertion that "truth" consists of more than arguing about the words to express it. Unless we also talk about the outcomes of propositional truth, we fall short.

His initial formulations have been taken up and modified by James, Dewey and others. More recently they have been revived in somewhat different form in the context of society as a whole.

Pragmatism when taken seriously by Christians presents a considerable challenge. Christians have to reconsider their claim that belief is sufficient for salvation. If pragmatism is persuasive, then they must recognise that faith and works are not in opposition to each other. Rather, they combine to form a whole outlook on life.
[1] Explorations: Making Sense of Generation Y, 2006
[2]The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan 1967
[3] Collected Papers, Vol. V, quoted by Thayer
[4] Pragmatism, 1907, quoted by Thayer
[5] Philosophy and Civilisation, 1931
[6] Social Theory in The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology, 2004

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