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Pragmatism

April 23, 2012
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There’s a lot to dislike about the philosophies of modern America. Postmodernism is famous for a squishy subjectiveness that is, from a Christian viewpoint, nothing more than giving up on truth because it’s difficult. The reductionism of modernism is hardly any better. It’s not too difficult to find professors and other intellectual types to rail about these systems that, at best, filter down in strange distorted ways to the average person. However, there’s another philosophy to hate that has real populist appeal: pragmatism.

On the surface it’s hard to dislike getting things done. Good pragmatists often run successful companies and it’s just hard to say “no” to success. When a church goes looking for a set of structures to inform its corporate life it frequently settles on structures developed in corporations. Soon we end up with mission statements, pastoral goals, and measurable results. I hate the last one most. I hate mission statements quite a lot but it’s a passing surface hatred, the sort of hatred you have for inconvenient red lights and having to fill out forms in triplicate. Measurable results deserve a much deeper hatred, mostly for the measuring.

How do take the measure of a man? Apparently the answer is something that can be summarized down to a few numbers. Is discipleship too difficult to measure? Is your sanctity meter on the fritz? Make a course. Write a questionnaire. Call attendance, or a particular set of answers, or just showing up on Sunday with whatever name you couldn’t measure before. It’s pragmatic – don’t bother to figure out how to measure a human being accurately, just measure the parts you need.

This works great for a business. The Great Machine doesn’t need your loves, your hatreds, your soul-deep wounds, and your grand dreams. The Machine only needs your output, your signature on this line, your eyes to scan this document, your brain to review this information and design this widget, your muscles to lift this load, and your wonderfully opposable thumbs to swipe these credit cards. The human spirit has no place in the whirring of gears. That’s why we have weekends, holidays, and paid vacation. That’s when we’re supposed to be human. The Great Machine wants good, malleable cogs, not dreamers, visionaries, and holy men. Get that out of your system on your own time.

The Church, the triumphant bride of Christ, should not be a shadow of the Machine. The Machine wants your physical self, your patentable ideas, and your saleable expertise. The Church wants your self. Ideally, one should find that one comes out of church more human than when one entered. If you come back from a day at work more human than when you left then that’s a great job, and that’s probably a side effect of the work and not its intent, anyway. Being more human, living into the life of the Kingdom of God, does not translate into currency very well. It’s hard to measure, it takes a long time, and it is just variable enough to make it immune to assembly lines. It is not pragmatic to try to help people grow spiritually. It is easier to help them do something else that might be related and optimize that process to the maximum.

I’m not suggesting here that the children of the Kingdom abandon any attempt to get anything done or make sure that anyone is doing their job. What I am saying is that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that falls to the ground and disappears. Then the committees come and argue about who is to blame for dropping the seed, who should be charged with finding it, and whether the budget will support paying for more seeds. When the committees leave to buy coconuts (spray-painted orange to make them easier to locate) the seed sprouts into a great tree. Or perhaps the Kingdom of God is like a man sowing seeds. Some of the seed lands on good soil. Some of it lands on rocky ground. Some of it lands on the path and is eaten by birds. And the marketers and the pragmatists come and suggest that a more targeted approach would waste less seed. There would be more bang for your buck if the Kingdom was only offered where you knew it would grow. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees could close the doors to the riff-raff.

The task of the Church is not much like the task of a business. It is not much like the task of mowing the lawn or serving one hundred people at the church picnic or like getting your taxes done. It doesn’t have an easy set of goals and the task at hand is impossible to complete without the Lord’s own intervention. The strategies that create better automobiles faster don’t produce better people faster. You can measure the quality of an automobile much easier than the quality of a person. You can optimize your strategy for producing a good automobile because it’s relatively clear what that means. It doesn’t differ from one steel plate to the next. Humans are not like this. If you can’t deal with the messiness of humans as individuals then you can’t really do the work of God in their lives. When people become a commodity the Church becomes the Great Machine and people start falling into the whirring gears and coming out looking like toothpaste.

If I am making blenders, I can make excellent blenders or I can make mediocre blenders faster. There’s a market for both. I can skip steps and look at how the value of the skipped step compares to the energy I put into it. If it costs me twice as much to make a blender that I can only sell for a third more then it is probably not worth it (unless I can sell it to people who wouldn’t otherwise buy from me at all). It’s pragmatic to weigh these things out and direct our effort most effectively. It’s not very pragmatic to write instruction manuals in poetry or send your best marketer to a backwater of the Roman world. If you can do miracles, you should do them where they do the most good. Turning water into wine is a nice party trick but it’s not quite “I am the Christ” in flaming letters over Jerusalem. But maybe that’s the point. The work of God takes time and care. You can’t weigh the steps and skip some. You need the whole person to be healed all the way through. 85% forgiveness is a gyp, 93% resurrected won’t cut it. This is probably why God is so inefficient.

Somewhere out there is something that could be called pragmatism that is just fine. It’s focused on what works and making those things work as well as possible. But it’s only okay because it lives within the upside-down reality of the Kingdom of God. It was written under the new rules and it works inside of them doing God’s own work. It’s perfectly okay with the fact that some of the real results are just about impossible to measure cleanly. It doesn’t look much like what we call pragmatism here in America.

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