Pragmatism the Church’s Greatest Enemy

If the church was Rick Grimes from The Walking Dead, then Pragmatism is Negan.

I recently got beers with a friend of mine who is at a crossroads in his life. He has to choose between two career paths both in ministry. He was weighing out his choices to me when I asked him which one paid more. He told me the second option did, but he refused to allow money to have any effect on his decision. I asked him then which one had more opportunities for growth in his career and again he mentioned the second but stated that he refused to allow that to sway his decision. Finally, I asked him which one offered him the greatest opportunity to pay off his debt. I doubt I have to tell you what he said.

I started asking him how he was going to make this decision then. His response was that God was going to guide him. So, I asked how.

His response was the typical christianese response of throwing Christian catch phrases together until something makes sense. Like “I am just going to love on both opportunities and be open to wherever the Holy Spirit leads me.”

I tried to push him by saying that God gave him a brain and wanted him to think critically but it had no effect. Instead he just kept saying that God would provide, and he didn’t need to worry about money, growth or really anything practical. This mentality has always flabbergasted me. I never understand how normal, rational, critical thinking adults are so willing to throw all reason away and instead wait for a chariot of fire to save them.

When I was a chaplain at Evanston Hospital there was another chaplain who was Rabbi named Ken. Well truthfully, we only ever called him Rabbi Ken which in hindsight is a little weird but whatever. Anyway, one day Rabbi Ken told me an old Jewish parable which I think fits nicely with our conversation. I’ll summarize it and add a few touches.

One day a man was living near a great body of water and heard on the news that a flood was coming. As he was listening to the evacuation notice for his area he grunted and said “Humph, I need not worry, God will provide.” After some time, the flood waters started rising and soon the roads were flooded. Suddenly a neighbor knocked on his door and said “Brother we must leave! The flood waters are nearly upon us, come get in my lifted 2015 Jeep Wrangler JK which can traverse the flooded roads and we will escape.” The man turned to him and said “Humph, I need not worry, God will provide.” So, the cool young handsome Jeep owner drove away to safety. After a while the flood waters had completely flooded the first floor of the man’s house and he was huddle by a window on the second floor when a boat spotted him and came to rescue him. The captain said “Man what are you doing? Come get in the boat and I will take you to safety.” But the man turned to the captain and said “Humph, I need not worry, God will provide.” Finally, after a long freezing night in which the waters had completely engulfed the second floor the man found himself on the roof of the house huddling in wet blankets for warmth. When all seemed lost a coast guard helicopter spotted the man and came to save him, but when the rescuer attempted to place the harness on the man he said “Humph, I need not worry, God will provide.” So, the helicopter left to save other people. After a while the man died and found himself standing before God. He yelled at God “Why didn’t you save me? I had faith!” God turned to the man and said “What about the Jeep or the boat. What about the helicopter?”

I think this parable outlines the two fundamental issues that Christians have with pragmatism. First God’s provision doesn’t look the way they want it to look. In the parable as the man keeps waiting for rescue he keeps waiting for some miracle to happen like a chariot of fire rescuing him from the flood. The provision that God keeps providing isn’t how he wants it to look so he instead keeps waiting.

I often wonder how many times in my life did I blow off opportunities because they didn’t fit my understanding of how things should be. I remember graduating seminary and being asked if I would consider a bi-vocational role and I said definitively “No”. I just went to seminary I wasn’t about to now go back to Corporate America. I was better than that. I didn’t want to hear about Paul’s tent making but rather wanted God to provide the way I thought he should provide.

The second issue Christians have with pragmatism is that it removes all room for self-righteous pietism. If I refuse to make any decision based on money or any other practical reason, then everyone can see how righteous I am. They can look at me and realize that I am a true faithful believer. Pragmatism offers us logical and practical reasons for making choices but that doesn’t mean they can’t be based in faith.

I have been blown away in the last couple months of how the church I am serving at makes decisions. Usually the process starts with prayer. This is the high point of the process because after prayer we descend into a chaotic mess of intuition, feeling and inaction. It took the church six months to interview a potential candidate who applied the first day the job was offered. After the interview it took them another six weeks to ask the individual to come back for a second interview. I asked one of the search team members what was taking so long, and he said that they had to be sure this was God’s choice. I won’t bore you with the details of our conversation but when I pressed him for clarity on how you knew what God’s choice was, I got a similar Christianese response.

Maybe I am just not a good or “solid” Christian who clearly hears the audible voice of God. Maybe I am just too much of an “earthly” or “worldly” individual, but when I am presented with difficult choices I often tend to fall back on practical logical reasoning. I firmly believe that God has given us brains that process complex information for a reason. He wanted us desperately to use them to make complex choices. It wouldn’t make sense to throw out all reasoning. Why would God give you something that he never wanted you to use?

As a Christian I vow to serve God to the best of my abilities to the day I die. I will do that not only with faith but also with logic.


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