In my final year of undergrad the presidential elections were central to many heated debates among my peers. I remember having several discussions with a variety of my classmates and often being surprised with how many approached voting (and naturally, their lives) as pragmatists. Many argued they were willing to vote for a Pro-Choice presidential candidate despite their personal belief that abortion was wrong. They often defended their decision by arguing that the abortion debate was tired and would likely remain at an impasse. Practically, I suppose that seems convincing (assuming you agree with the rest of a candidate’s policies), but considering the absolute clarity of the ethical despotism of abortion it seemed an absolutely conflicted perspective for those who follow a God who says:
If you faint in the day of adversity,
your strength is small.
Rescue those who are being taken away to death;
hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.
If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,”
does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it,
and will he not repay man according to his work?
God is not a pragmatist. I suppose it’s a little silly to label God as anything but “God”, since being a pragmatist implies operating from philosophical theories, and certainly the God who created logic doesn’t operate from theories, since he already knows everything.
So what I suppose i really mean to say is, Christians are not pragmatists, or at least they shouldn’t be.
Pragmatism was birthed as an American Philosophical concept during the 18th Century, and it seems Americans have a continued obsession with it, along with our Utilitarian-based Ethics, our nation operates like a philosophical machine; creating exceptions to concrete ethics in the name of satisfactory results. Which lends itself easily to the post-modernistic perspective of relativistic ideologies. As long as it “works” (and stays private) it is good.
And what qualifies as a working ideology in America is one that elevates policy over justice, excuses the murder of the innocent for further progress, and has no value for truth.
But God? He has always operated in a way that is in not particularly practical nor pragmatic (and certainly not private). He commands Christians to speak truth at all costs. He promises the world will find his good news to be foolishness. He tells us not to conquer and force converts, nor to adapt our message to be culturally relevant, instead he commands us to keep saying the same thing over and over within the cultures we inhabit despite the fact that it will cause most people to think us fools, likely hate us, and sometimes kill us. Considering the very God who is central to our worldview was largely hated when people understood what he was really saying and then died a humiliating, agonizing death, should inform us that we shouldn’t have expectations that we will fare better than him. But when he rose again and gave us hope that does not disappoint, and a small group of committed followers who finally recognized him as God, the creator and sustainer of the universe, who loved him, knew it was worth it to forgo what works for the sake of the one who gave up his glory to die for them.
Christianity is not pragmatic, we don’t to look at the world and try and formulate what church program, or political construct will work the best and create the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, because often what works in the kingdom of this world, is not equatable with what is right. And what is right is the only thing that works for the Kingdom of God, and for Christians, that’s the only kingdom that matters.
Certainly if a churches numbers increase as a result of people hearing the Gospel and recognizing it as living water for their thirsty souls that is a beautiful by-product, but if a church has 20 people and they are relentlessly speaking the good news and loving as Christ loves and defending the truth, that’s working too.
And how absolutely magnificent if we can help a nation out of poverty and war because the Gospel has transformed people’s hearts, but if a nation is still war torn and crumbling and courageous Christians are in the literal trenches proclaiming good news to those who so desperately need it and they have but one person who truly hears and believes, that works too.
You see, Christians cannot be pragmatists because Pragmatism is far too near-sighted. It asks “what works now”? and we know we exist in an eternity, and what “works now”, often involves creating gray areas, and challenging ethical absolutes in order to make things better (by a usually relativistic definition of “better”) immediately and this proves to be deleterious to our eternal souls.
Christianity is not valuable to the world, because Christianity is not ultimately about doing good, making good people, or changing societies for the betterment of mankind. We are about God’s work, and sometimes God’s work is antithetical to what the culture says is “good”. Sometimes the cultures we live in will see Christians as assets and be thankful for the contribution that we bring from the outflow of grace, other times they will see us as enemies. But while cultures shift and change with each epoch, what we as Christians do, never changes.
We are like the proverbial gad-fly, we do not overthrow nations or cultures, we irritate them by informing them that they cannot go on living how they live. We remind them that the emptiness they struggle so hard to ignore is fulfilled only by the God that demands their lives. And we irritate by blessing those who curse us, by loving people beyond what seems possible, by heaping grace on those who hurt us, by forgiving over and over, and in the midst of loving we repeat over and over, that God does not compromise, that his standard is too high for a human defined “goodness”, and that every single person desperately needs Jesus.