Success, Truth, and Pragmatism


The definition of pragmatism


an approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application. (Google search)

If a person thinks that the truth or falsity of a religion/worldview (I am defining religion as a set of beliefs that attempts to describe reality) can be accurately discerned by simply evaluating a set of practical/tangible outcomes (i.e. they feel happy, not-anxious, well adjusted, respected in their social circles, successful, healthy, etc…), then that person will consequently believe that they are justified in believing the following four propositions:

  1. Any number of religions, however doctrinally opposed, can all be true and relatively beneficial depending on one’s subjective needs. It is their truth. No one can say that 1 religion should be preferred over another thus making proselytizing (evangelizing) pointless.
  2. A person should create a belief system/religion by picking and choosing aspects from specific ones that they like while leaving out other aspects that they find unattractive.
  3. All moral decisions and choices made in real life circumstances are justified for individuals based upon their subjective opinion of the situation. They are correct in any choice they make so long as they are true to their feelings.
  4. No objective and timeless truths exist that apply to everyone.

My theory is that- although pragmatism as way to understand truth can lead to self-referentially incoherent propositions (i.e. numbers 1 and 4 above) and morally questionable ones (numbers 2 and 3), the vast majority of secular and even “spiritual” Americans adhere to its tenets.  I tend to disagree with pragmatism as a philosophy of truth because of the way it defines “success”.

If pragmatism were to allow for the possibility of God existing then I believe Christians should be pragmatic because Christianity works. It is successful in restoring relationship between man and God.  Unfortunately, pragmatism, from what I understand, only considers “success” something that is tangible in the physical universe, which automatically precludes the idea of anything supernatural existing like God.

The truth or falsity of a religion or worldview or proposition should not be restricted to any loose definition of “success” in outcome that someone wants to attach to it.  The only definition of “success” we should look for when evaluating truth claims is one in which the claim is logical and backed up with evidence.  This is something that people can agree on across the broad spectrum worldviews that exist.

Consider how the Christian perspective on “success” in the Christian life might differ from what we normally understand as success in the following passage from the book An Introduction to Biblical Ethics by McQuilkin and Copan (2014):

God’s desire is not that we live pain-free, tension-free lives, but that we become increasingly conformed to the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18). Pain often serves as a wake-up call or reminder of our human brokenness and alienation from God so that we might seek “outside assistance” and turn to God in repentance and faith (Lk 13:1-5). Indeed, to be shielded from these reminders of our sin and brokenness would make God into a deceiver, propping us up with the false impression that we do not really need God. In the words of theologian Vernon Grounds,

An individual, quite completely free from tension, anxiety, and conflict may be only a well-adjusted sinner who is dangerously maladjusted to God; and it is infinitely better to be a neurotic saint than a healthy-minded sinner…. Healthy-mindedness may be a spiritual hazard that keeps an individual from turning to God precisely because he has no acute sense of God…. Tension, conflict, and anxiety, even to the point of mental illness, may be a cross voluntarily carried in God’s service. 5

The bolded section of the quote above has profound implications for our views on what it means to be successful. Sure, we can meditate and go to yoga class for inner-peace and centeredness, we can have a great community of support that gives us a sense of belonging in our congregation, synagogue, or mosque, we can even see all of our endeavors end in success as if God himself is approving our every move—and we can still be following a false religion. This is because “success” can be misleading. I am NOT saying that God does not allow his followers to have this type of success or that it is bad to desire this. What I am saying is that this type of success should not ever be the sole indicator of truth. I know that I am personally NOT completely free from tension, anxiety, and conflict although I hope to become so someday. But I do pray that I do not consider becoming a “healthy-minded sinner” when that means losing an eternal perspective of reality.

For an interesting look at the idea of “Self-love” and a healthy self-perception from a Christian perspective read this section from the above quoted book (pages 43-50) by McQuilkin and Copan (2014)


McQuilkin and Copan (2014) An Introduction to Biblical Ethics: walking in the way of wisdom 3rd edition. InterVarsity Press


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