Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pragmatic Religion

Pragmatists will point out that they consider many things to be true, but deny that there is likely to be one sufficient theory of truth. Instead, there are varieties of scientific truth, artistic truth, historical truth, etc., and each has its own ways of establishing themselves. There is, then, no overarching method or criterion for all truths, but if one is a scientist, say, then there are ways of working that are better than others in leading one to new scientific truths.

I add to that list of varieties of truth what I call salvific truth, and it has its own criterion: the truth will make you free of sin and death. (I'll set aside for now what being "free of death" might mean.) Thus, a point of doctrine X is salvifically true if by believing in it, one is helped on one's way to salvation. Some things that follow:

- First, I am being more flexible than the Athanasian Creed, which held that to be saved one must believe the items in the creed. I would counter that claim by saying that I think the Buddha became free of sin and death, yet couldn't have believed in the Resurrection.

- Second, the logic of the criterion does not require X to be itself true in some objective sense. Suppose, for example, that the Virgin Birth was not historically true. Yet, in believing it, one might have been helped in believing in the power of Jesus to save. On the other hand, if one has no need of believing in the VB in order to be convinced of Jesus' power to save, then the question of the truth of the VB becomes irrelevant.

What these two points indicate is that salvific truth varies from culture to culture, epoch to epoch, and person to person. Yet that does not mean that anything goes. For there is a test to be made, and that is whether believing in X or Y has actually helped anyone on their way to becoming free of sin. Unfortunately, that doesn't help, since -- from the non-saved perspective -- how can we know? Of course, one way to approach this thorny issue is to think that one is saved simply by declaring that, say, Jesus is Lord. And I think this is how early official Christianity had to deal with this issue, due to its denial of reincarnation and universalism. But nowadays that sounds too arbitrary -- one is not inclined to believe in a God that orders things in that way. Another way is to claim that everyone is always already saved, and we just don't know it. This might be true in some ultimate sense, but seems to me to be irrelevant. For I can't see any practical difference between "not saved" and "not knowing that one is safe". Just change the criterion to "knowing the truth will make you free of sin", since the problem is one's propensity to sin. So, given that we have no mechanical way of applying the criterion, what do we do?

What, I think, we need to do, and what seems to me to be missing in most discussions of Christian doctrine, from a pragmatic standpoint, is ask the question of how a salvific truth works. I don't mean by this that one should expect to find some formula, the following of which leads to salvation. It is rather a matter of thinking about what revelation has to tell us about ourselves and reality in general (metaphysics) , to get some idea of why we are obstructed by false beliefs. That is, I think that salvific truths work more through negating than through positing. As various people have pointed out (I learned it from Robert Magliola's Derrida on the Mend) a heresy is substituting something understandable for that which must be maintained as a mystery. We can't understand how Jesus could be fully divine and fully human, but we can understand that he could be not fully divine, or not fully human, and in so understanding we fall into error. Hence, to believe in a salvific truth -- and to think about it -- is to face mystery on its own terms, not on what we as sinners substitute for it. What we are doing, then, is learning to think in a new way. As Coleridge put it, it is making a distinction between Reason and Understanding. Only the former works creatively.

(I'll have more to say about this in future posts.)


Sam Norton said...

Ha - I was with you pretty much all the way until the Coleridge quote. The differences between us might just be about vocabulary. By the way, I've written quite a bit on the stuff you say is missing from discussions of Christian doctrine (!) but I might not have blogged it. Let me go and have a rummage.

scott roberts said...

Yes, that last bit needs explicating, which I hope to get to by and by. But, for those like yourself familiar with the MOQ, Coleridge's distinction amounts to saying that he uses the word 'reason' to indicate dynamic intellect, and 'understanding' to indicate static intellect. Of course, the MOQ doesn't recognize the concept of 'dynamic intellect', but that's its problem :)

There are differences between us that are probably just vocabulary, but I think there might also be deeper ones that are not. What is the case, I think, is that unless and until a better vocabulary is worked out, we won't be able to tell. And even if they exist, they might not be all that significant, salvifically speaking. Like wondering how much the filioque matters.

I'll be interested to see what you've said on the the 'how' of salvific truths, or on pointers to others who may have discussed it. Is Denys Turner one such?

Sam Norton said...

OK - well with that explanation I'm happy with Coleridge!
As for the how the person who has shaped my thinking on it is Wittgenstein (of course). I think that there is material in the mystics saying the same thing but I wouldn't be confident of saying exactly where. Turner doesn't say it explicitly but it's a natural conclusion to what he does say.

Can I just repeat that I'm really delighted that you've started a blog?!

Anonymous said...

None of the great Realizers who were/are the root of all the the Great Religions, and who inspired all the great classical cultures of Humankind were pragmatists, nor were they idealists.

They were Realists with a capital R.

So to with ALL the Realizers who founded and inspired the multi-farious esoteric practicing schools of Hinduism and Buddhism.

Read some of the biographies of the great Realizers. St Theresa of Avila, Milarepa, Gautama for instance.
They were never ever satisfied with the ordinary "pragmatic" presumptions of daily life.

They were inexorably driven to discover the Real.

Gautama Buddha was rightly shocked by the mortal dreadfulness of the ordinary "life" that he was prepared to do whatever it took to discover the Real.

Milarepa was prepared to do anything for his Spiritual Master Marpa in order to be suitably prepared to be given or shown the Dharma.

scott roberts said...

The Buddha, et al., Knew, and so had no need for religion, much less pragmatic religion. But I am not the Buddha. Pragmatism is not an opinion about Reality, it is a way of coping while in a fallen state, one that I think is preferable to simply accepting dogma uncritically.