Lesson 11: Rationalism and Pragmatism

Lesson 11: Rationalism and Pragmatism

Today we’ll be studying two more “isms” that have had profound impact on how our culture thinks and on Christianity itself.

Rationalism

Rationalism is a very old idea, being found in Plato, philosophers of the Middle Ages, and in the Age of Enlightenment. We’ll briefly examine the Enlightenment because it still has an immense influence on Western thinking.


The Age of Enlightenment

The Enlightenment extended from the mid 1600’s to the late 1700’s. It was a time during which leading writers and scientists in Europe and America foresaw a new age enlightened by reason, science, and respect for humanity. It was a time of new discoveries in science, exploration of the world, and great leaps forward in technology.

Leading figures of the Enlightenment: René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke

Of the basic assumptions and beliefs common to philosophers and intellectuals of this period, perhaps the most important was an abiding faith in the power of human reason. If humanity could unlock the laws of the universe, God’s own laws, why could it not also discover the laws underlying all of nature and society? People came to assume that through a prudent use of reason, an unending progress would be possible—progress in knowledge, in technical achievement, and even in moral values.

Enlightenment thinking placed a great premium on the discovery of truth through the observation of nature, rather than through the study of authoritative sources, such as Aristotle and the Bible. Most Enlightenment leaders saw the church—especially the Roman Catholic Church—as the principal force that had enslaved the human mind in the past, and they took great joy in criticizing and ridiculing Christianity. Nothing was attacked with more intensity and ferocity than the church, with all its wealth, political power, and oppression. However, most Enlightenment thinkers did not renounce religion altogether. They opted rather for a form of Deism, accepting the existence of God and of the afterlife, but rejecting Christian theology. Human aspirations, they believed, should not be centered on the next life, but rather on the means of improving this life. Worldly happiness was placed before religious salvation.

The Age of Enlightenment is usually said to have ended with the French Revolution of 1789. Yet the Enlightenment left a lasting heritage for the 19th and 20th centuries. It marked a key stage in the decline of the church and the growth of modern secularism. It served as the model for political and economic liberalism and for humanitarian reform throughout the 19th-century Western world.1 The modern attitude that exalts science, technology and human reason is rooted in the Enlightenment.

Rationalism Defined

Rationalism was a key component of Enlightenment thinking. It stresses the ability of the human mind to know things. Rationalists hold that whatever is knowable by the human mind is true. The human mind has an innate ability to understand things. Reasonable thought and logic become the tests of truth. Whatever is logically inescapable is necessarily true. If something is unreasonable, it must not be true. So the emphasis in rationalism is the mind, logic, and human reason.

Rationalism is not synonymous with rationality. To be rational is to be reasonable and logical, i.e., to be in one’s right mind. But if one adopts rationalism, he believes that all things must conform to human reason. One can be rational without being a rationalist or adopting rationalism.

Contributions of Rationalism

Without logic and reason, there is no way to make meaningful statements, no way to distinguish right from wrong. Also, rationalism’s emphasis on the knowability of reality is good. The universe is not just an illusion. Man’s mind has the capacity to know and experience reality. One need not be totally skeptical about man’s ability to know truth. What is real is rational. The universe makes sense. One can employ logic to solve complex problems. Also, all people benefit from rationalism’s emphasis on scientific investigation and technological progress.

Weaknesses of Rationalism

  1. The rational may not be real. That is, something may make sense without being true. For example, scientists continually change their explanations for various phenomena. Arguments often seem rational until they are proven to be wrong. Logic does not lead necessarily to reality. If one starts with wrong assumptions, he will inevitably come to wrong conclusions, even if he proceeds rationally.

  2. Rationalists tend to arrive at their basic presuppositions without the use of reason. Their presuppositions are not subject to tests of logic. Rationalists think they are being rational because they are rational. It’s impossible to provide a starting point for rationalism without presupposing the truth of rationalism. Rationalism is just as circular in its reasoning as any other system.

  3. Logic is best used as a negative test for truth. It can rule out what is illogical and unreasonable, but it has a hard time proving what is true. It can eliminate the false but it cannot (by itself) establish what must be true. Logic can demonstrate what may be real but not what is actually real. Again, something may seem logical and yet be untrue or unreal.

  4. While some rationalists have proposed logical arguments for proving the existence of God, such arguments are quite weak and unconvincing to most unbelievers. Further, we know that unbelievers do not ultimately come to Christ because of weighty logical arguments, but because of God’s work within their lives.

  5. For most modern rationalists, the Bible is a mythical storybook that has little or no value. Rationalism rejects Christianity as irrational.

A Biblical Response to Rationalism

  1. Logic and reasonable thought are basic aspects of Christianity. Christianity is a reasonable faith and benefits from the application of the laws of logic.

  2. The ways of God do not need to conform to man’s sense of reason. God’s ways are unsearchable and past finding out (Rom 11:34), and God’s thoughts are higher than the heavens (Isa 55:8-9). We should not be surprised if God’s ways exceed the human intellect’s ability to understand them (Deut 29:29).

  3. If God exists, it is reasonable for Him to interrupt the natural order of things if He so desires. Miracles are not irrational.

  4. There is no standard of truth, logic or reality higher than, or independent of, God, to which He must conform. God sets such standards. While God is logical, He need not conform to human ideas of reason. God and His ways are not irrational or illogical, although they may be beyond man’s ability to grasp them.

  5. God is incomprehensible. We can know God, and what we know about Him is true, but our knowledge of God is not complete.

Although some rationalists argue on behalf of Christianity, most modern rationalists deny God and the Bible. Rationalism, as a philosophy of life, because it depends so much on human the intellect, does not conform well to Christianity. God is under no obligation to explain His ways to man. Rationality, on the other hand, is the handmaid of good theology. All believers should strive to be rational and logical.

Pragmatism

Works for me” is the mantra of pragmatism. To be pragmatic is to be practical, to insist on using whatever methods or tools that work best. A pragmatist is one who focuses on getting the job done in the most successful and simple way. He is not concerned about theories or hypothetical solutions. He doesn’t have time for the mysteries of philosophy or religion. He is a practical man, a realist, not a dreamer. He wants useful results as soon as possible. If the results are acceptable, the method that achieved them is acceptable. Whatever works best is best. The ends (i.e., the results) justify the means (i.e., the methods).

Pragmatism is the dominant attitude shaping American life. Americans want results. They want to do things better, faster, cheaper, cleaner, and easier. Pragmatism is the spirit of problem solving. Science and technology can provide rubber-meets-the-road solutions to virtually all of man’s problems.

Pragmatism may sound pretty harmless, but there are several dangerous implications associated with it.

  1. Pragmatism is basically atheistic or agnostic. It is highly skeptical of any theological or metaphysical claims. Metaphysics and theology deal with ultimate questions. Is there a God? What is he like? What is the nature of reality? Who am I? Why am I here? The pragmatist cares little about such issues. He’s too busy putting food on the table or money in the bank. He would say that searching for the answer to such questions is a foolish waste of time.

  2. Pragmatism is focused on the here-and-now, the temporal rather than the eternal. According to the pragmatist, whatever works best now is best. But Christianity asserts that there is a higher standard to consider: the judgment of God. In God’s judgment, whatever will bring the most glory to Himself is best, whether it seems to work here on earth or not. Pragmatism rejects any kind of eternal analysis.

  3. “What works” and “truth” are not necessarily synonymous. The fact that something seems to work does not guarantee that it is true or good. For example, the pragmatist would say that if belief in God helps someone cope with life, then let people believe in God. If it doesn’t help, then don’t believe in God. Success, or lack thereof, should never be the criteria for determining truth.

  4. Pragmatism is another form of relativism. If truth is determined by what works for the individual, then the test for truth ultimately becomes the individual himself. “Works for me” is the pragmatist’s slogan. Thus the self becomes the highest value.

  5. Pragmatism’s value system tends to be savage and inhumane. What works often causes great pain and suffering for masses of people. It “worked” for the Nazis to exterminate millions of Jews during WWII. It “worked” for Stalin and Mao to kill millions of their own countrymen to achieve their communist goals. It “works” for scientists to destroy human embryos in the hopes of producing treatments for diseases. It “works” for women to abort their unwanted babies. Pragmatism has no basis for basic human rights, kindness or compassion.

  6. Pragmatism leads to an unending pursuit of the latest and greatest method of achieving “success.” Newer methods and ideas always promise greater growth, deeper satisfaction and more exciting experiences. Those committed to a pragmatic approach to life will always be chasing the bigger and better methods.

Unfortunately, a spirit of pragmatism has crept into Christianity. This attitude suggests that any method that succeeds in spreading the gospel, packing the pews, and/or making converts is acceptable. Whatever is working to draw more people to church must be good. Churches and Christian leaders are eager to hop on the latest bandwagon and ride it until another promising trend comes along (e.g., Prayer of Jabez, Purpose Driven Church/Life). However, in Christian ministry, we know that the ends do not justify the means. That is, the goal of outreach does not validate all means of achieving that goal. Certain methods are simply inappropriate for use within Christianity because they violate the character of God. For example, transforming the worship service into an entertaining variety show may increase attendance, but it does not glorify God. Christians must do God’s work in God’s way, even if it doesn’t seem to be “successful.” A pragmatic, “whatever works” attitude has no place in Christian ministry.

Conclusion: Both rationalism and pragmatism are hostile to Christianity. Because rationalism subjects all truth to human reason, it has no room for an omnipotent God. What is rational is not necessarily real. God’s ways go beyond man’s ability to find them out. Because pragmatism tests all things by “what works,” it has no place for virtue or morality. Pragmatism can tell you what works now, but not whether your work has eternal value.

Discussion:

  1. Define rationalism. The human mind is the standard of truth.

  2. Why is rationalism ultimately circular in its reasoning? It presupposes what it’s trying to prove.

  3. Define God’s incomprehensibility. God can be truly known but not fully known.

  4. What is pragmatism? An attitude that focuses on the practical solution of problems—what works.

  5. Why can’t pragmatism distinguish good from evil? “Good” and “evil” are not categories that pragmatism deals with. “Good” for the pragmatist is what works; “evil” is what doesn’t work.

  6. How has pragmatism affected Christianity? By shifting the focus from pleasing God to pleasing man, and by asserting that the ends justify the means.

1“Enlightenment, Age of,” Microsoft® Encarta® 98 Encyclopedia. © 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation.

Comments

  1. Islam is the only major ‘religion’ in the world whose prophet used vieolnt means to spread its influence.That, in itself, sets it apart from all others.Do not give up on you search for inner peace … you will only get frustrated trying to pacify others.I know there is an answer and I have found it. I’m confident that with an open mind and a pure heart, your search will find a more satisfactory community, which will be able to help you through your hard times.

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