Saturday, 16 February 2013

Philosophical pragmatism - Saint William James?


For a big chunk of my adult life I was a William James type pragmatist - although I came at it via Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance which I read at 17.

But, having explored (not mapped!) the far reaches of Platonism, Aristotelianism and the like - since becoming a Christian - I find myself reverting to type and coming back to pragmatism - but this time as a Christian.


Pragmatism is a focus, rather than a theory - it is the focus on experience as the data and common sense as the method for what needs to be explained and the type of explanation which is regarded as successful.

Jamesian pragmatism, and the modern pragmatists (like Pirsig, or Richard Rorty) are nearly always non-Christian - indeed anti-Christian. And this kind of pragmatism subverts Christianity - but usually in the second generation.

(William James was sympathetic to religion, without actually being religious - he would have liked to be religious, but never quite managed it.)


However, I am Christian, and am being pragmatic within that framework - so it means trying to see not only what is in front of my face but what has been revealed (by God); and to theorize in ways that preserve that experience, and trying to theorize in ways that are simple applications of common sense.

Nowadays I am as likely to reject an explanation because it is incomprehensible as because it is not-completely-true. Because all explanations are not-completely-true - but we can and should strive to make Christianity comprehensible.


(Of course there is mystery - but I think Christian mystery works by ritual and liturgy - it is somewhat like an aesthetic experience, although more than that (think the Eastern Orthodox Church, or old style Anglicanism) not as a mechanism for trying to make people satisfied by explanations which make no sense to them. Crumby explanations are way-too-often excused on the basis that 'it is a mystery' - now that, as a pragmatist, I won't accept.)


What this means for Christianity is that Biblical interpretation needs to be literal. Not legalistic nor asserting fact over myth and symbol - but not a matter of reading back-into scripture philosophical concepts.

And the Christian religion must be personal, about a personal God - we must think of the Holy Trinity as personalities or else we wont think of them in any useful way.

Better crude anthropomorphism than seeing God as a swirl of vague forces and influences... 


Modern evangelicals mostly overcome the excessive and disengaging philosophical abstraction of traditional Christian theology by ignoring God the Father (ignore Him in practice, although not in theory) - and focusing 99 percent attention on Jesus Christ (and therefore the New Testament, and such parts of the Old Testament where Christ is most obviously prophesied).

This focus on a personal ('lively') relation with God mostly accounts for the success of evangelicals - which is against the trend of Christian decline in the West.

(Note, to those who don't already know - I attend a Conservative Evangelical Anglican church.)


But since it was God the Father who sent Jesus, there is a cost to ignoring him: indeed our only scripturally-instructed prayer is to God the Father, and does not mention Christ.

God the Father must be seen and felt as a person, or else he cannot be my Father (nor can he be the Father of Jesus).

Evangelical Christ-centred Christianity can do a lot, and is the best mainstream option available in many situations, but Christ is our (Heavenly) brother; and there will be something important missing from a brother-focused Christianity.

The worship of Christ-absent-His-Father will not (at a psychological level) mobilize that necessary (humble) sense of being a dependent and trusting child with respect to our Heavenly Father.


And the Holy Ghost also must be seen as a person and personality, not a vague mist or magnetic field.

The work of the Holy Ghost needs to be felt, not inferred.


In sum, I feel that Christian scripture is - and indeed long has been - strictly incomprehensible; because abstract and philosophical.

When there was real ritual and liturgy, this was compensated - because the adherent could participate in enacting a Platonic ideal of worship which combined truth, beauty and virtue - but since real ritual and liturgy has been so badly weakened and subverted through most denominations (either denominations have lost the will - as with Roman Catholics, and Anglicans; or else the church is simply too small and poor to 'stage' frequent, effective, mass ritual and liturgy - as with Eastern Orthodoxy in the West) - then we must be ruthless in discarding the incomprehensible from Christianity.


We need to become aware of those - often crucial - places where Christians are fudging, flanneling, hand-waving, and (if you'll pardon the expression) bullshitting about their beliefs.

I feel that we should be less afraid of "exposing" ourselves (and our faith) by making "absurdly" simple, simplistic, statements of belief - and instead much more concerned to avoid the sinful temptation to 'cover ourselves' and defuse ridicule and opposition by retreating into incomprehensible (and uncomprehended) abstraction (principally philosophical/ theological in nature).

Plain speaking to plain men on the basis of experience and common sense applied to revelation - that's what seems necessary here and now.

More William James, and a lot less Plato and Aristotle.