William James is one of the founders of American pragmatism. And in a post in 2007 I made the argument that progressive Christianity--the emerging church movement was my focus at the time--should jettison its dance with post-modernity and embrace the epistemology of American pragmatism. As an epistemological home, pragmatism is a much better fit for progressive and "emergent" Christianity.
And while a 2007 reflection about the emerging church movement might seem a bit dated, I think these reflections are still very relevant to progressive Christianity.
Here is how I made the argument back then:
One of the distinctives of the emerging church conversation, and progressive Christianity generally, is an emphasis on orthopraxy over orthodoxy. That is, right living (orthopraxy) is considered to be more (or equally) important than believing the right things (orthodoxy). In Peter Rollins's phrasing, we move from "right belief" to "believing in the right way."
For example, below is a selection of Scot McKnight's article in Christianity Today on the Five Streams of the Emerging Church. One of the Five Streams is that the emerging church is praxis-oriented:
The emerging movement's connection to postmodernity may grab attention and garner criticism, but what most characterizes emerging is the stream best called praxis—how the faith is lived out. At its core, the emerging movement is an attempt to fashion a new ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). Its distinctive emphases can be seen in its worship, its concern with orthopraxy, and its missional orientation.Again, this praxis-orientation elevates orthopraxy to the same level of importance as orthodoxy:
A notable emphasis of the emerging movement is orthopraxy, that is, right living. The contention is that how a person lives is more important than what he or she believes. Many will immediately claim that we need both or that orthopraxy flows from orthodoxy. Most in the emerging movement agree we need both, but they contest the second claim: Experience does not prove that those who believe the right things live the right way. No matter how much sense the traditional connection makes, it does not necessarily work itself out in practice. Public scandals in the church—along with those not made public—prove this point time and again.Peter Rollins in his book How (Not) to Speak of God, a book that shaped the emerging church conversation and still articulates what many progressive Christians believe, goes a bit further than what is described above by McKnight. Specifically, Rollins defines truth as a soteriological event. Commenting on St. John's formulation "Whoever does not love does not know God" Rollins says this:
Here is an emerging, provocative way of saying it: "By their fruits [not their theology] you will know them." As Jesus' brother James said, "Faith without works is dead." Rhetorical exaggerations aside, I know of no one in the emerging movement who believes that one's relationship with God is established by how one lives. Nor do I know anyone who thinks that it doesn't matter what one believes about Jesus Christ. But the focus is shifted. Gibbs and Bolger define emerging churches as those who practice "the way of Jesus" in the postmodern era.
Jesus declared that we will be judged according to how we treat the least of these (Matt. 25:31-46) and that the wise man is the one who practices the words of Jesus (Matt. 7:24-27). In addition, every judgment scene in the Bible is portrayed as a judgment based on works; no judgment scene looks like a theological articulation test.
Here John equates the existence of religious knowledge with the act of love. Knowledge of God (the Truth) as a set of propositions is utterly absent; instead he claims that those who exhibit a genuine love know God, regardless of their religious system, while those who do not love cannot know God, again regardless of their religious system. Truth is thus understood as a soteriological event.What Rollins is claiming here is fairly radical. And I agree with him. Loving (orthopraxy) saves us. Belief (orthodoxy) doesn't. Or, rather, believing in Jesus (orthodoxy) is to live like Jesus (orthopraxy).
In the formulation of St. John: Whoever does not love does not know.
A way to summarize all this is to say that truth and its consequences are impossible to separate. More strongly, in some contexts truth is determined by the consequences.
Now what I find interesting about all this, and this is my point, is that many progressive Christians are simply articulating the views of William James and the American pragmatists.
And strangely, as we saw with Scot's summary, much of the credit is frequently given to the post-modernists rather than to the pragmatists.
This wouldn't bother me so much if it were not for the fact that William James articulated these ideas (the relation of truth and action/consequences) over a 100 years ago. For example, in 1898 James first articulated the pragmatist's dictum:
The ultimate test for us of what a truth means is the conduct it dictates or inspires.More from William James:
"To develop a thought's meaning, we need only determine what conduct it is fitted to produce; that conduct is for us its sole significance."It's interesting to compare these statements from William James with passages in Rollins's How (Not) to Speak of God:
"The effective meaning of any philosophical proposition can always be brought down to some particular consequence, in our future practical experience, whether active or passive."
"The can be no difference which doesn't make a difference."
"Perceptions and thinking are only there for behavior's sake."
"Truth in our ideas means their power to work."
"Truth is what acts or enables us to act."
"Pragmatism asks its usual question. 'Grant an idea or belief to be true,' it says, 'what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the belief were false? What, in short, is the truth's cash-value?'"
Thus 'right belief' becomes 'believing the right way.' Thus we break down the binary opposition between orthodoxy and heresy by understanding the term 'orthodox' as referring to someone who engages in the world in the right way--that is, in the way of love. Here religious knowledge is not something that it opposed to love, nor secondary to it; rather, the only religious knowledge worth anything is love. By understanding orthodoxy in this manner, it is no longer distanced from what the liberation theologians call 'orthopraxis"...we see that these two terms shed slightly different light on the same fundamental approach. This means that the question, 'What do you believe?' must always be accompanied by the question 'How do you believe?'Or, Rollins says more simply:
God is not revealed via our words but rather via the life of the transformed individual.Compare that statement from Rollins with this from William James:
The very meaning of the conception of God lies in the differences which must be made in our experience.All that to say, I think progressive Christianity has tended to ground its epistemology in the wrong place. I don't think Continental philosophy or post-modern epistemology makes a lot of sense for progressive Christians.
It's my argument that progressive and emergent Christianity, given its focus on orthopraxy, would do well to step away from Continental post-modernism toward William James and American pragmatism.
By their fruits you will know them.
So says Jesus.
So says progressive Christianity.
And so says the American pragmatists.