Progressive Christianity: Opting For Pragmatism Over Post-Modernism

Many years ago I spent some time writing about William James, the American psychologist and philosopher. James has been important to me. In fact, James is on the cover of one of my books. I lean heavily on James's The Varieties of Religious Experience in my critique of Freud in The Authenticity of Faith.

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.

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.
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 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."

"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?'"
It's interesting to compare these statements from William James with passages in Rollins's How (Not) to Speak of God:
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.

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29 thoughts on “Progressive Christianity: Opting For Pragmatism Over Post-Modernism”

  1. Very enlightening post. I believe it points directly to one of the illusions that Evangelical Christianity has comforted itself with, but is now being sliced to ribbons. And that illusion is the comforting lie when a Christian who has been caught in one scandal or another that says, "This is a weakness for me. I'm not like those of the world who believe that such things are not sin". Then they go on to liken themselves to David if the scandal is sexual, or to Peter if the problem is one's temper or simply being mean. It is this reasoning of sorts that allows many Christian couples to drop the kids off at grandma's for the weekend while they go away to indulge and unwind in the very activities they usually rip the world up for while sitting in Sunday School. Or, for the abusive church member who bullies others into submission. But, "the world", as others are referred to by evangelicals, are getting wise to such. I recall Chris Matthews on his program, HARDBALL, who could not help but laugh at a religious leader who used the example of King David to somewhat gloss over the sexual scandals of certain religious celebrities.

    So what is the answer? Of course, we all know, the challenge is reconciling how we are supposed to live with how we actually live. That was exactly what Paul was alluding to in Romans chapter 7 when he wrote that he did not do what he knows he should do, but does the very things he hates. And the answer is not as simple, as some would like to believe, "Well, ALL we have to do is get the timber out of our own eyes, then we can point to the splinters in the eyes of others". Because, even if we can pull a timber or two out of our own, it still leaves splinters.

    The best I can see in this reconciliation, is facing the responsibility that LOVE call us to. Paul reminds us that all the commandments are summed up in "Love one another", understanding that the using and the inflicting of pain on another, either through power, sex, etc, is the sin of not loving the person. However, the other part of this great responsibility, of living, is the showing and the giving of mercy; to not let ourselves be fooled by the lie that says, "My sin is just a small raindrop being carried along against my will by the storm of immorality across our land; its the others who have caused the storm". It is, in fact, to face the most humbling truth that makes us turn to God and to "the world" and whisper, "Please forgive me"; and that is the truth that real mercy is understanding that we are called upon by Christ to show and give more than we can ever reserve for ourselves.

  2. I love William James! Great post Dr. Beck. Whitehead and process thought is hugely indebted to James who, as process people claim, was definitely a process thinker, especially when he describes reality as not things but "thins in the making." I believe Whitehead borrowed the term "radical empiricist" from James, using it to describe himself. It could be said James was doing a process-based pragmatist metaphysics. Anyway, the theory that folks like James, Dewey and Whitehead were doing could be said to straddle the divide between so-called ‘analytical’ and ‘continental’ approaches to philosophy, which is why I like it so much :)

  3. The nexus you (Richard) identify between postmodernism, pragmatism, and American Christianity is huge. It is the epistemology that allows Christ followers to operate in a post-modern world. Atheist philosopher Richard Rorty identified the source of american post-modernism as simply being pragmatism restated. Pragmatist philosophy has deep historical and intellectual connections with the Wesleyan holiness tradition which has always placed a particular emphasis on how holiness can be manifested in day to day real world living precisely through the manifestation of God's love through us. Many early holiness theologians were educated at universities where pragmatists were influential faculty and William James had a documented personal and intellectual relationship with Hannah Whitall Smith an influential 19th century holiness author. James taught her children at Harvard and in private correspondence I believe called her the "mother of pragmatism." I find it interesting that your recent scholarship is influenced by William James and Greg Boyd identifies pragmatist C.S. Pierce as significant for his recent book.

  4. Very enlightening post. I realize I enjoy your posts so much more than typical theological posts because your thoughts are so often grounded in the actual understanding of the human animal through your background in psychology rather than theoretical speculations. I studied Philosophy in university so I recognize theoretical speculation can be fun and interesting, but in the end 'what is the cash value?' is the key question. It has been fun to watch the atheistic philosophers react to the recent comments by Neil de Grasse about philosophy as he is leveling the same criticism at their discipline that is at the core of his objection to religion, and I think it is a pragmatic criticism....what is the cash value?
    Your post does bring up something interesting that I have batted around for quite some time regarding belief and causality. In the tug-of-war between praxy and doxy I wonder if beliefs are really the ultimate cause of anything - as you mentioned the examples are too numerous to count of people who profess a belief that is nowhere to be found in their actual actions. Is the corollary true?

  5. Thank you so much for your honesty! The confusing journey of legalism and fundamentalism can sometimes leave a person wounded and bitter. So, I commend you for your seeking, pliable heart.

  6. Richard, having just finished Addison Hodges Hart's new book Strangers and Pilgrims Once More he points us to James' Pragmatism. I think you are on to something. I don't think ultimately POMO is a helpful foundation!

  7. Pragmatist Charles Sanders Pierce defined belief as "habit of action". Thus, according to Pierce, our beliefs are what we do, not what we say. Consequently, the pragmatic view of the causation link between belief and action is that a belief is not a belief until one is willing to rely upon that belief when acting in the real world,

  8. But how does that work in the case of the moral dilemma? (Is this answering my own question?)

  9. My own belief is that epistemology is epistemology is epistemology, so there is no per se religious epistemology vs other varieties. I have turned to evolutionary epistemology as a basic resource and would agree that James and Peirce nicely complement same.

    Epistemology is, at bottom, axiological, value-driven. It has four moments - the descriptive, evaluative, normative and interpretive, all necessary, none, alone, sufficient in each human value-realization movement. Each such epistemic moment is methodologically autonomous, asking distinctly different questions of reality. Every moment, though, is axiologically integral, which is to say, realizes values only when properly related to the other moments.

    More concretely, our minds spiral through a heuristic of 1) what's that? 2) what's that to us? 3) how might we best approach or avoid that? 4) are we sure about that and how do we re-ligate or tie it all together? I use the plural because we are radically social and include the interpretive because we are the symbolic species and invincibly fallible.

    Hence the hermeneutical cycle.

    To the task at hand, then, the epistemic moments orthodoxy (believing) and orthopraxy (behaving) will also need orthopathy (desiring) and orthocommunio (belonging) to effect any relational value-realizations. Formatively speaking, ordinarily but not necessarily, belonging precedes desiring, which precedes behaving, which precedes believing, so our early orthocommunal experiences, which can be deformative, too, hopefully, will gift us with right-desiring.

    This all fits nicely, too, with accounts of Lonergan's conversions - intellectual, affective, moral, social and religious, which gift us with what he called authenticity. There is, perhaps, an essential orthodoxic and orthopraxic dynamic common to the soteriological trajectories of all of our great traditions, especially in their exoteric forms. But Lonergan also spoke of the need for sustained authenticity, which we realize by being-in-love. This dynamic, across and between, even within our traditions, especially in their esoteric forms, seems best accounted for via polydoxic, polypraxic, and polypathic approaches, which represent our diverse sophiological trajectories, the different ways of being in love with self, other, cosmos and God, love being such a many splendored thing!

    Brian McLaren dutifully studied Walker Percy (interviewed him when in graduate school), who was a devoted Peircean. Brian, for one emergentist, I know, embraces the axiological epistemology that I've articulated with Amos Yong.

    This is not the vulgar pragmatism of Rorty, but navigates, Goldilocks-like, between the excessive epistemic humility of so many postmodernists and epistemic hubris of fundamentalists, including the Enlightenment fundamentalists of scientism and essentialistic rationalists, who still over-invest in metaphysics.

  10. Thanks so much!

    To start in on an answer let me say I'm not sure what "Lordship salvation" means. It's not a term people in my tribe use. But I can venture a guess. Let me approach it this way. I don't think fundamentalist or conservative Christians believe in the Lordship of Jesus. They believe that Jesus is Savior. Those are two different things (though overlapping). Believing that Jesus saves me is one thing. That Jesus is Lord is a matter of obedience.

    So I guess the most conservative way to express the ideas of the post is simply to quote the Letter of James: "faith without works is dead." Faith and works are the same thing.

    Now, the post suggests something a bit more radical, that faith just is works. To be sure, that's a radical claim and you can feel free to beg off. What we can agree on is that the confession "Jesus is Lord" is a matter of obedience rather than mental assent ("belief"). As Jesus said, "Not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of heaven but only the one who does the will of my Father."

  11. Thank you, Richard, for this post—I have felt the aridity and lack of behavioral connection in the postmodern grounding of progressive Christianity. Now I want to read further. Could you please source the James quotes in your post?

  12. William James wrote an article "The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life" which somewhat addresses the causation issue. Its short and available online and can state the pragmatist view with regard to the moral dilemma better than I can. I think you are exactly right when you say that a pragmatic epistemology is very critical of much of natural science methodology relied on by many of the so called "new athiests"..

  13. Do you think that James' pragmatism could be also compatible with Rollins' more recent (and more radical) work? How does pragmatism fit with the "death of God" as death of the deus ex machina?

  14. Don Gelpi SJ put it that orthopraxy authenticates orthodoxy. It's not that the propositional is unimportant but that it's often going to be more performative than informative, involving the existential disjunction known as "living as if." Even when a reality is more robustly propositional, still, often our participatory imaginations will guide us better than even our conceptual map-making. Beyond common sense, common sensibilities matter, which is to say that evaluative posits are indispensable and integrally related to descriptive and normative propositions, all contributing to our fallible human interpretations, which are imperfect but good enough to realize a lot of truth, beauty, goodness and unity. Human epistemology is about pragmatically leveraging our fast & frugal heuristics, an evolutionary heritage, not obtaining apodictic certainties via formal proofs and indubitable foundations. Both postmodern and pragmatic approaches can be nonfoundational, but pragmatism tends to be more realist, which is to say still foundational re truth, nonfoundational re knowledge, epistemology roughly modeling not fully capturing ontology.

  15. What about the juicy stuff in the middle? Looking at phrases like "Not everyone who says Lord Lord will enter..." , "Faith without works is dead" , "By their fruits" and such and such. All these pragmatic things are very 1's and 0's, on/off, works or it doesn't, type biblical phrases describing ideals and I think it is confusing.

    I'm thinking about a prostitute that earns money (via prostitution) to provide basic needs of her child that was a result of prostitution. Does she not show love for her child? Does this love, however misguided it may be, not pragmatically and sacrificially come from God and say that she knows God love?

    All I'm saying is that pragmatic approaches in the nitty-gritty ground floor of real life where abstract and idealistic notions of Christian life are kinda silent, appears very strange. Whose a "believer" so says fruits, Jesus, James, and progressive Christianity? Well, I'm not sure because everything is all mixed and squished together and not very idealistic or abstract or perfect. Everyone has fruits and everyone is missing some of them. FWIW :)

  16. Is the moral dilemma you are talking about the disconnect between professed belief and action? Because I think what Chris is saying is that if beliefs are habits of action, then the professed "belief" isn't really a belief. At most it is something the person aspires to believe, if that makes any sense. In this connection it is also worth noting that the pragmatists (Peirce at least) don't take our beliefs to be transparent to us; *we* can be mistaken about what it is that we believe.

  17. Really interesting insights - thanks! I haven't read much William James, but as a Swedenborgian myself, this post makes me wonder how much James's Swedenborgian upbringing influenced his later thought. Swedenborg's theological works make a HUGE deal of the inseparability of truth and goodness, faith and charity, wisdom and love. The idea that no one is able to have faith unless they have charity is central to Swedenborgian thought; see, for example, Swedenborg's "Doctrine of Faith" (, e.g. in paragraph 18: "In a word, charity and faith make one, like essence and form, since the essence of faith is charity, and the form of charity is faith. Hence it is evident that faith without charity is like a form without an essence, which is not anything; and that charity without faith is like an essence without form, which likewise is not anything." In any case, I'm inspired to pick up "The Varieties of Religious Experience" again and try to get through the whole thing.

  18. 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.

    I think you're doing Continental philosophy a bit of discredit here, just in that it does have a lot to offer; I don't know enough about American pragmatism to comment intelligibly on it, but Continental philosophy has offered a lot by way of political critique and I doubt those working in that tradition will stop doing so any time soon. If you know them by their fruits, then po-mo and Continental philosophy can't be all that bad. However, I'd be more inclined to disagree with the dichotomy you're making than with your preference: I don't see this as an either/or proposition. You can read Tillich and James together, right? So long as you're not taking any source or tradition in its entirety, uncritically, there's no reason not to take what's beneficial from each.

  19. I will venture a reply since I have spent a fair amount of time in both fundamentalist camps. I've read and heard so many sermons by McArthur and then Hodges et al. I know the two oppossing camps and found very little joy, hope, or peace in either. After several years of seeking to sort it all out, I have thankfully found what I think was missing all along in both, and that is a clear vision of Christ. It seemed to me that He pretty much got lost in all the doctrinal, legalistic baggage. Both sides are very caught up in correct "belief". While the lorship salvation camp comes somewhat close to what Richard is getting at, they seem to somehow miss Christ--all the while claiming to be "following Christ". I could be wrong, but my experience is that they miss the forest for the trees. It quickly turns into legalism and the beauty, truth and goodness of Christ--His love and compassion for the least of these seems missing. The grace camp is a bit better in that they seek to avoid the legalism, but my experience of it was that there was such a heavy emphasis on correct doctrine, that once again, Christ seems to just become a part of the equation of how to get to heaven.
    If you are interested, the authors/books/theologians that have helped me to more clearly see Christ are: Dallas Willard's The Diving Conspiracy; Brian Zahnd's Unconditional and Beauty Will Save the World, and Richard Beck's Unclean.
    Probably my favorite author for helping to get a fresh vision of Christ (and God the Father that He came to reveal) is George MacDonald. Anything you can read by him, both fiction and nonfiction (Unspoken Sermons) are pure gold. My first introduction to a more universalist understanding of hell was from him. Another great book that helped me to think through how universalism fits with scripture is Thomas Talbott's The Unshakable Love of God.
    I feel like you are where I was about two years ago. Keep seeking and searching. There is light and hope outside of fundamentalist Christianity. And yes, I believe it is "biblical". There are absolutely different ways of reading and interpreting scripture that are fiilled with hope, joy, and freedom!!! :-)

  20. A thought. Here's a quote:

    "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)."

    With respect to Christianity, there is a false dichomoty creates between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. To live like Jesus (ie unconditional love of neighbor) is to believe like Jesus (ie God exists, God as loving, merciful "Abba", humans in God's image, God living within via Holy Spirit, etc). His actions were inseparable from the beliefs that empowered them...even as the works themselves testified to what he really believed. This is simply James 2:17-18 in operation. What concerns me is a possible tendency to separate loving like Jesus from Jesus' belief of doing all his works by the Father in the Spirit, whom he loved absolutely. This expresses itself as Christian activism with little to no sense of "Abba, Father" lived Intimacy as it's ultimate ground. At that point, Christian "mission" becomes another form of religiously-motivates humanism rather that expanding the Kingdom as Children of the Father in the Son by the Spirit.

    Another thought: Jesus' life demonstrates the "truth in his ideas" of the Great Commandments in their "power to work", meaning his ability to carry out his mission. Jesus could never have done what he did outside of his filial love relationship with God the Father, in whose image Jesus believed all humans were made.

  21. Thank you so much, Silvana! I will read these books. I am so grateful to talk to someone who has been where I am and has come out the other side! Sometimes I have been shaken to the core when I have been confronted with the dismantling of what I thought was true. Many times when all of my other 'doctrine" was gone, I remembered the phrase "I determined to know nothing among you except Christ, and Him crucified". Surely this was the Holy Spirit nudging me in the right direction. And you have also pointed me back to Christ. God bless you!

  22. The reason why I am sensitive to this is that I know more than one "Christian atheist" who deny the existence of God, yet affirm Jesus' loving behavior and the "love your neighbor as yourself" ethic. And they use the same rationale: as long as people are being loving, what does it matter what beliefs through which they operate? One of these people specifically told me that he appreciated Progressive Christianity because they basically say the same thing...that loving is more important than belief. Hmmmm...

  23. Amen! Pierce and others around Harvard who knew James well called him "St. James" for his famous kindness. BTW, pragmatism reduces to paying careful attention, and Christianity in turn reduces to paying care-filled attention? (Another BTW: What I like about jettisoning Continental philosophy is just that it is so philosophical, whereas pragmatism says pay attention to the effects of what you say. A philosophy that accommodates fishermen as well as academicians. I think that crucial for Christianity.) Thanks, Richard. I'm delighted to see you make this suggestion!

  24. Another thought. William James said:

    "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?"

    I read that and thought: What if people thought this way about the Incarnation and bodily Resurrection? The truth cash-value as I see it would be a loss of the fear of death, seeing that uncreated love is stronger than death...and a loss of estrangement/alienation from God, self, and neighbor seeing that God took on humanity forever, unites all things In himself, and indwells us forever by the Spirit. In short, the "cashvalue" of the Incarnation and Ressurection of the Son of God is nothing less than freedom from primal fears that lead to all kinds of ego defensive thoughts and behaviour. It is nothing short of healing the isolated, wounded, broken state in which a good deal of humanity stays.

  25. I'm somewhat amused that you choose pragmatism over post-modernism and then quote Peter Rollins, who is definitively post-modern. (I recently did a few blog posts at engaging your ideas from in particular "Slavery of Death" and Rollins' ideas from "The Idolatry of God" and "Insurrection", and found you arriving at rather similar praxis from different base assumptions).

    Personally I favour pragmatism because it's more understandable and (perhaps therefore) resonates with me better. Rollins is OK, but many of the continental philosophers are extremely difficult to read!

  26. The problem with connecting pragmatism and Christianity is that results are often unknown. Doing the right thing which results in the best result with the wrong heart is completely unchristian. Doing the right thing with the right heart and achieving no result even though the result is desired is Christian. I agree that correct belief is not sufficient for faith - there is a quality to Christian belief which is faith and love is possibly the element. But results of actions are not entirely part of ethics since it is often God who brings apart results often and not man. Jonah is not a great example of Christian preaching because he had great result apart from motive. Motive is a key part to biblical ethics which pragmatism has difficult dealing with.

  27. A genuine question and risk of coming across as an apologist: I'm wondering what's up with these occasional pot-shots at so-called "continental philosophy" and "post-modern epistemology". Seems unnecessary for making the case for pragmatism, as well as flies in the face of one of the leading progressive Christian pragmatists, Cornel West - who obviously has roots sunk deep in the "Continental" tradition. Contrariwise to the conclusions of the post, American pragmatism made a bee line toward the rather bourgeois, aesthetic relativism of Rorty, whereas Continental philosophy is about as politically and socially progressive as philosophy gets. In any case, the task of "opting" for one or the other seems to play off of either (1) an strange dichotomy (mutually exclusive philosophical influences?), (2) an historical reductivism (as though the pragmatists were the first one's to articulate the basic "pragmatic" theses), which, if we were really going to go that way, should obviously be taking us back to the so-called classics, or (3) an unclarity about what we, the reader, should understand, conceptually, by the term "Continental philosophy". Some cards on the table: Now, I don't really have much stake one way or another in the whole "emergent" thing, but I do think that thinking through epistemological and practical foundations for religious praxis and belief is important...but (1) American pragmatism on its own cannot bear the weight you ask, and (2) there is, on the face of it, no necessary reason why "we" (whoever that may be...) can't carve out a contemporary, dynamic epistemology that draws from a great variety of traditions and discourses...In fact, I think we must.

  28. Why "must" we "carve out a contemporary, dynamic epistemology that draws from a great variety of traditions and discourses..."?

    To me the appeal of pragmatism is that it shifts the focus away from theory to humble practice. You know, the kind of thing that fishermen, tax collectors, carpenters and the like would focus on. Peirce's essay, from which the term was taken, was published in Popular Science Monthly and titled "How to Make Our Ideas Clear." Here's an excerpt: "...[clarity] is most easily learned by those whose ideas are meager and restricted; and far happier they than such as wallow helplessly in a rich mud of conceptions." And here's the pragmatic maxim from the essay: "Consider what effects, that might conceivably have practical bearings, we conceive the object of our conception to have. Then our conception of these effects is the whole of our conception of the object."

    So the point of pragmatism is to steer us AWAY from "...a great variety of traditions and discourses..." so that we can avoid a wallowing in a rich mud of conceptions. The clarity Peirce's pragmatism points us toward is achieved by shedding what he calls the "a priori method" or "the abstract definition," in which "the characters of the real depend on what is...thought about them." The method of science reverses that: concepts derive their meaning from "the real fact that investigation is destined to lead, at last..."

    Pragmatism is a humble philosophy. It looks to facts, not "a great variety of traditions and discourses." But you're right about this: "American pragmatism...cannot bear the weight you ask..." But it's not meant to. Rather, it points away from itself, saying that the substance is in the practical effects. Funny, in fact, that you use "weight" as a metaphor here. About it Peirce says, "This is another very easy case. To say that a body is heavy means simply that, in the absence of an opposing force, it will fall." The point of pragmatism can be summed up very nicely by saying that it seeks precisely NOT to present concepts that get in the way of seeing practical consequences clearly.

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