A recent survey of young people
in the United Kingdom dismayed many Christian people of all
denominations. It showed that young people are not interested in things
spiritual. They are content with the world as it is
The survey shattered an intuitive and widely held
opinion that as the churches in the West decline, there is a
corresponding upwelling of interest in spirituality. On this rested the
hope that an entirely secular way of regarding life's joys and pains
would never meet the inherent needs of most people.
It appears from these data that young people today -
at least in the West, if not yet in the rest of the world - have largely
put aside reliance on abstract theory and belief to inform and guide
their lives. They are more interested in what works than on abstractions
or taught beliefs.
One way of understanding this trend is to look back
at the strong stream of philosophical pragmatism which has deeply
penetrated Western thinking since it began in the 19th century.
Pragmatism is usually attributed to Charles Peirce
(1839-1914). But as H S Thayer points out, it was first cobbled together
by members of the "Metaphysical Club" which Peirce, Henry James and
others founded in Cambridge in the 1870s .
James reformulated pragmatism later, primarily as a theory of truth,
while John Dewey and F C Schiller developed and popularised it.
Thayer remarks that pragmatism is America's major
contribution so far to the world of philosophy.
As a movement it is best understood as, in part, a
critical rejection of much of traditional academic philosophy and, in
part, a concern to establish certain positive aims.
Although it is far from clear what specific line
constitutes pragmatism, one way of approaching the matter is to
distinguish between two main streams.
The first derives from Peirce. He thought that
philosophy depends on "signs" for meaning. A sign is anything which
stands for something else. Words and pictures are signs. Humanity has
constructed elaborate socially standardised ways of attributing meaning
- that is, a complex system of communication.
In other words, pragmatism is not a solution or answer to theoretical
questions, but a practical way of solving scientific or philosophical
problems. Peirce said that
... in order to ascertain the meaning of an
intellectual conception one should consider what practical
consequences might conceivably result by necessity from the truth of
that conception, and the sum of these consequences will constitute the
entire meaning of the conception. 
Some say that truths can be expressed by propositions such as
"Emeralds are green". The pragmatist responds by suggesting that no
formula of signs is true until it finds expression in "sensible
effects", in things we can see, hear, touch and manipulate. So it's
useless to pronounce a "truth" that "Emeralds are green" if you have no
such precious stones to refer to. Peirce held that pragmatism shows that
... almost every proposition of ontological metaphysics is either
meaningless ... or else ... absurd
if its sensible effects can't be pinpointed.
This way of looking at life poses considerable difficulties for most
Christians. They generally propose that ultimate truths can be
expressed in propositions, which they call beliefs or doctrines. So
powerful are these propositions that one's eternal well-being may rest
One such proposition is, "Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead". A
pragmatist might ask for an example of someone rising from the dead as
an indication of the truth of the proposition. This in notoriously
difficult to provide - either in terms of sound history from the
gospels, or from contemporary examples of resurrection. The same
difficulty can be extended to almost every Christian doctrine.
The second stream of pragmatism derives from William James. It was
his version that was widely received and read. Whereas Peirce was
interested in concepts and their consequences, James was more concerned
with the individual's experience of facts and actions. He said that
... the whole function of philosophy ought to be to find out what
definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants
of our life, if this world-formula or that world-formula be the right
In other words, the truth of ideas is to be evaluated by one's
experience. It is the "practical consequences", "usefulness" and
"workability" of ideas which matter, not only the rational or logical
coherence of propositions (though that matters very much). Thus when we
think of an object we are lead to
... what conceivable effects of a practical kind the object may
involve - what sensations we are to expect from it, and what reactions
we must prepare. Our conception of these effects ... is then for us
the whole of our conception of the object. 
The truth of anything is only partly stated by a proposition. We must
be able to locate the meaning of this partial truth in the real world.
Only then can we say that we know "the truth".
This way of regarding pragmatism is an easier pill for Christians to
swallow. Now it is the effect of faith propositions on the
believer which matters, not their objective usefulness or consequences.
Faith becomes "true" if its impact on the person is beneficial - what
James called a "vital benefit" or "vital good". He thought that the
"will to believe" is what matters, rather than a belief which is held
because it has been verified.
This interpretation of James' pragmatism has proved a blessing to
succeeding generations of theologians because it allows them to fall
back on faith when reason fails. Thus Christianity can be counted valid
if the effects of someone believing its propositions are good. If a
person is converted and thereafter lives an exemplary life of great
happiness and fulfilment, then it can be held that the faith statements
he or she embraced are in themselves wholly true because they have
proved themselves pragmatically.
However, it should be noted that James himself placed severe
restrictions on the application of the "will to believe" which he placed
at the heart of pragmatism.
It applies only when (a) the choice of a belief at any one time is
"live", or "forced" or "momentous" - not when a belief is trivial or
everyday; (b) when the factors affecting the choice to believe are so
balanced that reason can't judge one factor superior to any other; and
(c) the results of belief are "vital", that is, critically central to a
person's life. In short, James does not hold that a belief can be
properly held as true despite the absence of adequate evidence
John Dewey and others popularised pragmatism in the first part of the
20th century. They correctly noted that James in his interpretation may
have confused a description of why and how people believe, with the
process of trying to validate a particular belief about the world.
Addressing the effect of belief is not the same as deciding if a
belief is true or false.
Later pragmatists tended to follow Dewey's approach in which he
developed a wide-ranging theory he called "Instrumentalism". Through it
he sought a
... precise logical theory of concepts, of judgements and
inferences in their various forms
which could be put to work evaluating and reconstructing human
experience as a total system .
Pragmatism fell out of favour in the mid-1900s. But it has recently
returned in modified form as a powerful influence on Christian thinking.
It has been pointed out that there have always been two sides to
theology. The one stresses right belief as the pivotal factor in
salvation. The other stresses right living as the aspect Christians
should focus on. One way of expressing the tension between these two
approaches is the traditional contrast between faith and works.
The traditional theological debate between faith and works has now
been largely bypassed in the West. It continues instead in a discussion
of the nature of individual action in the context of social processes.
That is, "salvation" has become an earthly process which each of us
pursues through what we do in the context of the societies in which we
live. It is less a question of what we believe, and more a question of
how we behave. Beliefs are "good" or "bad" depending on what outcomes
There was a time when the Church had a primary responsibility for the
health of society. The loss of this control has made it impossible to
contribute to social debate in Christian terms. Despite this, says Don
... still has the obligation of relating its view of life to the
processes and events of contemporary society, even if this must be
done persuasively and dialogically and not by force of tradition
Christians are free to believe what they like. But they are not free
to impose the pragmatic implications of those beliefs on people around
them. To have any influence on the "sensible effects" of human
convictions in a secular state requires that Christian solutions both
make sense and
work in society as it is. Persuasion has taken the place of
hell-and-damnation compulsion. Efficacy has replaced sure-fire,
The importance of Christian pragmatism becomes clearer when it is
contrasted with two other approaches which have deeply influenced our
lives in the last century or so:
People have been defined by some as having meaning only in the
contexts of economic or technical advancement. In other words, what we
do with our lives makes sense only if we are consumers of gadgets and
slaves to objects which "improve" our lives.
In our thinking about life and its meaning, we make sense only
when we are pursuing "truth" as scientific knowledge. Looked at
another way, we are validated primarily by working out how nature
operates so that we can control it, and through that control lessen or
even the abolish risk.
Neither of these needs to be discarded. Rather, they can perhaps be
incorporated into an all-embracing "practical wisdom" about the good
person and the good society.
Practical wisdom, according to
contemporary pragmatists, is the starting point of a good life. At the
very least, practical wisdom not only evaluates the process by which
decisions are reached, but also the practical outcome of the decisions.
"Truth" is both that which is reached by proper rational thought, and also
that which is right for us all.
So, for example, it may be entirely
rational and therefore "true" to conclude that the most effective and
efficient way of providing a nation with energy is to use nuclear power
stations. But that is only half the "truth" if the practical outcomes are
not adequately dealt with - such as the cost of decommissioning a plant,
what to do with used fuel and the impact of low-level radiation on human
In the context of highly complex social processes, the
modern pragmatist may protest that it is totally inadequate to maintain
that traditional Christian doctrines can ever have a deciding role in
life. They no doubt provide useful guidelines. But truly practical wisdom
requires that Christianity take full account of two aspects:
First it should acknowledge that, although the past moulds and
shapes the present, any truth in the context of enormously complex
social processes must be able to yield not only a good outcome but
also a calculated outcome. We may have good principles and
doctrines. But if they don't impact society in ways we can
understand, they are not much practical use.
Second, it should recognise that pragmatic actions derive not out
of a movement from theory to practice, but from a continuous
circular process involving reason, reflection and experiment. We
inherit an outlook; we think about it; we wonder how it works; we
make changes; and then we try out a new way.
To sum up: Charles Peirce in the 19th century pioneered a way of
regarding truth which has proved influential in the West. Boiled down it
amounts to the assertion that "truth" consists of more than arguing
about the words to express it. Unless we also talk about the outcomes of
propositional truth, we fall short.
His initial formulations have been taken up and modified by James,
Dewey and others. More recently they have been revived in somewhat
different form in the context of society as a whole.
Pragmatism when taken seriously by Christians presents a considerable
challenge. Christians have to reconsider their claim that belief is
sufficient for salvation. If pragmatism is persuasive, then they must
recognise that faith and works are not in opposition to each other.
Rather, they combine to form a whole outlook on life.
 Explorations: Making Sense of Generation Y,
The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan 1967
 Collected Papers, Vol. V, quoted by Thayer
 Pragmatism, 1907, quoted by Thayer
 Philosophy and Civilisation, 1931
 Social Theory in The Blackwell Companion to Modern