The Gospel of Pragmatism

Pragmatism is basically the idea that positive results are sufficient criteria for determining value, even truth.  In other words: if it works, use it.  One of the most famous pragmatists was a man known as Niccolo Machiavelli.  For Machiavelli, the goal of a strong and controlled kingdom was worth whatever it would take to get it and maintain it.  So he taught that any means was acceptable for the Prince, as long as it would accomplish the goal.  That freedom, even responsibility, would include means considered wrong for others to use for their personal gain. 

For example, the Prince could lie and should lie without compunction for the good of the kingdom.  While lying would still be a wrong action for the regular people, the goal would make it acceptable for the Prince.

It was Machiavelli who coined the phrase, “the end justifies the means.”  Specifically, he meant that the goal of the strong kingdom justified any means.  However, again, this same formula was not available for all to use.  If everyone did what the Prince did, the kingdom would suffer.  The Prince’s goal was above all others because it was for the “greater good.”  Suffering, deception, manipulation, abuse—all were acceptable for the goal.  The value and legacy of the Prince would be defined by how well he accomplished and/or maintained the goal.

Today, if you call someone, “Machiavellian,” you are referring to something negative.  Machiavelli would not think of his philosophy as a way to hurt others or a way to serve personal passions.  He would think of it as a higher level of good, where means normally unacceptable become not only acceptable, but mandatory.

I would submit that Machiavellian thinking has been in broad use among church leaders for a long time.  Some of the easiest examples would be found in fundraising techniques or in maintaining doctrinal control.  Whereas deceit would be unacceptable in other areas, it seems almost common among religious fundraisers.  Whereas separation and unkindness would be negatives within the church community, they become almost mandated in cases of doctrinal deviance.

Teachers who seem able to compromise for the sake of their ministry may see that ministry as a Machiavellian good, with value beyond normal work or ministry, and thus not limited to the same moral standards.  Financially inappropriate practices are rampant within churches and ministries.  Abuse and perverted behavior is overlooked or handled within the system.  Ineffective products or formulas are promoted for the image, rather than their real value.  All for the good of the ministry.

Politicians, community workers, seminary directors, business managers, military leaders—all can be servants of the gospel of pragmatism, the Machiavellian goal.  How many times have we heard the phrase, “If it saves one life, it will be worth it all.”  The goal sounds noble, far above other responsibilities and worthy pursuits.  If the rules of the community are bent in the process, it is argued that the “greater good” was served.

Consider this: Many years ago, the teacher received what he believed was a call from God.  He dedicated his life to that call.So noble was the call/goal that he could justify dedicating the lives of others to it as well.  In fact, it was true service to God, in his mind.  All things could be utilized to serve the goal.

If a spiritual formula didn’t work, but still generally moved the ministry toward the goal, it was acceptable for use.  If the Scripture had to be twisted to fit, it was good to do so for the sake of the goal.  If people had to be used and discarded, that was not too high a price to pay for the goal.  Finances were necessary.  Loyalty was necessary.  People were necessary.  Control was necessary.  Anything necessary for the accomplishment or maintenance of the goal justified any means.  The goal is everything.

What’s wrong with this and what should be done about it?

2 Comments

Filed under Legalism, Narcissism, Theology and mystery

2 responses to “The Gospel of Pragmatism

  1. This concept is so perfectly illustrated in the film A Few Good Men. Jack Nicholson’s character makes allowances for the most atrocious of behaviors in the name of “saving lives”. I’ve also seen in various child rearing ministries the same sort of formulas at work. All ideas that are shared are positively guaranteed to work. No articles or posts ever indicate that struggles are normal part of life or parenting. Any struggle that you have is your own fault for not following the system.

  2. Penny

    Dennis Prager has a motto: first, tell the truth; THEN, have an opinion.

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