Lessons In Apologetics #4: Pragmaticism & Combinationalism

The next theory of truth and religious knowledge is pragmatism. Developed initially by Charles Sander Pierce and expanded by William James, pragmatism is the theory that truth is not determined by what one thinks, feels, or discovers but rather by what works.

Christians may instinctively recoil from this initially. However, the proper response to this epistemological methodology needs to be more nuanced than the believer might originally suspect.

Providing in part an alternative to the early 20th century viewpoint promoted in large part by Sigmund Freud that belief in God was psychologically harmful, in works such as The Varieties Of Religious Experience, James believed religion should be judged by its results in the life of the individual. Overall, James concluded that, “In a general way…on the whole…our testing of religion by practical common sense and the empirical method leaves it in possession of its towering place in history. For economically, the saintly group of qualities is indispensable to the world’s welfare (109).”

However, any alliance the Christian apologist may make with William James is tenuous at best. For example, James categorized the pantheistic outlook of Mediterranean paganism as healthy and those emphasizing the need to be “twice born” as epitomizing a Germanic dourness characterized by an obsession regarding man’s fallen nature and need to be saved by God (105).

Though few in number, Christian apologists have adapted pragmaticism to the defense of the faith. Foremost among these is Francis Schaeffer.

Schaeffer’s method might not be considered solely pragmatic by the methodology’s purists as he does not allow a worldview’s viability to determine whether or not it is true but rather to show how the Christian worldview is the most consistently livable. Schaeffer refers to this test as an experiential teleological argument (110).

In a Schaefferian apologetic, one takes the propositions of a particular worldview and projects them onto the movie screen of life. For example, Schaeffer noted how the materialism of Jackson Pollock drove the artist to suicide and how musician John Cage did not adhere to the philosophy of chance that categorized his music when it came to picking potentially deadly mushrooms

The next epistemological methodology is combinationalism. Throughout this discourse thus far, it has been observed that, while each methodology contributes something to our understanding of God and knowledge, none of these approaches is sufficient enough to stand alone as the only way through which to obtain an understanding of reality. But instead of falling into a state of solipsistic dismay that nothing can be known since each approach falls short, combinationalists suggest that the insights of each method ought to be knit together in order to produce the most comprehensive understanding possible.

One such apologist utilizing this approach is Edward J. Carnell. Carnell combines rationalism, which he defines as a “horizontal self-consistency so that all of the major assumptions of the position can be so related together that they placate the rules of formal logic” and evidentialism, which he categorizes as “a vertical fitting of the facts” in that one’s assumptions must cohere with the “real concrete facts of human history (122).” Together, these elements make up systematic consistency.

However, even combinationalists must proceed with caution. As Geisler points out in “the leaky bucket argument”, if the other methodologies are insufficient on their own, these do not necessarily hold the epistemological water any better when they are combined together (129). Furthermore, often when one proceeds to evaluate a worldview, it can be very easy to fall into the trap of presupposing the worldview before it has been established or the facts are spun in such a way to fit into the worldview.

For example, Geisler uses the example of Christ’s Resurrection. Geisler writes, “An apologist…cannot legitimately appeal to the miracle of Christ’s resurrection as a proof for the existence of God (129).” This statement, shocking on its face value, means that God is already presupposed if the event is categorized as miraculous in terms of its explanation. Geisler reassures, “On the other hand, grant that God already exists, then the resurrection may very well be a miraculous way of confirming that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God (129).”

Source: Geisler, Norman. “Christian Apologetics”. Baker Academic, 1988.

By Frederick Meekins

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