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The Pragmatic View of Evil

Pragmatism and relativism are the Scylla and Charibdys of American ethics and education.

Remember the scene in The Princess Bride when Wesley and Buttercup are walking through the dark forest, and he is explaining why, in spite of appearances, they're really in pretty good shape?

Buttercup asks, "Yes, but what about the ROUS?" "Rodents of Unusual Size?" Wesley replies, "Oh, they don't exist."

Whereupon he is set upon by a very aggressive ROUS and very nearly undone.

The quintessential American philosophy of life is pragmatism. Pragmatism embodies that American "can-do" spirit which says, "Whatever it takes to get the job done," and sounds really good as a subtext for a movie. "Whatever works!" That's the American creed. That's the pragmatic spirit.

As long as we continue pursuing our pragmatic course through the dark forest of these uncertain times, we'll be OK. That would seem to be the view of Stewart Brand, long-time political activist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue. In a recent interview in The European, Mr. Brand, a biologist, encouraged a far-ranging view of the future, grounded in pragmatic thinking, as the key to human survival and flourishing.

Mr. Brand insisted that human beings today "have become too shortsighted." We need to look and think further down the road than just the next cycle of elections. We also need to be clear about the framework within which we consider the shape of the future, and Mr. Brand believes that pragmatism holds the most promise for our success.

But isn't that rather ideological? Mr. Brand: "Ideologies are stories we like to tell ourselves. That's fine, as long as we remember that they are stories and not accurate representations of the world. When the story gets in the way of doing the right thing, there is something wrong with the story."

In Mr. Brand's story there is no such thing as evil: "Many ideologies involve the idea of evil: Evil people, evil institutions, et cetera." In his view "the only real evil is the idea of evil." No ROUSes here.

So what, according to this supreme pragmatist, is "good"? "Good is what creates more life and more options...The opposite of that would not be evil, but less life and fewer options."

Hmmm. Some years ago Puritan scholar Andrew Delbanco - not a Christian, by the way - pondered the state of the idea of evil in America in a book entitled, The Death of Satan. He explained how, over the past two centuries, the idea of evil has been abandoned and replaced by questions of taste and preference only. No evil; only what I want. Dr. Delbanco insisted that this view is ruinous to civilization and life.

Satan, we recall, was the one who questioned, not the idea of evil, but the nature of what is truly good - which amounts to approximately the same thing. If there is no evil, then anything and everything is good, at least, if one can get away with it.

Pragmatism and relativism are the Scylla and Charibdys of American ethics and education. Either one, lived consistently, rings the death knell of morality and truth. But what shall we offer in place of no-evil and all-good?

Mr. Brand insists that we need confidence and curiosity, and persistence and patience to move ahead into the future. This, at least, is good advice for Christians. We need confidence in God's Word, curiosity about the application of that Word to every aspect of life, persistence in seeking the Kingdom and righteousness of God, and patience to wait on the Lord for revival, renewal, and awakening in our time.

Pragmatism cannot secure hope for the future. Our hope is in the Lord and His Word, or we have no real and abiding hope at all.

Additional related texts: Psalm 62; Proverbs 14.12; Ephesians 2.12

A conversation starter: "Pragmatism insists that there's no such thing as 'evil.' Do you honestly think we can survive without such a concept?"

T. M. Moore, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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