I noticed something interesting when I mow the lawn. I tend to mow like I vacuum. Conversely, my husband tends to vacuum like he mows. I was pushing the lawn mower back and forth as if I was sucking up dirt from a carpet, and two things occurred to me. First, maybe it isn’t my shapely legs that neighbors stare at when I’m doing yard work. Maybe they’re wondering why that nutty woman is “vacuuming” her lawn with a Toro Super Recycler Personal Pace Mower; and second, there could be a spiritual application at play.
The grass was getting cut, but not very efficiently. When my husband vacuums (rare occasion), he’ll go up and down the length of the room in nice little rows, which—in my opinion—doesn’t get all the dust up. It takes going back and forth over the same area from different angles to ensure all the dust and allergens are getting picked up. So why do we mow and vacuum like we do? Because it’s what we’re used to and it works; maybe not so efficiently, but for the most part the job gets done. When someone suggests a better way, our first inclination is that our way is good enough.
However, what if “good enough” isn’t the best way to do something? More to the point, what if “good enough” is actually detrimental? For example, getting grades of C’s and B’s (good enough) won’t get a person into an Ivy League school. Daily exercise (good enough) won’t keep people healthy if they smoke, drink excessively, or include a lot of sugar and processed foods in their diets. Doing only what it takes to get by results in mediocrity and in some cases failure.
Often people are just as pragmatic about spiritual matters as they are about household chores. In other words, if it works it’s good enough. When asked how he could reconcile the problems of Mormonism—historical revisions, doctrinal changes, and other evidence against its veracity—a former brother-in-law of mine said something to this effect: “It doesn’t matter to me. Those things don’t matter to me. Membership in the Church works for my family.”
Shortly after I left Mormonism, a woman from the ward came over to try to convince me to come back. I explained to her my reasons for leaving and why I could no longer believe the Church was true. Exasperated, she finally said, “Look, I don’t really believe the Church is true either, but it’s good for my kids and my husband. It helps them think right.”
Now, I don’t know exactly what she meant by “It helps them think right,” but I don’t think I would be too far off by presuming she meant that “Mormonism works” for her family. It works by giving structure and a sense of purpose to its members, rules to govern themselves by, and accountability. Those are good things, right? Well….not so fast. Many harmful groups and philosophies offer structure, purpose, rules, and accountability. Street gangs, for instance. Communism. Fascism. Radical Islam. Fundamentalist polygamist sects like the one headed by Warren Jeffs.
Structure, purpose, rules, and accountability are only as beneficial or good as the source imposing them. Responsible, loving parents; honest local governments; ethical businesses; educational systems that encourage freedom of thought and expression are examples of positive and constructive ways in which the preceding attributes can be used. When used to impose control, restrict freedom, demand conformity, gain allegiance, and induce fear, they become tactics that destroy personal growth, choice, and responsibility.
At its root, pragmatism is little more than an outward expression of the end justifying the means. Obviously, there are times we must deal with an issue pragmatically. If something is broken around the house, sometimes we just have to “Jimmy-Rig” it until a more permanent or better solution presents itself. But when pragmatism becomes the primary method by which we run our lives, we leave ourselves open to error. My former brother-in-law and my friend were making salient decisions affecting their eternal lives based on pragmatic views:
“So what if the Church isn’t what it claims to be. At least it teaches good things.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s false. It works for me and mine.”
Let’s see how well that philosophy works in secular matters:
“So what if it’s a scam. 20 cents on every dollar actually goes to help people.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s dishonest. It helps my family be better off.”
If something isn’t what it claims to be, it’s phony. It doesn’t matter if “good things” come from it. By knowingly participating in something untrue, you are supporting deception. Think of it this way, can counterfeit money be used for good? Yes. It can buy food for the hungry, pay a poor person’s utility bill, and put gas in a struggling college student’s car. I don’t know how widespread a problem counterfeiting is, but probably the majority of people passing on the fake bills don’t even know it’s counterfeit. But what about the counterfeiters? They know it’s wrong. They might ease their consciences through rationalization, but ultimately they realize if they are caught they will go to prison. Or maybe they’ve gotten away with doing it for so long they actually believe they’re contributing to society by stimulating the economy.
My friends please listen. There are people in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples all over the world who are there for pragmatic reasons. Many individuals—the religious and the unreligious—join groups or organizations because it’s the practical thing to do. It could be family tradition, convenience, appearances, making connections, politics, or to simply feel good about themselves. Each of us needs to examine our affiliations and see what they are resting on, especially in regard to worldviews and spiritual pursuits. You might look for answers to the following questions:
- What is the origin of this church organization (the one I go to or the one I’m considering)?
- What was the general character of its founder(s)?
- What do they teach about God, Jesus, salvation, and the Bible?
- Does the organization require membership as the basis for living eternally with God?
- Do their claims align with the facts, insofar as they’re able to be verified?
- Do the leaders discourage questioning?
- Does leadership deny or minimize wrongdoing when the evidence shows otherwise?
If the answers demonstrate reason for concern, do further research. If the evidence points to falsehood, deception, or serious error, it’s time to leave. How important to you is truth? Make a self-evaluation. Consider what message you’re giving your children and grandchildren by choosing spiritual pragmatism. It’s like saying that being part of the club is more important than personal integrity, that convenience is more important than honor, and that self-gratification is of more value than worshiping God “in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).