I’m intrigued by the tension between idealism and pragmatism, not so much for their respective philosophical ramifications, but because of the way that they tend to polarize people.
Here’s what I mean: When I say that I want a spirituality that “works,” the idealists around me start thinking I’ve fallen off the “truth train” and begun defining purpose and destiny solely by what makes me happy in a given moment. And when I appeal to ideas like revealed truth and fundamental ethical norms to describe the foundations upon which I’ve built my life, my pragmatist friends worry that I’m preparing to escape to a mountain monastery in fear of the violence real life might do to my ideas.
In graduate school one of my professors told a story about a group of engineers who were tasked with figuring out how the Egyptians built the pyramids. They each came up with a theory about how it could have been done using the technology available at the time the pyramids were built.
Then a billionaire called their bluff – he agreed to fund a pyramid re-build using only the materials available to the ancient Egyptians. Each engineer (I think there were three of them) was promised all the resources he would need in order to test his theory of how the pyramids had been built.
Two of the theories failed miserably. One worked passably. But that’s not the point. The point is that the two engineers whose theories failed – and they were masters of their craft, giants in their field – categorically refused to admit that their theories might be flawed. They blamed the builders, the workers, the tools – anything but their theories. Their logic was perfect, they knew all the rules, and they had played the scenario out in their heads hundreds of times.
But real life has a way of crushing even our best logic.
C. S. Lewis once said that “idealism can be talked, and even felt; it cannot be lived.”
He’s right, but I’m not sure it’s because the world is broken and sinful. Many things, perhaps even most things, can be traced back to original sin and the fact that its presence in our universe has altered the fundamental makeup of how things work. We experience evil, pain, and death because sin once entered the world and continues to infect it. And one day, all these will fade away as God makes all things new by bringing the power of the resurrection of Jesus to bear on every corner of existence.
But the conflict between idealism and realism isn’t like evil, pain, death, and sin. It’s not a reminder of the fundamental brokenness of our existence. It’s a reminder that we don’t make the rules, and neither do we know all of them. It’s a reminder that no matter how much we learn or plan, we may not be able to predict the outcome of a given set of events.
And I think that’s a good thing.
Our idealism needs to run head-first into the brick wall of reality once in a while.
I think part of the reason Jesus came to earth and lived among us was to show that our ideas and our lives (or you could substitute “theory” and “praxis” if you’d like to be a bit more technical) need not be isolated from one another when we make our decisions and build our values.
Jesus unapologetically offered a spirituality that “works.”
He also offered a spirituality that stands up to the most rigorous philosophical scrutiny.
I love Hebrews 6:1-3 because, after discussing some of the most complex ideas in the entire Bible (specifically, the glory of Jesus and his superiority over angels, Moses, and Aaron; prophetic revelation; the interaction between God’s mercy and His justice; the prophetic symbolism of the Sabbath; final judgment; the mystery of prayer as an approach to the throne room of God; and the mysterious priesthood of Melchizedek, to name just a few things) the writer of Hebrews says, in essence, “enough of the simple stuff (he uses the word elementary to describe everything he’s talked about so far in the book) – let’s talk about what really matters” (my paraphrase). And then he tells us exactly what moving away from the “elementary” looks like – behavior. A life of righteousness.
Romans is the same way – Chapters 1-11 are all theology. There’s barely a command to be found anywhere in those 11 chapters. But when we get to chapter 12, we read at least eleven commands in the first eight verses. The whole rest of the book is praxis – what do we do with all these ideas?
We’re not built for monasteries, because when we hide away in a world of ideas we forget why those ideas are important. We forget the power that truth has in the real world. We forget that even God jumped into the mess to get his point across, and He meant what he said about light and darkness.
Darkness cannot overcome light, but we’ll never really understand that unless we actually see it happening.
A few years ago I read Jeremiah 23. In that passage, God says (and I’m paraphrasing again) that when the human leaders do a terrible job, He steps in Himself and leads the people He loves. To stick a little closer to the original terminology, when the shepherds fail, God cares for the sheep Himself.
I don’t know why the passage hit me so hard years ago, but I do know that it has always stuck with me, maybe because I knew, and know, so many people who have had different “shepherds” – parents, teachers, pastors, etc. – fail them. I wanted what God said in Jeremiah 23 to be true, and I believed it. I knew that God was that kind of God. But I hadn’t actually seen it happen.
But right now I’m watching it happen.
I’m getting to watch the lives of several people who are missing shepherds – some men whose dads have either left or failed to father them effectively, others who have been burned by irresponsible pastors, teachers, or bosses.
Just the other night I was talking to a man who has looked to God for his example of what it means to be a husband and father. For years, his father’s absence was his great weakness. As he grew to maturity and tried to build an identity, his father’s absence continually ensnared him and caused him to fail to achieve the character he desired.
But God has taken that weakness and turned it into strength.
At some point, and I don’t know exactly when, he learned that his father’s absence did not have to result in a destiny of emptiness. He did not have to continue living without an example of what it meant to be a good, steadfast, mature and courageous man. He realized that he had God. And by “having God” I mean that my friend was in relationship with someone who knew how to be a man, a husband, and a dad. And He was willing to teach him.
You see, Jeremiah 23 is true.
It’s true whether I ever see it take root in a life or not.
But seeing it…
Seeing it drives the idea – the logic – into my heart in a way that no amount of study ever could. I’ve been able to explain Jeremiah 23 for years, but only in the last few months have I been able to say that I can show it to you.
We weren’t made for monasteries, but we weren’t made just for the road either. Because when all we see is praxis, when our only questions are about “what works,” we soon find that we’ve cut off our own legs. It’s not long before we realize that we have no way to determine what “working” means. We run, but we know not where.
We have no vision, and so we perish.
We follow Jesus, who gave us the most profoundly philosophical sermon in history and chose to end it by telling us that building our lives “on the rock” meant not just knowing what He said, but doing it.
It is in the encounter, the outworking, the engagement of our ideas with the reality of the world that we most deeply comprehend God, for He is a God who has joined Himself to our reality and asked us not only to tell, but to show the world that His kingdom is among us.