Religious Pragmatism

Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” [1] In various writings, he expanded that claim, contrasting a natural law approach to justifying legal and ethical rules of conduct with his own more modest approach rooted in history and experience and falling under the broad perspective labeled pragmatism. Since religion in general and Mormonism in particular have many rules of conduct for which a variety of justifications grounded in natural law, experience, and history are held out, Holmes’ approach may shed some light on how we do this.

Holmes didn’t like the natural law approach. He wrote that “there is in all men a demand for the superlative …. It seems to me that this demand is at the bottom of the philosopher’s effort to prove that truth is absolute and of the jurist’s search for criteria of universal validity which he collects under the head of natural law.” [2]

It was this notion that defensible rules of conduct must be based on absolute truth and be of universal validity, applicable in all times and seasons, that rankled Holmes, who worked with an alternative and more pragmatic definition of truth. “When I say that a thing is true, I mean that I cannot help believing it. I am stating an experience as to which there is no choice.” [3] He went so far as to make the absolutist outlook a function of the absolutist’s own personal experience rather than any contact with the Absolute:

What we most love and revere generally is determined by early associations. … But while one’s experience thus makes certain preferences dogmatic for oneself, recognition of how they came to be so leaves one able to see that others, poor souls, may be equally dogmatic about something else. … Deep-seated preferences can not be argued about — you can not argue a man into liking a glass of beer.” [4]

So Holmes rejected universal validity as a useful or meaningful standard and suggested those who argue dogmatically have simply never reflected on how they come to hold their own beliefs. Here is a fuller statement of his alternative approach:

[I]t is true, no doubt, that an evolutionist [i.e., one who bases convictions in experience and history rather than in natural law] will hesitate to affirm universal validity for his social ideals …. He is content if he can prove them best for here and now. He may be ready to admit that he knows nothing about an absolute best in the cosmos, and even that he knows next to nothing about a permanent best for men. Still it is true that a body of law is more rational and more civilized when every rule it contains is referred articulately and definitely to an end which is subserves, and when the grounds for desiring that end are stated or are ready to be stated in words. [5]

In this and other passages, Holmes argues for explicitly stating the end to be served, the grounds for adopting that end, the balance between the benefits of that end and the opportunity costs of achieving it, and whether appropriate means for bringing about that end are available. Holmes also proposes using this sort of instrumental reasoning rather than relying on any simple appeal to inherited rules and tradition. He quipped: “It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that it was laid down in the time of Henry IV.” [6]

So here’s the question: Does this preference for experience over logic, for explicitly justifying rules and policies by the ends to be achieved, find any echo in Mormonism? Does the approach Holmes endorsed bear any resemblance to the way Mormons typically approach questions of doctrine and practice? It is not hard to find good examples suggesting parallels.

First, the LDS view does not see God’s ends and purposes as inscrutable. They are spelled out quite clearly, at least for us here on Planet Earth:

     And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine.
     And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.
     For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:37-39)

Second, the doctrine of continuing revelation means that no doctrine or interpretation can ever be definitively affirmed as God’s final word. If the historical record of how LDS leaders struggled for most of our history with the question of who can or cannot receive the priesthood teaches us anything, it is that God lets us muddle through even fundamental doctrines for ourselves for long periods. It should be no surprise if the resulting practices and policies are, as Holmes termed them, “the best for here and now” but which may nevertheless be (and sometimes are) superseded at a later time by updated or improved practices and policies. No pragmatist could ask for more.

Third, the LDS view does not require or even recommend reliance on received wisdom or blind faith. “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118). Even revelation comes after a process of reasoning and reflection: “I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right …” (D&C 9:8).

Fourth, as a doctrinal example, consider the Word of Wisdom, defined at as “a law of health revealed by the Lord for the physical and spiritual benefit of His children.” (Notice how, following Holmes, the goal or end is explicitly stated.) The actual content of the Word of Wisdom has changed over the years. In other words, it has developed or evolved over the course of LDS history. And from the perspective of a religious pragmatist, what could be more natural? For a similar but more detailed treatment, read Thomas Alexander’s 1980 article on the development of the Mormon doctrine.

Finally, consider even the stock testimony meeting claim, “I know the Church is true,” and Holmes’ working definition of truth, quoted above: “When I say that a thing is true, I mean that I cannot help believing it. I am stating an experience as to which there is no choice.” The standard LDS belief claim makes perfect sense under the definition that Holmes gives. Under this approach to what constitutes a truth claim, what people are saying is that after all that they have read, prayed, and experienced, they cannot help believing the Church is what it claims to be.

So if the life of the Church has not been logic or theology but experience, maybe we’re on the right track. Even Holmes the cynic might have agreed with that claim.

I pulled all of the Holmes quotes from selections in Pragmatism: A Reader (Vintage Books, 1997), edited by Louis Menand.
[1] from Lecture 1 of The Common Law.
[2] from “Natural Law,” Harvard Law Review 32 (1918):40-44.
[3] from “Ideals and Doubts,” Illinois Law Review 10 (1915):1-4.
[4] from “Natural Law.”
[5, 6] from “The Path of the Law,” Harvard Law Review 10 (1897):457-78 (where it was originally titled “Law and the Study of Law”).

6 comments for “Religious Pragmatism

  1. December 23, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    I always felt that the means were the ends. What you did to get where you were going was where you were really going.

  2. December 23, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    This resonates with me so much! I totally see that the pragmatism of Mormonism is one of its beauties that attracts and retains me. In fact, I remember thinking “whatever they’re doing, it works” when pondering the church before deciding to join, and in light of all the wonderful people I met who were LDS.

  3. mlu
    December 23, 2007 at 9:53 pm

    Tricky. I suspect Holmes would not appreciate your sneaking the divine in and complicating his understanding of experience. If you claim God is out there and sometimes speaks, you’re granting something beyond experience as a source of truth. Is it a universal truth that man is created in the image of God, and that some absolute dignity inheres in persons as a result? Surely we don’t know that by experience–though we can believe it as testimony of what others have experience (i.e. “Deity said this to me”) but should we therefore dismiss it as unfounded?

  4. Ray
    December 23, 2007 at 10:35 pm

    As I’ve said previously, my mind wanders to and fro trying to understand everything a little better as I go about my daily life. What grounds me, however, are my experiences – things that are so vivid and unexplainable that I simply can’t let my mind move me away from them. When you have experienced the truly miraculous, everything else is secondary.

    For example, I would assert that the core of this experiential conviction is summarized perfectly in the foundational missionary verse we too often overlook while quoting those that follow. We speak constantly of the “challenge” written in Moroni 10:4-5, but when I attended Seminary so long ago, the verses we memorized included Moroni 10:3. In that verse, we are told to “remember” *before* we ponder and pray. We aren’t told to read, ponder and pray; we are told to read, *remember*, ponder and pray – and we are told explicitly to remember how merciful the Lord has been throughout history. In effect, we are told to “experience” vicariously His grace and mercy toward others – that He has spoken to people for thousands of years – and use their experiences to help us come to believe that we can have a similar experience. Their experiences serve as the foundation for our faith in the possibility of our own.

    I think we do a terrible disservice to our religion and its missionary effort when we preach “read, ponder and pray” apart from our collective, experiential memory – when we make gaining a testimony an intellectual, or even strictly prayerful, process void of contemplation and reflection on previous experience.

  5. Ivan Wolfe
    December 23, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    no doctrine or interpretation can ever be definitively affirmed as God’s final word

    But perhaps we should consider the current doctrine, et al. as God’s current word? Just because God might give additional revelation on something does not mean he will. I think too many people (this is not aimed at anyone in particular) rely on the above truism as an excuse to disobey or ignore the current word of God. But this is a side issue.

    Thought provoking post. I’ll have to ponder it a bit longer.

  6. Jason J
    December 27, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Great post! I have become a Holmes fan over the past couple of years and have grappled with these issues of natural law and pragmatism as they relate to the gospel for some time. I have come to believe that the Lord works much more pragmatically than I had previously supposed. Dave provided great examples in the priesthood and the word of wisdom.

    Perhaps the best example is the Law of Moses. The way the Nephites talk about the customs of the Jews is quite striking if you approach it from a natural law point of view. Jacob taught, for example, that God “delivered unto [the Jews] many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it, God hath done it, that they may stumble.” (Jac. 4:14). What Jacob appears to be saying is that the Lord not only reveals that amount of light and truth which His people are willing to accept, but that He at times even reveals certain laws which are not even truth in the absolute sense if that is all that His people is able to bear.

    In this light, the imperative of continuing revelation is quite clear. The Lord does not necessarily just reveal to His people more and more truth as time goes on. The Lord directs His people at any given time in the way most certain to help them at that particular moment. Since I have begun viewing the restored gospel in this light, past practices like the priesthood ban and polygamy are more palatable. Any tension, real or imagined, between verses of scripture written at different times also troubles me less.

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