Traversing the Corridors of ‘Mere’ Pragmatism & ‘Mere’ Christianity

“The Corridor” by Suman,   William James and C.S. Lewis make an impressive duo, being two of the most widely published authors of the past century, who came at the big questions of life from strikingly different directions.  In a fascinating coincidence, they each hit upon the same metaphor to depict the core of their beliefs: a corridor with many doors leading into rooms.  Apart from sharing this apt poetic device, their views were diametrically opposed.  

James takes credit for bringing the idea of ‘pragmatism’ into prominence.[1]  He claims that pragmatism is a method of knowledge capable of rescuing philosophy, metaphysics and religion from dogmatic rationalism, and from all dogma in general.  Pragmatism “has no dogmas, and no doctrines save its method.”[2]  He claims that pragmatism stands “armed and militant” against dogmas.  Pragmatism thus serves as the path to true knowledge, and in this regard, it is like a corridor through which one may walk on the path toward discovering meaning and truth in experience:

[I]t lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel. Innumerable chambers open out of it.  In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next someone on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties.  In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown.  But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into or out of their respective rooms.  No particular results then, so far, but only an attitude of orientation, is what the pragmatic method means.  The attitude of looking away from first things, principles, “categories,” supposed necessities; and of looking towards last things, fruits, consequences, facts.[3]

Thus, James is interested not in what takes place in the rooms, whether they happen to be laboratories of scientific discovery or temples of idealistic absurdities.  The rooms contain an infinite variety of different pursuits and topics.[4]  The only thing that matters is the corridor itself-the pragmatic approach to the rooms.   The door of each room must be reached through the corridor of pragmatism.  The corridor is the place which matters, not the rooms where the activities take place.  The corridor represents the method of pragmatism, which presumes that all dogma is meaningless.  In other words, the content of any room is meaningless if not entered through this particular corridor.

For Lewis, the corridor also represents knowledge, but in a distinctly different sense.  On Lewis’ view, what happens in the rooms does matter; it matters very much, and so he says, 

“And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best…”[5]

Lewis and James also have far different ideas in mind when they describe their corridors.  For James, the corridor represents an epistemological method-the practice of ‘pragmatism’ which rules out dogma.  For Lewis however, the corridor is not a method, but a place representing knowledge of ‘mere’ Christianity.  It is to explain what he means by the term ‘mere’ Christianity that Lewis devises the metaphor of a hall:

…I hope that no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions-as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else.  It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms.  If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted.  But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.  The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.  For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. 

 For Lewis, then, the corridor is a conduit for creeds-the beliefs that Christian churches have used to represent orthodoxy over the centuries.  James would declare this anathema to the very concept of pragmatism, because creeds and dogma embody the idea that beliefs are important, that they actually matter in and of themselves.

The difference between James’s and Lewis’s corridors is profound-Lewis’ corridor is a place of knowledge leading into rooms where knowledge matters; James’s corridor is a method devoid of knowledge, which cares not what content is being discussed in any of the rooms.

Despite this stark contrast, one more profound similarity remains in these metaphors-both James and Lewis invite us into faith.  Lewis’ faith is clear: it is stated up front, it is confessed in creeds, and practiced in rooms where it comes to life, where “there are fires and chairs and meals”.  It is a living faith that cannot ultimately survive in the corridor, but must be invited into a room where there is life.  James likewise extends an invitation into faith: he has faith in pragmatism.  But James’s faith resides in the corridor itself, independent and outside of what might be taking place in any of the rooms.  James’s faith can survive forever in the corridor, unlike you or I, who if we were to lock ourselves out of the hotel room some night, would eventually need some help to get back into a room sometime to find sustenance (and hopefully that help would arrive before we were embarrassed to be seen wandering about in our pajamas day after day).

Thus James and Lewis both espouse faith.  The salient difference seems to be that

James never explicitly recognized that his corridor was an embodiment of faith.  James’s corridor of pragmatism contains epistemological presumptions that determine the significance of every step taken through the corridor, and hold the key to every room.  Lewis’s faith on the other hand makes its presumptions explicit, even articulated in the form of creeds.  James’s denial of dogma turns out to be a dogma in itself,[6] and the faith served up by ‘mere’ pragmatism turns out to be a mere illusion.

[1] James, “What Pragmatism Means”, Lecture II in Pragmatism: New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, (Courier Dover Publications, 1995), pp. 18-19.[2] Ibid., p 21.[3] Ibid., pp. 21-22.

[4] To extend the metaphor, James is keenly interested to classify and provide a taxonomy to help explain people’s predilections for religious “rooms” in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

[5] Lewis, Mere Christianity, xvi.

[6] Stanley Hauerwas reminds us of the important pretext to James’s metaphysics found in his “deep moral objection to Christianity”, and his belief that modern scientific method, and especially Darwinism, had rendered the Christian belief in God unintelligible”. Hence James’s obvious disdain for dogma.  Hauerwas, With the Grain of the Universe: the Church’s Witness and Natural Theology, (London: SCM, 2002), p. 78.

 Sermon on the Mount (  I’ve just returned from presenting papers at two conferences during the past week, in Rome and Cambridge.  From the Vatican to Westminster College, this trip surveyed Christian faith from multiple vantage points of culture and tradition, traversing the intertwining paths of metaphysics and morality.  The Rome conference, The Grandeur of Reason (1-4 September), displayed the courage which Pope Benedict XVI calls the academy to embody:

The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur – this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time. “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”, said Manuel II, according to his Christian understanding of God, in response to his Persian interlocutor. It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.[1]

This conference served up the whole smorgasbord of metaphysics, from Plato, to Augustine, to Hegel, to Kierkegaard, to now and back again, in four days of papers, often running concurrently in multiple sessions, from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

The Society for the Study of Christian Ethics (SSCE) conference followed immediately (5-7 September) in Cambridge, discussing The Sermon on the Mount and Christian Ethics.  The papers here faced into the mysterious challenge of Jesus’ teaching to “Judge not!” [Matthew 7:1] in matters of ethics, all the while living in a world which brings the daily burden of judging for ourselves [cf. Matthew 5:25; Luke 12:57].

In his plenary address Oliver O’Donovan shed light on the central place of the Lord’s “Our Father” prayer in the Sermon on the Mount.  Christian ethics are inseparable from prayer.  Apart from prayer our judgments will be distorted and even incapacitated by the “log in our own eye” [Matthew 7:3]. As O’Donovan has previously taught, Jesus’ question, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” might better be translated, “judge of yourselves”.[2]  This directs our attention back to consider our need to be healed of our own distorted vision and unloving judgments.  Thus the authority and rightness of Christian ethical judgments will rely upon the work of the Holy Spirit in our self-examination.  Christian ethics emerges from “hopeful attention to the inner dialogue with God” which takes place in response to “the evangelical summons to be judge of ourselves.”[3]

These back-to-back conferences traveled from metaphysics to morality and back again, traversing the well-trodden paths of restless human thought. If there is any resting point along these circuitous paths, it lies in the center, with the heart of prayer which Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount.  Prayer-that inner dialog with the Holy Spirit-preserves and chastens our moral deliberations and protects us from investing our worship in a metaphysical representation of God, rather than in God himself. Even the famous skeptic William James warned of the monster that lurked in the creation of a metaphysical god:

So much for the metaphysical attributes of God!  From the point of view of practical religion, the metaphysical monster which they offer to our worship is an absolutely worthless invention of the scholarly mind.[4]

I believe it was Bonhoeffer who counseled us in this regard, and told us how to stay on the paths of metaphysics and morality which lead to God, when he said:

Retreat from the ontic along the lines of the ontological is inadmissible for Christian life.

[1] Address to the University of Regensburg (“Faith, Reason and the University: Memories and Reflections”, 12 September 2006).[2] O’Donovan, Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 293.

[3] Ibid., p. 309, 312.

[4] William James, Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Mentor Book, 1958) p., 371.  I am indebted to Stanley Hauerwas for calling attention to this quote in With the Grain of the Universe (London: SCM, 2002), p. 75.