I was inspired by Matt’s remarks as he spoke to our ward before departing on his Mormon mission to Tonga. He explained that in his recent philosophy class at Brigham Young University he studied pragmatism. Pragmatism is most closely associated with C. S. Peirce and William James (1842-1910). James is often labeled the “Father of American psychology,” and one of the most influential philosophers in the United States.
The philosophical tradition of pragmatism, in everyman’s language, is best described as a philosophy of practical living for a happier, more successful life that involves a sensible, commonsensical approach to problems and situations.
Matt bore his testimony that the gospel of Jesus Christ is first and foremost true, and that every individual can know this through prayer, careful study and the witness of the Holy Ghost. Yet, he also explained that the principles and doctrines of the gospel of Jesus Christ are eminently pragmatic and, if for no other reason, membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and abiding by its teachings benefits individuals, communities and humankind.
With this in mind, we recently engaged in an interesting experiment in my religion class that perfectly illustrates the truth of Matt’s claim. The context for our discussion was the importance of teaching children gospel truths in our homes as societal standards have departed from and continue to distance themselves from the teachings of the Savior.
Asked to consider culturally mandated behaviors and practices in American society today, my students compiled the following random list of socially encouraged behaviors, including:
1. Specifically college students, the encouragement to “party” while attending university — to drink copious amounts of alcohol and have sexual encounters with numerous partners.
2. Cohabitating before they marry, if they marry at all.
3. Marriage as something to try, and if it doesn’t work out, to divorce and move on.
4. Showing little concern for others, being callous and indifferent to other’s needs and ignoring those that are suffering and in pain.
5. Being violent and brutal toward others, that harming and hurting others is an appropriate, almost required response whenever someone challenges us in some way.
6. Being selfish and thinking only of one’s self; seeking instant gratification, with little consideration for duty or putting others needs before our own.
Obviously, some of these overlap, and other practices could be added such as making money, power or fame or gods.
From a pragmatic standpoint, none of these behaviors qualify as pragmatic. Yet they are incessantly encouraged in contemporary movies, TV, literature, magazines, music, advertizing and by a variety of social voices — be it pundits, intellectual elites or social snobs. And while there are many good, moral advocates encouraging us to act honorably and nobly, they are often drowned out by discordant voices encouraging us with harmful behaviors and practices. Consider the “practical” and “realistic” consequences of:
1. “Partying”: Hangovers, poor health, money uselessly spent, loss of clear thinking and self-control, STDs, sexual assaults, and the demise of real, personal self-respect are often the result of partying.
2. Cohabitation: The very nature of marriage requires, although at varying levels, a degree of commitment. Beyond that, contrary to popular opinion, when one is bound by law, conditions are set that provide limits and protections to individuals who marry. One simple example: If a man cohabitates and decides to leave the woman and child(ren), it is difficult, without the force of law, to compel the man to provide for those children, often leaving the woman and children in seriously compromised economic conditions.
3. Disposable marriages: When a marriage crumbles, financial resources are often compromised in order to accommodate two rather than one household. More devastating is the emotional toll both parties experience, and the even deeper emotional damage to children.
4. Caring little about others: Indifference to other makes it easy to ignore responsibilities and obligations and eminently easy to wound others physically, verbally and emotionally.
5. Violence: Not only turning toward, but encouragement to violence creates a world where brutality and viciousness become endemic. It beggars the imagination what humans are capable of when violence becomes an enshrined way of life.
6. Selfishness: Self-centeredness is the antithesis of unselfishness and generosity. In a world where there is growing economic disparity, suffering and want, selfishness assures the reality of persistent, deeper, more widespread suffering.
Each of the above behaviors would be rejected by anyone who is pragmatic, who follows a philosophy of practical living for a happier, more successful life. More importantly, while the gospel of Jesus Christ is eminently pragmatic, it is also the source of all truth. And gospel truths, if followed, promise the possibility of a rich, full life — not necessarily one without challenges, but one where individual peace and joy abounds.
The path to peace and joy is succinctly described in, among other places, Doctrine and Covenants 68:25-32. It is realized by exhibiting faith in Jesus Christ, repenting of sin, being baptized, learning of and listening to the Holy Ghost. A person will pray, walk uprightly before the Lord, observe and keep the Sabbath day holy, and cease to be idle.
Should we be surprised? Our Heavenly Father and his son love us with a perfect love. They desire our happiness. Because this is so, the gospel of Jesus Christ is both pragmatic — sensible and practical — and true, leading the followers of Christ to the peace and joy each desires.
Kristine Frederickson writes on issue-oriented topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World." She teaches part-time at BYU. Her views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.