Monday, November 22, 2010

Vanity Fare

When Thom Stark “retired” from blogging, he fled to the safe haven of a certain locale called Religion at the Margins, which I perceive to be a sort of dumping ground for those whose spirituality is rooted primarily in emotional reaction and whose methodology generally involves flagrant disregard for personal failures in epistemology, provided it personally satisfies the user. One such benighted soul there present is a certain Matthew Worsfold, who is said to be a “student of biblical and theological studies.” Worsfold alludes to Paul’s dictum (though oddly, Paul is not mentioned until much later in the entry) that without the Resurrection, the faith of the Christian is in vain. His contention is that this “seems like a very futile faith,” for:

As if the process of religious devotion, the true and real transformation that takes place in the liturgy, or the non-liturgical liturgy, the ameliorative effects of the moral life, the years of faithfulness, are of no value.

Yes, they are – so what?

I referred to personal failures in epistemology. This is one. Worsfold goes on and on and on about how no, faith without Jesus rising is NOT in vain, because, well…he says so. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s correct him a bit on his abuses of Paul.

He says that for such as accept Paul’s dictum, “human life has no intrinsic value. Meaning is contingent on whether or not I can check each dogma off of my list when I get to heaven. Or whether my self-sacrifice was warranted by eternal accolades.”

Hmm. Doesn’t sound quite like what I think, or what Paul was saying either. Maybe there’s a former fundamentalist in the house doing the exegesis after returning from an extended guilt trip?

Human life has no intrinsic value without the Resurrection? That’s the closest one to correct, but it’s more like this: YHWH did assign humans value; the pagan gods, which were the only alternative Paul could have in mind for his readers, didn’t. In our own day, this principle can be extended into the premise that atheism takes away the intrinsic value of humans and reduces us to merely talking mudbots worth no more than the sack of manure you buy at Home Depot.

Of course, this does not stop one from arbitrarily assigning “value” to humans just because “we say so,” or doing as Worsfold does and hailing the emotional reactions one gets from hearing about nice things done to people. But epistemically, that’s just a farce. By the religions of Dawkins and Singer, those emotional satisfactions are little more than isolated episodes of brain flatulence, arrived at by eons of natural selection which conditioned you to react that way.

Checking off dogmas: No, nowhere near, sorry. Paul’s issue here rather is that the Resurrection vindicated Jesus by offering a correction to the powers that be that determined him worthy of crucifixion. Shame reversed, honor imputed. By that means, God endorsed Jesus as the broker of a new covenant between God and man. And if that brokerage does not exist – then once again, the only alternative is the pagan gods who used humans as playthings, so you may as well go off and have fun. So the issue here isn’t “dogma”. It’s historical fact. (Though of course, “dogma” is the label that the theologically inept will frequently apply to whatever theological ideas they find dissatisfactory.)

Warranted by eternal accolades: Not sure where this comes from. I have a suspicion that it owes more to Osteen than to an apostle. Of course, those who joined the covenant were promised rewards, but nowhere is this said to provide a basis for “meaning” and it is never presented in evangelism as a reason for conversion. It’s just part of the covenant package.

All that aside, where and how does Worsfold get “meaning” and “value” assigned then? We’re treated to a rattling-off of all sorts of nice things people can do for each other, and by no means are we dissuading such acts at all. However, in the end, “because I say so” is all Worsfold offers to explain where and how “meaning” comes of such things. He apparently gets an emotional high out of giving to charity. Yes, and so what? If there is no god, it’ll all be meaningless prattle when the universe dies; one sackload of dirt servicing another for no other purpose than to marginally and temporarily reverse certain meaningless chemical phenomena (such as pain and hunger) so that certain sacks of dirt can put off their eventual slide into non-existence for a few more minutes. That sack of dirt may have even hindered the evolution of humanity in the future by helping this other sack of dirt in the present.

Or, in Paul’s day, for example, if Zeus is actually in charge all this time, at worst he’ll have a good laugh at your feeble efforts before he turns into a swan and rapes your daughter. At best, you’ll end up with something like Plato’s Logos, or treated to eternity in Asphodel (which is so boring that it makes a party in the here and now, as Paul says, look like a good idea), or perhaps even Elysium if you were very lucky (slim chance there, though).

Neither view, though, does much to encourage charity to those for whom a rational epistemology matters. As that great philosopher Al Yankovic once put it, in terms much more eloquent, logical, and wise than Worsfold offers:

I guess you know the Earth is gonna crash into the sun
But that's no reason why we shouldn't have a little fun
So if you think it's scary, if it's more than you can take
Just blow out the candles and have a piece of cake

Worsfold’s constant refrain that there is “meaning” in this or that act amounts to little more than having cake in this context. Simply claiming that there is “nothing vain” in life does not make it so; it is merely a mantra chanted to keep one from realizing or confronting the fact that one hasn’t made an actual argument to the contrary.

Worsfold seems particularly disgruntled by the idea that some join up in the covenant for the sake of rewards. I’ve actually met very few such people (perhaps because a theology of rewards is so infrequently taught well, if at all, in modern churches) but there is a similar idea I have encountered, that of joining up for the sake of getting “fire insurance.” Well, there’s good news for the disgruntled: Those who join with such motives in mind generally are also the ones who also end up scrubbing the toilets in New Jerusalem (see thematically-related post on the Forge here). In reality, works should be the natural result of faith – as natural as a water droplet falling from a leaf. (More on this subject here.) The one who joins up for the rewards is precisely the one, under this system, who won’t end up with them.

But back finally to Worsfold, who we left in the corner, knees huddled to chest, as he repeats to himself, “Nothing vain…nothing vain….nothing vain…” Perhaps that will be enough to keep him going, but for those who place rationality above delusion, inevitably questions will arise as to why we’re bothering, and the refrain is no more useful than that of the televangelist who responds to objections by mumbling, "Just have faith, just have faith, just have faith."

Of course, the righteous Worsfolds of this world will call us all sorts of nasty names and say we’re so inhuman for even demanding an epistemology in the first place. It was atheist Michael Shermer who was like this, as I recall, acting outraged when he asked debate opponents if they really would be willing to kill him if God didn’t exist. But as a friend of mine is fond of pointing out, when Shermer gets outraged like that, he is borrowing his tools from the Christian’s toolbox, and also appealing to the sensibilities of those who do the same. If he only used his own toolbox, his outrage would have no rational basis – it’d just be a matter of whether he or we can beat out natural selection to decide who gets the upper hand.

It is not clear where Worsfold stands in these terms; he refuses to tell us. It is telling, though, that the posting ends from Worsfold not with any actual arguments for why there is “nothing vain” in an existence where Jesus was not raised, but rather, an admonition to share in his epistemic fantasy: “I may or may not believe in the resurrection of the dead. I’m not telling you. But, if Christ has not been raised, then let us live as if it were so.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, like Shermer, Worsfold knows that with this view, he doesn’t have the right tools in his toolbox – so he has to borrow from someone else’s.

Funny thing – it’s usually people on my side of the fence who are said to be cognitively dissonant like that.


  1. you should take on his "queer ecclesiology" post.

  2. I'll see if I ever feel that masochistic.