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If Christ Has Not Been Raised — Pity Us All

I spent the morning after the triumph of life over death reading about the triumph of death over life.

Well, that sounds a little more dramatic than it actually was. What I was in fact reading was a fairly ordinary little book by David Webster called Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. It’s hard to imagine a book with a subtitle that catchy being almost a complete waste of time, but it was. I was really looking forward to reading Dispirited after hearing an interview with Webster on the radio (he made some intriguing comments about contemporary spirituality and how it perpetuates selfishness, individualism, consumerism, etc.), but the book turned out to be a rather poorly written, sloppily edited collection of loosely connected rants against the increasing prominence of the (admittedly irritating) “I’m spiritual but not religious” claim. 

Unsurprisingly, Webster, a lecturer on philosophy and religion at the University of Gloucestershire and an atheist, is quite convinced that there is no such thing as a “real” spiritual realm or anything like objective meaning and value in our world. That there is no God or normative morality or any possibilities for our world beyond what can be subjected to empirical observation and analysis are taken to be self-evident truths so blindingly obvious that only the most obtuse and indoctrinated religious adherent would protest. The task, for Webster, is to “face up to the reality of nihilism and work at living well anyway.” We are to be “pioneers in the blasted landscape of the post-spiritual” and to “overcome the absurdity of our own futility.”

So far so good. Or so bad. Whatever. This is fairly familiar terrain. And whatever one makes of Webster’s chances of heroically mining a sense of self and meaning out of the mountain of nihilism, we can at least understand the longing to do so. What makes very little sense is Webster’s obvious disdain for confused spiritual thinking in this “blasted landscape of the post-spiritual.” He is withering in his criticisms of the neo-pagan/Wiccan/enviro-mélange as well as the mind-body-spirit (MBS) seminars that proliferate and attract headlines in his native UK. He is, of course, heavily critical of traditional religions with their antiquated obsession with metaphysics. He will countenance no retreat into any confused attempt to link quantum science with Eastern mysticism or “ancient wisdom.” No, no, no, he scolds. None of this will do.

There are many questions that could be asked of Webster’s project, but among the more obvious ones is this: If nihilism really is our reality, then who cares how people manage to extract meaning from their inherently hopeless predicament (and why write a book in protest?!)? Who cares if people’s worldviews are incoherent or inherently self-contradictory? Who cares if people misunderstand the origins of paganism or that current instantiations bear very little resemblance to others throughout history? Who cares if our current desire to be “spiritual but not religious” is making us selfish or stupid or unhappy?  Who cares if we pick and choose from the religious smorgasbord according to our personal tastes and comfort? Why should anybody care if what people believe is consistent or true or appropriately tethered to historical realities if nihilism is true and all value is an arbitrary expression of personal preference and choice?

If it really is true that our non-negotiable reality as human beings is a handful of meaningless decades lived in the shadow of encroaching death on a tiny insignificant planet spinning toward nowhere in a vast and unfriendly cosmos, then why on earth should it matter to anyone what this or that person manages to believe or convince themselves of to get them through their depressing predicament? Why, indeed, go to the trouble of writing a book to complain about it?

During our Easter Sunday worship service yesterday, we heard Paul’s familiar words to the church in Corinth. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. Not “admired for our social ethic,” not “basically decent people who got the end of the story wrong,” not “on the right track,” not “one partial representation of the universal truth that all religions and philosophies are grasping toward.” Paul leaves us no wiggle room. If Jesus is not raised from the dead, everything we say about Jesus is a sham, and we are nothing less than objects of pity.

But I am thinking today, after reading David Webster’s confused and confusing attempt to simultaneously affirm the non-negotiable reality of nihilism and the human obligation to pursue truth and ethics, that if Jesus is not raised from the dead, it is not just followers of Jesus who are objects of pity. It is all of us.

  • Anyone who believes that there is such a thing as truth and that it makes normative demands upon human beings…
  • Anyone who believes that beauty is real and that it calls and beckons us…
  • Anyone who believes that we have moral obligations to others that extend beyond convenience and preference…
  • Anyone who believes that what we choose matters…
  • Anyone who believes that forgiveness is necessary and possible…
  • Anyone who looks death in the face and stubbornly refuses to relinquish the conviction that they have value as a human being that cannot be negated…
  • Anyone who affirms the value of life in the face of death

If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, pity anyone who believes any of these things.

But, conversely, if Jesus has been raised from the dead? Well, then we are well and truly set free to live as if what matters to us actually does matter—that, at the end of all things, the things we have given ourselves to will, so far from being negated by the nihilistic void, be embraced and validated by the Lord of life and find their place in a future of hope.

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