Friday, February 18, 2011

A Day with Ben Witherington: Bad Arguments

After spending three consecutive days critiquing Witherington's concept of theosis and attempting to demonstrate ways in which a proper understanding of theosis would correct the deficiencies in his thought, I think it is appropriate to turn away for a moment from critiquing Witherington. Instead, I would like to use him as a vehicle to critique the way people interact with bad arguments.

I was surprised and excited (read "giddy like a little school girl") when Witherington "confessed" that he is a pacifist. I am always delighted to find scholars outside the historic peace churches who have come to an honest conviction about the necessity of non-violence as part of Jesus' ethos. In the deep South and at the new Harding--the one totally inimical to the ethical stances of both its namesake and its founder and totally ignorant of its history--pacifism is the kind of sin you can still be lynched for, if only intellectually in a coffee house by an irate undergraduate.

After the shocking revelation took the time to sink in, a student interjected with what he expected, I am sure, to be a damning argument: "That's all good in theory, but let's talk about practice. I mean, Tolstoy died penniless at a train station!"

I'll let the force of that impressive argument sink in for a moment.

Just think on it.

Has it sunk in?


I imagine not. In fact, the argument is bad on so many levels that I'm sure I could spend the better part of a day dissecting all the ways in which it is obviously wrong. Witherington, for his part, responded with a certain grace that Tolstoy was by no means the typical pacifist and that even utopian style pacifism was not typical pacifism. Witherington is, of course, right to point out that Tolstoy cannot be said in any sense to be a representative of all Christian pacifists. Judging the majority by the radical minority is the same way we came up with the rhetoric about homosexuals molesting little boys. It doesn't fly.

Of course, there are other angles that can be taken. For example, what is so bad about the fact that Tolstoy died penniless at a train station? Tolstoy elected to give up his wealth and to live an itinerant life. He expected to die penniless, and had you told him in advance that he would die this way, it would likely not have bothered him. The mention of the train station is particularly odd. Is there virtue to dying on a hospital bed? Death is inglorious regardless of its locale.

You might just have readily argued that thousands upon thousands of pacifists have died quite "respectable" deaths (whatever that is), at home in their beds surrounded by family and with their modest financial means in tact. Examples like Lipscomb, Harding, and Armstrong spring immediately to mind. None of them were rich men, by any means, but they lived full lives and died peacefully by all accounts. The thousands of nameless, faceless members of the historic peace churches who die all the time without consequence probably deserve to be counted as well. If we are really measuring the value of a person by the circumstance of his death, then we should say that pacifism is a delightful system. After all, a pacifist is less likely to die in the field of battle. And wars happen more often than Tolstoys.

I was tempted to blurt out, "Your savior had died penniless on a cross."

All of this, however, is actually my problem. Arguments such as these are so simple to refute that we do it automatically. There was no reason for Witherington to hesitate in distancing himself from Tolstoy. The comparison was made, and his immediate thought was, "I am not Tolstoy or even a disciple of Tolstoy." Yet, when you take time to refute the content of an argument whose very nature is corrupt, you legitimize the argument. If Witherington was a follower of Tolstoy, would the critique have then been applicable? If most pacifists died poor and ingloriously, would pacifism be undone? If Jesus had died rich, if utopian pacifism was typical, if some of the facts were changed, would the reasoning of the argument be valid?

The real problem with the appeal to Tolstoy is that it doesn't speak to the value of pacifism at all. It doesn't deal with the question of whether or not violence is ethical. How Tolstoy died is not directly related to ethics, or if it is, then that connection is not self-evident. Yet, every time we chase down an opponent's red herring, no matter how simple it is to prove wrong, we reinforce the practice of flawed argumentation. When that argument (so well crafted that it just had to come from the website of a right wing militia) finds its rhetorical niche among people who already agree with its unrelated conclusion, they will have no reason not to embrace and repeat it. We ought to be developing a culture of intellectual honesty, and the first step is to start calling bad arguments what they are. Stop refuting them as if they warranted our attention. The correct response to "Tolstoy died penniless at a train station" is "So what?

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