Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens Turns the Tables on a Liberal Protestant

Christopher Hitchens, the British journalist, "New Atheist," and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, has died. While I've posted a number of things critical of the New Atheists on this blog, I am truly sorry for Hitchens' illness, suffering and death. And I wish to offer prayers for his friends and loved ones as they mourn their loss.

I also wish to note that, in spite of the ways in which Hitchens misrepresented religion, Matt Kennedy is right: "Factually speaking [Hitchens] understood the implications of the gospel far better than the average liberal protestant." I note, for example, this exchange between Hitchens and Unitarian minister Marilyn Sewell (my comments are in italics):

Sewell: The religion you cite in your book [God is Not Great] is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make any distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

Hitchens: I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Preach it, brother Hitchens!

Sewell: Let me go someplace else. When I was in seminary I was particularly drawn to the work of theologian Paul Tillich. He shocked people by describing the traditional God—as you might as a matter of fact—as, “an invincible tyrant.” For Tillich, God is “the ground of being.” It’s his response to, say, Freud’s belief that religion is mere wish fulfillment and comes from the humans’ fear of death. What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?”

Hitchens: I would classify that under the heading of “statements that have no meaning—at all.” Christianity, remember, is really founded by St. Paul, not by Jesus. Paul says, very clearly, that if it is not true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, then we the Christians are of all people the most unhappy. If none of that’s true, and you seem to say it isn’t, I have no quarrel with you. You’re not going to come to my door trying convince me either. Nor are you trying to get a tax break from the government. Nor are you trying to have it taught to my children in school. If all Christians were like you I wouldn’t have to write the book.

Notice how quickly Sewell changes the topic of conversation after Hitchens undermines the false dichotomy of fundamentalist faith vs. liberal religion with a single sentence! Of course, Hitchens is wrong about one thing: St. Paul did not invent Christianity. But Hitchens' statement that a core concept of Tillich's theology has "no meaning - at all" humors me. It reminds me of a story (I don't know if it's true) about a time when Karl Barth was visiting New York City. Tillich was teaching at Union Theological Seminary at the time. There was a really thick fog one day, which prompted Barth to say: "I see that Professor Tillich is thinking."

But back to the interview:

Sewell: Well, probably not, because I agree with almost everything that you say. But I still consider myself a Christian and a person of faith.

Hitchens: Do you mind if I ask you a question? Faith in what? Faith in the resurrection?

Sewell: The way I believe in the resurrection is I believe that one can go from a death in this life, in the sense of being dead to the world and dead to other people, and can be resurrected to new life. When I preach about Easter and the resurrection, it’s in a metaphorical sense.

Hitchens: I hate to say it—we’ve hardly been introduced—but maybe you are simply living on the inheritance of a monstrous fraud that was preached to millions of people as the literal truth—as you put it, “the ground of being.”

In response to Sewell saying that while she agrees with almost everything Hitchens says she is still "a Christian and a person of faith," Hitchens turns the tables by asking Sewell simple, direct, and probing questions that go to the heart of Christianity: "Faith in what? Faith in the resurrection?" Well, sure, if by "resurrection" you mean a metaphor rather than an historical event that really happened to a person called Jesus of Nazareth. Hitchens will have none of it as he suggests that Sewell's liberal Christianity lives "on the inheritance of a monstrous fraud." One gets the sense that while Hitchens hated religion per se and thought of all forms of Christianity as "a monstrous fraud," he was particularly impatient with watered-down versions of Christianity that revise or evade the substantive truth claims of the Christian faith.

Read all of the interview.


Bryan Owen said...

Douglas Wilson, in an article for Christianity Today, offers good insight into the side of Hitchens highlighted in my posting:

"Eugene Genovese, before he became a believer, once commented on the tendency that some have to try to garner respect by giving away portions, big or small, of what they profess to believe. 'If other religions offer equally valid ways to salvation and if Christianity itself may be understood solely as a code of morals and ethics, then we may as well all become Buddhists or, better, atheists. I intend no offense, but it takes one to know one. And when I read much Protestant theology and religious history today, I have the warm feeling that I am in the company of fellow unbelievers' (The Southern Front, pp. 9–10). Ironically, the branch of the faith most interested in getting the 'cultured despisers' to pay us some respect is really not that effective, and this is a strategy that can frequently be found on the pointed end of its own petard. Respectability depends on not caring too much about respectability. Unbelievers can smell accommodation, and when someone like Christopher meets someone who actually believes all the articles in the Creed, including that part about Jesus coming back from the dead, it delights him. Here is someone actually willing to defend what is being attacked. Militant atheists are often exasperated with opponents whose strategy appears to be 'surrender slowly.'"

Robert F said...

I find much hope in the fact that Hitchens had such a clear understanding about the fundamentals of the faith and about what Christianity is not, because it means that he was wrestling with the true God and not finding lying solace in the arms of an idol. Who is to say that someone intellectually honest enough to wrestle the true God did not, or will not, ultimately find himself in the Kingdom? Such a rich field of truculent, but honest, disbelief is ready for the seed of belief. Let light perpetual shine upon him.

Bryan Owen said...

Well said, Robert F.

Fr. James Martin's R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens also expresses the hope that this "famous atheist, fearless polemicist and, in his own unique way, brave seeker, will now be pleasantly surprised by God."

Robert F said...

One thing, though: in fairness to Tillich, for a Reformed theologian Barth was quite capable of emitting plenty of somewhat obfuscating incense, which could easily be mistaken for fog even by the most discerning catholic observer.

Bryan Owen said...

Quite true, Robert F. Obfuscation seems to be an occupational hazard - or even an aspiration - of many theologians and philosophers.

Bryan Owen said...

It's come to my attention that the link for the piece by Fr. James Martin I noted in a previous comment is broken. Let's try again:

"R.I.P. Christopher Hitchens"