Christopher Hitchens’ death on the brink of the Feast of the Nativity sets my mind spinning about the mysteries of birth, life, death, and how we understand them.
I wish Christopher Hitchens well as a person but have major issues with the meaning of Christopher Hitchens as a cultural icon. Some of the media have called him an “intellectual.” He did attend Oxford for his undergraduate education, but does not seem to have pursued any post-graduate studies or done any real academic training beyond that basic liberal arts education. He was a journalist in the contemporary sense, not so much a reporter of facts as a commentator. His commentary rightly chastised Christians for failing to live up to our highest aspirations and then gilding our flaws in religious pretense, but Hitchens drew unwarranted theological conclusions from his chastisements. The “new atheists” by and large have not brought the same weight of philosophical reason to the table that an earlier generation (e.g. Bertrand Russell) did.
To the end, Hitchens maintained his posture of sneering, bored supercilious attitude. The sneer has been au courant for nearly 300 years now. When Holman Hunt painted The Light of the World, the most popular painting of the Victorian Age, Thomas Carlyle castigated him for this naïve portrait of faith. Sneering became fashionable in the salons of 18th Century France, and has remained the ego armor of choice ever since. Hitchens was consistently faithful to his essential face-set sneer. It has become a socially prescribed way to achieve and maintain status to mock and demean innocence which may be painted as naïve. Another option, which lacks the social sanction afforded to sneering, is to join with the “naïve,” to live and die in the attitude of prayer.
The tension between sneering and praying calls to mind another great believer and disbeliever, Anthony Flew, who truly did neither. Flew, a real intellectual, was a philosopher of science and was the leading voice of atheism in our time. His was a scientific atheism, a genuine scientific atheism, not the hackneyed leaps to the wrong conclusions we see in Dawkins. Flew started from a stance of studied neutrality. His only commitment was to “follow the evidence” wherever it might lead. Eventually, it led him to believe in “God,” by which he meant an intelligent and purposeful Creator. The “new atheists” were aghast and burned him at the journalistic stake for “apostasy.” I am not kidding. The new atheists really called Flew and “apostate” from their true faith – which of course is what it is.
In the end, I am not with Flew either. But there is a contrast worth noting. The attitude of sneering is an ego-armor, a defensive pride in looking down on believers and belief. I object to sneering as a spiritual practice precisely because it protects the very ego which Buddhism would disintegrate with awareness, Islam would surrender through obedience, and Christianity would sacrifice for the sake of a selfless life lived in Christ and for others. The one thing modernity and post-modernity have in common is their deification of the ego which most ancient spiritual traditions regard as the problem. Worse yet, sneering builds up the ego at the expense of others. There is violence in it.
Scientism such as Flew’s could be egoistic but it is not inherently so. It can be rigorously honest and courageous. It can be a heroic quest for truth. I have to admire that. I would have to admire it in Flew even if it had not led him to theism. I can admire, but I cannot join. Scientism deifies a method of knowing truth. The problem is it assumes one method of inquiry is capable of knowing, proving, and expressing everything. If I may use an analogy from the scientific world, it is like doing astronomy with a microscope, and so denying the existence of stars. Leave religion out of it for the moment. There is truth in poetry, art, and music that is beyond scientific reach. There is truth in the ancient stories and yes, truth both apprehended and expressed in rituals for which there are no words. Forgive me for this quotation from my youth, but it is still true. “It is only with the heart that one sees rightly. The things which are essential are invisible to the eye.” Antoine de St. Exupery.
The God I believe in cannot be proven or disproven by experiments. But here is the situation I find myself in. Suppose God could be disproven in some rational way. Suppose pride in being right or perhaps integrity in following the truth compelled me to admit that faith is false. What then would I do? A parallel question: truth aside, what if faith simply loses its last vestige of social credibility and disappears. Suppose the church dies out from under me?
Here is my problem. I have known the story so long, performed the rituals so often, they are more part of me than my very heart. When I have been in trouble I have called on God time and again. Each time God has delivered me. “How can you say that?” skeptics may wonder. Sometimes my salvations have been almost miraculous. Sometimes they seemed completely miraculous. Other times, they came in reasonable, even ordinary, ways. All I know is I cast myself on God’s mercy and I received mercy. When I was at the bank of Red Sea with the Egyptian Army charging – not just once but time and again – the Sea parted. It has happened as a kind of promise that when death itself takes hold of me, even that Sea will part into God’s mercy. I do not know what that mercy will look like. I take the traditional images of life after death as a fair portrait of mercy. But whatever form it takes, if it is God’s choice; it will be fine with me.
So, if logic should compel me to deny God or if I were the only believer left, I would still have to believe. I cannot and will not adopt the option of defensive psycho-violence or a too small way of knowing. I will admire the logicians like Flew, regardless of their conclusions, but I am not one of them. They practice a monotheistic reverence for the scientific method while I am an epistemological polytheist knowing truth in various ways. Ultimately, I am one who prays. This is my advice: If one does not want to wind up like me, an old man praying, one had better stop praying at an early age. There comes a point of no return, a time when prayer has been answered with so much truth and grace that one is honor bound to keep praying even if the last blessing has already been bestowed. The Church, the fellowship of believers, a flawed lot -- but no more flawed than I am -- has carried me thus far. I hope they will be with me to the end, but if they are not, Jesus has been too present, too real, for too long – so that “Though none go with me, still I will follow.”
I have to admit the priority of my faith. I could be fooling myself to avoid the tension between faith and integrity. But the arguments for God – not just Flew’s intelligent purposeful creator but the God of infinite mystery, the God of beauty beyond the reach of our aesthetic imagination, the God of truth beyond all our ways of knowing, the God of goodness beyond our highest moral aspiration – makes vastly more sense to me than the small minded reductionism of modernist and post-modernist secularism. St. Anselm called theology “faith seeking understanding.” I am with Anselm rather than Flew. I do not start intellectually neutral. My commitment is to God as I have known him in Christ Jesus. I am with Anselm and Augustine, “Credo ut intelligam” I believe in order that I may understand.” If understanding did not buttress faith for me, then I would go with whoever (it was not Tertullian) said “credo quia absurdum est” I believe because it is absurd. I would not really believe something simply because it is absurd, but if it is absurdly hopeful in the face of despair, absurdly good in the face of evil, absurdly profound beyond the banality of our experience, then those absurdities would at least makes me want to give it a fair hearing. So count me with Augustine, Anselm, Kierkegaard, and William James (The Will To Believe). An existential posture has to go deeper than the head level. We choose to believe or we choose to disbelieve as an act of will, not intellect, then find our reasons after the fact. Having sat on a pillow long enough to watch how my heart and mind work, I know the Buddhist teachings of abidharma are precisely true. Feeling first – then thought – then perception. It works opposite to the scientific method.
And all this leads to the Star over the Stable. I believe in that Star over the Stable this Christmas – not as a provable or disprovable factum of history, but as a picture of something truer and better than science can test or words can express. When people are sorted either by God or social scientists, list my name among those who go to a stable to pray.