Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Update note: This was written just after Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with the cancer that would lead to his death, and just before I read his memoir, "Hitch 22," which was terrific.

Christopher Hitchens is a superb writer and an insightful social and literary critic. I have just purchased and am looking forward to reading his memoir, “Hitch 22.” (Here’s an enticing excerpt.) A wise and wily provocateur who challenges many of my beliefs, he fills the role that the late William F. Buckley used to play in my so-called intellectual life.

Although it is not surprising that -- as a Christian believer and a pastor -- I disagree with Hitchens’ atheism, my disagreement is not so much a black-and-white reaction to one who opposes what I stand for as it is based on a rare instance in which this probing and acerbic thinker may be accused of muddled thought. Like his fellow (but less congenial) “new atheists,” Hitchens’ critique has mainly to do with “religion” and the failings of the church (and Christians) -- a critique with which, for the most part, I agree -- and very little to do with whether or not there is a God. The “muddled” part is not just that he confuses religion with the existence of God, it is also that he gives scant evidence of acknowledging that many people of faith embrace skepticism and doubt, and are completely open to the world of science and ideas.

Abler critics than I have pointed out that the new atheists select the most insipid model of faith to attack as a straw man. Carl Sagan once wrote, “The difference between people of faith and people of science is that people of faith never question their authorities.” Sagan was apparently unaware of the Psalms! Or the whole tradition of biblical criticism. (As Douglas John Hall says, “The Bible writers will give up on the glory of God before they’ll ignore the reality of human suffering.”)

In an expression that Hitchens could almost sign on to, the theologian Adolph Harnack once complained, “Jesus promised the kingdom, and what did we get? The church!” The dastardly deeds of the church (most recently Roman Catholic sexual abuses, but Hitchens recites an historical litany of them) cause both Hitchens and me to shake our heads -- Hitchens at the idea that anyone could believe in a God who would condone such things, I at the idea that anyone could believe that such things could be attributed to God. The question “Is there a God?” hovers somewhat tangentially over the discussion.

Critical thinking makes strange bedfellows, and thoughtful, skeptical Christians have perhaps more in common with Christopher Hitchens’ approach than with the unquestioning religion of “Bible-believing” literalists. And, to use a recent coinage, “Who would you rather have a beer with?”

The Apostle Paul says that our human understanding is like looking into a cloudy glass. So there we stand, side-by-side, looking into that clouded window -- my friend Christopher Hitchens and I.

Is the burden of proof on the believer or the unbeliever? Here's a proposition that says it's equal.

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