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A Labour of Vision

This morning, I read of Christopher Hitchens’ passing and felt very sad.

I did not know the man personally, of course, nor did I share many of his convictions about the world. Indeed, Hitchens spent a good deal of time and energy (articulately and entertainingly) attacking some of the things most important to me. But today’s news really hit me. It was kind of like hearing that a friend had died—or at least a distant cousin that you once stayed up late into the night having an intense conversation where you both got really worked up and ended up simply having to agree to disagree!  

I suppose the one thing that I came to most appreciate about Hitchens over the course of my time spent with his work during the writing of my thesis a few years back was the strong element of moral protest that characterized his atheism. He expected better—from God, from religious institutions, and from those who claimed to have some divinely inspired insight into the nature and purpose of the cosmos. Very often, after reading another of his scathing passages, I would think, “yeah, you know he’s right about that… that shouldn’t be…. that doesn’t make sense… that is profoundly screwed up… why do we say/do that?” He held up an uncomfortable mirror to the religious, and in this sense he functioned, however ironically or unintentionally, as a prophet.

So, the news of Hitchens’ death combined with moving toward the last Sunday of Advent—this season of at times uncomfortable, expectant, and frustrated waiting and longing for God to come and finally fix our screwed-up sin-soaked world—has me thinking about what I see as the profoundly religious nature of protest. And about the necessity of hope.

On these themes, I am often drawn to a little book by David Bently Hart called The Doors of the Sea, written after the tsunami in December, 2004. It is a book that honestly and compellingly looks at the stark pain, waste, and horror of our world, that acknowledges the force—even necessity—of moral protest, and moves on to hope. I won’t dishonour the life and convictions of Mr. Hitchens by pretending that he shared or even admired this hope, but words like these sustain me during times when there seems so much to protest, so many reasons to be angry, so few grounds for faith:

At such times, to see the goodness indwelling all creation requires a labor of vision that only a faith in Easter can sustain; but it is there, effulgent, unfading, innocent, but languishing in bondage to corruption, groaning in anticipation of a glory yet to be revealed, both a promise of a Kingdom yet to come and a portent of its beauty.

Until that final glory, however, the world remains divided between two kingdoms, where light and darkness, life and death grow up together and await the harvest. In such a world, our portion is charity, and our sustenance is faith, and so it will be until the end of days…. Such faith might never seem credible to someone like Ivan Karamazov, or still the disquiet of his conscience, or give him peace in place of rebellion, but neither is it a faith that his arguments can defeat: for it is a faith that set us free from optimism long ago and taught us hope instead.

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. James #

    I shared your sadness this morning, Ryan. I read the National Post online and almost always appreciated his insights and comments. He wrote about far more than the faith collision. Somehow I felt like he was a kindred spirit. That is the source of my sadness.

    December 16, 2011
  2. Ken #

    An NPR article this morning quoted his younger brother who said that to Hitchens the crucial question was: “is man the creation of a benevolent God in an ordered universe, or is he entirely on his own?”

    That is related to the question Israel faced in the wilderness. Do we live by bread alone?

    In another quote, Hitchens said that to wish the Christian is true “is to wish to be a slave.”

    That is, of course, similar to what Nietzsche said about Christianity and its slave morality. In this quote, at least, Hitchen’s was a moralist in the same way Nietzsche was, if it is meaningful to say Nietzsche was a moralist.

    In a final quote, Hitchens told NPR that he had been “dealt a pretty good hand by the cosmos, which doesn’t know I’m here and won’t know when I’m gone.”

    NPR’s point is that he was an atheist to the end. I think the quote also reveals that consciousness, knowing, was important to him, and that he had come to terms with being entirely on his own, which is to say, perhaps, with nihilism.

    For the most part, I agree with his indictments of religion, even while I continue to enjoy parts of religion and even while I see the Darwinian cosmos somewhat differently than he did. In the pantheist view, we are not on our own but are, instead, connected permanently, and gratefully, with our universe and especially with our earth. His view, and that of a pantheist, are both materialist, and both are scientific.

    December 17, 2011
    • Yes, that is the crucial question: are we alone or not? And, as you say, closely related to the question of the wilderness.

      Hitchens certainly gave every indication that he had come to terms with “aloneness” as he understood it. I don’t doubt that he was an atheist, if not a nihilist, to the end. But strange things are possible in God’s world, and so there is always room for hope.

      His view, and that of a pantheist, are both materialist, and both are scientific.

      I disagree. I think that, as is the case with all worldviews, both pantheism and the highly moralistic atheism of Hitchens depend upon assumptions that go beyond the material, beyond what can be discovered via the methods of science.

      December 17, 2011
      • Ken #

        I would only say that Hitchens, Darwin and Nietzsche are what is generally called materialists.

        Darwin’s work is inherently pantheist, but only metaphorically so. To see the connectedness of life, as Darwin did, is not necessarily religious. The connection he saw was, in his own mind, material and not religious. The distinction matters. I don’t believe Darwin would agree with you.

        Pantheists: they see something religious in the material itself, or else they see something immaterial and religious expressed in the material. The same can be said of Christians. Two kinds.

        Even if science or Darwin or Newton or Hitchens have been influenced by the moralisms of Christianity, the differences are yet important.

        Hitchens was certainly a moralist. Much more so that Darwin. That’s for sure. In that Hitchens was quite like many Christians.

        Christianity does provide one with morality weapons that are sufficient to overthrow Christianity itself. Perhaps that is why Hitchens was so successful in that respect. If one wants to become a successful moralist, I can think of no better school than a church.

        December 17, 2011
      • I don’t dispute anything you say here, much of which nicely illustrates my previous point: all worldviews—Christian, pantheistic, atheistic, whatever—depend upon assumptions and beliefs that go beyond the material. These assumptions need not be “religious,” of course, much less Christian, but they are assumptions nonetheless. The natural world does not interpret itself or supply its own meaning (or lack thereof).

        December 17, 2011
      • Ken #

        Darwin’s idea is that it is indeed the natural world that interprets itself and supplies its own meaning or lack thereof. I suspect that Hitchens had the same idea, even while, perhaps paradoxically, he was a champion moralist.

        I know you don’t agree with the idea.

        December 18, 2011
      • Without an idea of what meaning would/should look like, how would one (Hitchens, Darwin, or whoever) determine its absence?

        December 18, 2011
      • Ken #

        Darwin’s idea is merely that chance and necessity account for the origin of species and for our thoughts and behaviors, including anything one might call meaning or not, love or not, etc.

        From that perspective, assumptions and beliefs do not go “beyond the material.” The natural world interprets itself. At least, that is what so many writers in the Darwinian tradition say.

        I know you don’t agree with this. That’s okay, isn’t it? And isn’t it okay for others to disagree with you? I think for Hitchens it was not, at least on the subject of religion. He saw evil just where you see good. I don’t think he loved his religious enemies. Their evilness repulsed him too much: the evilness of their deeds, and the wrongness of their thinking.

        December 18, 2011
      • Of course it’s okay for others to disagree with me. It’s also okay for me to ask questions for the purposes of clarity and consistency isn’t it? You certainly feel free to ask questions and challenge the assumptions of certain Christian perspectives here don’t you? I would like to think that the least we can strive for is to disagree for the right reasons and to not abandon attempts at coming to common understandings prematurely.

        December 18, 2011
    • Ken #

      I fear that such striving is neither wise nor kind. Where there is freedom there is not always safety.

      Let this end as it began as a remembrance of Chistopher Hitchens. Christ-opher. Bearer of Christ. He came like Jesus with a sword coming from his mouth. He saw in the religion of his day a brood of vipers. Whether or not he saw life as a game of chance and necessity, or as a battle with evil, he played to win, he played for the kill. Paradoxically, his morality matched his name in some dreadful ways. So does that of so many others.

      December 19, 2011
      • You feel it is unwise and unkind to seek common understanding? Really? If that is the case, I wonder what the point of conversation is—here on this blog, or anywhere else.

        Speaking of common understandings, I share your assessment of Hitchens here, if not the linkage between his name and his morality. For me, to be a bearer of Christ is to be a bearer of peace.

        December 19, 2011
  3. Paul Johnston #

    A man has died and I would hope somewhere, somebody grieves his passing.

    Personally I feel both compassion and contempt for the ideas expressed by Chritopher Hitchens regarding God and faith. I am sad for him that he viewed people’s sincere efforts to give priority to the relational, as false. A fair read of the Christian ethic is the understanding that love of God, self and one another is the context in which we are meant to live. I am always bewildered by those, who even though they cannot believe this to be true, can’t find the compassion and goodness of heart to at least wish it were so.

    I may be wrong here but I have to conclude, through his own writing, that Mr. Hitchens give much less priority to love and the relational than a fully alive man; alive with God, has the opportunity to share in. I feel sorry for him, how sad.

    He invokes my contempt however in that I took him to be a relentless voice that sought to undermine the good faith and good intentions of so much of humanity.

    I agree with Ryan that much of Hitchens worldview was based on assumption. Very often cruel and unkind. Worse still, like most of the new athiests, he paints a vaneer of scientific theory over ideas he knew full well transcend the ability of science to answer. In this regard he was consciously and deliberately advancing falsehood.

    Some may argue that in certain aspects of his person he was fiercely humanistic and moral. I remain unconvinced, in fact I say no he wasn’t. No morality can seek redress for some while openly holding many others in contempt, even hating, and call itself moral. The darkness often falsely feigns light. In the true light, there can be no darkness.

    It is now between Christopher Hitchens and the God he so fiercely denied and ridiculed.

    As always God will be merciful and just.

    December 17, 2011
  4. James #

    Part of the reason that I felt kindred with Hitchens is that I also have a pleasant visceral response to the idea of being tragically but stoically moral in an amoral cosmos. I love the sensation of being alone in the wilderness. Camus’ “Myth of Sisyphus” was my favourite parable for many years. I came to believe that for all the romance of being alone and unaccountable in the cosmos, I am neither alone nor unaccountable. Living with this conviction means that I now have a sadness for those, like Hitchens, who have to face the ultimate answer to the question we can debate so glibly. Yesterday I watched a Hitchens interview clip called “Don’t Pray for Me.” Like the rest of his anti-God polemics, it didn’t sound nearly as brave now as it did when he was alive. I never knew Hitchens beyond his writings, but I do genuinely grieve his passing.
    With Paul, I am thankful that the God of the Scriptures is both just and merciful.

    December 17, 2011
    • Thought you might like this article, James—I think it echoes some of the themes you’ve mentioned in this thread.

      December 17, 2011
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Sorry, James. Truly I don’t mean to be glib or insensitive to the passing of any human being. May God have mercy on Mr. Hitchens, may God have mercy on us all.

    But the truth for me is that Mr. Hitchens worked in the service of the enemy. Only God knows his heart. Only God knows what happened to Mr. Hitchens along the way and why he made the choices he made. As we both agree, our God will be perfect mercy and justice.

    Lately I’ve been having this idea, more of a daydream really that Jesus will appear to us after we die. He will be the picture of perfect peace. He will be the embodiment of perfect mercy and holiness and he will offer us both the bread and the cup. And he will say something like, “This is my body and my blood that was given up for you….take and eat; take and drink.

    Maybe even in death our Lord reaches out to us one last time.

    It is not something I can say I know to be true but I hope in this dream. For Mr. Hitchens and for us all.

    December 17, 2011
  6. I will confess to being nonplussed by the fuss over his death (much as I was over the death of Steve Jobs). He was a good writer, that is, a writer other writers admired. Okay, I can understand that. But mostly I see a man who died without God, who died spurning the very notion of God. He reminds me of a man I knew who was dying in a nursing care facility; he told me he felt like he was ‘looking up the butt hole of eternity.’ I prayed God would have mercy on him, and I pray the same for Hitchens. But there is a kind of hagiography going on about him that I do not understand (not you, Ryan, other’s I’ve read). It seems to me there is a basic bleakness to dying without God. Not that God is far from anyone, but God waits for an invitation. You must be humble to offer such an invitation. But it appears to me that Hitchens, like so many intellectuals, was too full of intellectual pride ever to be humble. I keep thinking of a verse from Psalm 94: “The Lord knows the thoughts of man, that they are but an empty breath.”

    Thus endeth the mournful homily. (-: Peace to you

    December 17, 2011
    • I understand your sentiments here very well, Chris (and share them). I suppose my nostalgia was a combination of spending a good deal of time reading his work for my thesis project and a genuine sadness that his hostility toward God seems to have persisted toward the end. So much energy expended fighting with a God he claimed not to believe in… Such moral conviction and passion which, in the end, bore eloquent, if highly ironic, testimony to his creation in the image of the God he denied.

      But you are absolutely right about the bleakness of dying without God and the lack of humility that seemed to characterize so much of Hitchens’ approach to life. The glowing eulogies will undoubtedly continue for a while yet, but there are some things that no hagiography can make attractive.

      December 17, 2011
    • Tyler #

      “So much energy expended fighting with a God he claimed not to believe in… Such moral conviction and passion which, in the end, bore eloquent, if highly ironic, testimony to his creation in the image of the God he denied”

      That’s testimony to his creation in the image of God? Please explain. He engaged an idea that he thought was limiting to humanity. An opinion and engagement I share.

      “But you are absolutely right about the bleakness of dying without God and the lack of humility that seemed to characterize so much of Hitchens’ approach to life.”

      He much more humility than many of the Christian I have met. Now all of them, but many, do not take responsibility for their own actions. This problem is by no means exclusive to Christianity though. CH though, seemed with all his being, to affirm that his actions belonged to him…and only him. There is something very humble about that.

      December 27, 2011
      • I don’t mean anything unusual by my comments—I simply feel that the moral conviction and passion for truth exhibited by Hitchens are part of what it means to be created in God’s image. Objective morality and truth as a normative value are difficult, if not impossible, to wring out of an strictly materialistic worldview, yet Hitch was nothing if not passionately committed to truth and morality (not to mention highly intolerant of and demeaning toward those who did not share his convictions).

        Humility is not something that I witnessed very frequently in Hitchens. I only observed him in very limited contexts, of course, but what I saw was not impressive on this score. He took obvious pleasure in insulting, belittling, ridiculing, and excoriating those who held views he disliked. This doesn’t strike me as very humble. He may have been convinced that his actions belonged only to him, but he quite obviously felt that others ought to think and act like he did (or didn’t), and his pen could be quite vicious if they did not.

        December 27, 2011
  7. If an author has an a real impact on you, I can understand the feeling of sadness over their death, even if you disagreed with their views. I have not read CH. On the hagiography issue, it occurs to me that even atheists need their saints.

    I noticed the title of this post has ‘labour’ but the URL has ‘labor’. If I were OCD, that would bug me. Fortunately I am not OCD. But I just thought it needed to be pointed out.

    December 18, 2011
    • Ah, well you see that is because I am, perhaps, a little OCD, and only noticed that I had used Hauerwas’s American spelling of “labor” in my title after the post was up. Of course, being the proud Canadian I am, this grave error had to be rectified, thus resulting in the two different spellings :).

      December 18, 2011
  8. Musta bin Noah Webster who done dropped dem colourful yews fur Amer’cans.

    May our Saviour favour your family and your neighbours with a blessed Christmas. Peace to you. (-:

    December 19, 2011
    • Ha! Very nice, Chris… :).

      A blessed Christmas to you and yours as well.

      December 19, 2011

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