Tuesday, July 13th, 2010
Christopher Hitchens is tired.
Indeed, he confirmed reports of his cancer diagnosis by way of understatement. One can hear his avowed independence from God and religion echo in the background. But he seems to be tired with the world and even his own imagination, although it hasn’t stopped him from writing and speaking… and earning.
(One of the enviable conceits of English wit is that its possessor always seems to be saying something new.)
This past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review carries a review by Hitchens on its first page. The book is a fictional retelling of the Gospels by Philip Pullman. Pullman, you may recall, is the author of the Golden Compass trilogy, an ardently anti-religious and anti-Christian series of novels for children – a series that, but for JK Rowling, would be the all-time best-seller of”children’s literature” in the UK.
In his review, Hitchens bemoans Pullman’s unimaginative attempt to compromise between secularism and faith. Such atheism seems feigned; it’s simply Liberal protestantism redivivus. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ tries to recover the sagacious man from the totem charlatan… and in such a way that the figurehead of contemporary Liberal Christianity, Rowan Williams, has discerned a “voice of genuine spiritual authority” in the Jesus character (as quoted by Hitchens).
Ironically, Hitchens himself seems to be obdurate (and therefore obtuse?) in his refusal to probe critically the complexities of secularism and faith.
In reading a few reviews of Hitch-22, a few things bear mention.
Hitchens displays the vice of name-dropping. He is constantly informing his readers of the important persons he knows and is (or was) friends with. This respect for persons should be more widely recognized as problematic and contradictory in the onetime Trotskyite. And even if his militaristic verve is more or less firing from the right rather than left side these days, nevertheless, his claims to speak for humanity ring hollow. Like all demagogues, Hitchens is in a position to proclaim his version of the good news to “the people” only because he believes he is superior enough to do so.
Hitchens’s narcissism is unmissable. Indeed, the continuing thread between his articulate advocacy for South American Marxists and the United States’ recent war campaigns seems to be his desire to be close to significant events in global history.
Hitchens refers to his sense of historical significance as “intoxicating.” But as Ian Buruma notes in the New York Review of Books, “The trouble with intoxication, figurative or not, is that it stands in the way of reason. It simplifies things too much, as does seeing the world in terms of heroes and villains. Or, indeed, the dogmatic notion that all religion is bad, and secularism always on the right side of history.”
That’s the sense that one gets from reading Hitchens: that he thinks intensely but not rightly; that he judges but does not discriminate. I think The New Criterion‘s Christopher Caldwell is spot-on when he finds in Hitchens proof for distinguishing between “honesty” and “integrity”: to be possessed of the former is not to be so of the latter. Indeed, it is an intellectual and moral travesty of our modern times that we popularly hold honesty or authenticity as fungible with truth and rectitude.
All this being said, we might hold out hope for Hitchens. We might, after all, feel sorry for a man whose mother committed a double suicide with a runaway Anglican cleric. And, having thought that his heritage was the “Church of England,” he later discovered that his mother (and therefore he himself) was actually Jewish.
Perhaps it’s all reason enough to be religiously confused and angry.
Regardless, maybe Hitchens’s vehemence is something that merits not so much angry opposition as cool indifference. His words may be scintillating; but they’re really not all that interesting.
Then again, genuine benevolence might be the more noble disposition.
Christopher Hitchens entitled his best-selling crusade against God and religion (as well as Western civilization, it must be noted), “God Is Not Great.” Consciously wrought or not, his title is both a contradiction and malediction against the famous first line of St. Augustine’s Confessions, “Magnus es Domine [Great are you, O Lord].” To say “God is not great” is a confession, directed not only against Christian doctrine but against God’s personal invitation to know and love Him. Augustine addresses his personal “Lord”; Hitchens speaks of “God,” which one reasonably suspects is a cipher for himself (whence, perhaps, the man’s mania to destroy this empty projection). At any rate, Hitchens’s own work manifests St. Augustine’s classic understanding of sin as being curvatus in se – curved in on oneself.
But the Doctor of Grace was able to identify the incurvature of sin after having been opened up toward God by the grace of divine dilation. Appropriately, we have no better a source than him for the maxim, “hate the sin, love the sinner.”
It’s hard, but worth the try.
To watch the first in a series of videos recording debate between Christopher Hitchens and John Haldane (a Thomist philosopher), click below.