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Christopher Hitchens and the Issue of Faith
by George Shadroui
22 March 2004

Christopher Hitchens' criticism of The Passion strikes one as the rhetorical excess of someone predisposed to disdain Christianity.


Christopher Hitchens, observed one critic recently, is a foul-mouthed man of little faith obsessed with homosexuality. One can appreciate this response to the apostle of atheism, but it misses a great deal as well. Hitchens has always gleefully sought to puncture the beliefs of those who in his mind hide nefarious motives behind sanctimonious claims.

This is why he skewered Henry Kissinger. How is it, Hitchens asked, that a man whose policies led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, who acquiesced to the violent overthrow of a legitimately elected government, and who lied about much of it, could be so honored? (Bear in mind I am presenting Hitchens’ case, not agreeing with his conclusions).

Likewise, Hitchens went after Mother Teresa, a saintly woman by virtually all accounts, but who nevertheless had to walk the same hard landscape as the rest of us. It was simply unconscionable to Hitchens that she might keep company with corporate CEOs who behaved sinfully. No saint was she, argues Hitchens, but rather a scam artist. At this point, I do not think it would be unfair to suggest that Hitchens would have likewise chided Jesus for supping with the tax collectors and for claiming to make blind beggars see.

And so we come to Mel Gibson, and his movie about the final hours of Christ. Hitchens walked quite willingly into the lion’s den on Scarborough Country over a week ago when he threw not only the kitchen sink at Gibson, but the entire inner furnishings of his rhetorical warehouse. Gibson, so spoke the apostle of atheism, is an anti-semite and the film he made about Jesus’ final hours is nothing more than a piece of pornography specially wrapped for those who love to watch men flogged as an exercise in sexual depravity.

Joe Scarborough, a fair-minded host, gave Hitchens all the time he needed to enflame an already grossly over-reacted to cinematic moment. In addition to attacking Gibson, Hitchens, no doubt remembering his lessons in Marx, labeled faith in transcendence infantile. Defenders of the film called Hitchens an outrageous anti-Christian bigot. Peggy Noonan later in the show called the uproar about the film a miracle of sorts. Better to debate this issue than the latest absurd actions by this or that celebrity. A silver lining in a gray sky, to be sure.

I have not seen the film, but I must concede that the scenes widely shown on television, tempered my enthusiasm. Even those who have praised the movie have volunteered that the violence is difficult to take. My own taste for religious films runs more along the lines of Jesus of Nazareth, the remarkable epic made in the mid 1970s that depicts Jesus as a man of wit, compassion and strength of character whose mystical appeal was rooted both in earthly presence and divine grace.

Hitchens is a paid provocateur who has trouble, from time to time, governing his tongue and his pen. He is nevertheless a man of great rhetorical skill and intellectual insight. And he was not alone in finding the film offensive. I doubt anyone would confuse Bill Buckley’s religious commitments or his political affinities with those of Hitchens, but Buckley, too, found the film gratuitously violent in places:

It isn't only the interminable scourging, which is done with endless inventories of instruments. The Bible has Christ suffering the weight of the cross as he climbs to Golgotha, but that is not enough for Gibson. He has stray soldiers impeding Christ every step of the way, bringing down their clubs and whips and scourges in something that cannot be understood as less than sadistic frenzy.

That Gibson might have overdone the violence would make him, well, like a great many others who direct films. But to suggest, as Hitchens does, that the film was anti-semitic pornography? This strikes one as the rhetorical excess of someone predisposed to disdain Christianity.

And Hitchens is precisely such a person. He is totally immersed in a materialist worldview, which explains his infatuation with socialism and his disdain for anything smacking of religious insight. He fancies himself, also, the debunker of scams and the savior of modern-day lepers – homosexuals receive an inordinate amount of his sympathy, though, to be fair, he has been outspoken as well about the afflictions of slavery and imperialism and the ruthless practices of Stalinism.

Hitchens caused a stir a while back when he came out in support of the Bush administration’s war on terror, leaving his long-time leftist allies angry and bemused, or some combination of both. Bear in mind, of course, that for Hitchens this is a war against religious fanaticism, which partially explains his enthusiastic reaction. He is right about Islamic fascism, but even so, for a man of deep critical skills, Hitchens, we fear, has not seriously explored the issue of faith. Let us try to escape the confines of his Darwinian world for a few moments.

C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien, two giant intellects who embraced faith, offered this: faith may well be a metaphor, but metaphors unveil truths that would be otherwise hidden in the forests of every-day parlance. That is why poetry can move us. Metaphors are not always literal, yet they produce images remarkable for their power and insight. Does this make them less or more true? Language can be a mystery almost as deep as life itself.

Walker Percy, in his essay, The Fateful Rift: The San Andreas Fault in the Modern Mind, suggested that language is a triadic exercise, while other forms of knowledge in our natural world are dyadic. (He borrows this idea from Charles Pierce, the pragmatist philosopher.) The human capacity to form language enables us to address not only our everyday needs, but also to frame grand conceptual questions about existence and the universe itself.

Percy sought to refine Descartes. The fundamental formulation isn’t “we think, therefore we are,” but rather we communicate therefore we are more than dust. Our use of language requires the interplay of creator, audience and thought itself. It is one of the great mysteries, Percy argues, and it carries us back to a truism that the paths to God are infinite. His own expression of his religious views was whimsical and yet somehow more profound than Hitchen’s easy atheism

This life is much too much trouble, far too strange, to arrive at the end of it and then be asked what you make of it and have to answer, `scientific humanism.’ That won’t do. A poor show. Life is a mystery, love a delight. Therefore, I take it as axiomatic that one should settle for nothing less than the infinite mystery and the infinite delight; i.e. God. In fact, I demand it. I refuse to settle for anything less. I don’t see why anyone should settle for less than Jacob, who actually grabbed ahold of God and wouldn’t let go until God identified himself and blessed him.

G. K. Chesterton and Malcolm Muggeridge, who were Hitchens sorts in their early years, found themselves circling always back to the realization that truth emerged not from the hustle and bustle of human beings caught in the material web, but from words – words spoken 2000 years ago. Muggeridge, about whom Hitchens has written some nice things, suggested that faith leads us to a glimpse of eternity and that doubt is integral to faith. Only atheists are certain, Muggeridge suggested, which claim Hitchens proves.

And yet, men and women far greater than Hitchens have concluded that if there is divine truth available to human discovery, it is certainly revealed in the Sermon on the Mount. We can stack up the genius of a hundred generations and not come to the insight of a single parable spoken by Jesus. His metaphors remain light-shedding guides and they are open, with all respect to my fundamentalist brothers, to critique, interpretation and layers of mystery. And yet the deeper you explore in humility and grace, the closer you come to inspired understanding.

How ironic that Hitchens, who would claim to be at least partially a child of the Enlightenment, cannot see that the mission of Jesus came to fruition not in the medieval mind, but precisely in the Enlightenment he celebrates. That each individual has value in the eyes of God was a notion that began to shape the political context only when Enlightenment thinkers successfully challenged the notion that God worked directly through a single man – whether he be Ceasar, the Pope, or a given Monarch. God lives in everyman, and men should not be entangled in the yoke of bondage.

It is not the teachings of Jesus that have caused the repression so obvious in Christendom and other religions, but the failure of human beings to allow their faith to transcend human passion, ego and tribalism. The record of my faith is mixed, generosity, compassion and love on the one hand, schism and sin on the other. Even so, whatever the sins of Christians, it remains soberly true that the most atrocious killing machines in history were run by modern-day atheists.

Percy and other great Christian writers were on to something, I think, when they argued that language, the tool of Hitchens’ trade, offers a glimpse at the eternal even if it does not guarantee human wisdom. Should Hitchens, wit and writer that he is, ever entertain a moment of doubt, he might yet find himself reading with renewed insight this sentence: in the beginning was the word…

Thus does a different kind of journey begin.

George Shadroui has been published in more than two dozen newspapers and magazines, including National Review and Frontpagemag.com
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