December 21, 2011

I've taken nearly a week to comment on the passing of a first-class atheist.


I just do not know, except maybe I wasn't that excited about his passing and I really didn't want to waste a precious few kilobytes of internet space to talk about his "legacy."

But what the heck.  It's Christmastime and Hitchens (whose first name comes from the Greek word Christos, meaning "Christ" or "Messiah") should have a mention here - I mean we can eulogize the man (may his soul rest in peace) all the while celebrate the birthday of Jesus. What irony!

Hitchens was the world's leading self-styled atheist whose firm convictions regarding the truth of religion -- any religion -- was direct and heartless.

The English-born polemicist, was against 'em all, or at least said he was. The title of a best-selling book he published several years ago was, "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."

Everything. Well, that's a little stiff, but Hitchens always pursued his ideas to the horizon and beyond. Among his various notions, some of which were relatively "conservative," was that religion was a fraud, to be shunned by the wise and the honest. One problem with such a stance was its dogmatism. If you think, say, that Christians are dogmatic -- inflexible in views that are open to question or, anyway, examination -- what about dogmatic atheists?

"Hitch" (his nickname) had been brought up, I think, in the Church of England. He decided there were no two ways about this religion business. The world had got it wrong. There were no gods. None. Who said so? Christopher Hitchens said so. Wasn't that enough? Hmmm....

This is no time or place to open up, surgically, the atheist movement that seems to have gained footing over the last couple of decades. It is fair, maybe, to suggest that Christianity -- I leave out its co-partners in worship of an/the Almighty -- has maybe actually facilitated the atheist movement.

How? you say. By downplaying, I would say, its own truth claims while up-playing its social conscience and good works. This leaves the impression on minds inside and outside the church that faith in Christ, while possibly a good idea, is just a good, modern-style choice -- take it or leave it. The drama of the faith thereby loses its drama, its pull and its intensity. Is it just a choice? OK. Which is where the atheist fraternity rushes in, expostulating about the stupid things Christians have done -- e.g., kill and persecute each other -- and saying, what person of sensitivity could believe in such stuff? Q.E.D., end of debate -- assuming there ever was one.

The over-arching, all-consuming factuality of the faith is the point Christians tend to leave alone, out of fear they might hurt the feelings of non-believers or out of -- I hate to say this -- their own waning conviction that it's really, deep-down true, hence inescapable.

The modern way is to disallow the inescapable, to allow latitude, wiggle room or even rejection in the interest of fairness. Which is no problem in certain daily matters (What kind of job do I want? Whom shall I marry?), but a big problem, indeed, when the very nature of things is the question with which we wrestle. How'd we get here in the first place? What do we do while here? Where next? And so what? These are the nature-of-things questions; the ones with heft and weight, not to say imponderable consequences. To get the wrong answer is probably not a good idea.

The December "Christmas Wars," centered on how to wish someone a jolly, old time lack relevance; likewise, Christmas is viewed as secular entertainment: turkey, wassail, Black Friday, the lot. There's always a place in life for entertainment, but look, either the Son of God came among us or he didn't. If he didn't, so what? If he did, wouldn't the churches want to tell us about it in the firmest, proudest, most decisive terms? Should the mystery be laid out as something to experience for just a moment, such as mulled wine, or rather as something to love and conceivably die for?

There was, religion aside, a lot to admire about Hitch and his rude, broad-shouldered journalism. The Christian culture into which he was born in 1949 might have done better by him by engaging the mind of the world with every peaceful weapon at its disposal: insisting, insisting, insisting on the factuality of a message too often muddled by anxious concession and embarrassment over allegedly non-credible details.

Might the churches start over, even now? Do things differently and right? Of course, it's Christmas. Happy birthday Christ! Bye-Bye Chris. Sweet irony!

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