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Lessons from Hitchens

Atheist Christopher Hitchens died two and a half months ago, and like so many deaths, it is a big news item briefly, then life moves on, and most people forget the person and their impact. Therefore, I do not feel it is a bad thing to pull out of my electronic file cabinet this article reminding Christians what we should learn from Hitchens’ approach to life.

The author, Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., argued five lessons, and I will add a sixth that is implied, and is probably the most important lesson for those desiring to be intellectual Christians, that is, Christians who desire to think clearly about how our faith interacts in the real world with real world problems.

1)      “Hitchens understood the power of ideas, and he never left a field of intellectual combat without giving his best.”

Simply put, he was not intellectually lazy. As you read this list of lessons, there are many dimensions to intellectual rigor. Here, Mohler shows how Hitchens did not give up or engage half-heartedly. He challenged his opponents directly and fiercely, and was prepared. But there is also another aspect—he was open minded enough to recognize when his viewpoint was the weaker, and had the courage and integrity to change sides once he was convinced.

2)      “Hitchens committed his life to the production of words, believing that the printed and spoken word can change the world.”
A colleague of mine tells students, “You can think clearly and still write poorly. However, it is impossible to write clearly and think poorly. Clear writing is a sign of and requires clear thinking.” As one hones their ability to communicate, it sharpens the mind. I have found often when I am wrestling with a problem, sometimes simply verbalizing it to someone reveals the solution to me. If it can be so personally powerful, clear communication can and does also impact others.

3)      “Hitchens was a man of passion and personal intensity, and he made friends across ideological boundaries.”
It is intellectually easier to surround ourselves with sycophants. It is also the intellectual’s kiss of death. In grad school I injured my neck, and wore a foam cervical collar. My doctor wanted me to wear it as briefly as possible because my body would become used to it, and muscles would atrophy as they became dependent on the collar to support my head. One of the reasons I wanted to attend large liberal universities as a student was because my faith was not going to be coddled but challenged. One key aspect of intellectual maturity consists of holding a viewpoint confidently yet able to enjoy the company of others confidently holding opposing viewpoints. For iron to sharpen iron, both people must be iron. It does very little good for iron and wood to meet. The Iron is dulled and the wood is damaged.

4)      “Hitchens did not hide behind intellectual scorn and he did not fear the open exchange of ideas.”
I delight to discuss ideas with someone who shares that delight. I quickly grow bored and frustrated, looking for an exit strategy when I find myself debating someone who does nothing but generalize and engages in ad hominem attacks that insult me or those with whom I share some agreement (and even when others with whom I disagree are belittled). When the argument moves from the failures of the idea to the failures of the person, the argument has become a waste of time.

5)      “Hitchens revealed the danger of cultural Christianity and exposure to tepid, lifeless, superficial Christian teaching.”
Too many Christians (and I think one is too many, though sadly the number is much higher) see blind faith as a virtue. To me it is anti-Biblical and even sin. Blind faith is a bull in the soul’s china shop. It destroys both the mind and the heart. I can find nowhere in Scripture where God demands blind faith. In every instance, when God demands faith, it is only after He has demonstrated His faithfulness. Blind faith is ignorant of the real pain and real problems of the world. When a Christian charges forth in the confidence of blind faith, it is viewed rightly by the world as foolhardiness, like a soldier too blinded by the glory of battle to realize fear is appropriate and courage is moving forward in spite of that fear. It ignores real questions of the heart and the mind, treating them as irrelevant. It pushes others away, and cheapens the faith.

Similarly, cultural religiosity has the effect of damming the river of faith with mindless adherence to ritual, tradition and behaviour. Note that I believe ritual, tradition and behavioural codes have real and lasting value, as long as they are practiced actively. Boulders can dam a river or make rapids to enliven it. It’s all about placement. Both blind faith and cultural religion are two sides of the same coin:  “because we always do it that way.” Neither appeals to thinking people.

6)      Finally, honest skepticism is a virtue.
Mohler implies this point throughout his essay, and I can’t emphasize it explicitly enough. C. S. Lewis in his Space Trilogy declares that all causes need a skeptic to keep them honest, someone to challenge assumptions and provide critical feedback. If we do not critically examine our own arguments, then we are not doing our best to use the power of ideas, we become unable to communicate our views clearly, which diminishes our ability to reach out to those who disagree with us, fall deeper into temptation to scorn others rather than their ideas and to cheapen our faith by leaving it unexamined.

Skepticism asks “why?” Skepticism demands the evidence that faith is worthwhile and that such faith when proved is being properly applied with wisdom and pity in the classical sense. It looks at our assertions through other eyes, seeing overlooked holes in understanding, chinks in our arguments, testing the quality of our intellectual work. Skepticism is the refining furnace of faith, honing and tempering it.

Skepticism applied dishonestly can ruin the metal of faith and blind disbelief is just as damaging as blind faith. They need to inform each other. Thomas’ skepticism was rewarded by Christ, because it was honest and open to correction and new information.

To the extent that Hitchens’ skepticism was healthy, it helped shape our apologetic and our understanding of the robustness of our own faith. To the extent it was unhealthy, it blinded him to the validity of different perspectives.

As academics, and particularly as Christians in the academy, we need to internalize these lessons in challenging our students and colleagues with the rigor of divine argument. Paul said it most simply:  “speak the truth, in love.”


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