(Re)Collision

Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson have, as they say, a history. In addition to his widely read essays and commentary in publications like The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and Slate, many know Hitchens as a prominent voice in the so-called New Atheist movement. Wilson is a pastor/theologian and a prolific author in his own right. Together, the two produced a book called Is Christianity Good for the World? Their accompanying debates were chronicled in the documentary film Collision.

Despite what appears to be their amiable personal relationship, Hitchens and Wilson are obvioulsy on opposing sides of the debate regarding questions of God and faith. That debate gained a new chapter as a result of Hitchens’ recent reflection on 9/11, which begins with the following:

The proper task of the “public intellectual” might be conceived as the responsibility to introduce complexity into the argument: the reminder that things are very infrequently as simple as they can be made to seem. But what I learned in a highly indelible manner from the events and arguments of September 2001 was this: Never, ever ignore the obvious either. To the government and most of the people of the United States, it seemed that the country on 9/11 had been attacked in a particularly odious way (air piracy used to maximize civilian casualties) by a particularly odious group (a secretive and homicidal gang: part multinational corporation, part crime family) that was sworn to a medieval cult of death, a racist hatred of Jews, a religious frenzy against Hindus, Christians, Shia Muslims, and “unbelievers,” and the restoration of a long-vanished and despotic empire.

This is how he wraps it up:

[A]gainst the tendencies of euphemism and evasion, some stout simplicities deservedly remain. Among them:…The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called “evil.” And, 10 years ago in Manhattan and Washington and Shanksville, Pa., there was a direct confrontation with the totalitarian idea, expressed in its most vicious and unvarnished form.

How could Wilson—a man firmly possessing a worldview in which evil tragically exists—possibly object to any of this? Well, as to the substance of Hitchens’ claims, he actually doesn’t. In a blog post over at The Gospel Coalition, Wilson writes:

Maybe it is just me, but Christopher Hitchens is at his very best when he is making sense. This is something he does, with his usual vim, in a recent article for Slate entitled “Simply Evil.” In it, he makes short work of the kind of anti-Americanism that tried to turn 9/11 into something complex enough for an obfuscating intellectual to puzzle over. He nails those who tried to blame the attacks on “the Bush administration or the Jews.” And for those who held up a simplistic tit-for-tat blowback explanation, Hitchens dutifully pulls their shirts over their heads and rolls down their socks.

No, according to Wilson, Hitchens is right on the substance. What he questions, however, is whether the latter has a right to make the claims he does, given his worldview. He continues a bit later in his post:

All this is Hitchens doing what Hitchens does best, and he does it for most of his article. And then, fulfilling the promise of the title (“Simply Evil”), he veers into incoherence at the very end when he only had about two column inches to go. It was like watching a bicycling Tour de Something rider, 50 yards ahead of the nearest competitor, anticipate the finish line by raising both hands above his head, at which point he triumphantly bites it.

“The regimes of Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fully deserve to be called ‘evil.’”

Evil? Since the 2009 publication of God is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens has spent a great deal of energy trying to persuade all of us that the idea of God is a false and pernicious one. But now he ups and calls these bad guys . . . evil. Given the premises, what might the definition of that be? Who determines what is evil and why? By what standard? But there may be a wiggle-room word in there. Hitchens only said they deserve to be called evil. But that generates the same questions. By whom? And whoever that person is, how did he wind up in charge of our moral lexicon? Was there an election? Did I miss a meeting? And what weight does being called evil have? When Hussein and Kim Jong Il and Ahmadinejad pass into the same gray nothingness that will swallow the greatest altruists and the sweetest grandmas who ever lived, will those men then care that some people (back where consciousness is still going on) are calling them evil? Sticks and stones . . .
………
We have to grow up, Hitchens has said. We have to reject outmoded concepts. We have to get rid of the idea that there is a God in heaven, telling us the difference between right and wrong. But if these things be true, then there are other things that follow. For some reason, Hitchens is willing to affirm the premises but will not own any of the obvious conclusions. You cannot throw away your suitcase at the beginning of your journey, and then, as you are nearing the end of the trip, pull out all the things that you packed in it. …If there is no God, then Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have no God. But if they have no God, then it follows that Hitchens is not their god either. And if Hitchens is not their god, why should they care what he calls them? There is no god, and Hitchens is not his prophet.
………
There is such a thing as evil, and there are people who are simply given over to it. Thus far we agree. But another obvious thing about evil is that it is the kind of thing that requires a grounded definition. It is the kind of assessment that requires backing. If someone identifies something as evil, the questions why? and who says? are entirely reasonable questions. And the answer has to consist of something more substantive than simply repeating the charge that it is evil.

Wilson concludes that Hitchens’ “atheistic rhetoric is full of borrowed theistic words.” And this, in my judgment, is precisely the problem not only with Hitchens, but with virtually everyone that carries the atheistic banner. As many others have repeatedly argued, we just can’t consistently live as if there is no God. We may do complex ideological gymnastics at nearly every point in an effort to deny his existence and necessity. But sooner or later, we must borrow notions that only properly belong to universe created and governed by a good and rational Creator.

And so, in our better moments, we believe there is a purpose for our lives and our world. We genuinely love our families and friends. We seek the good of our communities. We denounce and resist evil—even at great cost. We cry and laugh and hope.

But none of this ultimately makes sense if God is not there. Thankfully he is. And so it does.

HT: JT

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