Looking for Wilberforce and finding Hitchens

After watching Amazing Grace a couple of weeks ago, I decided that my next book would be the biography of William Wilberforce written by William Hague. So one day last month I walked into a bookstore to see if this was the biography I was going to buy on the great abolitioner. I had had my fingers burnt before by buying a biography of Churchill, also written by a politician and with a nice cover – only to realise how dull and prosaic it was once I started reading it… I would not make the same mistake twice!

So I walked into the bookshop and looked for the biography section, once there I looked under “W” – no Wilberforce biographies to speak of. “Perhaps they are listed by author?” I thought, so proceeded to “H”. As I glanced along the various H biographies, there he was staring back at me, not William Wilberforce but Christopher Hitchens, and his memoirs, Hitch-22. This would be interesting I thought as I picked it up – flicking through the pages I became transfixed by his younger pictures and those of his family. “What happened to this guy to make him hate religion so much?” I asked myself and decided in that instant to read it.

Hitchens introduces his memoirs from his sickbed – ill with the throat cancer that is hastening his advance towards the final chapter of his life. My copy is a re-edition, with a new foreword, as he now reflects that the first part of the book was unknowingly written with “a strong preoccupation with impending death”. This awareness gives him a heightened sense of irony as he begins his work by reminiscing on the day his erroneous obituary appeared in a magazine. He then moves to his family and childhood upbringing, moving chronologically up until his graduation, after which the book skips through different themes rather than a strict chronology.

Without giving too much away, his chapter on his mother provides a clear motivation for his feelings towards religion in general and Christianity in particular. After reading the things he had to deal with as a young man I can honestly understand why he sees such vice in religion. Indeed, I would have probably felt the same had I gone through such experiences. As always with anyone who has an aggressive anti-Christian philosophy, the roots of this begin in broken relationships, facile explanations and hypocritical believers.

But through it all I found myself warming to the man and finding in him a literary kinship that I wasn’t expecting after reading his God Is Not Great. So to summarise, here are the things I really like about Christopher Hitchens:

  1. His love of literature – he has read more books, poets and plays than I could ever hope to and he can quote from hundreds of authors to colour his prose. I too love literature, but come from it from the perspective of someone who studied the sciences at school and only discovered the classics in my 20s when I decided I needed to improve my vocabulary. I didn’t have the privilege of education that he had, but share his love for it, in fact if I could do my time again I would do my best to get on the PPE degree – Politics, Philosophy and Economics.
  2. His concern for the oppressed – reading his memoirs its easy to see what motivates him. He identifies with the down-trodden, the voiceless minorities of militant dictators, the political enemies of the state – all these draw out his love. He champions the cause of those without political power and he is willing to put his name on the line in the cause of creating a more civilised and just society.
  3. His desire to make a difference – he has made it his aim in life to spend time travelling and living in conflict zones. During the 70s, 80s and 90s he sought to ride the crest of the political wave across the world’s most troubled countries. He seeks to create a more liberal, open-minded society by raising awareness and uncovering injustice in some of the most forgotten places on earth.
  4. His pursuit of perfection in writing – as someone who has spent most of their career sharpening their ability to craft an argument and present a case, his relentless pursuit of the perfect adjective and striking analogy leaves me in awe. His power is in his prose, and he refines and refines it until it is as sharp as his wit and as penetrating as his intellect.
  5. His intellectual rigour – strange as it may seem, I actually appreciate the robustness of his thinking and the challenge he presents to his opponents. On the whole, he doesn’t allow his loyalty to friends or his political allegiances to bias his views. He seeks to think things through from first principles – a character trait I admire and seek to emulate. Although often he is more forgiving of himself than his enemies.

Interestingly, he describes at one point his loves and hates “In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual and the defence of free expression.” I share many of these values and find in Hitchens a like-minded thinker, someone who ruthlessly examines his own beliefs and the world around him to understand the times we live in, but who also identifies with the rights of the individual to live their lives free of interference and superstition.

Yet through it all I found an undercurrent of sadness – the failure, within Hitchens own lifetime, of the socialist system to produce the just and fair society in practice that it promised in theory; the impact the excesses of his bohemian lifestyle had on his own family and finally and the utter hopelessness of his secular atheism. As he closes the book he gets to the root of this dilemma – how to be so sure of his materialistic secularism? Towards the end of the final chapter he states that “It is not that there are no certainties, it is that it is an absolute certainty that there are no certainties”. How can someone so obviously intelligent and penetratingly logical come up with such a statement? “The only certainty in life is that I am right” is what he says in effect. He teaches his followers that there is nothing certain in life, just the certainty of hopelessness. 

In an ironic twist he even celebrates his open-mindedness as he closes the book: “To be an unbeliever is not merely to be “open-minded”. It is rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is dialectically connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics.” But this open-mindedness applies only to those things his pre-assumptions tell him are correct – that there is no God, no spiritual aspect to life, no greater being than humans, nothing beyond the physical. Based upon these assumptions he is happy to entertain any question, but challenge these assumptions and you are either a naive imbecile or a power-wielding megalomanic.

For what Hitchens is missing is humility, the admission that we don’t know it all – we cannot say for certain that what we cannot see is not there. His pride and bitterness blinds him to the possibility of a greater purpose in life. If there really is no certainty or hope then I’m all on for an honest facing of the facts and stoic acceptance of our fate. But if there is even a glimmer of hope, then surely those who search their own assumptions and allow what they experience in their lives and what they know deep in their hearts to challenge their assumptions deserve some respect?

There is a middle way – experiential faith. There is an element of knowing God that requires our obedience, as Calvin says “all correct knowledge of God, originates in obedience”. It begins by participating in the process of faith by assessing the historical evidence, refusing to accept blinkered explanations and challenging our pre-suppositions. The first step is one of reason and logic, the second one of trust. First Jesus says to us – “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own” (John 7.17 and also see John 14.21), then he says “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20.29).

It is called faith, not because there is no evidence, but because the evidence leads me to believe in something my eyes cannot see. Faith is not inconsistent with reason and logic, but rather on their own they are not sufficient to experience a relationship with God. Hitchens already knows everything he needs to about God, he doesn’t need more evidence or proofs – the question is will he humble himself before this God or demand more from him? That is his Hitch-22 and it is the question we all face.

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3 responses to “Looking for Wilberforce and finding Hitchens

  1. Martyn – “There is a middle way – experiential faith”. Good old triangular argument worthy of Bill Clinton but an oxymoron I am afraid. Good article – cannot imagine such intelligence will not eventually question your own faith in the same robust manner that you question others. Gordon

  2. Hey Martyn, enjoyed your thoughts on Hitchens, especially the five reasons to admire him. One thing I particularly like about Hitchens, which can perhaps be classified under intellectual rigour, is that, in contrast to the other atheists, he not only focusses on empirical and ethical problems concerning Christianity, but he gives a good deep critique of fundamental Christian theology. Thanks again for sharing =)

  3. Pingback: Hitchens: An Imperishable, Overrated 68er | CatholicVote.org·

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