Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Christopher Hitchens on Christianity

For those of you who regularly read Scot McKnight's blog, Jesus Creed, you will have already seen this story.

Christopher Hitchens, world renowned atheist and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, was recently interviewed in the Portland Monthly Magazine by Marilyn Sowell, a retired Unitarian minister (http://www.portlandmonthlymag.com/arts-and-entertainment/category/books-and-talks/articles/christopher-hitchens/).

At one point during the interview, this interaction took place (Sowell's words are in bold, Hitchens in italics):

The religion you cite in your book is generally the fundamentalist faith of various kinds. I’m a liberal Christian, and I don’t take the stories from the scripture literally. I don’t believe in the doctrine of atonement (that Jesus died for our sins, for example). Do you make and distinction between fundamentalist faith and liberal religion?

I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.

Let me go someplace else. When I was in seminary I was particularly drawn to the work of theologian Paul Tillich. He shocked people by describing the traditional God—as you might as a matter of fact—as, “an invincible tyrant.” For Tillich, God is “the ground of being.” It’s his response to, say, Freud’s belief that religion is mere wish fulfillment and comes from the humans’ fear of death. What do you think of Tillich’s concept of God?”

I would classify that under the heading of “statements that have no meaning—at all.” Christianity, remember, is really founded by St. Paul, not by Jesus. Paul says, very clearly, that if it is not true that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, then we the Christians are of all people the most unhappy. If none of that’s true, and you seem to say it isn’t, I have no quarrel with you. You’re not going to come to my door trying convince me either. Nor are you trying to get a tax break from the government. Nor are you trying to have it taught to my children in school. If all Christians were like you I wouldn’t have to write the book.

Well, probably not, because I agree with almost everything that you say. But I still consider myself a Christian and a person of faith.

Do you mind if I ask you a question? Faith in what? Faith in the resurrection?

The way I believe in the resurrection is I believe that one can go from a death in this life, in the sense of being dead to the world and dead to other people, and can be resurrected to new life. When I preach about Easter and the resurrection, it’s in a metaphorical sense.

I hate to say it—we’ve hardly been introduced—but maybe you are simply living on the inheritance of a monstrous fraud that was preached to millions of people as the literal truth—as you put it, “the ground of being.”

Times change and, you know, people’s beliefs change. I don’t believe that you have to be fundamentalist and literalist to be a Christian. You do: You’re something of a fundamentalist, actually.

Well, I’m sorry, fundamentalist simply means those who think that the Bible is a serious book and should be taken seriously.

Now, as a committed Christian, I obviously am not a fan of Hitchens per say. I am, however, as a person who perpetually struggles with doubt fascinated in a sense by people like Hitchens.

I find it fascinating that in parts of this interview, I agree more with an athiest, Hitchens, than I do with a "person of faith," Sowell. See especially Hitchens comment, "I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian." While I disagree with Hitchens belief that Paul is the founder of Christianity, he proceeds to use Paul's arguments 1 Corinthians 15 that without the resurrection, we might as well "eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Cor 15:32).

I also found Hitchens argument that Tillich's understanding of God as the "ground of being" is "under the heading of 'statements that have no meaning—at all.'" I laughed pretty hard at that.

I generally avoid referring to myself as a fundamentalist, but I guess under Hitchens definition, I fall into that category (and in a sense, so does he).

Later in the interview, Hitchens starts critiquing heroes of the faith like Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King, Jr., which ticked me off, but I gotta say he has one of the best critiques of theological liberalism* around.

*I know the problems with the term "liberalism." "Liberal compared to whom?" is the question that should often be asked. I'm using it as a proper noun to refer to the (self-named) liberal theology of the 19th-20th centuries.

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