Collision

What is your definition of truth?

Hitchens says that he would know how to define the struggle for it. He does not believe objectivity can be declared to have been arrived at or discovered, but that there are rules of etiquette such as honesty and scholasticism that we must follow in the unending search, “So that the struggle may go on.” He draws from Rabbi Hillel who said, “You may never win the battle, but you are not allowed to give it up.”

For the most part Wilson agrees with Hitchens’ exposition of the struggle for truth, but Wilson’s point of departure from Hitchens is characterized by Chesterton’s words, “An open mind, like an open mouth, must always be ready to clamp down on something.” The danger of an open mind seeking truth but refusing to close on truth is that it is perpetually open, and therefore on a self-defeating endeavor. Wilson agrees that man will never arrive at ultimate Truth, but he thinks some objective truths are knowable and ought to be insisted upon. He supports this illustration rather well by pointing out that Hitchens’ espousal of an honest and scholarly pursuit of truth is itself a truth on which his struggle may advance.

Is there a basis for truth in the world?

Hitchens essentially responds in the affirmative with his dismissal of relativism. He does not believe that subjectivity and individual perceptions cancel each other out.

Wilson points to his Bible. We can’t know anything apart from the revelation of God, who has revealed himself in Scripture and in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. This desire to appeal to the authority of Scripture stems from Wilson’s understanding of human nature. If man is fallen, then his standard cannot be his own rationality. We can’t know anything without presupposing a God who speaks. Quoting Shaeffer’s book title, “He is there and He is not silent.” We can’t know, find or discover God, but it does not follow from that that He cannot find us.

Hitchens interjects to ask if it isn’t self-contradictory to say that you can’t know or find God, and yet you know that He has revealed Himself to you, and you know the name of His son?

Is there a basis or standard for goodness and morality in the world?

Wilson asserts that Hitchens critiques of Christianity are without basis apart from the Christian worldview. Hitchens has to borrow standards of morality from the Christian faith in order to level his critiques of it. He likens this to climbing into the Christian car and driving it into a tree, because he doesn’t have a car of his own to drive.

Hitchens is aghast at the suggestion that, were it not for Christianity, you and I wouldn’t know right from wrong. The awareness of right and wrong is innate in human beings and can be viewed in societies where Christianity has never yet penetrated. “Are we to assume that the ancient Israelites got all the way to Mount Sinai under the assumption that murder, theft and perjury were ok? And only when told from on high, ‘stop with that,’ decided that they were bad ideas after all? Religion gets its morality from humans; it’s a feed-back unit.”

Wilson replies that there’s a difference between knowing the distinction between good and evil, and being able to give an accounting for it. His challenge is not that people don’t instinctively know right from wrong, they do. But how can you account for it given an evolutionary time and chance universe?

Hitchens points to an instinct: human solidarity – the brotherhood of man. We’ve never found a human society in which murder, theft, and perjury are admired or where courage and self-sacrifice are despised simply because that kind of society cannot survive. He notes that religious morality is subject to the same principles of evolution. The church used to say, “If you sin you go to Hell, you’ll burn forever,” and “If you don’t baptize your children, we won’t say it’s Hell outright, but it’s some kind of limbo.” Now they say, “Actually, we’re not so sure about that.”

Wilson objects to grounding morality in a human instinct like solidarity because we have competing instincts. And in the case of contrary instincts, you cannot introduce a third instinct to deliberate between the two.

Addressing Hitchens, Wilson says that he cherishes many of his denunciations of Christianity, but “I want to know, not what you denounce, but why you denounce it. At the end of the day there is no basis within your worldview for condemnations of this, that and the other thing.” Wilson can understand an atheist who says there is no God so “eat, drink and be merry – for tomorrow we die.” What he can’t understand is Hitchens’ fierce denunciations of people like Jerry Falwell who are just doing their thing, “doing what protoplasm does at these temperatures and under these conditions.”

Wilson notes that Hitchens’ says that the basic questions of morality are unresolved. So then why doesn’t he write like they are unresolved? Virtually in everything Hitchens writes, he denounces as though the questions of morality are completely and totally resolved. “Look Christopher, there is no God: shit happens. The universe just doesn’t care.”

Wilson believes the basis for morality that Hitchens himself is appealing to is the nature and character of God: The way God is which is revealed by means of Scripture and law. Law is a description of what God is like.

The conversation concludes with Wilson reiterating that any kind of morality that Hitchens might espouse can have no basis in something like instinct (because there are competing instincts) or popular opinion (because opinion changes). There’s no such thing as a standardless worldview, and you cannot function without constantly appealing to those standards. “I want to base everything on the Bible,” says Wilson.

Cue the somber music, Wilson begins a short homily utilizing John Lenin’s “Imagine.” “Imagine there’s no heaven above us, no hell below us. Above us only sky. Above Aushwitz, only sky. There are people in the history of this world who have believed that above them was only sky. Stalin believed that there was no justice in front of him. He was on his deathbed and did not believe that there was a God in front of him to whom he had to give an account. Couldn’t we all agree that it would have been better for a lot of people if Stalin had believed that there was justice ahead of him?”

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Vicarious Redemption

Christopher Hitchens believes that the teachings of Christianity are immoral, with its central theme – the provision of vicarious redemption – being the most vulgar of them all. This doctrine teaches that you can abolish your responsibility by throwing your sins on somebody else. “No,” says Hitchens, “your responsibility must stay with you. To have your sins abolished by someone else is an unhealthy cultivation of wish-thinking.”

I like Hitchens and often times feel closer to him than to whatever Christian apologist he happens to be debating, but here I think his definition of love has failed him. Love has many faces. Its fullest expression comes in the form of agape, which C.S. Lewis describes as “Love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance,” and Martin Buber summarizes concisely as “the responsibility of an I for a you.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky profoundly characterizes this love in the midst of his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, through the lips of an elderly monastic, Father Zosima:

There is only one salvation for you: take yourself up, and make yourself responsible for all the sins of men. For indeed it is so, my friend, and the moment you make yourself sincerely responsible for everything and everyone, you will see at once that it is really so, that it is you who are guilty on behalf of all and for all. Whereas by shifting your own laziness and powerlessness onto others, you will end by sharing in Satan’s pride and murmuring against God.

Zosima’s message is the central theme of the novel, and those who live by it invariably find redemption for themselves and for others. Those who don’t add only to the world’s suffering.

Hitchens is not wrong, he just lacks moral imagination. Yes, we ought to hold ourselves and each other responsible. But when we fail (and we will all fail), then we have an opportunity to consider taking Christ at his offer – making him responsible for our sins, so that we can do the same for others in turn.

At the heart of the Gospel we are called to redeem the world by bearing the iniquities of the other, making ourselves responsible for their sin and their salvation. If he steals your cloak, give him your tunic also. Now you have not only broken the cycle of retribution, but initiated a cycle of loving-kindness in its place: Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.