Saturday, December 17, 2011

Some Thoughts on Christopher Hitchens

I understand the truth of what the Scripture says, "The fool says in his heart 'there is no God.'"  Yet, smart atheists  serve a purpose in the life of the thinking believer, and Christopher Hitchens was a smart atheist.  Doug Wilson, his sometime sparring partner has written a fitting tribute to him over at Christianity Today.  Christians do themselves a disservice when they assume that the atheist (or any opponent of evangelical Christianity) is the product of some personality disorder or traumatic experience.  It is true that some very smart people go stark raving mad when it comes to their opposition to the Christian faith (Richard Dawkins comes to mind).  Even Hitchens went off the rails sometimes, but generally he presented smart, credible challenges to the too-easy answers with which we comfort ourselves.  I find few people on the "other side" of whom this is true (Camille Paglia would be another, but she has largely and lamentably fallen silent of late).

Many people in my circles (and I chide myself here) are satisfied with very pat answers, and are unwilling to allow their faith to be challenged by the good arguments of the other side --this is true in terms of every aspect of the Christian world-view --politics as well as religion.  So, we end up repeating mantras instead of thinking deeply.  Scripture is altogether different.  Ecclesiastes stares into the abyss and finds some discomforting things there.  Job wrangles with pain and evil and finds his ultimate answer is no answer at all --simply a call to leave it to God, and a confident resolution that God will triumph in the end.  That is faith --but we need to understand why it is not always intellectually satisfying.

The larger point is to find the best opponents of what you believe and read them or, if you have the chance, wrangle with them in person.  If your faith is too brittle to withstand those sorts of onslaughts, it needs to be strengthened.

One of my mentors in the ministry is an incredibly smart man, intellectually curious across the field of human endeavor.  A conversation with him is at once fascinating and intellectually daunting, as topics fly by in a flurry.  During his ministry in one place, a mutual friend introduced him to the notable, vociferous atheist forty-year pastor of the downtown liberal church.  Yes, I said atheist.  This man was not a "pat answers" universalist liberal --he denied the existence of God, and told his free-thinking congregation as much.  This group would meet regularly at the same spot, in an inklings-like friendship:  my friend (pastor of a large, staunchly orthodox and Calvinistic church), the acquaintance (a notable Christian Reformed intellectual), the atheist pastor, and another liberal pastor (best described as a Calvinist turned Unitarian).  I once had the temerity to ask my mentor why he did this.  His answer was simple, "He keeps me honest."

I think the confessional Reformed tradition suffers today from an insularity --the same people saying the same things to friendly audiences, and it can create a stifling atmosphere.  My answer is not, of course, that we become liberal --it's that we develop stronger answers for why we're not, and cordial relationships with those that are.  We need to have our iron sharpened, and we can only do this as we learn to intersect with those with whom we disagree.  Their arguments are stronger than we think, and sometimes ours are weaker than we think.  We can only change that by interacting with them.


  1. Good points, Ken. I think that we often become dull because we do not interact with those with whom we disagree. We need to get out there and talk with people.

  2. Forgive me for not agreeing with you at all; I read those with whom we as Believers disagree, and find their arguments wanting in anything really substantive. I find them hopeless, denying that, all the while demonstrating their having both feet planted firmly in mid air. No roots, no hope, just a denial of their real humanity. Yes, we reformed tend to say the same things repeatedly to each other: God's mercy, Christ's sacrifice, God's omnipotence, etc. I never tire of hearing those same things.

  3. Well, Anon, no apology necessary. Are atheist arguments hopeless? Yes, by definition they are.

    My simple point was this: challenges to our positions make our positions stronger and more credible.

    It would be great, however, if you would sign your name. I tend to discard purely anonymous comments.

  4. One thought on what you said --should we say those same things to one another? Of course we should --those are the great central truths of our faith.

    But, how can we oppose being intellectually credible and seeking to engage the world? It seems to me we ought to have the strongest and best arguments we can possibly have --and there is nothing like a skeptic to point out our own follies.

    Unless we think we have no follies.

  5. Derek Paul Joseph LambertDecember 17, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    Mr. Ken Pierce, I strongly agree! When i first came to Christianity it was in High School and much of the questions asked of me, I couldn't answer. I learned of a man named Ravi Zacherias and gathered much of his apologetics and went from there. Though from the best of my knowledge he isn't reformed it has brought me along a journey of absolutely having a definite answer to why I believe and my theistic presuppositions. I have been backed into many corners and doubted many times, as to whether or not they are right and i am wrong! I'm sorry people but my faith can't be blind like the muslims and or many other occults out there that say they believe what they believe and can't give a response to that. I'm gladly reformed and can defend my worldview, much thanks to the opposition that has given me the desire to find out what is Truth and on that Journey by being uncomfortable many a time, I have come to some conclusions and ways to respond for my stance. I

    Therefore, I understand if the opposition is mockingly characterizing you're position. We can show, there's is faulty in the process. If we don't respond and sit back then people will be convinced that Christianity is exactly what these opposers (atheist) say it is. A unintelligent and emotionally bound religion. We need to stand even in persecution and state why we believe Jesus Christ the Son of God is the Way the Truth and the Life, and that no one can come to the Father except through Him! A bond servant of the Lord, Derek Paul Joseph Lambert

  6. Derek, good point. The truth and how we advance it is really what's under discussion here, not whether core verities are doubtful (they're not!).

    The point to anon is that whether or not you find atheist critiques compelling is really not at issue. Many people do, and that is the issue. Do we care about them? Do we want to win them? Does it disturb us that they are headed for Hell? Are we willing to engage like Paul did on Mars Hill? If we aren't we shouldn't be surprised that our circle of those "in the know" gets smaller and smaller.

    And yes, Derek, I agree --Ravi Zacharias is precisely the sort of person I have in mind. His one flaw is that he cannot live forever and, like most of the evangelical leadership, he is no longer a young man. Who will rise and take his place?

    I give David Robertson tons of credit for taking on Dawkins (who is far less rational than Hitchens, IMHO). It's that which we need to be doing. But, we have to be smart in order to do it. We don't get smarter by just talking to the already-convinced with arguments that convince us. We need arguments that convince others, as well.

  7. Derek Paul Joseph LambertDecember 17, 2011 at 9:13 AM

    That is so true! I have a passion for this field, I believe it is necessary for Christians to understand the modern attack on Christianity. It makes me think about my two son's and the world they will grow up in! What will they do when attacked, As a father who loves his sons i will not raise them ignorant to the facts and not bring them up to speed.

    They say new questions are just old questions with a new face. I strongly agree. Purchasing many of the debates that these atheist have challenged christians in, such as, John C. Lennox , William Lane Craig , Frank Turek etc... It helps me to have some kind of response and also to evangelize to a post modern world where they think atheism is the answer.

  8. Derek Paul Joseph LambertDecember 17, 2011 at 9:22 AM

    I thought i would add that i do the same with debates between other such world views. James White does a good job with some of these other world views like muslims, Roman Catholicism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormonism, 7th Day adventist, even other opponent's that claim evangelicalism such as open theism and much more.

    My father, Mike Lambert is a green beret, Special Forces ARMY Ranger, and he is a believer in Christ. He says no better way to win a war than to know all of your enemies strategies and bring them to light.

  9. "Unless we think we have no follies."

    I think this gets to the heart of the matter, Ken. Great observation about a strain of Christianity (our strain, unfortunately) which believes it holds the Whole Truth and then places it high on a hill and builds a fort around it to defend it, not realizing that there is also error in the mix, and some truth left outside. Pride causes a fall and a haughty spirit, destruction. Meanwhile, the Great Commission kind of gets left by the way.