It's sometimes called the Great Debate-whether God exists and what that means. We always see more of it around this time of year, especially from journalists who are either exploring their own spiritual impulses or interpreting the culture's. As I was thinking about writing this column, word came of the death of Christopher Hitchens, an atheist lightning rod and fascinating human being. My reaction was similar, oddly or not, to my reaction to news that Dave Wilkerson had been killed in an auto accident: a little inward gasp, followed by, I'll miss him.
I always thought Hitchens's persona as an atheist apologist was more convincing than his argument. His utter self-confidence and mastery of the bon mot threw up such a smokescreen that his audience and often his opponent were dazzled. But his objections to God were more emotional than rational; he made false assumptions and invalid conclusions. And sometimes the broad brush faltered. While researching another article I came across this Hitchens quote:
"It's a big cultural task to separate the cultural achievement that religion laid claim to from the claims of religion itself. No one's going to deny the role of religion in, for example, architecture or devotional painting. The poetry of John Donne or George Herbert strikes me as having been produced by people who probably really believed what they were saying. I have to be impressed."
Since he regarded literature as his first and truest love, those last two sentences are significant. And that's part of the Great Debate, though not always acknowledged: Even if they were to succeed in explaining away God, how do skeptics explain away faith? The default position is simply to dismiss it as superstition or bigotry, but that's ignorance on a level with any snake-handler in the sticks. Hitchens at least recognized that, for all its harm (in his view), faith had also inspired great works of art. I suspect it not only impressed but also mystified him.
Still more mystifying is to discover stirrings of faith in oneself, as Eric Weiner recently admitted in a New York Times piece. Weiner counted himself among the sneering skeptics "until a health scare and the onset of middle age created a crisis of faith and I ventured to the other side." But his spiritual awakening couldn't find a home in any of the established belief systems, leaving Weiner to categorize himself as a "None" who suspects the existence of a higher power but has no religious affiliation:
"We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt." He ends up calling for "a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion, but, rather, a new way of being religious … a religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us?"
The very fact that Weiner intuits something beyond this life, and that this intuition is a common human experience, seems to indicate a reality beyond supposition. C.S. Lewis identified his early longing for the numinous as his first clue that God and heaven existed, and his adventures in skepticism failed to dislodge it. Once his resistance to bare theism broke down, all clues led back to the solid rock beneath the rote orthodoxy he had been taught as a child, "and that rock was Christ" (1 Corinthians 10:4).
Last fall, the BBC made it official policy to use the objective dating notation of C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before Common Era) as opposed to B.C. and A.D. There were a surprising number of objections, and BBC commentators who announced they weren't going to comply. But even if they changed the letters, they can't change the numbers. The very existence of a dating system points to the One who entered time in a particular year, and remains like a boulder in the stream as years flow by.
We can long, like Eric Weiner, for a placid spiritual lake where everything anyone wants to believe is true. We can insist, like Christopher Hitchens, that faith is a tidal whirlpool swirling fiercely around nothing. But it's Christmas again: Christ has come, and He's coming back, to gather up the time between the advents and call men to account. Maybe Christopher heard Him. Maybe Eric will. But, willingly or not, every knee will someday bow.
From WORLD's archives:
VOICES | By Janie B. Cheaney | While losing his eloquent voice, Christopher Hitchens may gain ears to hear. | Jun 18, 11 MORE >>
RELIGION | By Emily Belz | Christopher and Peter Hitchens have a conversation about God, death, and faith-based initiatives. | Oct 12, 10 MORE >>
VOICES | By Marvin Olasky | On Christmas (and every day), celebrate grace. Dec 15, 07 MORE >>
RELIGION | By Marvin Olasky | The devastating results of the "golden age of freethought" have made today's defenders of atheism, like Christopher Hitchens, grumpy. | Nov 17, 07 MORE >>
BOOKS | By Marvin Olasky | Notable anti-religion and anti-Christian books of the past year-particularly Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great-make something out of, well, nothing. | Jun 30, 07 MORE >>
EXCLUSIVE | By Mindy Belz | What's a pro-war, anti-abortion, religion-hating Darwinist doing in the Bush camp, or any camp? Commentator and contrarian Christopher Hitchens talks to WORLD. | Jun 3, 06 MORE >>