The Fool, Revisited

The Psalmist wrote that “the fool hath said in his heart ‘There is no god.'”

Having taking the occasion of his death to review some of his work, I can’t rule out the possibility that Christopher Hitchens – a supremely articulate man with wide, wide learning – nevertheless made himself a fool by “God is Not Great.” But such a judgment can wait for another day. As someone else noted, Hitchens regularly violated the maxim de mortuis nil nisi bonum, but I needn’t follow suit.

Instead, I note that Hitchens’ writing sometimes feels like deliberate provocation, an attempt to set off lively conversation by very stylishly tossing a stink bomb into a gaggle of received pieties. He called Mother Theresa, for example, “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud,” and speculated that she “was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty.”

So allowing, as I think one must, that this eloquent man was irascible and deliberately provocative, let’s revisit the Psalmist.

In a culture in which God’s most visible spokesmen have been folks like Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard – and I would add the cadaverous marketer of heretical prophetic schemes, Tim LaHaye – might it actually be to Hitchens’ credit that he viscerally attacked the divine Principal who allegedly appointed such humbugs as Agents? His many Christian friends tell of how delighted he was to discuss religion with a true believer, but he rejected humbuggery.

I received my early Christian formation from folks for whom it would have been unthinkable that a conscious and vocal unbeliever might be “saved.” Believing generically in God was insufficient for salvation, but necessary.

But one regularly hears, especially post-9/11, that the Muslims don’t worship the same god Christians worship. (One also hears from different quarters that they decidedly do, and that only a trouble-maker would deny it.)

But if you’re going down the “not the same God” road, I think you must go further and ask whether Orthodox Christians worship the God Jonathan Edwards famously and luridly preached about. The God I know is not angry. The name “Jesus” doesn’t magically put us all on the same page. Mormons and Muslims speak well of him as well, after all. Nor does invoking “Trinity” do the trick; modalists believe in a sort of Trinity, too.

I just can’t paper over some pretty serious Christian differences with a bit of bonhomie.

So it seems relevant to ask the unbeliever to “Tell me about the god you don’t believe in; maybe I don’t believe in that one, either.” If they disbelieve in the God of Jonathan Edwards, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker and Ted Haggard (assuming that they all believe in the same god), we may not be that far apart.

What I’ve been building up to is that I strongly suspect that there are some spiritually adept people who disavow Christianity because the only versions they know are actually pretty odious (I doubt that well-read Christopher Hitchens was one of them), and I’m barely tempted, and only on bad days, to judge them for it.

I strongly suspect that others disavow Christianity, and perhaps deny God, because they do not want to subordinate their wills and passions to anyone or anything. Others pay lip service without ever taking up any cross. It’s Matthew 21:28–32 all over.

All fools are not equal. And so some devout people are praying these days for the soul of Christopher Hitchens. God is gracious and loves mankind, and it may be, whether through a last minute “thief on the cross” moment or simply because God knows his heart better than he did, that Hitchens is “in” while some big-time Pharisees will in due course find themselves, along with their eternal security, “out.”

And no, I’m not thinking that risk doesn’t face me.