Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In the Kingdom of the Blind . . .

Below are some excerpts from an interview of self-proclaimed atheist Christopher Hitchens published in the Portland Monthly. The interview is conducted by Marilyn Sewell, a retired minister of the Unitarian Church. The website reports that
. . . Portland Monthly invited Hitchens to an encounter more befitting the Rose City: a conversation with a liberal believer—Marilyn Sewell, the recently retired minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland. A former teacher and psychotherapist and the author of numerous books, Sewell, over 17 years, grew Portland’s downtown Unitarian congregation into one of the largest in the United States.
The interview excerpts speak for themselves. Taken together, they give the impression of the old adage I have referenced in the title of this post. I have modified the format of the original, and put Hitchens' responses into bold type; the Rev. Sewell's questions are in italics. Note just who is more informed as to the fundamental tenets of the Christian religion (and note who is not informed about when Socrates and Epicurus lived, both in relation to each other and to Lucretius).

[Begin excerpts of interview.]

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.
. . .
. . . 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.

I take it very seriously. I have my grandmother’s Bible and I still read it, but I don’t take it as literal truth. I take it as metaphorical truth. The stories, the narrative, are what’s important.

But, then, show me what there is, ethically, in any religion that can’t be duplicated by Humanism. In other words, can you name me a single moral action performed or moral statement uttered by a person of faith that couldn’t be just as well pronounced or undertaken by a civilian?

You’re absolutely right. However religion does inspire some people. . .

. . . Let me ask you this: The Greek myths, their fables, their folk tales that endured are not literally true, but there’s great value in the universal truths that are taught just by the story itself. I see so much of scripture in a similar way including, for example, the creation story. Can you agree with me that some of those stories are valuable just as metaphor?

The creation story is ridiculous garbage. And has given us a completely false picture of our origin as a species and the origins of the cosmos. If you want a good mythical story it would be the life of Socrates. We have no proof, as with Jesus, that he ever existed. We only know from witnesses to his life that he did. Like Jesus, he never wrote anything down. It doesn’t matter to me whether he did or not exist because we have his teachings, his method of thinking, and his extreme intellectual and moral courage. Anyone who can look me in the eye and say they prefer the story of Moses or Jesus or Mohammed to the life of Socrates is — I have to say it to you — intellectually defective. The great tradition starts with Lucretius and Epicurus who work out that the world is made of atoms and is not created by any design. It goes through Socrates and through, well, Galileo, Spinoza—people whose work is burned and despised by Jews and Christians and Muslims alike—to through Voltaire to Darwin to, I’m abridging the story somewhat, but it’s the last chapter of my book. It’s a better tradition for people who think for themselves and who don’t pray in aid of any supernatural authority. That’s what you should be spending your life is in spreading and deepening that tradition.

If you would like for me to talk a little bit about what I believe . . .

Well I would actually.

I don’t know whether or not God exists in the first place, let me just say that. I certainly don’t think that God is an old man in the sky, I don’t believe that God intervenes to give me goodies if I ask for them.

You don’t believe he’s an interventionist of any kind?

I’m kind of an agnostic on that one. God is a mystery to me. I choose to believe because—and this is a very practical thing for me—I seem to live with more integrity when I find myself accountable to something larger than myself. That thing larger than myself, I call God, but it’s a metaphor. That God is an emptiness out of which everything comes. Perhaps I would say “ reality” or “what is” because we’re trying to describe the infinite with language of the finite. My faith is that I put all that I am and all that I have on the line for that which I do not know.

Fine. But I think that’s a slight waste of what could honestly be in your case a very valuable time. I don’t want you to go away with the impression that I’m just a vulgar materialist. I do know that humans are also so made even though we are an evolved species whose closest cousins are chimpanzees. I know it’s not enough for us to to eat and so forth. We know how to think. We know how to laugh. We know we’re going to die, which gives us a lot to think about, and we have a need for, what I would call, “the transcendent” or “the numinous” or even “the ecstatic” that comes out in love and music, poetry, and landscape. I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t respond to things of that sort. But I think the cultural task is to separate those impulses and those needs and desires from the supernatural and, above all, from the superstitious.

Could you talk about these two words that you just used, “transcendent” and “numinous”? Those two words are favorites of mine.

Well, this would probably be very embarrassing, if you knew me. I can’t compose or play music; I’m not that fortunate. But I can write and I can talk and sometimes when I’m doing either of these things I realize that I’ve written a sentence or uttered a thought that I didn’t absolutely know I had in me… until I saw it on the page or heard myself say it. It was a sense that it wasn’t all done by hand.

. . .

You know, I think that that might be a religious impulse that you’re talking about there.

Well, it’s absolutely not. It’s a human one. It’s part of the melancholy that we have in which we know that happiness is fleeting, and we know that life is brief, but we know that, nonetheless, life can be savored and that happiness, even of the ecstatic kind, is available to us. But we know that our life is essentially tragic as well. I’m absolutely not for handing over that very important department of our psyche to those who say, “Well, ah. Why didn’t you say so before? God has a plan for you in mind.” I have no time to waste on this planet being told what to do by those who think that God has given them instructions.

. . .

You write, “Literature, not scripture, sustains the mind and the soul.” You use the word “soul” there as metaphor. What is a soul for you?

It’s what you might call “the x-factor”—I don’t have a satisfactory term for it—it’s what I mean by the element of us that isn’t entirely materialistic: the numinous, the transcendent, the innocence of children (even though we know from Freud that childhood isn’t as innocent as all that), the existence of love (which is, likewise, unquantifiable but that anyone would be a fool who said it wasn’t a powerful force), and so forth. I don’t think the soul is immortal, or at least not immortal in individuals, but it may be immortal as an aspect of the human personality because when I talk about what literature nourishes, it would be silly of me or reductionist to say that it nourishes the brain.

I wouldn’t argue with you about the immortality of the soul. Were I back in a church again, I would love to have you in my church because you’re so eloquent and I believe that some of your impulses—and, excuse me for saying so—are religious in the way I am religious. You may call it something else, but we agree in a lot of our thinking.

I’m touched that you say, as some people have also said to me, that I’ve missed my vocation. But I actually don’t think that I have. I would not be able to be this way if I was wearing robes or claiming authority that was other than human. That’s a distinction that matters to me very much.

You have your role and it’s a valuable one, so thank you for what you give to us. . . .

[End of excerpts. Read the full interview, or listen to it, at this link.]

And that is how religion and theology are discussed in the kingdom of the blind these days. Truly a remarkable document of our times.

(H/T: Stand to Reason)


  1. Words, just words. Perhaps what they are saying has some meaning to them, but to me, they are just words which roll off their tongues in practiced manner. They have this stuff down pat, and to the uninitiated must sound like the words of great and wise people; but they are blind.
    desert padre

  2. Marilyn Sewell gives me no reason whatsoever to get up on a Sunday morning to go worship. Her view of religion is so pathetic. I am surprised Hitchens had the patience to endure this drivel

  3. A true "classic"..... a real "keeper"

    - The atheist explaining to the self-defined "christian" female minister why she is not a real Christian and the female whatever defending her illogical and absurdly devised brand of "christianity".

    Now, who else do we know that does the same thing?
    Hint: KJS and pals?