Is Christianity Good for the World?

As many of you will remember, Christopher Hitchens died a few weeks back. He was a well-stated speaker and author who was considered not just an “atheist” but, by his own admission, an “anti-theist” (RationalWiki). He spoke many times against the topics of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. As a Christian theist myself, this interested me. I regret that I did not hear of him while he was alive, but even posthumously I wanted to know what his arguments were. So I ordered several of his books from the public library. It took a bit of examination of the kinds of material he wrote in order to feel comfortable with a criticism, but I think I’m ready to at least give my overview. In particular, I’ll look at the book he co-authored with a Douglas Wilson: it’s a short book, but they effectively wrote two sides of a debate specifically dealing with the title of this post (and also the title of the book): Is Christianity Good for the World?

I won’t go through the various parts of the discussion; if the reader wants to understand more in depth, he or she should read the book (it’s all of 68 pages long). However, I will give my take on the overview of the arguments presented. My first one is that they never seemed to actually strike at each other effectively (both made good points, but they were somehow always swept aside). The reason, I believe, is that neither really understood the perspective of the other. Or at least they didn’t argue from that same perspective. What to one was an assumption was almost laughable to the other: in both directions. Until and unless this difficulty of core assumptions is addressed, I don’t think that such debates will go far (indeed, they have not for several centuries).

Hitchens says: “religious belief has now become purely optional and cannot be mandated by anything revealed or anything divine… one among an infinite number of private ‘faiths’, which do not disturb me as long as the adherents agree to leave me alone.” This would be one of the biggest points in the book that I simultaneously agree and rebel against. The first part is entirely correct… I believe one of the central calls of Jesus to his followers revolves around this point. They were called to follow him: “by faith”. There might have been proof and reason as well: but the core was still faith. In my own experience, I enjoy discussions with those who agree with me and those who do not, to sort out where fallacies and inconstancies lie in my logic: but ultimately my relationship with God is based on faith. It is an assumption. A priori. What works for me regarding “proof” will not work with others… because such “proof” will have to shift assumptions. If (as in Mr. Hitchens case) one of his foundational perspectives (on which he has built his life, so has a lot invested in it) is that God does not exist, it will not be moved very easily. I would say “except by a miracle”, but those words in particular will be incongruous. And, at this point, irrelevant.

So on the one hand, I completely agree with him.

But on the other hand, the last part of his statement, “…the adherents agree to leave me alone”, is not only silly, but a bit hypocritical. He wants people to talk about any subject that might bind them together… except this one. I am reminded of a project at work (I work for the Ontario Government) called “Positive Space”: its key tag-line is “Bring your Whole Self to Work”. One of its primary goals is that gay and lesbian people be able to be “out” at work: to have pictures of spouses on their desks or talk about their weekend regarding same-sex interactions. Straight people assume it’s okay to talk about their families… because they are the majority. Because it’s natural. But as soon as someone from the LGBT (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) community tries to do the same thing, there are cries of: “That’s not appropriate at work” and “Can’t they just leave me alone?” But to be comfortable at work means being able to talk about such things. Similarly, faith and god are interwoven into much of what makes the U.S. the country that it is today. (I’m not saying that it is a Christian nation: but I am saying that belief in god was important to most of its leaders in its history.) To strip that out of the nation is as ludicrous as those who claim that the U.S. is the modern Israel or that its government was intended to be structured as a theocracy.

Secondly, the very title of the book is something I’m not willing to advocate. Much though Christianity exists in a thousand different splinters around the world today, I’m not sure of which side of this debate I would fall on. I’m not a big “institutionalized church” person: I’m trained as a pastor but walked away from it as my life’s work. Nor do I think that Mr. Wilson actually makes the point very consistently. Often he is arguing that the faith is good for the world: not the religion. I do not believe that the two are synonymous at all. Indeed, much though church historians laud Constantine for being the first Christian Emperor and making Christianity the “state religion of the Roman Empire”, I think it was one of the worst things that happened to the early church. Until that moment, the power relations in the church had been those of a small, persecuted group who were trying to help others. Destructive power relations existed, but they were subsumed when the organization of the entire group was threatened. The moment that it became the state religion of the Empire (much as it is in everything but word in the U.S.), such power relations became much more complex and easy to undermine. The power available through the church was real power in the world. This is exactly the kind of thing I think Jesus wanted to avoid: and probably for many of the reasons sited by Mr. Hitchens, now his biggest opponent. If anything, the religion has become a whole series of power relations that define (and destroy) the relationships between members of the church… which are supposed to exist by faith. This is exactly what has not been good for the world.

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