Anglican Samizdat

December 18, 2008

Hitchens and the Numinous

Filed under: Christianity — David Jenkins @ 7:14 pm

From The Corner:

I have long suspected that Christopher Hitchens’s enraged atheism is the reaction of a man all too conscious of being chased by Francis Thompson’s “Hound of Heaven.” But having just attended a discussion between Hitchens and Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete at New York’s Pierre Hotel, I think his case is even more interesting than that. In the course of the discussion, Hitchens claimed not to be a reductionist; he said mankind cannot do without the “numinous” and (I think this was his other phrase) the “transcendent.” (He located this in, for example, Verdi’s “Requiem.”) Now the numinous and the transcendent are exactly what we believers mean by God. Hitchens says what he doesn’t believe in is the “supernatural” — but that’s merely a quibble about words. If you use the word “nature” — as so many people do — as interchangeable with “what is” or “being,” then God is not “super-natural” at all, because — as Aquinas, chiefly, reminds us — God is the pure act of Being itself, Ipsum Esse Subsistens.

Christopher Hitchens doesn’t believe in God, but he does appear to believe in the transcendent. For example, he clearly believes in the mind as something distinct from the brain; he believes in good and evil, beauty and ugliness and, to win his audience in a debate, uses adroitly chosen anecdotes and a barrage of comically insulting adjectives rather than reason. In his debates his appeal is emotional rather than rational.

For Christians, God is transcendent and is the creator of not only the material universe, but of mind, soul and spirit; he is also the arbiter of good, evil, beauty and ugliness. Unlike more honest atheists such as Satre and Camus, Hitchens isn’t willing to jettison these products of the numinous: one of his favourite debate questions reveals this reluctance: “what”, he asks “good deed can be done by a theist that cannot equally be done by an atheist”. Note the use of the word “good”; without transcendence, “good” becomes a mere electro-chemical phenomenon in Hitchens’ neocortex – a notion that Dawkins may go along with, but Hitchens wouldn’t.

So where does Hitchens’ transcendence come from? In a similar vein to Satre – whose claim is that if there is no God, existence precedes essence and so we become the creators of our own essence through our actions – Hitchens seems to think that, even though we are the products of evolution, humanity has by its actions created its own transcendence. So he feels justified in declaring some things good, beautiful, inspiring and so on.

I am a Christian so, as far as I am concerned, this is all nonsense.


1 Comment

  1. But dear Samizdat, Hitchens must be a “Great Man” to be afforded the speaking engagement at this grand hotel in New York. Shouldn’t we simple folk mark and “listen” to his “rants”?
    Oh sorry, the platform makes neither the man nor increases his intelligence.

    Comment by obituary — December 20, 2008 @ 8:52 am

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