On some peculiar level, I think that Christopher Hitchens was somehow the favourite public atheist of most Christians. I know I always preferred his approach to, say, Dawkin’s tendency to sneer or Sam Harris’ naive scientific utilitarianism. Many who will write more and better things about him in the coming days, so I’ll just briefly say that it feels strange to wake up in the world this morning without him. This post’s title is a quote from a debate here in Toronto concerning free speech. I feel like it would be a fitting epitaph for the man himself:
Now many have sought to discover the “essence” of Christianity- that which makes Christianity what it is, that without which it would be something else. Books have been written (as by Feuerbach and Harnack) entitled The Essence of Christianity. And many theologians, though writing books with other names, have sought, in effect if not in so many words, to identify the essence. The very variety of suggestions, however, casts initial doubt upon the project. What is the essence? Morality (Kant)? Religious feeling (Schleiermacher)? Philosophical dialectic (Hegel)? Wish-fulfillment (Feuerbach)? The fatherhood of God (Harnack)? Word of God (Barth)? Personal encounter (Brunner, Buber)? Acts of God (Wright)? The self-negation of being (Tillich)? Existential self-understanding (Bultmann)? Hope (Moltmann)? Liberation (Gutierrez)? Incarnation (Eastern orthodoxy)? Covenant (many Calvinists)? Five “fundamentals” (many American conservatives)? And what of holiness, justice, mercy, faith, love, grace, praise, spirit, peace, joy, body life? What of evangelism, worship? All of these have some claim to be called the “heart of the gospel” or the “center of Christianity.” Or why not say simply that “Christianity is Christ?”
His alternative to this type of theology is predictable for those who are familiar with his corpus, and I have no substantial improvement to offer over it. See here for his further comments.
If there is a God (rather than “God” being merely a code name to refer to our own best ideas)… and
If God reveals himself and his will (rather than merely putting a rubber stamp on our most sincere decisions)… and
If we are in real need of this revelation if we are to be saved and guided (with ignorance and a warped will both being characteristics of the unaided–classical theology would say “fallen”–human state)…
Then it is logically inevitable that the revealed will of God will be, at least at some points, different in its form and substance from what human beings would otherwise have thought on the same subject.
There must therefore be a limit set to the applicability of human common sense and the right to calculate right and wrong. We must expect that there will be points where the will of God will simply have to be taken on the authority of revelation. [from John Howard Yoder, "The Pacifism of Absolute Principle," in Nevertheless: Varieties of religious pacifism, rev. and exp. edition (Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 1992), 32-33]
Yoder goes on to describe a version of pacifism which is grounded on these points, but I wanted to draw out a broader point here: if Yoder is right, then this applies not only to revelation about violence in specific, but about justice and truth in general. It seems to me that if he is right, then Christians need to be ready to hold to unpopular opinions simply on the grounds that “God says so”. Any theology which ultimately denies that revelation carries a higher authority than our best pragmatic answer (in the field of ethics, or in the case of any inquiry into factual matters) seems to deny that either God has in fact revealed himself, or, worse, that God actually exists.
I was reading through Chesterton yesterday to find the quote I used on my previous post, and saw another passage I quite liked when I first read it. I think it’s somewhat relevant to the experience discussions and the discussions about scripture we’ve been having (again) lately. I also think it’s just fun to read
“It is commonly the loose and latitudinarian Christians who pay quite indefensible compliments to Christianity. They talk as if there had never been any piety or pity until Christianity came, a point on which any mediaeval would have been eager to correct them. They represent that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach simplicity or self-restraint, or inwardness and sincerity. They will think me very narrow (whatever that means) if I say that the remarkable thing about Christianity was that it was the first to preach Christianity. Its peculiarity was that it was peculiar, and simplicity and sincerity are not peculiar, but obvious ideals for all mankind. Christianity was the answer to a riddle, not the last truism uttered after a long talk. Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. (more…)