“Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”
My favorite movie is You’ve Got Mail. In it, Kathleen Kelly, owner of a small children’s book shop, quips the wisdom above when Joe Fox, operator of the mega-store that puts her shop under, tries to excuse himself with the line, “It wasn’t personal, it was business.”
In my work at Word on Fire, I am surrounded by great theological and philosophical minds who face the issues of the secularization and morally relativization of society, citing the most intellectual minds of the Church to demonstrate the smart, beautiful, and rich tradition of Catholicism and its place in our culture, quoting Aquinas and von Balthasar in response to Nietzsche and Sartre, drawing out eternal truths and perennial heresies from the recurring societal milieus. And, my favorite movie is You’ve Got Mail. However, recently this seemingly unimportant line from my unassuming, late-90’s chick-flick favorite again rang true: “Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”
Last Wednesday evening, I attended a debate at my alma mater, Notre Dame, in which atheist mogul Christopher Hitchens took on public policy expert and Christian apologist Dinesh D’Souza in a dual entitled, “The God Debate: Is Religion the Problem?” Despite the fact that this particular debate constitutes a traveling sideshow of sorts (the long-time friends travel around the country “performing” at different venues), the event itself raises the innocuous questions: Why debate? What is the purpose? What is the intended goal, and what do we hope to accomplish? To what end are we directing our open-mindedness on this particular issue?
As I sat and listened to the “clash,” surrounded by the backdrop of the historically notorious Catholic think tank, I was distracted by a row of aspiring atheist philosophers sitting immediately in front of me. Characterized by a giggly excitement upon introduction of Christopher Hitchens, rousing applause and whooping yells upon anti-religious claims made (including the claim that Hitler was actually a Christian), and a display of utter disgust at the personhood of Dinesh D’Souza, these up-and-coming philosophical minds did all but sing along as Hitchens offered his familiar, although somewhat repressed, blasphemous tune. With no intention to squelch anyone’s right to freedom of expression, I became very skeptical of the intended value of this specific debate at an explicitly religious institution. It seemed more like an atheist pep rally at a university named for the Mother of God (who might have strong opinions on His existence).
The line, “never stop looking in pursuit of the truth,” which was part of the moderator’s introductory remarks regarding the reason for holding such a debate, is noble wisdom. However, it is clear that this statement becomes cowardly and impersonal if you fail to carry out the debate with recourse to the fact that an objective Truth exists. As a University dedicated to a long tradition of truth-seekers, it is a worthy endeavor for Notre Dame to strive to guide her students in the pursuit of truth. However, any serious Catholic believes that truth exists to be discovered in the person of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of a God whose existence is not up for grabs. A debate on the existence of God, much like a debate on abortion, inherently applies that there is a legitimate choice to be made and that, in the end, it is truly acceptable if we have to “agree to disagree.” While this acceptability is true on an objective level, a stance from a Catholic university that does not passionately present and stand behind the side of Faith is lukewarm at best. There is nothing inherently wrong with the “God Debate.” But there is something unabashedly inappropriate about a dispute concerning the existence of God and the “problem” of religion that doesn’t intend to present the fullness of our theological tradition in the best light possible to the skeptical audience. Perhaps one could argue that the debate did, in fact, provide this perspective. To those claimants, I will offer one line from D’Souza, which indicates the ground on which he chose to argue about the existence of God: “My argument isn’t eternal…if in twenty years, a better set of scientific explanations is uncovered, I would go with that…”
Bottom line: let there be debate, but direct it toward an end defined by academic “freedom,” not by the useless and nebulous understanding better characterized as academic “autonomy.” In a university formed in the Catholic faith, the task is the formation of souls, and the mission is personal.
Furthermore, the opening and closing remarks of Christopher Hitchens asserted that the “greatest obligation” is to keep an open mind. The only respectable position, he reiterated, is one of doubt and skepticism, discarding any system of absolutism. Then, he went on to argue that in light of these underlying positions, religion (claiming an exclusive knowledge of the absolute) is the “problem."
It seems that Hitchens, over and over, correctly identified a misunderstanding of God. What he described and debunked was not the true God, but a construct that is often perpetrated by misguided religious people who work, as best they can, within the confines of humanity, exercising the gift (revered by theists and worshipped by atheists) of free will. So, the true God is not the problem, but a misunderstanding of God (or the direct manipulation of the name of God for one’s purposes) almost always is. It is a well-referenced truth that the citation of bad Christians does not disprove Christianity, just as the constant telling and re-telling of a lie doesn’t mean that truth ceases to be true. Rather, the reality of the possibility that we ourselves can be simultaneously the problem and the potential is the tragedy and the beauty of free will. The very situation that disgusts the atheist (in this case, Christopher Hitchens) the most is the hypocritical claim that free will should be used in a very specific way and toward a calculated end, only to be blatantly misrepresented by the claimant. News flash: this is also the very thing that disgusts the most devout Christian about himself. This same sentiment is the mark of the repentant sinner and the deepest truth of the interior spirituality of the saint. This unfortunate situation, however, rather than disproving God’s existence and undermining all religiousness, actually provides a stronger case for His existence and love for us. There can be no greater condition allowed by an all-good, all-knowing, all-loving God than the condition of free will. And, while Hitchens argued for us to abandon the “specific way” and “calculated end,” Christians would argue that we continually strive toward that end with greater resolve.
What Christopher Hitchens has right is this: don’t “reward yourself eternal life” for a job well done. Don’t deny that you are a sinner. All of this reeks of hypocritical pride. But what Christopher Hitchens has wrong is the concrete, factual representation of the opposite: ultimate humility. The flaw of Hitchen’s approach is in ignoring the “personal”- there is no lasting and worthwhile explanation of radical charity, self-giving love, and utter humility in the atheist vocabulary. Unfortunately, and to the atheists’ credit, there are far fewer examples of this in Christian life than we would hope. Like Paul, we often do not do the good that we want. However, someone did the good that we want, and there are glimpses of it in each of our lives. It exists, It was incarnated, and Its statue stands, with arms wide open, at the base of the main building on Notre Dame’s campus. He made it personal because He loves. The role of an institution that is founded on His memory is far more than the impersonal imposition of the standards of academic freedom. It is the obligation to properly and personally present the Truth and to lead its students into deeper relationship with that Truth. Keeping in mind the very nature of the God to Whom we are ordered, it makes sense that “whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”
Rozann Carter is a Production Assistant at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Also, please take a look at Father Barron's commentary on Christopher Hitchen's book, God is Not Great: