Hitchens and the Collect for Purity

Chris Hitchens is by far my favorite contemporary atheist. I think this is because he has the best wit of the current crop of “despisers of religion.” I also appreciate his rants against the evils perpetrated by religious institutions. Even though, as David Bentley Hart has argued, the conclusions he draws from the these observations are nothing but non-sequiturs. One statement he has made has always struck me as particularly interesting and worth reflection. I have heard him suggest that he not only has no reason to believe in God, but that he is glad that this is the case. His answer that atheism is good news is incredibly insightful to the human condition. He states:

            The main reason for this is that it (theism) is a totalitarian belief. It is the wish to be a slave. That there be an unalterable, unchallengeable, tyrannical authority; who can convict you of a thought crime while you are asleep. He can subject you, who must indeed subject you, to a total surveillance around the clock every waking assuming minute of your life…and after death this is where the real fun begins. A celestial North Korea. Who wants this to be true? Who but a slave desire such a ghastly fate?

Hitchens finds the idea of an all powerful God, who knows and judges, our innermost being repulsive. For Hitchens, it is better that we have our privacy. On the surface, Hitchens’ reasoning is ridiculous. He views a reality without any chance of final justice for the poor, cosmic purpose, the restoration of our own inner demons, and ultimately the final meaningless end of everything and everyone we ever loved is a better reality than one in which there is a divine creator who truly knows us.

One could fault Hitchens for desiring his own personal privacy over the redemption of cosmos as Esau traded his birthright for a bowl of soup. I know, however, that Hitches is simply expressing honestly a disposition that all of us often share with him. If we are honest, there is a part of us that is resistant to the idea that our whole self belongs to God and that we live our lives exposed to our creator. This desire for privacy, however, is not freedom but rather one cause for our loneliness. Mark Galli pointed out in a talk this weekend that our need for space keeps can keep us from forming the intimate relationships that we need.

Of course, there is always a risk involved with being exposed. The God we trust in is not the impersonal tyrant that Hitchens describes, but is revealed in the self giving love of Jesus Christ who exposed himself to the hard wood of the cross and suffered to reconcile humanity to God.  God’s revelation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that the reality that God knows all our thoughts is good news. God truly knows us: our discontentment, pain, struggles, irritation with others, part of ourselves we are so ashamed about that no one else knows about, parts of ourselves we do not even recognize ourselves and responds in grace and love. I am reminded of this statement by Hitchens when we pray the collect for purity every week in church.

            Almighty God, to you all hearts are open and all desires known and from you no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your Holy name. 

The hope expressed by the prayer is that love of God, who knows us more intimately than we know ourselves, is a transformative love that enables us to grow in love for God and our neighbor.

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One thought on “Hitchens and the Collect for Purity

  1. I totally agree with being willing to listen to Hitchens because he is funny and entertaining. You’re also right that not only is he making a caricature, but that we actually believe the same things about God sometimes.

    Have you read his memoir, Hitch-22? It’s definitely worth reading. I’m going to be really sad when he dies.

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