Thursday, June 30, 2016

When an Atheist Longs for a “Higher Love”

Atheists reason, and some profess, that God and other deities do not exist.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a hunch that many self-proclaimed atheists remember being offended and perhaps deeply hurt by one or more well meaning persons of faith.  Some Christians may act toward unbelievers out of ignorance, others out of arrogance, and yet others out of a sincere but carnal desire to “win” a God-denier to faith in order to claim the atheist as a trophy of a hard-to-win pagan.  By the way, I have probably already unintentionally offended at least some atheistic readers who argue that their belief is based on sound logic, not emotional scars.  No offense intended as you will hopefully see by reading on.

The Bible teaches that those who deny God are on the road to eternal judgment (John 3: 16; Romans 3: 10,23; 6: 23).   God does not “clear the guilty” (Numbers 14: 18) just because they can point to a Christian who offended them sometime in their life.  Yet, it ought to be true that every sinner saved by God’s grace is constrained by Calvary’s love and desirous of sharing the Gospel of God’s love with unbelievers—and, in a way that is not disrespectful (2 Corinthians 5: 14-15; 1 Peter 3: 15).

I cannot deny that there has been selfishness in my motivation to communicate with atheists in recent years.  Therefore, it has been good medicine for me to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens (Nelson, 2016).  I discovered this title in a book review by Benjamin Wiker, Senior Fellow at the Veritas Center for Ethics and Public Life, Franciscan University.   The book’s author, Larry Taunton, director of Fixed Point Foundation, refers to Hitchens in his subtitle as “the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.”  I was immediately intrigued upon learning that Taunton is an evangelical Christian who writes from his experience as a close friend of Hitchens between 2007 and 2011 when Hitchens died of cancer.

Readers of The Faith of Christopher Hitchens are humbly and respectfully introduced to the man whom reviewer Benjamin Wiker describes as “a real, lovable, cantankerous, flawed, hilarious, foolish, brilliant, sinful, and multi-faceted human being.”  But more fascinating and valuable is the way in which an evangelical Christian, Larry Taunton, respectfully and lovingly earns the right to become a friend of Hitchens.  Though reluctant to publish many aspects of their unusual friendship, Taunton finally agrees with a publisher that he should write the book.  What resulted is a captivating narrative that recounts the tumultuous boyhood of Christopher Hitchens in England during the 1950’s, his rejection of the notion of God as a teen, and his development of a separate public and private “set of books” that governed his thinking, communication, and behavior in his adult life.  As Taunton explains, the growing chasm between the public and the private Christopher Hitchens is a key to understanding how an atheist could drastically change his allegiance from the Left to the Right following the 9/11 attack on America, and eventually gain new respect and friendships with evangelical Christians.

Christopher Hitchens and brother, Peter Hitchens
As further incentive for you to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, I will provide a list of questions the book has caused me to ask, each one dealing with a facet of the larger question, What can I as an evangelical Christian learn from Larry Taunton about building a friendship of mutual trust and respect with those who have a different view than I of the natural world and beyond (if they acknowledge such?  Hopefully, this article will motivate you to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.  And better yet, maybe some of my questions will promote  a more in-depth reflection and discussion.  If so, I’d love to read comments posted to me from the link below.

1.   Am I cultivating friendships with people who deny the existence of God, or reject His claim on their lives?  If so, how well am I representing the love of Christ to them?

2.   Hitchens’ favorite song was Steve Winwood’s, “Higher Love.”  He admitted to Larry Taunton’s son, Michael, “I do long for a higher love (p. 4).”  With all humility, do I recognize that within the heart of every man and woman is the need to experience God’s redemptive love, and that God might use me in some way as an important channel of His love?

3.   What can I learn from the accounts of the boarding school experience of two English boys—one, Christopher Hitchens who found in its harsh and often unreasonable discipline what became for him “metaphors for rejection of God and church;” the other, C.S. Lewis, who found an equally harsh experience what became for him “a metaphor for how faith, patience, and anticipation is built into life.” (p. 12-13)

4.   How many pre-adolescent and adolescent children today experience a roadblock to conversion to faith in God, often resulting in a hatred of God and Christianity, because of a failure of parents and teachers to help them acquire a truly Christian view of God’s gift of   sexuality?  
Michelangelo's "The Awakening Slave"

5.  Is each human being “self-made” as illustrated in Michelangelo’s The Awakening Slave, pictured 
as a man writhing to get free of the marble block restraining him?  Hitchens denied that his father’s lack of faith had anything to do with his own becoming an atheist; instead, seeing himself as a “self-made man” who came to atheism purely out of rational means.  But, Hitchens’ father had two sons, both “Bible-burning atheists and communists.”  The fact that God works in the affairs of fathers and sons is evidenced by what eventually happened--one of the sons becomes a Christian (p. 48)!

6.   Is it possible that many atheists do not embrace atheism so much because it is logical and intellectually fulfilling as because it allows them the opportunity to legitimize their rejection of moral claims upon the lifestyle they choose?

7.   Hitchens embraced atheism because it allowed him to square the public and private “sets of books” that he kept.  And, he chose words as his weapons to defend his position, “rather than loving words insofar as they lead to truth (p. 22-23).”  Do I fall into the same trap when I give priority to eloquence and scholarship over pursuit of truth, understanding, and respectful discourse with those who do not share my beliefs?

8.   For Hitchens the atheist, the logical political allegiance was to socialism which is antithetical to Christianity.  As Dostoevsky wrote, “Socialism is not merely the labor question, it is before all things the atheistic question….”  Do we realize why socialism today is increasingly popular in spite of its dismal history of economic failure and the deaths of millions of people?  Socialism is increasingly popular because many are deceived into believing that “our generation” will avoid the “Stalinist perversion of an otherwise perfect system” and will “get it right” in the attempt to “set up heaven on earth?” (p. 24)

9.   Do some atheists see Christian attempts to relate to them as trophy-hunting expeditions?  Taunton suggests that Hitchens often found the efforts of Christians who sought to “convert” him as intellectually stimulating and entertaining.  But, he also loathingly considered other professing Christians like Rev. Al Sharpton as “intellectual frauds” when he learned that they held little or no allegiance to the authority of the Bible.  Read how Hitchens exemplifies a God-denier or God-hater who warms to some conservative evangelicals who displayed intellectual competence integrated with warmth and respect.

10.  What happens when an atheist like Christopher Hitchens is confronted with a horrific event like 9/11?  Hitchens could not help but judge the terrorist act as “simply evil” and not, as liberal progressives often claim, the result of some outside injustice--economic, social, political, or cultural?  If instead, murderous acts originate by “human free will” out of an evil heart, it becomes “freely chosen evil.” It follows that our whole “human family” is morally corrupt and in need of an outside Deliverer—the God an atheist claims does not exist!  Read how Hitchens came to see the contradiction.  Psalm 49: 7-9:  No man can by any means redeem his brother, or give to God a ransom for him-- For the redemption of his soul is costly, and he should cease trying forever--that he should live on eternally, that he should not undergo decay.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)

11.  How did the gradual warming of Christopher Hitchens toward Christianity come about by a Gospel witness grounded in the authority of Scripture as the sole arbiter of what defines Christianity, and not (as Hitchens often encountered) personal testimonials and human opinions?   How many times does my witness for Christ become diluted by too much emphasis on “my experience” as opposed to presenting the objective claims of the Gospel message?

12.  How did Larry Taunton, upon first meeting Hitchens, in 2007, avoid getting stuck in a “cart-before-the-horse” misunderstanding over how their lifestyles differed (e.g. smoking, drinking), allowing Taunton to say, from almost the beginning, “I knew I liked him…our rapport was immediate (p. 96).”

13.  How does a Christian friend of an atheist locate the moral limits (if any) beyond which the atheist will not go?  For example, was Hitchens’ atheism consistent enough (as was Peter Singer’s atheism) that he was comfortable with the Godless conclusion that there is no moral basis for treating human babies any differently than piglets or peeps?

14.  How did the adoption of a Russian girl, Sasha, by Larry and Lauri Taunton; and, Sasha’s vibrant Christian testimony to Christopher provide him with a glimpse of the “higher love” which he longed (see #? Above)?  Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, and therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you. For the LORD is a God of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him (Isaiah 30:18 ).

15.  Finally, does an increasingly warm and tender friendship of mutual trust and respect between an evangelical Christian and a professing atheist lead the latter to bow his knees at the altar of repentance and faith in God, and to take hold of that “higher love” he had longed to find?  You’ll have to read The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, but please don’t start with the last chapter.