A while back – by which I mean several years ago now – I thought it would be a cool idea to do some post-prandial chats with some of my favorite people. It occurred to me that the best conversations I ever heard in Washington never happened on television or radio. They were always way off the record. But they might occur, I suspected, if we just attached microphones to ourselves, had a bottle of wine or two and just riffed. And who else to start with but Hitch? Alas, the audio was not good enough, we had one big microphone in Christopher’s cavernous dining room, and so our long early morning conversation about God and Iraq and death never got further than my iTunes album.
Until I came across it the other day, realized I had an intern and asked him to transcribe it. It was more coherent than I recall. And I wasn’t as demolished by Hitch’s brain as thoroughly as it felt at the time. Or maybe I’m deluding myself. But see for yourself. I’m going to publish it in manageable excerpts or long posts over the next couple of weeks, before we find a permanent place for it on the Dish. If you want to read it all at once, I’d wait for the full transcript. But for those who prefer reading in shorter, bloggier clips, here’s the first part.
A: That is some strong coffee.
H: You prefer weaker?
A: No, no, I should have some wine as well, or else I’ll be all jacked up.
H: Of course! What color would you like?
A: I’ll have some of this, if this is okay, I’ll just get a glass.
A: My dissertation, basically, was about [Oakeshott’s] theory of practice. And there were hints and guesses in his early work and his very later work that he viewed religion as a part of practical life—it was philosophy which was the beyond, but religion was actually a way of living in the world.
A: It was a way of overcoming the “deadliness of doing,” as he put it, and it enables you to have some sublime acquiescence to it. So I read for my dissertation everything he’d ever written. And my fifth chapter I hadn’t written when I went to see him, because I wanted the fifth chapter to be on religion. And this is why this conference is so exciting to me [I was about to attend a conference on Oakeshott's thought], because almost everything — a lot of what they’ve discovered since he died—is about religion. He just didn’t publish it.
H: Oh, I’d be very interested to know about this.
A: But the reason you reminded me of him was because I said to him—it’s a very difficult subject to bring up with somebody—I said, “you seem to talk of Christianity as one of the critical elements of Western civilization.” He was a big fan of Augustine, hugely interested in and influenced by Augustine. And he said, “Well, my problem with Christianity has always been salvation. After all, who would want to be saved?”
H: Well, that’s very much like [Gotthold Ephraim] Lessing.
A: Right. Yes, exactly.
H: It’s also like being of the devil’s party, all of these things. I mean, what puts one off is the thought that it could be true, which I think is, in a way, the final condemnation of religion. When people contemplate its victory, they can’t stand it; it’s much better as a private consolation or faith against the material world and its misery.
A: That is what Oakeshott’s understanding is.
H: It’s also what Daniel Dennett is effectively saying, is that it has its utility and can’t possibly die out, let alone be repressed. But that the real, the actual claims it makes as a church are not just false but sinister, really.
A: I think that what [Oakeshott] would say, and what I would say, is that what’s sinister is the deployment of dogma as certainty. If one takes Lessing and Oakeshott’s view of Christianity, which is ultimately that God is unknowable—
H: Then don’t pretend to know.
A: Then we cannot know. Or, what we can know, we will hold with a certain humility and provisionality. I mean, one can know, for example, that the Gospels exist and that they represented a human being whose life can be either honored or dishonored.
H: But the further implication of this is that if you admit or concede or even claim that it’s unknowable, then the first group to be eliminated from the argument are those who claim to know.
H: Because they must be wrong.
H: Well, that lets off quite a lot of people at the first floor of the argument, long before the elevator has started moving upwards, or downwards. Those who say they know, and can say they know it well enough, what God wants you to eat or whom he wants you to sleep with — they must be wrong.
A: That is proof itself that they are wrong.
H: Yes. As well as being impossibly arrogant, coming in the disguise of modesty, humility, simplicity. “Ah, I’m just a humble person doing God’s work.” No, excuse me, you must be either humble or doing God’s work. You can’t know what God’s work would be, don’t try your modesty on me. And once one’s made that elimination, then everything else becomes more or less simple. My problem only begins there.
A: But it’s still a religion.
H: Or maybe a faith or a cult.
A: Yeah, faith.
H: But my problem begins only when that’s out of the argument and we agree that’s nonsense.
A: That is nonsense.
To be continued …