A reader writes:
Nothing Hitchens said bothered me, a practicing, but non-fundamentalist Christian, in the least. His objections seem aimed at a faith that bore no resemblance to mine. Even more, his arguments curiously parallel those of religious fundamentalists. Everything is to be taken literally – even, most weirdly, the parables of Jesus and notoriously difficult passages like the Sermon on the Mount. For instance, Jesus’s saying that we should “take no thought for tomorrow” is rendered by Hitchens as “moral advice” to be treated as a simple command. Treated as such, he calls it “wicked” and “evil” because, understood literally, that means Jesus is telling parents to neglect their children and for individuals and communities to make sure they starve by abandoning the slightest trace of prudence. Reading this teaching of Jesus this way genuinely is not very careful or intelligent. I honestly can’t believe that’s really what Hitchens thought it means, that Jesus was commanding his listeners to harm others, let alone children.
You note at one point that commands like this are “impossible.” I agree. And maybe that’s the point. That Jesus is not so much (to continue with the above example) commanding parents to harm their children, but exposing our hearts – showing us that our attachments, our search for mastery and control, our lust for money, that all these strivings are futile and the enemies of living in a genuinely compassionate and peaceful way. That trying to take the future and impose our will on it leads to destruction, both of ourselves and others. Hitchens treats Jesus like a hucksterish advice columnist for first century Palestine.
Do this, do that, follow these simple directions. My example isn’t fanciful – he reads the Gospels with about as much nuance as I do the morning paper. Instead, why not read the Gospels by treating Jesus, among much else, as a masterful psychologist, a prophet who strips away all the strongholds of our egos, our achievements, our delusional belief in our own self-sufficiency. Isn’t this what Jesus is getting at when he tells us, in Matthew 15, that out of the heart proceeds a whole array of sins and misdeeds. Jesus never settles on the exterior, but is a penetrating analyst of our interior lives – our thoughts, our desires, our “hearts.” This fact alone, that Jesus finds the chief faults of the world come from within each of us, means that by necessity interpreting his words cannot be done in the simplistic, hyper-literal way Hitchens does. We must, like Jesus did with every person he encountered, dig beneath the surface to the inner logic of his commands, move from the letter to the spirit, to what his commands expose about our hearts. We should read Jesus, to deploy an over-used word, “existentially.”
Ultimately, Jesus was not a giver of “moral advice” or the purveyor of a checklist of commands. He was both teaching and enacting a way of being in the world, a way of life, a way radically discontinuous with our natural instincts. At every turn, he took the wisdom of the world, our expectations of what we, left to our own striving and tendencies, should do to solve our problems, and showed their futility. Looking at the world around us, might we not think, if but for a moment, that there was more to this strange, wandering teacher than Hitchens is willing to concede?
(Painting: “Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles” by Duccio, between 1308 and 1311.)