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On Hitchens

21 December 2011

For obvious reasons, a search for the New York Times in my browser history would turn up more hits from the obituary section than it would in a normal week. I confess to being somewhat addicted, actually. Reading obits of folks who warrant more than just one is somewhat akin watching a civil war renenactment : all their stances—persuasive and clunker alike—are rehashed by true afficianados for an audience that wasn’t there the first time around.

In accord with the sheer profligacy of his work, Christopher Hitchens’ death last week has warranted pretty robust tribute. And perhaps the rancorous rehashing of his cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq is a fitting send-off. By all accounts, the man would not have wanted nice things to be said simply because that’s what one does at funerals. By the same token, maybe he would have appreciated the parting shots at his lack of deathbed conversion. The adage of “Death before Dishonor”—disingenuous sentiments being tantamount to the latter—seems to be commandment to Hitchens’ moral universe, to be applauded in others as much as in one’s self.

 But a couple of columns tried to wrestle with the ‘proper’ way for theists of all stripes to respond to Hitchens’ death. The subject of Hitchens’ post-mortem residence, beyond being out of our hands, is a bit touchy for the setting, but most of these take the form of a salute to a supremely worthy—yet ultimately defeated—opponent. Ross Douthat’s is the most quotable of them: 

Intellectually minded Christians, in particular, had a habit of talking about Hitchens as though he were one of them already — a convert in the making, whose furious broadsides against God were just the prelude to an inevitable reconciliation.


Recognizing this affinity, many Christian readers felt that in Hitchens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible … surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.

Experience tells me that whenever someone writes of “Christian readers”, it’s a reasonably solid bet that they are not talking about me. Still, from up here in the theological and cultural nosebleed seats of Christianity, I question why so many are comfortable in saying that Hitchens was ever not on our side. The obvious answer, of course, is that the question of belief in God is, for the fundamentally minded, rather fundamental. If you conclude that individuals are only saved from the place of much fire and serious dental problems by belief in Jesus as the Christ, then that line is drawn pretty clearly. I don’t, of course, so I have the luxury of not contending with that particular division.

I’ve read only excerpts of God Is Not Great, though I’ve read enough essays and seen enough of Hitchens’ debates in promotion of the book to comprehend the platform. It seems rather transparent to me that, while certainly rooted in a judgment of the implausibility of most traditions’ claims, the spark of Hitchens’ advocacy has much more to do with opposition to the evil that so often seems to emerge from a sealed hermeneutic of faith. That’s an old, and frankly easy, argument. What’s tough is stretching it far enough to encompass the book’s subtitle while accounting for a literally infinite variety of theologies. It’s a tall order, and one that I’m inclined to believe is impossible to fill. Indeed, the fact that Hitchens had to attempt the somewhat bewildering argument that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a ‘nebulous humanist’ in order to make his case is telling. Taking the most lived of concepts and discussing it as a monolithic concept with predictable effects upon the invidual is an attack on a straw man that bears not even the slightest resemblance to the real McCoy.

But his criticisms of hate and hypocrisy were a rather glorious form of truth-telling. Yes, it was sometimes utterly hyperbolic, and could come of as brimming with personal invective. And he made some astoundingly naïve, and occasionally ill-informed arguments. Yet I cannot help noticing that a devotion to justice, fairness, and a complete disregard for power or status in seeking both. If often overzealously and in ways that I found distasteful, Hitchens said things that needed to be spoken loudly and eloquently—all with profound affection and love for those with whom he shared his existence.

And however off the mark his critiques of religion were, I know they instilled in many believers who took them seriously a sense of the precariousness of their position. Holes in arguments were exposed, ones that had been either neglected or, more likely, purposely avoided. It’ s likely many convictions were shed or revamped as a result of what he wrote. I don’t know for sure, since it never had that particular effect on me. But what beliefs remained were just a little less secure, a little more in touch with the uncertainty that lies at the heart of everything—including, especially, God. I’ve long felt that many Christians have exchanged this awareness for the ability to discern for themselves, judging and ascribing meaning in God’s stead. When we claim certainty about such things, we truly worship only ourselves with all our petty motives and passions. There is no easy antidote to this most tempting failure, but those who take a turn at raking it over the coals cannot hurt.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” However arrogant and harsh he may have been prone to be, the fearlessness intertwined with these traits may have been the very thing that allowed Hitchens to inspire people to do all three. I think he missed some things in his search. Undoubtedly, so have we all. But as someone said recently, we rarely get to choose our teachers. Perhaps more to the point, we also rarely get to choose the lessons we teach each other. All we can do is listen, and apply what we can with a sense of humility–and gratitude. 




25 November 2010
Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. In observance of this custom, I appoint Thursday, the twenty-sixth of November, as a day of

for the blessings that have been our common lot and have placed our beloved State with the favored regions of earth — for all the creature comforts: the yield of the soil that has fed us and the richer yield from labor of every kind that has sustained our lives — and for all those things, as dear as breath to the body, that quicken man’s faith in his manhood, that nourish and strengthen his spirit to do the great work still before him: for the brotherly word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each to his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land; — that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our Harvest Home.


Given under my hand and seal of the State at the Capitol, in Hartford, this twelfth day of November, in the year of our Lord one thousand nine hundred and thirty six and of the independence of the United State the one hundred and sixty-first.

Wilbur L. Cross

I have nothing whatsoever to add.

Hard Things

13 October 2010

Henri Nouwen, via Abby–who really should devote an entire blog to interesting tidbits of religious thought she runs across–has this to say:

Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute to the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.  Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” We ask, “Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?

This, I think, is the hardest of many hard things. No matter the beginnings or desired ends of our power, we are inclined to believe that as long as we work hard enough, deliberately enough, prayerfully enough, then that will be enough. We can shape the world with our hands, into a smooth, faultless globe.  No chasms to be bridged, no cracks to slip through. And to do this, we will need all the unbridled agency we can muster. In this department, there is no such thing as ‘enough’.

The intended endgame of this is not a world without pain.  It is a society in which the greatest kind of love is no longer needed; More aptly still, it in which Christ is merely, powerfully, obsolete.

The Gospel According to Glee

12 October 2010

I have more conflicted feelings about Glee than anything else I watch. I try so hard to remember the admonition from the pilot’s first frame, that Glee “is sheer joy”. But it’s a challenge. It’s groaning from the weight of it’s burgeoning cast list, leaving the most compelling players to simply disappear from the screen for a week or so at a time, while everyone else merely gets a spotlight so short they can’t help but be a walking stereotype. The writing is a train wreck every other week, leading to episodes like the atrocious Britney Spears marathon that made me want to go eat the closest unprofessionally-prepared blowfish. And then Sue Sylvester will say something about elves coming out of Will’s hair, and I’ll forget all that.

Nonetheless, Glee’s track record when it comes to discussions of power and difference is, at best, mixed. Tongue-in-cheek though it may be, the consistent milking of stereotypes is tough to take, and even it’s most powerful moments often wind up backfiring rather spectacularly. So you’ll have to forgive my initial reticence about Glee‘s stab at a serious religious discussion in its latest episode, “Grilled Cheesus”.  If you missed it, the episode swings on Finn’s religious awakening, spurred on by a George Forman Grill-induced, Christ-shaped burn on a grilled-cheese sandwich. By sheer coincidence, Kurt’s father suffers a massive heart attack, setting up a conflict between Kurt’s cynical, reasoned atheism, and the well-intentioned-though-ill-defined theism of, well, just about everyone else over their attempts to pray for Kurt’s father.

I haven’t exactly been in-the-loop when it comes to television for going on five years now, but I can’t remember another such genuine attempt to give serious credence to atheism in a popular setting. Kurt had more than ample room to refute the argument from un-falsifiability espoused by Mercedes, even if his dwarf in a teapot analogy lacked the elegance of Sagan’s original. And I was blown away by the shocking choice of the writers to give Sue Sylvester some principled ground to stand on for once:

This might actually be as far beyond a stereotype that Glee has ever gone, and treated it’s characters–especially its stock antagonists–as having depth and values beyond being selfish imbeciles. In fact, the writers respect their creations so much that they offered no “come to Cheesus” moments for Sue and Kurt. Moments in which they decide to be accommodating/not outright hostile to their friends, sure, but there’s no indication that either of them have changed their stance where deities are concerned. I judged this episode–as I do all of them, really–by the extent to which it complicates an important discourse. And when it comes to questions of theism and theodicy, that will never happen so long as our culture conceives atheists as being malevolent hedonists. In that light, by the time Finn finally finished the damned sandwich, I was a rather happy Glee viewer.

But this episode nagged at me as I let it percolate. For all the depth and conviction it gave Kurt and Sue, it still fell back on the tired caricature of atheism as bereft of hope or wonder, the result of humanity in a juicy marinate of despair, cynicism, and arrogance. Kurt explains pretty clearly that the death of his mother in early childhood created the “Santa Claus or jerk” dichotomy, while for Sue it was watching the cruel treatment her developmentally disabled sister suffered from her peers. We’re led to believe, ultimately, that had some different cards been dealt, and their character arcs written to be a little less woebegone, both would have gone waltzed through life with their belief in the numinous mercifully untouched. Theism (though let’s be honest, neither Puck or Rachel did much with their Jewish identity to draw us away from the Jesus vs. Kurt debate) is treated as the original state, while atheism is an aberration, the result of being nudged off the original path by an avalanche of suffering.

I can see why the script went this direction, too.  As a friend pointed out, it does cast our resident atheists in sympathetic positions, instead of, say, some teacher who just happened to have strong ethical boundaries on this topic. Atheism isn’t presented as a sinisterplot by Feminist, Obama-voting, Massachusetts residents to corrupt the youth of Lima, Ohio, which is a step. But presenting it only as the product of overpowering pain hints that behind respect for that position lurks the hope that someday, enough healing can take place to put everything right again. That is to say, atheists are really just Christians, looking for a reason to believe again. Is that true of some atheists? Sure.  But portraying it as monolithically true omits the principle, carefully-reasoned philosophy, and yes, spirituality that can inhabit even the most fervent of dis-belief.

I know there are more than a few atheists out there like Sue and Kurt.  But maybe my friends have just been particularly fortunate, because I’ve never met any.  I have, though, been close with many an atheist for whom the idea of God just never added up, who never needed codes of behavior to be presented ad verecundiam, or who has seen just a few too many historical examples of theodicy in action. These are the voices that “Grilled Cheesus” so desperately needed to make it worth the effort.  Why not turn to Quinn, who spent most of Season 1 seeing the ugly side of the Church, for some insight? Or have someone like Tina or Artie weigh in on the subject with a bit more nuance?

“Grilled Cheesus” was a step forward for religious dialogue only insofar as it substituted one dumbed-down conception of atheist thought for a considerably kinder variant. This Christian will take kindness and tolerance where he can get it, but the thing about straw-men is that no person’s love–or argument–is strengthened by dealing with them. Maybe I’m asking too much of Glee, I know, but I’d love it if Emma’s observation about “big questions” being big for everyone had been backed up by others being pushed outside their comfort zones instead of retreating into them , and then being angry when others don’t as well. At the very least, we should be able to get past this simplistic notion of atheism as an excursion from the path to the Kingdom. That is to be ignorant of both the secular and the Christian reality. No matter which path one chooses, it is guaranteed to be winding, and bounded by wilderness.  How one defines the ever-present hinterland is unimportant; the fact that all of us have stood there, once, twice, and again, is.


23 August 2010

Protest against the Cordoba House at Park51, 22 August 2010 (Photo Credit: James Estrin, New York Times)

Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but in this case, it’s probably equivalent to all the coverage of the protests that have surrounded the Cordoba Initiative’s efforts to build an Islamic Culture Center and Mosque in the Park51 Complex in Southern Manhattan.

I won’t waste words commenting on the legal aspects of this controversy, simply because there’s not much to say. Opponents haven’t one legal leg to stand on. To their limited credit, the folks spearheading opposition to this and other mosques seem to have realized that their options for litigation ended after the disingenuous request for Park51 to be declared a historic landmark was unanimously shot down by the Landmark Preservation Commission.

As a result, the editorial and letters pages have been awash recently with a different sort of critique that concedes there is no constitutional way of impeding the project in the courtroom. Instead, we’re seeing an appeal to courtesy, and to the motives that the Cordoba House represents, in the lobbying to cancel the project. Karen Hughes (an advisor to Former President George W. Bush) takes a stab at exactly this sort of argument in her Washington Post op-ed:

I believe that most Americans who oppose locating a mosque near Ground Zero are neither anti-freedom nor anti-Muslim; they just don’t believe it’s respectful, given what happened there…

That’s why I believe it is so important that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his congregation make what I fully understand would be a very difficult choice: to locate their mosque elsewhere. Putting the mosque at a different site would demonstrate the uncommon courtesy sometimes required for us to get along in our free and diverse society.

I recognize that I am asking the imam and his congregation to show a respect that has not always been accorded to them. But what a powerful example that decision would be. Many people worry that this debate threatens to deepen resentments and divisions in America; by choosing a different course, Rauf could provide a path toward the peaceful relationships that he and his fellow Muslims strive to achieve. And this gesture of goodwill could lead us to a more thoughtful conversation to address some of the ugliness this controversy has engendered.

The crazy thing is, I can almost put some stock in this argument. Hughes’ point that attempting to foster constructive dialogue about Islam in America would be a lot easier under less tense circumstances isn’t entirely without merit, and she gets some points in my book for not conferring a halo of smoke and ash upon those protesting the mosque, and rebuking the idea that it will host an extremist cell–as well as never once referring to it as the “Ground Zero Mosque”. But I’m lost once this ambiguous idea of respect comes into the equation.

First, the sentiment that the Muslim population of New York City have a special obligation to respect families affected by 9/11 displays something frightening. Frankly, it’s a bit like saying that given Timothy McVeigh’s associations with the Christian Identity movement, relatives of the Oklahoma City bombing victims would have a moral right to insist upon a no-church zone in front of the remnants of the Murrah Federal Building. Of course, such a request was never made, for one simple reason: most of the families were Christian. We exclude one terrorist from our assessment of his faith because it is a majority one, while holding an entire minority faith accountable for the actions of 19 hijackers, and impose upon it special restrictions and burdens based solely upon “shared” religious belief.  There’s a very hot place in historical hell for societies that do this.

Even if such a special obligation weren’t deeply prejudiced and wrong, it’s also not at all clear to me what exactly the Cordoba House fails to respect. Protestors often refer to the site of the towers as “Hallowed Ground” in suggesting that a mosque does not comport with the dignity of Ground Zero. As Daryl Lang reminds us, though, apparently “Gentleman’s Clubs”, gambling establishments, souvenir carts that shamelessly attempt to profit from the collapse of the Twin Towers, and McDonalds restaurants are a shining tribute to the nearly 2,000 people murdered in those buildings. That a center with an explicit goal of combating the sort of extremism that led to 9/11 in the first place offends the atmosphere of Ground Zero more than a strip club would be laughable, if it weren’t so revealing.

When we designate a place as sacred, as hallowed ground, a community has every right to place certain restrictions upon that area. Communities need spaces like that, to mourn, to remember, and to tie them together in ways that words alone cannot. The Peace Park in Hiroshima, or Auschwitz, are places reflect this spirit of sanctity.  If the City of New York were to re-zone the area around Ground Zero entirely for parks, memorials, and other public institutions, that’d be both morally and legally defensible, and in keeping with the way we’ve always treated sacred space. If the city were to ban souvenir stalls from those blocks, that might well fly too. But when a place’s hallowed status holds a mosque as its one unacceptable defilement, it’s apparent that ‘sacred’ has only one meaning to these protestors: an Islam-free zone. No American with a value for tolerance and equality should abide a definition of sanctity that requires discrimination against their fellow citizens.  Principles exist not to enable such simultaneously vile and yet all-too-understandable instincts, but to remind us of the people we strive to be, forcing our hands when our hearts have long since given up the ghost. In that spirit, a sacred American place should embody our loftier aspirations, not our inner, fearful demons.

Up to now, I’d watched the proceedings unfold with an eye toward attention to toward the question of rights. Mayor Bloomberg’s awe-inspiring speech from Governor’s Island made me hope he throws his hat in the ring for President in the future, and Obama’s remarks, while considerably less rousing, provided a reminder of why it is that I voted for him. But I suppose that in retrospect, I’d looked upon the issue similarly to how the President himself had done so: with a fierce defense of the right to build the Cordoba House, and a calculated detachment from the issue of whether it was wise to do so.

But opening the NYT Homepage this morning to see this photo has changed things. These vocal opponents are not seeking respect for anything, save their own prejudices, nor do they give a Coney Island Hot Dog about the sanctity of Ground Zero. You don’t get the sense that these people grieving, or pleading for space to heal. You do, however, get the sense that they’re threatening and intimidating because they can get away with it. One doesn’t plead for respect and sensitivity by accusing Muslims as a whole of being a murderous lot of terrorists, unworthy of calling themselves Americans–and if anyone thinks that’s an unfair characterization, then I urge them to look at that picture, and ask themselves what other message could be conveyed by writing “Sharia” in blood-dripping letters, and waving American flags to protest a mosque.  Yes, people get crazy and do stupid, hurtful things when their passions are inflamed.  But to heed a call for “courtesy” in this case would not quell anger and heal wounds.  Far from it, it would legitimize bigotry and hate as righteous and patriotic. And it would embolden those who are trying to stop mosques in Tennessee, Staten Island, and Sheboygan*, far from the sacred ground these folks claim to defend.

Understanding and sensitivity must prevail if this cycle of violence is ever to end.  Karen Hughes thinks that moving the project would be a step in that direction, but if this protest clarifies anything, it’s that before a dialogue about sensitivity can begin, the parties must be on an approximately equal footing.  To wit, the folks in this photo need to understand one thing: the Muslim community in general, and in Southern Manhattan especially, will not, and cannot, be chased out of their homes by intimidation, fear, or violence. Only when that is made clear will these opponents of the mosque have anything to learn from its presence, because they will be forced to deal with the Muslim Community as neighbors, rather than unwanted interlopers. I can think of no clearer demonstration of this reality than building the Cordoba House, come hell or high water.

I’ve spent the last hour at work looking for a way to donate directly to the construction of Cordoba House.  Haven’t found one yet, perhaps because the project is very much in its early stages, perhaps because punching in “donations to Cordoba Initiative” into Google yields more references to Hamas than anything else. But when I find a link, or one becomes available, I’m pledging right now to donate $50 to it. I’ll post the link here once I track it down, and I’d ask any readers to consider doing the same. To those who might feel conflicted about donating to a religious organization whose theology is not in accord with their own, consider the words of Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, in front of a Jewish congregation after the murder of Daniel Pearl:

We are here to assert the Islamic conviction of the moral equivalency of our Abrahamic faiths. If to be a Jew means to say with all one’s heart, mind and soul Shma` Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ahad; hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, not only today I am a Jew, I have always been one, Mr. Pearl.

If to be a Christian is to love the Lord our God with all of my heart, mind and soul, and to love for my fellow human being what I love for myself, then not only am I a Christian, but I have always been one Mr. Pearl.

And I am here to inform you, with the full authority of the Quranic texts and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, that to say La ilaha illallah Muhammadun rasulullah is no different.

It expresses the same theological and ethical principles and values.

I can see how one would have quibbles with this reasoning.  I have a few myself. But when I contrast this spirit of tolerance and community with the anger, lies, and prejudice directed toward the Cordoba Initiative, one thing seems quite clear to me: This country will be more Christian, more Jewish, more Buddhist, and more Pastafarian on the day this center opens than it will be if it never does because of this brand of anger. Surely that’s worth a couple bucks, or at least a prayer or two.

We Strive for Accuracy

17 July 2010

Appended to this post on the NYT’s Caucus Blog, regarding a particularly disgusting tea party billboard in Iowa, was an unusual correction:

The Times could give a damn about the error.

“How Are You?”

17 July 2010

In elementary school classrooms here, there is a routine. When the chime sounds, the homeroom teacher prompts the nichoku, the student assigned to bring the class to order that day, to perform the perfunctory greeting. The nichoku says “気をつけ” — “Be careful”, “Be ready”.  The class takes a moment to arrange their things, cease their conversations, and focus.  When the nichoku is satisfied that the class is presentable, he or she faces the front and makes a solemn pronouncement: “Starting now, second period will begin”.  The rest of the class bows in their seats, echoing “we will begin”.

In my elementary school classrooms, I also have a routine. After this ritual, and an enthusiastic exchange of “Good Mornings”, I always ask each class “How are you today?”–not to the group, but to individuals.  Sometimes they volunteer. Sometimes I have to nudge them along by calling first on English nerds who sit in the front row.  Sometimes I’m a little sadistic, and call on the kid in back focusing so hard on his textbook that he appears to be severely constipated. By now, I’ve taught them so many, many ways of answering this question. From “I’m hungry” and “I’m sleep” to “I’m thirsty” and “I’m bored”. I always prepare my own new answer each week, too.  Tomorrow’s response, in case you were curious, is “I’m excited for Summer Vacation!”

I insist upon doing this with each and every class for two reasons. First, it puts the students–even the awkward ones who never volunteer–at ease.  It allows them a tiny forum for interaction that they can latch on to, and feel that morsel of success upon its completion. But more importantly, it is language at its most essential–as a means of narrating our thoughts, emotions, desires, and questions. It begins every class with the simplest possible reminder that language is not arithmetic. There is no right or wrong answer–no solution of any kind, come to that. Just how the feeling, and the English they place in its service. Perhaps I’ve only succeeded at mechanizing spontaneity. I can live with that.

Despite their initial reluctance, the students have come to love this. There are still awkward students aplenty, but by now the ones who are excited to be called upon outnumber the stoic ones. And the kids who have actually looked up a new answer in the library’s Japanese-English dictionary, or try to be clever by conjoining emotions with the fascinating new word “and”, increases by the week. The homeroom teachers have overcome their concerns about the disorder this injects into their classroom, too. Two weeks ago, one 4th grade teacher responded by shouting “I’m feeling SEXY! WHOOOO!”–followed by his best Michael Jackson impersonation–replete with a cringe-inducing pelvic thrust and attempt at a moon-walk. Some people, clearly, are just too sexy for elementary school.

This past April the 6th graders graduated, and entered the junior high school where I also happen to teach. I knew I was in for trouble when I asked the first class how they were doing, received an ecstatic jumble of responses, only to have the homeroom teacher jump in and correct them. “Actually”, she opines, “you should say ‘I’m fine, thank you, and you?’ whenever Haru-sensei asks you that question”.

I didn’t fight it, and I didn’t question.  It’s not my classroom, and I don’t get a say in how class time is appropriated–not with the next test always around the corner.  Instead, I resorted to guerrilla tactics to sustain the tradition I’d built with these students. I always gave a slight nod to the students who still insist on shouting their own answer.  I made a point of stopping students in the hallway and chatting them up–not that I haven’t always done that.

Today, I asked Homeroom 4 how they were doing and, with irreproachable synchronization, twenty-seven boys and girls shouted back “I’m fine, thank you, and you?”. Miyazaki-sensei nodded approvingly. So I picked up the flash cards, thinking of my favorite poets the whole time.