Heaven knows why, but on Easter Sunday 2020 I thought back to a conversation I had with Christopher Hitchens. I’d invited him to come to the Hauenstein Center to talk about his recent book on Thomas Jefferson. It was October 3, 2006. On the two-hour drive from Detroit Metro Airport to Grand Rapids, he mentioned that his next book would be released soon. (God Is Not Great would come out the following May.) Since Christopher knew I was Catholic, he counted on the title being an irritant. It was. To pass the time on the drive through corn country, he invited me to try and take him down as an atheist. Defend why anyone should be a believer. He anticipated encountering fierce resistance on his upcoming book tour, so a little sparring with me would give him the chance to try out various rhetorical strategies in flyover country. I happily accepted the challenge.
“Just don’t give me the argument from design,” Christopher said. “I find it exceedingly tiresome.”
“All right,” I said, loading up, “besides the argument from design, there are a handful of other arguments I’ve used over the years. First is the argument from desire—or, more specifically, our frustrated desire for moral perfection. Why would people be made to feel strong natural desires if there were no corresponding objects to satisfy those desires? It makes no evolutionary sense. It would be like feeling the urge to play computer games before the computer was even invented. Our natural desires would only have evolved in concert with the objects meant to fulfill those desires. So, I feel hunger only because food exists to satisfy my hunger. I feel thirst only because water exists to slake my thirst. The same for other desires, like sex and beauty. If I have the desire for sex, there is my spouse. If I need beauty, there are sunsets and seashores, flowers and rainbows, museums and masterpieces. Why would nature implant a strong natural desire in us unless it could be satisfied? By extension—here’s the point—I feel the need to achieve moral excellence. I always want to make the perfect moral decision, then execute it flawlessly. That way, I’ll have a clear conscience and have a shot at being happy. Alas, my conscience pricks me because of all the times I fall short. So does my wife! What am I to make of this frustrated desire? It’s not unreasonable to infer that if I won’t reach moral perfection in this life, then there must be an afterlife when I can. Otherwise the desire makes no sense. Hindus call it reincarnation. Protestants call it Heaven. Catholics call it Purgatory on the way to Heaven. By whatever name, I believe in the necessity of the afterlife. This cannot be all there is.”
I looked over at Christopher and his eyes were already at half-staff. I didn’t want to bore him with tiresome arguments since he needed his energy to perform that night. Yet, despite myself, I felt determined to drive the point home: “Don’t you think C.S. Lewis made a compelling point when he said, in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world?”
“Hmm,” he grunted sleepily.
“Okay,” I said, “let’s move from desire to the argument from logical necessity. It’s been around a long time, from Aristotle to Anselm to Aquinas. Shakespeare summarized it well when he said that nothing comes from nothing. It’s—“
Christopher interrupted. “Nothing WILL come OF nothing. King Lear, Act I, scene 1.”
Christopher’s erudition halted me in my tracks. “You know the line well,” I conceded. “In its deepest sense, Lear’s rejection of nihilism can be read as a boldface headline for the famous ‘Five Ways’ of inferring God’s existence—as the Unmoved Mover, First Cause, Necessary Being, Absolute Being, and Grand Designer. Basically it traces back to Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The argument is that the material world could not have made itself come into existence. Before there were time and space and motion, there had to be some prior force greater than time, space, and motion. ‘Spiritual’ is the overworked word we use to convey something that’s really special, really awe-inspiring and full of majesty. And it’s the majestic force that brought time and space and things into existence and set them in motion according to predictable laws. How else could the Big Bang have happened except at the instigation of some prior power that’s greater than chemical elements? No alternative makes sense. If we say that there was some prior material force that caused the Big Bang, and some prior material force prior to the material force that caused the Big Bang, then we get all tangled up in the knots of infinite regression. That doesn’t work. Lear summarized it best: Nothing will come of nothing.”
Christopher suddenly stirred. “I’ve heard these arguments before. Maybe the failure to feel moral perfection, or to accept logical necessity, merely reflects our neuroses, poor intellect, and limited imagination. We are like blind men trying, in their puny way, to describe an elephant they’ve never before encountered. By the way,” he said, changing the tempo, “the good conversation is making me peckish. Is there an Irish pub nearby?”
At that point in the drive, we were going through mid-Michigan, so a short detour led us to Claddagh Irish Pub near East Lansing. The pub is named for a fishing village south of Galway, known for its stony shore. We ate a hearty lunch, during which Christopher enjoyed two Johnnie Walker Blacks from the bar. Soon after we were back on the highway, the warm autumn sunlight filling the car. The heat, combined with the fermented mash of grains he had just consumed, made Christopher drowsy and he drifted off. Then something happened I’d never witnessed before. About 15 minutes had passed when suddenly he roused from his nap. With eyes still closed, he flawlessly recited Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming,” from memory. He reached the middle of the poem:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
“…When, Gleaves, you should try giving me a better reason to believe in God.”
I laughed. “That’s one helluva segue, Christopher. But I’m game. Let me try the argument from forgiveness. There are things I’ve done that I will never be able to forgive myself for—not completely. I know it’s unfashionable to admit that in our therapeutic age, but I do have regrets about things I’ve said and done, or not done, and no amount of self-talk takes the remorse away. I cannot breezily say of my life: no regrets. I need God to forgive me. If Jesus had not died for us, we pitiable humans would have had to invent him to make our lives more tolerable.”
“Oh, I think we did invent him,” Christopher said with satisfaction. “And for 2,000 years, he’s been the lamb who was slain—intellectually—over and over and over. Maybe Christians just feel more guilty than the rest of the population. Like dogs. A dog feels bad when he steals your dinner. Does the dog need Jesus?”
“Since the arguments from design, desire, logical necessity, and forgiveness didn’t move you,” I said, “let me lob another one over the net: the argument from ‘nostalgia,’ which in the original Greek refers to our yearning for home. I don’t claim that the argument is original with me, but I’ve never encountered it. We all have that sweet but bitter yearning for something in our past. What is that? We are born with our hearts entire. When we are young our hearts are not yet broken. But every time we love, we suffer. It’s as though we give a puzzle piece from our heart to the person, place, or thing we love. We say, I gave my heart to my betrothed. I left my heart in San Francisco. A piece of it, anyway. Through it all, we yearn to return to wholeness, yearn to bring the pieces back together to make our heart complete again. But we cannot do that in this life. Only God can put our puzzle pieces back together in the afterlife.”
“Fascinating,” Christopher conceded politely, but I could tell he wasn’t buying it.
So I tacked in the one final direction I knew: “What about the supernatural spiritual strength human beings possess to endure the unendurable. The human spirit is hard to crush. Can the source of such inner strength be reduced to chemistry or evolutionary psychology? Or might it come from a greater power? Call it the argument from the human spirit. We’ve all marveled at it. We saw it on 9/11, when people overcame fear and rescued others in the face of impossible odds. They were not acting naturally. Where did such outrageous courage come from? We saw it in Admiral James Bond Stockdale, who survived for years as a POW in an annex of the Hanoi Hilton in Vietnam. He was not acting naturally. Where did such outrageous resilience come from? We saw it in Pope John Paul II, who forgave the man who tried to assassinate him. He was not acting naturally. Where did his outrageous capacity to reconcile with the enemy come from? I believe these great displays of the human spirit transcend nature. They manifest the divine spark in us. Don’t such moments give us a view-through-the-keyhole that reveals our true identity as creatures made in the image and likeness of God?”
“It’s a question I will encounter on the book tour,” said Christopher. “You are a generous bloke to give me some practice with your five arguments. You have played a good Hamlet who would no doubt say to me what he said to Horatio: ‘There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ ”
Just so, I thought, as Christopher glanced at me with an arch smile. Was that his way of conceding Hamlet’s point if he couldn’t concede mine?
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The featured image is a photograph of Christopher Hitchens by Fri Tanke (source http://www.mynewsdesk.com/se/images/christopher-hitchens-29854). It is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.