Saturday, December 17, 2011

Reflections on the Death of Christopher Hitchens: Cheap Grace and American Exceptionalism

I haven't commented on Christopher Hitchens's death because, to be honest, I didn't much follow the debates in which he was involved.  I am interested in atheism, perhaps primarily as a defensible response to the misrepresentation of authentic religious values by adherents of many religious traditions.  I have long thought that Catholic theologian Karl Rahner is exactly right when he argues that, given the demonic face of "God" some people encounter through organized religion, they have a moral obligation, in fact, to reject "God."

And their critique of the demonic, twisted images of God offered to the world by some believers deserves attention by anyone concerned to uphold authentic religiosity.  It does so because that atheistic critique often serves moral values that ought to be part and parcel of theologies of God in the religious traditions under critique, but which have been obscured by actual notions of the divine held by many believers within those traditions.

Whether Christopher Hitchens was an admirable or noble defender of his values, I freely admit I don't know.  Since, as I say, I really haven't followed the debates surrounding his philosophical or political positions.  To the extent that I know much at all about the latter, I suspect I wouldn't have found much in common with his political views.

But no matter where he stood religiously, philosophically, or politically, I find it beyond appalling that anyone would take it on himself or herself to comment on the status of this man's soul in the eyes of God, following his death.  And I gather from several pieces I've read online in the past day or so (notably Mary Elizabeth Williams's commentary at Salon) that quite a few folks are taking it on themselves to make some "religious" hay out of the death of Hitchens.

According to Williams, world-class blowhard Rev. Rick Warren has tweeted simperingly that his "friend" Christopher Hitchens has died and now knows the Truth.  And Rev. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, has, according to Williams, made the atrocious suggestion that Hitchens's death from esophageal cancer is "an excruciating reminder of the consequences of unbelief."

And I'm now trying to get my mind around the unfathomable bad taste of any human being who would use the death of another human being as the occasion for cheap shots, theological jabs, or--beyond belief--gloating about how their God slaps an unbeliever down through sickness and death.  I'm trying to understand these responses from the standpoint of any theological framework that might make a scintilla of sense to me as I read the gospels.

And here's what I'm concluding: when I listened to Tamara Scott, Michelle Bachmann's co-chair in the Iowa campaign, in that Fault Lines video to which I pointed readers yesterday, I was more than a little taken aback--I was frankly irritated--by the simplistic, mindless way in which Ms. Scott tries to argue that the United States represents God's chosen nation among all the nations in the world.

Ms. Scott supposes that we Americans have the edge on everyone else because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and we Americans--so she insinuates--exhibit the fear of the Lord in spades.  And so, as she says, wide eyes akimbo with alarm, we would do ourselves incalculable harm if we let the ungodly prevail in the political sphere.  As if up to now we've been ruled by patently godly men and women, and some dark, ungodly threat to upset the divine scheme of things that has previously obtained in the land of the godly is now just around the corner . . . .

You have the godly and the ungodly.  And Tamara Scott and Michelle Bachmann (and Albert Mohler and Rick Warren) know precisely where they fit in that paradigm.   And the godly know precisely who is ungodly and they don't mind telling the rest of us weak-brained lukewarm believers who lack the fear of the Lord precisely who those ungodly folks are.  And why we ought to premise all of our political decisions on keeping them from political power.

There are all kinds of ways to critique this mindless dualistic worldview based in the ideology of American Puritanism, which views America as a city on a hill built to demonstrate godliness to the rest of the ungodly world.  One very traditional way to deal with the shallowness of this worldview is to note, with Augustine in his City of God (and with Jesus in the gospels), that the sorting of godly from ungodly belongs to God alone, and when that final sorting takes place, we may well be very surprised at who ends up on either side of the tally sheet.

But another theological way to think about the religiously infantile worldview of American exceptionalism that runs everywhere through American pop and political culture is by means of Dietrich Bonhöffer's schema of cheap and costly grace.  The simplism of Ms. Scott's equation of America (and herself, and her own) with the godly and of all others who are not Ms. Scott and her own with the ungodly: this simplism relies completely on cheap grace.

It's altogether too easy and too lazy.  It's too easy to tag one nation good and all other nations bad, when there's overwhelming evidence that the nation being identified with God often behaves in very unGodlike ways in the world around it, and vis-a-vis its own citizens.  It's too easy to imagine that everyone who doesn't worship in the Church of America is ungodly because he or she lacks proper faith--when there's abundant evidence of godliness everywhere in the world, among every sort of person in the world, many of whom adamantly don't fit any conventional American paradigm at all.

We Americans have made ourselves a religiously infantile folk with this talk of America's special selection by God and our conviction of our self-evident righteousness in a world far more diverse and complex than we have ever sought to understand.  And as a result, we've ended up with a laughably shallow distillation of any version of Christian faith that can claim authentic gospel provenance, a shallow distillation running all through our American civil religion, which imagines that the victory of a football star who kneels ostentatiously to pray while sporting bible verses pasted under his eyes is somehow a proof that God is in his heaven and all's right with the world.  And that football scores are a vindication of America and its values.  And of the old-time religion of male domination and capitalist exploitation of the weak and the poor.

While the death of a man due to cancer demonstrates that that same macho, score-keeping, enemy-decimating God visits his enemies--the ungodly--with illness and takes their lives.

It's far too easy, this cheap-grace way of looking at things.  It's exceedingly cruel.  It lets us, the godly, the God-chosen people, off the hook in a way that covers over the thoughtless cruelty we visit on our "enemies" with a religious gloss that has nothing to do with costly gospel grace at all.

It's cheap grace, the story of American exceptionalism we keep telling ourselves to reassure us of our divine selection.  It's the same kind of narrative papal fans love to tell themselves when they imagine that  throngs of screaming viewers of papal spectacles betoken signs and wonders, outward and visible signs of the invisible holiness of the Catholic church.  It's infantile, this cheap-grace way of looking at the world around us, God's connection to it, and our place in it.

And it doesn't do anyone any good, least of all, those of us clinging to these primitive notions.  Certainly not when it leads us to imagine that we have the right (and even the religious obligation) to gloat about the death of a fellow human being from cancer, and to use that death as a moral lesson demonstrating who's godly and who's not, and what happens to the ungodly.

The graphic is a detail from Peter Cábocky's 2009 mixed-media work "Cheap Grace."

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