The Folly Of Moral Conviction


Christophe Hitchens, who died in 2011, was only 7 months older than I am. I heard him in a debate a year or so before he was diagnosed with cancer. Before I learned of his illness and before he subsequently passed away, I wrote this post in response to an article about one of his books. The interesting thing, I think, is that what I said about Mr. Hitchens is true about all of us. So I’ve decided to re-post this edited version.

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Columnist Michael Gerson recently wrote a piece that appeared, slightly abridged, in my local paper, “The Atheist As Moralist” (this link appears to give you the entire article). The subject of his commentary was Christopher Hitchens, famed atheist who had recently published his memoir, Hitch-22.

In essence, Mr. Gerson saw in Christopher Hitchens’ constancy and courage and “delight in all things human,” something worth commending. He had, after all, lived, and apparently died, clinging to his moral convictions because he disdained deathbed religious conversions. “The idea ‘that you may be terrified’ is no reason to ‘abandon the principles of a lifetime,’ ” Mr. Gerson reported him saying.

These moral convictions of his were the repudiation of tyranny—even “celestial tyranny”—and the championing of the underdog. And for this Mr. Gerson held Christopher Hitchens up as one who accomplished what his beliefs could not—the provision of a moral compass.

How sadly empty! To praise a man for sticking to his guns, even in the face of terror and encroaching death, is meaningless unless he’s holding to something worthwhile. You might as well praise a terrorist suicide bomber for his example of “courage, loyalty and moral conviction.”

The fact is, Christopher Hitchens could be as dedicated and sincere, as tenacious and unswerving in his beliefs as he wanted, but if those beliefs were wrong, his conviction was foolish, not admirable.

In addition, by including God in his hatred of tyranny he exposed the fact that his real hatred was having an authority over him. He didn’t want God to have the final say—or any say—when it came to Christopher Hitchens.

But perhaps he was closer to faith than even he realized. When asked what positive lesson he’d learned from Christianity, Mr. Gerson reported him to say, “The transience and ephemeral nature of power and all things human.”

Human power and life on this side of the veil is indeed transient and ephemeral. In his letter included in Scripture, the apostle James says our lives are just a vapor. The prophet Isaiah says that we are like grass and the flowers of the field, withering and fading away. The apostle Peter quoted that passage in his first letter.

Here’s the thing. Christopher Hitchens had apparently put all his trust in humanity. He delighted “in all things human—in wit and wine and good company and conversation and fine writing and debate of large issues.” But in the end, he realized it was passing. His moral convictions were grounded in vapor. He’d invested his life in nothing more solid than dry grass that shrivels in the desert wind.

And he refused to rethink his options. After all, he was a man of moral conviction! Did that make him a great example for the rest of humanity, as Mr. Gerson seemed to think?

Hardly. It made him a sad figure, a wasted intellect, a man destined to get what he most feared—the wrath of a Sovereign God—and what he most desired—to go it on his own.

As long as Christopher Hitchens had breath, he could repent. If the thief dying next to Jesus could turn from his sin, so could the atheist determined to resist God’s rule. May God penetrate those hard hearts and bring them to their knees so that they will know God’s kindness and mercy. That continues to be my prayer.

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Published in: on September 27, 2018 at 5:41 pm  Comments (61)  
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