A few Hitchens Hooligans (I thought the USU band of ‘new atheists’ needed a name) came by my office yesterday for a quick discussion. It led to some questions about Catholic Saints. Some of the questions were quite good, though others were founded in stereotpyped misunderstandings that have been refuted for so long that I am surprised that people (atheists and many Protestants alike) still hold on to such things. Anyway, predictably we made no progress. They likely regarded me as a kook (I know the feeling, I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool atheist), and I looked at them as sadly impoverished.
At any rate, something occurred to me after the discussion.
The Hitchens Hooligans are marked out, primarily I think, by their attitude toward mystery. I do not think it is too much to say that they hate mystery. You can tell by the way they recoil with contorted faces anytime they hear the word (okay, they usually just make a snide remark). I would contend that this hatred of mystery is itself a spiritual response to the unknown. We all encounter the unknown, but Hitchens Hooligans recoil from it. Their immediate response is bitterness (so much anger against religion!) following by a very predictable reductionist movement. For Hitchens Hooligans, the mysterious unknown – far from something to be wondered at – is immediately reduced to mere mechanical explanations. Formal and final causes be damned, right? Those are hated almost as much as religion itself.
To my mind, this is no more a rational attitude toward the unknown as is the religious attitude. They are both attitudes, comportments, toward the unknown. These comportments work like ‘first principles’ (we cannot argue for them, and everything else we believe is deduced from them). I would accuse the Hitchens Hooligans of lacking a spiritual imagination. It is almost inconceivable to them that the world could involve more than mere mechanics. Oh, but there ‘are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
Before any real argument is possible, what is needed for the Hitchens Hooligans is a ‘baptism of the imagination’ (CS Lewis). Marcel is perhaps the best on this point. He distinguishes between the ‘problematical’ and the ‘mysterious’. The problematical is the world understood in merely mechanistic terms, where I am merely my [biological] functions and nothing more unique than that. In the problematical world, science promises a total explanation of everything.
Contrast this with mystery. What is distinctive about mystery is that it constantly recedes. While it seems like it could be grasped in a total rational comprehension, it always slips away. As we disclose part of it, other parts become concealed. In this comportment, the encounter with mystery does not explain by reducing but instead deepens and broadens the individual and his horizons. (If you see Heidegger’s distinction between ‘thinking’ and ‘technology’ here, you are on the right track).
So the issue is, after all, a spiritual issue – how will we respond to the unknown? Human existence is, at least in part, a spiritual question. This is why thoughtful reductionists find themselves – perhaps despite themselves – drawn to the ‘spiritually literary’ works. For instance, one of the Hitchens Hooligans in my office yesterday is a great fan of Dostoevsky. Huenemann has a fairly serious love affair with Nz. Dostoevksy and Nz – are there two more spiritual writers (even if they are spiritual in very different ways)? I might add that Nz at least tries to overcome the lion stage in order to be like a child. Hitchens and his Hooligans are stuck in vengeance (though it is unclear to me to what offense they are retaliating). Perhaps their ongoing fascination with religion (why can’t they just leave it alone and move on?) itself speaks volumes about their own spiritual struggles.
By the way, Michael Novak has a new book out called ‘No One Sees God’. I have only read reviews, but it seems that he is making a similar case there.