A penitent and obedient heart
Posted: 15 Jun 2010 @ 00:00
This angry man knows his need of God, says Andrew Davison
The Rage Against God
Church Times Bookshop £15.30
THE RAGE AGAINST GOD is Peter Hitchens’s response to the new literary atheists. Although he has plenty of rage of his own, the mood is just as often elegiac.
The approach is narrative rather than abstract. At best, it is a deeply affecting story of a journey to faith, interwoven with a moral and spiritual history of the 20th century. At worst, it dissolves into a series of extended swipes at ghouls from Hitchens’s own past.
In the first part, Hitchens recounts his rejection of the Christian faith. The story mirrors that of his brother and fellow-journalist, Christopher, except that Peter returned to the Church. He cannot tell this or any story without making a pitch for politics so profoundly conservative that they begin to take on intriguing features. For instance, Hitchens rarely mentions economics, and is clear that the weak need to be protected from the strong. He is a lover of tradition, and aligned with the armed services by both birth and schooling. Yet he deplores war, having seen the consequences at first hand. These pages express an almost incandescent compassion.
At one point, he makes a frank admission of his sinfulness. It is refreshing that this is where he leaves the matter, not using it as an occasion for making theological points. He is honest about his failings and defers to God for forgiveness. Saying no more, this has a theological potency that lengthy doctrinal discursions would have taken away.
The second part takes on the New Atheists at three points. On two subjects Hitchens has extensive experience: whether atheist states really were atheist (and therefore whether their horrors can be said to reflect badly on atheism), and the part played by religion in violence. His third question is the foundation of ethics in religious belief. This theme occupies him throughout the book. His most convincing argument is not so much that religion makes you good as that it presents you with a constant challenge to be good: it is bracing and realistic. Elsewhere, his argument for belief is aesthetic. It would not be unfair to describe it as the choice for or against evensong. (He takes liturgical reform to be an unmitigated evil.)
In the third part, Hitchens pitches at straw men dressed in clothing from his past. There is an obsession with the hard left and its search for utopia. This seems a decade out of date: when did the hard left last influence either politics or academia to any significant degree? The last chapter clarifies his position. The monster is a utopia of individual fulfilment, particularly sexual fulfilment, without reference to others or a common tradition.
Reading this, all but the most resolute conservative will feel roughly positioned. Hitchens simply will not allow that people might hold moderate versions of the positions he hates at their extremes, and might do so creditably.
In short, this book is a jumble. The best parts are moving, particularly his passages on violence; or perceptive, such as his comment that the social history of the latter half of the 20th century was driven by a fear of being like our parents. For these passages, it is well worth reading.
The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Christian Doctrine at St Stephen’s House and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.