Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 3

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

—William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”


Reading the Bible recently, the thick New English Oxford study edition I’ve toted around for twenty-nine years, I was electrified by John 3: 19–25. In this story Jesus is traveling and teaching, and he meets a Samaritan woman at a well in the heat of the day. It was against Jewish mores to have dealings with the tainted Samaritans, and to speak to an unknown, lone woman.

Jesus wows her by telling her he knows she’s been married five times and is living with a sixth man—why the shunned creature was at the well in the scorching heat instead of filling her pots with other women in the cool of the morning. Maybe she was infertile, a real deal-breaker in those days.

“Sir,” she replied, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews say that the temple where God should be worshipped is in Jerusalem.”

“Believe me,” said Jesus, “the time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on the mountain, nor in Jerusalem.”

This is a radical statement. What he’s staying is that God is not place-based—neither in a pagan mountain shrine nor above even Judaism’s highest holy Temple. God is far from clan-based. By dint of this: not race-based, nor nation-based. Jesus, as I see it, is moving God deeper inside us.

“It is from the Jews that salvation comes,” Jesus continues. “But the time approaches, indeed it is already here, when those who are real worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. Such are the worshippers whom the Father wants. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”

God is spirit.

Not a man in the sky. A spirit—something discovered by us, not created by us—is approached submissively in the human search for truth.

Thus indeed, as Jesus said, the kingdom of God is here, now. As any reader of the New Testament can see, Jesus labored to restore spirituality to religion, in large part by defining God anew and by clarifying core principles. Love thy neighbor. Forgive trespasses. His relentless attacks on human pride and on religious dogma are chronicled throughout the New Testament. He died for his pains, but made his lasting point.

My conviction flows from various sources, from years of reading about human evolutionary history and progress, from a base in my nature, in my suffering, in Christianity, in a heaping dose of Buddhism and a dash of Hinduism, notably of late in Michael Singer’s The Untethered Soul. Eckhart Tolle’s writings, especially his religious synthesis A New Earth, have been enormously influential, so I’m tempted to admit I’m New Age and be done with it, except that I view that book as essentially Buddhist. I claim Christianity but I view all great religions much like the American Medical Association now views acupuncture: it works, no one knows why it works, and it doesn’t matter where they stick the needles.

I like Joan Osborne’s question in her beautiful song “One of Us”—with something like 10 million hits in various YouTube versions: What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?

What if God is all of us? What if God exists within all of us?

What if God is that force in human evolution which drives “group selection”? This is the controversial notion that evolution is not just about pair-level “selfish gene” sexual selection but about traits that benefit the larger group. What if God is that force, which caused humans to begin their amazing self domestication—their selection for social harmony and against simian brutes? A separate intentionality within human evolution that impels our altruistic desires. Hitchens would attribute such human progress to the Enlightenment, but it goes back so much farther. And Dawkins won’t admit its possibility for what it introduces: the mysterious will that impels this search for truth, justice, mercy, goodness. That which was instantiated, in purified form, in Christ, Buddha, and Muhammed. Those qualities which humans have been idealizing for millions of years.

We have been selected to serve the whole of us as a living being, not just own own selfish interests.

My God is located in, and defined by, this, by humans’ unquenchable search for their own and their species’ true path.

That utter mystery that we and our science circle.

What if that’s God?

That for which we as yet have no name?

There’s despair everywhere, such lost faith in our species, but there’s yearning everywhere too. And neither that impulse nor anyone’s hard-won faith is misplaced. Not me, but some few blaze with joyous awareness—with Grace. Many are called, few chosen.

The afterlife? That’s a young person’s concern. But I place my spiritual afterlife in the collective spoken of by Carl Jung. One day, long after my body is dust and my egoic shell has vanished with it and others are living the human eternal self—that innermost core in which we’re all the same—around the globe human seekers will turn, more or less, to the same page.

This is my faith. It’s what drives me to my knees in prayer, down with the world’s other brokenhearted sinners, trying to tap what’s holy. I’m sure we’ll finally see and honor the greatest human mystery, not the banal reality of human evil but the real news of the goodness that dwells within and which we can access. Then maybe we’ll agree, at last, what we’re talking about when we talk about God.

Like me, Christopher Hitchens, angry child of God, didn’t have the final answer. And, sorry Uncle, not even Southern Baptists have quite solved the equation, not yet.

But of course there’s a God.

May peace be with you. Happy New Year. Namaste.

(Elizabeth Westmark has an interesting post, on her new reading blog, about Eric Weiner’s recent book Man Seeks God.)


Filed under evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality

16 responses to “Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 3

  1. I think this is one of your best pieces of writing ever. It’s exactly how I feel about religion—as a code of conduct, with something inside you to remind you why you shouldn’t go astray. (Unfortunately, this reminder doesn’t work with psychopaths, and it’s mostly extraneous, since we are all born with the feeling of right and wrong.)

    I love Joan Osborne’s song. It’s one of the first songs I learned to play on guitar. And it’s also exactly how I feel. ❤

  2. Unbelievably beautiful and wise, Richard. Thank you.


  3. Thank you for the mention and link, Richard. After a Sunday supper at our house a few weeks ago, there was a lively, free-wheeling discussion about religion and spirituality. The youngest voice was 13. She was certain about everything. The eldest, at 74, was uncertain about everything, except the mystery. I surprised myself by speaking passionately about the Holy Spirit, that “still, small voice” within, and how I wasn’t sure about all the rest, but that the “indwelling” nature of it is, to me, a natural part of life.

    Your piece today, plus Joan Osborne’s fantastic song, will become part of our next extended family talk-fest.

  4. Postscript. Richard, please allow me one of my heretical thoughts. It seems to me that it’s hard to have a sense of the sacred, if you don’t have a sense of humor. I remember telling one friend whom I knew quite well who was struggling with faith that his problem wasn’t spiritual but physical. His problem was that he couldn’t get his tongue in his cheek far enough. I was stealing from someone who had said that “our deepest loves always have an element of tongue-in-cheek.” At least mine do. I feel now that “faith” is simply our decision not to live out of faithlessness. If we have hope, what does it hurt?

    • For me, it’s not about hope. God is a concept that works for me about as much as faeries. It’s not my focus. Instead, I focus on the things that are here, the things I can help change, the things I can do for human beings. I paid someone’s dental bill the other day so her account wouldn’t go to collections. I’d overheard the secretary at the dentist’s office on the phone trying to collect. I gathered the woman was in her 60s and had lost her job, so I just got up and said, “Let me pay her bill.” That’s something a neither god—nor faith in him—could do.

      • Quite the contrary, Leslie. In my cosmology, what you did was a manifestation of God. Where did that impulse in you come from? It was your choice to say Yes—true!—but my point is that your act of altruism is ingrained in humans at the DNA level by an evolutionary force separate from but within each indivdual. Why? It goes beyond enculturation, which often appears to be its cause.You had nothing to gain yet acted. Now, Freud would say what you did was a mere “ego defense,” something that strengthened your ego. I say he was wrong there. Carl Jung, his greatest disciple and apostate, came closer to defining or at least pointing to the shared sacred qualities in our species.

  5. Olga Khotiashova

    This is an amazing series of posts, so eloquent and sincere.
    Thank you, Richard

  6. John Wylie

    The best, most authentic expression of God (note, I did not say faith) I have read since He went out of fashion about 15 years ago.. Really good and brave, Richard.

  7. John Wylie

    I wanted to bring down to earth the idea of group selection as God. Everyone knows that there is a selfish streak in HUMANS, but we had been evolving for 6 million years before that. If, during that time, our evolution occurred for the good of our small tribes of 20-30, we would have spent all that time immersed within the communal consciousness, and behaved with a common intent for the good of our groups. Such a premise neatly explains both the explosion of hominids in the face of apes then going extinct and our unique language in which we all are able to share a single intent. A mere 200,000 yrs ago, humans evolved “retooled” with selfish (mostly sexual) intentions, but with the mission of uniting the underlying “God consciousness” of all our tiny tribes into a single Family under God – but not without terrible struggles. Leslie paying that woman’s bill was a manifestation of her penetrating through her human ego and tapping into the deep God consciousness which is hard wired into the soul of all of us.

  8. Richard, I admire your religious freedom. Having been raised in the Bible Belt and having imbibed rather freely in college of the European strain of existentialism which you point to as part of the modern (and contemporary) sense of void, I reacted very strongly to any form of Christian endeavor for ages and ages: I didn’t like to discuss God, hear talk of God, or even think about God because I was sick and tired of other people’s abuse of the notion from the Christian perspective. I didn’t mind hearing anything about other religions, which struck the immature me as a cool attitude. True, I did write a poem or two reaching God-ward, but I basically just put the notion of having a religious belief out of my mind. I called myself an agnostic, which seemed better than going full-tilt and saying I was an atheist. It seemed more moderate, somehow. Though I probably will never attend church again (and my church training was very mild, certainly not anything like the Southern Baptist tradition you say you were brought up in), I now feel a lot more tolerant about the idea of some sort of force (“use the force, Luke!” goes for a lot of things these days), some sort of something infinite and eternal that is involved with us as we go through our lives and choices. I still maintain my tolerance of other religions while knowing a little more about the differences. And I’ve recently come upon some people whom I would call Christian/Jewish existentialists who maintain their religion and their philosophical traditions at the same time. Thank God (or Whatever, like kids say these days) for complexity! Maybe that’s what grace actually is.

    • Thank you, Victoria. I’m now kind of amazed at myself that I wrote the Hitchens series and that nobody unsubscribed and that few flamed me. I think it’s going to take a long time for most educated liberals like me to be able to discuss any kind of belief with each other. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, more taboo now than mentioning God. One can’t explain and backpeddle fast enough if one uses the word because it has already caused anger and ears to close. I’m really curious about how far we will have come in, say, 2,000 years in understanding the divine part of our nature.