With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Memos to Sinai

Following in the footsteps of George Carlin, Christopher Hitchens has decided to take a crack at revising the Ten Commandments in a recent Vanity Fair article. His line of argument is standard Hitchens: pitting the supposedly commonsense against the primitive religious nonsense. The Commandments, he tells us, are long overdue for a makeover. He therefore takes up the “revisionist chisel” not only to expose the insufficiencies of the current “top 10,” but also to replace them with a more coherent, comprehensive, and comprehensible list of ethical norms. And in doing so, he believes he is simply following the example of Moses himself (who goes through at least four “versions” of the Decalogue: cf. Exodus 20:19; 32:19; 34:1; 34:10-26).

I’ll refrain from addressing things point-by-point and stick to commenting on some of the strategies Hitchens employs. In general he is concerned to mark the distance between the ancient past and the enlightened present. His arguments presuppose, and sometimes explicitly stress, the “situational” aspects of the Decalogue: the historical, cultural, linguistic, even mythical particularities that shape the text it’s found in. The most obvious targets are those Christians (fundamentalist types) who feel far too comfortable sundering the Commandments from their context and imposing them, as if it were obvious that these are moral absolutes in format of universal applicability. Suffice it to say, it is not difficult for Hitchens to complicate such a picture of the Decalogue.

Hitchens emphasizes the Decalogue’s dependence upon its context by raising a number of interpretive quandaries. A particularly haunting one for Christians is that of divinely-sanctioned violence in the Old Testament. The Commandments were given to a group that was, at times, ordered to kill whole populations (he mentions the Amalekites and the Midianites by name). Immediately after giving Moses the Law, which includes the injunction against murder, YHWH orders Moses to form a makeshift death squad and put many of the Israelites to the sword. Clearly, this is the Law of a god who occasionally threatens to visit his vengeance upon succeeding generations yet unborn; a god at home in a culture constantly at war with surrounding tribes. Hitchens also points to numerous ambiguities in the text. He has a particular point here against those who try to universalize the Decalogue simplistically. What does taking the Lord’s name in vain mean? What standard can we use to determine this? In this case, it’s quite helpful to appeal to the situational aspects (the historical-linguistic context) to know what “taking names in vain” meant for the ancient Israelites.

More specifically, such ambiguities can only be enlightened by appealing to the history of encounter with God that preceded and frames the institution of the Decalogue at Sinai. God’s action during the Exodus, in freeing Israel from Egyptian slavery, is a thread that runs throughout the Ten Commandments. A reminder of this precedes the actual stipulations of the Decalogue. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes it well (CCC, 2057): “The Decalogue must first be understood in the context of the Exodus, God's great liberating event at the center of the Old Covenant. Whether formulated as negative commandments, prohibitions, or as positive precepts such as: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ the ‘ten words’ point out the conditions of a life freed from the slavery of sin. The Decalogue is a path of life…” It is important to note that the commandments are actually the terms, the treaty as it were, of the covenant between God and Israel. It resembles in form ancient Near Eastern treatises between Suzerain and vassal. The commandments only take on their full meaning within the covenant. Analogously, a grasp of Jewish creation theology (the understanding of God’s action in creation) is necessary for understanding the dynamics of the Sabbath (Commandment 3).

And yet for Hitchens, pointing to the situational nature of the Commandments also exposes their irrelevance for us; or rather their evident failure as a contemporary ethical code. Because they only make sense in an ancient tribal context, they can no longer mean anything much for us. Trying to apply them as ethical norms not only makes for drastically insufficient and seemingly arbitrary morals, but also for a painfully unimpressive picture of God. The criticisms of God’s hypocrisy, arbitrariness, and downright cruelty seem to insist upon themselves. If Hitchens can uncover such a god in the Decalogue, then its moral precepts aren’t worth the stone they’re chiseled on.

Here the atheists gain a lot of ground against the fundamentalists. These are Christians who tend to flout the tradition of Scriptural interpretation and place the entire burden of authority upon the text itself. Fundamentalists have had the most trouble dealing with context and all that it implies. But by comparison the Christian theological tradition hasn’t. This is a tradition of reflection upon Revelation that despoils the "Egyptian gold" of reason; an approach that is (in all its diversity) profoundly un-fundamentalist. It has developed over time, and in the tempering fires of controversy, very different and subtle ways of guiding how sacred texts are to be read. It is also a tradition that has been wrestling with the kinds of troubling questions that Hitchens asks. Arguably Hitchens’ greatest flaw is his failure to engage this tradition of interpretation and the different possibilities it makes available. It is, we might say, an alternative way around the pitfalls of fundamentalism, and highlighting this distinction allows us to shift the discussion to what’s really at stake; allowing the more “fundamental” disagreements between Hitchens and the Christian tradition to come to light.

For instance, Hitchens thinks the “situational” aspects of the text reveal that the Decalogue is evidently “man-made.” This is a claim that Christians should have no problem with. They simply deny that it is only man-made. Here one sees the major beef between how Hitchens reads Scripture and how Christian theologians understand God’s act of self-revelation in the Scriptural texts. The meaning of a particular text in Scripture has always been understood to exceed the particularities informing the human authors, even though that meaning may be expressed in and through those particularities. God and the truths about Him are the kinds of "things" that transcend every finite dimension of time and space, though time and space always mediate our knowledge and encounter with Him/them. The fact that God is revealing Himself ensures that meaning will never be reducible to the "man-made" side of things. In fact, these represent principles (excess of meaning) analogous to those that many theorists believe apply to texts as such, whether inspired or not (Hans Georg Gadamer stands out). In this sense, Hitchens is on to something when he points to “revisionism,” and the fact that these teachings may not be “set in stone.” But the proper way to do this "revising" is one always guided by a history and tradition of interpretation: Hitchens should be dealing with the likes of John Henry Newman and his theory of the development of doctrine rather than fundamentalist straw-men. Such a development can be found within the Old Testament itself, particularly in the Isaiah tradition. The sacred authors known as Second and Third Isaiah took up the idiom and the theological themes of First Isaiah and applied them to the different contexts in which they found themselves. The meaning of the prophetic text was thought to possess an excess and a plasticity in its depth and application; it developed –was “revised”- but in a way guided by the history of interpretations deemed authoritative by the community of faith.

The differences come to the fore in a few claims Hitchens makes. For instance, he says (in his accompanying video) that Catholics have had problems with the First Commandment’s prohibition of graven images: because, after all, where would all of the statues and icons be if we took it seriously? However, Hitchens fails to address how the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have traditionally interpreted the teaching on graven images in relation to Christology, Mariology, and idolatry. Nor does he mention the images that God allowed the Israelites to make even within the Old Testament narrative. Nowhere does he address the distinction between adoration and veneration. Hitchens also seems to think it’s obvious that God must have implanted the desire for our neighbors’ “things” (including his wife) into us, the way humans program chess-playing robots. Therefore the Tenth Commandment reflects an inconsistency between God's creative act and His subsequent demands. Yet this claim doesn’t address Christian arguments about the origin of sin, or even the ethical differences between desiring goods and the order or disorder of those desires in the individual. Hitchens makes the same move (“why would God create us this way if…”) with questions surrounding homosexuality.

Despite the flaws in his analysis, Hitchens’ chisel work can be helpful for Christians. The commonsense approach that he thinks clearly exposes the mortal wounds in Christianity actually gives voice to the kinds of simple questions that many modern men and women (Christians among them) have about the Ten Commandments. Even questions about how God reveals Himself in and through the particularities of an ancient desert tribe, with all of its distance from us, are important questions for Christians to address. What about those particularities cannot be applied to our situation? What about them demands that we conform our concepts and standards to them? How do the Commandments amount for us to what Jesus thought them to be: “loving thy neighbor as thyself?” How can they fit into a development of doctrine that is at once faithful to their truth but expands upon their hermeneutical limitations? Further, how are contemporary Christians supposed to deal with divine violence in the Old Testament? Note that I don’t intend to offer specific answers to these questions, but they are important questions central to the theological tradition. Acting as though no one ever thought of these before; that Christians haven't been reflecting on them for centuries upon centuries; and that simply asking them amounts to a "gotcha!" moment in intellectual history, is just a way to expose one's own ignorance. Nonetheless, Hitchens highlights these questions, helps remind us that these need to be wrestled with and can’t be skipped over to simply “get at” the raw facts that the Ten Commandments display. The "Good enough for Moses, good enough for me!" approach is an even better way to expose one's ignorance.

Now Hitchens would likely question the legitimacy of a tradition of interpretation and its supposed authority when determining the meaning of Scripture. But this is something Hitchens simply does not address, even though it is what guides how orthodox Christians understand and appropriate the Ten Commandments. Fundamentalists also fail to address the role of tradition, and this explains why Hitchens’s deconstruction seems so eminently fitted to them. But he means it as a challenge to all who take the Decalogue seriously. So Christians (or at least theologians) should be able to articulate the truth and the advantage of four things: 1) an excess of meaning in Scripture; 2) what makes a particular history and tradition of interpretation legitimate and superior to others; 3) what makes a theory of the development of doctrine both faithful to the text while also expanding upon hermeneutical shortcomings; and finally, 4)- the one that may be most important- Christians should be able to articulate good reasons for believing that all texts- texts as such- possess meaning that goes beyond the intentions of the author. Addressing these issues is now part of the duty Christians have, expressed in 1 Peter 3:15: “always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (NAB).

As a gesture of good faith and that "gentleness and reverence" that Peter mentions, Christians could certainly think about adopting Hitchens’s eighth commandment as an amendment…

Pax Christi,


  • At 4/07/2010 11:58 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Pat -

    A fine piece of writing, and one which verifies that ND will be putting its moneys to good use, for sure.

    However, you taking on the likes of Christopher Hitchens is somewhat akin to Lebron playing one-on-one with mini-me; sure, it might be amusing but in the end - and no matter if Lebron was kind enough to helpfully encourage mini-me along the way, mini-me will never be a basketball player.

    Every true critique you bring forth concerning Hitchens methodology is of little concern to him. In every one of his interviews or speaking engagements that I have had the misfortune to experience, he has blithely bypassed any real critique of his thought. Becoming a true thinker is the last thing he is concerned with. Tearing down the structures of religion is the only thing on his mind.
    As Dinesh D'Souza recently brought painfully (for Hitchens) to light, although Hitchens would like us to believe that his is an "intellectual rebellion" it is nothing more than a moral rebellion.
    And, as Hart has also made painfully clear, it's not even a very dangerous rebellion; Hitchens and his ilk are not nearly as potent opponents of Christianity as the so-called masters of suspicion.
    As Hart rightly noted, it is somewhat a matter of embarrassment to reflect upon how weak our so-called "atheists" are today.

    All that said, I don't mean in any way to deride your very fine, thoughtful, well-written and insightful piece.
    I only want to say that your mind is far to lofty to be wasted on the likes of a run-of-the-mill sophist like Hitchens.

  • At 4/07/2010 5:51 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    Thanks for your response and your kind comparisons to our liege (may his life and his reign be long).

    This was a short post I wrote up for my class on Christian Journalism, the design of which is to get us to write in ways and on topics more accessible to a non-academic audience. Hence Hitchens and not Nietzsche or Feuerbach. But, as you can tell, my descent from the ivory tower is an agonizingly slow one. Compared to my classmates, I'm akin to the little kid too scared to take the escalator down.

    I agree with your diagnosis of Hitchens and his ilk. To treat them as more than a pseudo-intellectual rebellion is simply a category mistake. I don't quite fear them producing a school of thought that would awaken the world from its dogmatic slumber and deal a kidney punch to the remnants of Christendom.

    I have come to fear them as intellectual con-artists. For the majority of Catholics and other Christians who are not theologically inclined (the overwhelming majority)- let alone non-believers- the New Atheists often come across as intellectually sophisticated and compelling; as posing serious and somehow novel criticisms. Because they are writing for non-academic audiences and their "arguments" are so irreverently simple, they have people's attention. And they are quite good at developing a discourse that makes orthodox belief look downright silly.

    Whether we like it or not, they seem to be forcing average Joe and average Jane Christian to ask common sense questions they otherwise wouldn't. I think it's on us to clear up the misrepresentations of Hitchens and company and demonstrate that the faith is more than sheer nonsense.

    I have few delusions (hah) about converting Hitchens. But I do worry about those who don't look at him and know immediately why he's a sophist.

    The trick is to engage these folks without giving them the attention they thrive from...

    Happy Easter!

    Pax Christi,

  • At 4/08/2010 10:06 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    Yeah, I sort of began to think that maybe this was a piece with a specific purpose.
    I hope it got you an 'A' given your very generous, yet very persuasive, critique of Hitchens.
    Your insights are far more mature than you age, and that's always a testament to the level of your intellect.
    And your diagnosis of the impact that the so-called "New Atheists" are having on pop (thoughtless) culture is unfortunately dead-on.

    Anyway, a fine analysis.

  • At 5/10/2010 11:36 PM, Anonymous David Raber said…

    As the old saying goes, It takes two to tango.

    It took a corrupted institutional Church and a proud German rebel to start the dance that was the Reformation.

    Who or what is the dancing partner to Hitchens, Pullman et. al.? That would be Bad Religion (simple-minded, tribal, bigoted, superstitious, self-righteous religion), which the neo-atheists identify with religion per se.

    I guess Good religion has to stop being such a wallflower: Get her back up off the wall, smile, and get out there in the crowd and mingle.

    Put another way, in terms of Chrsitianity, Hitchens "and his ilk" are rejecting the Bad News. Apparently they and those who find them persuasive have not heard the Good News, or seen it in action--at least not to the point where it has made much of an impression--and we can ask, Whose fault is that?


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