10/08/2012 11:53 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

On Missing Christopher Hitchens

Umberto Eco tells a story about Pope John XXIII: One of Eco's friends said, "Pope John must be an atheist. Only a man who does not believe in God can love his fellowman so much!" I couldn't help but think of this story in connection with my being in public conversation with Christopher Hitchens a few years ago.

We met on the stage of the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco to discuss his new book "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." It was a roller coaster of a conversation. The audience was wired and conflicted: on the one hand looking forward to hearing Hitchens use religion as a punch bag, but one the other, appalled by his continued insistence that the war in Iraq was just and essential to defeat Islamic Fascism.

Religion, in general, deserves a harsh critique, not least right now. It is plagued by ignorance, violence and lies. Hitchens was right in much of what he said about religion (even though he tended to go for the low hanging fruit). The very next day after our conversation there was a report in the New York Times of the opening of a natural history theme park ($27 million) based not on science but on creationism -- Adam and Eve wandering around with the dinosaurs. Religion deserves a bad press with fanatical Islamists and brain-dead Christians making the news. But because much of religion deserves ridicule and condemnation doesn't make its opponents either smart or right.

Hitchens linked his atheism (what he might call his anti-theism) to his commitment to uncertainty. He was, of course, very certain about his uncertainty. "To be an unbeliever is not merely to be 'open-minded.' It is, rather, a decisive admission of uncertainty that is ... connected to the repudiation of the totalitarian principle, in the mind as well as in politics." There's a long tradition (albeit, one largely unknown) of uncertainty (or a humility before the intractable mystery of things) as it relates to faith. One of my old teachers (a monk) used to say, "The opposite of faith isn't doubt. The opposite of faith in certainty." Of course, this kind of language can get us into a fine old mess. It's not long before (as in the case of Christopher Hitchens) that the uncertainty is elevated to a kind of certainty. When it comes to my own faith, I find, as I get older, that I'm less concerned about what there is to know and more focused on whom I can trust. The deeper knowledge for me manifests itself as a kind of risk in being in relationship with people with whom I may have deep disagreements. The trouble with religion is that everyone is an expert. People claim to know too much. Whether you're for it or against it, like pornography, you know it when you see it. For some, it's the same with science. Everyone knows what it is -- either in its know-it-all arrogance or in its humility before uncertainty.

This is not an invitation to wallow in ambiguity but to be willing to be part of an never-ending, on-going conversation. The political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott reminds us that a culture is made up of many voices -- and all the voices, without exception, are called to join "in a conversation -- an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all." But it takes a certain amount of maturity to be able to take differences in our stride and not be driven crazy by inconclusiveness. The narrative in which we choose to live our lives (or which chooses us) is of the utmost importance. It takes conviction and courage to keep the conversation respectful with regard to the fragility and mystery of others -- to keep the conversation "sacred" -- to know that our stories aren't the only ones.

Perhaps "conversation" seems a weak word but, as we get closer to the presidential election, the raucous certainties of ideology drown out the conversation -- the conversation which is essential to a just and sane commonwealth. I was intrigued by the title of former congressman Mickey Edwards recent book, "The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats into Americans." This is part of a larger task of how to turn us all toward each other in an open conversation about what it is to be human and how we should treat each other. Christopher Hitchens was integral to that conversation, and I miss him.