Andrew Sullivan has begun posting transcriptions of a conversation he had with his friend Christopher Hitchens many years ago. The idea was that they would sit down over wine and have a recorded conversation, but the audio was not good enough to make public. So now he’s transcribing it in bits and pieces. In this segment, they’re discussing Oakshotte’s views on religion. I find this rather delightful, especially if I hear it in my head in their own voices.
A: I think that what [Oakeshott] would say, and what I would say, is that what’s sinister is the deployment of dogma as certainty. If one takes Lessing and Oakeshott’s view of Christianity, which is ultimately that God is unknowable—
H: Then don’t pretend to know.
A: Then we cannot know. Or, what we can know, we will hold with a certain humility and provisionality. I mean, one can know, for example, that the Gospels exist and that they represented a human being whose life can be either honored or dishonored.
H: But the further implication of this is that if you admit or concede or even claim that it’s unknowable, then the first group to be eliminated from the argument are those who claim to know.A: Yes.
H: Because they must be wrong.
H: Well, that lets off quite a lot of people at the first floor of the argument, long before the elevator has started moving upwards, or downwards. Those who say they know, and can say they know it well enough, what God wants you to eat or whom he wants you to sleep with — they must be wrong.
A: That is proof itself that they are wrong.
H: Yes. As well as being impossibly arrogant, coming in the disguise of modesty, humility, simplicity. “Ah, I’m just a humble person doing God’s work.” No, excuse me, you must be either humble or doing God’s work. You can’t know what God’s work would be, don’t try your modesty on me. And once one’s made that elimination, then everything else becomes more or less simple. My problem only begins there.
There are some people whose company is irresistible, who are such good conversationalists, so smart and funny, that one would jump at the chance to break bread with them and engage them on nearly any subject. Hitchens was certainly one of them. Even when he was maddeningly wrong — and he was from time to time — he was still refreshingly candid, charming and challenging.