One of my delights each month is the Atlantic, and just as often, Christopher Hitches’ regular essay in it. I was aware that the current piece was his last, and tackled no less a subject than the legacy of G. K. Chesterton. (I would like to have met CH, though I would have approached it with fear and trembling). Hitchens writes:
“Chesterton became part of a forgettable rear-guard operation against the age of uncertainty, which has now definitively become our age. It seems that there are no rules, golden or otherwise, even natural or otherwise by which we can define our place in the universe or the cosmos. Those who claim to know the most are convicted of claiming to know the unknowable. There is a paradox, if you like.”
(sigh). I think this is both beautifully insightful and wrong. His judgment of Chesterton may be on point – I haven’t read or understood GKC enough to say – and we are definitely living in the age of uncertainty. But to state that there are “no rules … which can define our place in the universe” (however qualified with “it seems”) is to speak definitively, knowing-ly, and thus be convicted on the same terms as his subject.
I may be “convicted” in his neutral court for my claims to know the unknowable, but I reject the terms and the authority. Anyway, I prefer “convinced” to convicted. The only way I can categorically say that I “know” the “unknowable” is that I have a conviction, I have become convinced, that Someone has grabbed hold of me and that Someone has also rendered this universe intelligible. So while I may humbly know in part, I only apprehend the One who knows in full and fully comprehends me. You are welcome to be convinced by the claim that this is simply “unknowable.”
That may make me a convict – but that makes two of us.
Update: I may have read him wrongly. I don’t take Hitchens to say definitively that there are in fact no rules that define our place. But he does say that we cannot know if there are: that’s unknowable.