sewell portrait

Marilyn Sewell is the recently retired minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland.

Sewell: Well, probably not, because I agree with almost everything you say. But I still consider myself a Christian and a person of faith.

Hitchens: Faith in what? Faith in the Resurrection?

Sewell: I believe one can go from a death in this life, in the sense of being dead to the world and dead to other people, to a resurrection in a new life. When I preach about Easter and the Resurrection, it’s in a metaphorical sense.

Hitchens: I hate to say it—we’ve hardly been introduced—but maybe you are simply living on the inheritance of a monstrous fraud that was preached to millions of people as the literal truth—or as you put it, “the ground of being.” Times change, and people’s beliefs change. I don’t believe that you have to be fundamentalist and literalist to be a Christian. You do—you’re something of a fundamentalist, actually.

Sewell: Well, I’m sorry—“fundamentalist” simply means those who think that the Bible is a serious book and should be taken seriously. I take it very seriously. I have my grandmother’s Bible and I still read it, but I don’t take it as literal truth. I take it as metaphorical truth. The stories, the narrative, are what’s important.

Hitchens: But then show me what there is, ethically, in any religion that can’t be duplicated by humanism. In other words, can you name me a single moral action performed or moral statement uttered by a person of faith that couldn’t be just as well pronounced or undertaken by a civilian?

Sewell: You’re absolutely right. However, religion does inspire some people. What about people like the Berrigan brothers, the Catholic priests who were jailed over and over again for their radical protesting of the Vietnam War? Or Archbishop Romero? These people claim to be motivated and sustained by their faith. Do you deny that?

Hitchens: I don’t deny it. I just don’t respect it. If someone says I’m doing this out of faith, I say, why don’t you do it out of conviction?

Sewell: You say that nonbelievers “distrust anything that contradicts science or outrageous reason” and that you “respect free inquiry.” I am a person of faith and absolutely agree with these two statements. But I do not believe that to be religious you must disconnect your brain. Do you believe that? And, if so, why?

Hitchens: The smallest privilege of faith over reason is a betrayal. When people say, “I am a person of faith,” they expect applause, as we see in every election cycle. People say faith can move mountains. Faith in what, by the way? You haven’t said.

Sewell: I don’t know whether or not God exists, let me just say that. I certainly don’t think that God is an old man in the sky; I don’t believe that God intervenes to give me goodies if I ask for them.

Hitchens: You don’t believe he’s an interventionist of any kind?

Sewell: I’m kind of an agnostic on that one. God is a mystery to me. I choose to believe because—and this is a very practical thing for me—I seem to live with more integrity when I find myself accountable to something larger than myself. That thing larger than myself I call “God,” but it’s a metaphor. That God is an emptiness out of which everything comes. Perhaps I would say God is “reality” or “what is.” You see, we’re trying to describe the infinite with the language of the finite. My faith is that I put all that I am and all that I have on the line for that which I do not know.

Hitchens: Fine. But that’s a waste of what could honestly be, in your case, very valuable time. I don’t want you to go away with the impression that I’m just a vulgar materialist. I do know that humans are also, to quote Pascal again, “so made,” even though we are an evolved species whose closest cousins are chimpanzees. I know it’s not enough for us to eat and so forth. We know how to think. We know how to laugh. We know we’re going to die, which gives us a lot to think about. We have a need for what I would call “the transcendent” or “the numinous” or even “the ecstatic,” which comes out in love and music, poetry, and landscape. I wouldn’t trust anyone who didn’t respond to things of that sort. But I think the cultural task is to separate those impulses and those needs and desires from the supernatural and, above all, from the superstitious.