Christopher Hitchens died yesterday from complications of esophageal cancer. In some ways Hitchens and I are far apart. He was an atheist; I am a Christian. Nevertheless, I appreciated his incredible intellect, his total commitment to his convictions, and how he pushed me to reflect upon my Christian faith. In some way, Christopher Hitchens has made me a better Christian. If he knew that he was an individual who strengthened my faith, he might be disappointed, though I guess he likely would tell me that if my Christianity was bolstered because of him, I hadn't done a very good job of reading him.
I have read just about every editorial Hitchens wrote. I have not read any of his books, but I am thinking of reading his memoir, Hitch 22. While there are plenty of individuals with superior intellect, there are not too many whose powers of reasoning surpass the superior. Hitchens was one of those persons.
As impressed as I have been with Christopher Hitchens the intellectual, there is something about him that I have admired even more-- that he faced his death in the same way as he lived life. In the past year and half following his cancer diagnosis, Hitchen reflected on life and on death in the kind of personal way that only one facing his own death could do. His words were classic Hitchens-- eloquent, thought-provoking, and written from the perspective of his own clear convictions. And while he said in an interview that it was OK for believers to pray for him if that brought them comfort, he went to his grave with his atheism intact, a disappointment for those of us who believe, but not surprising to those who knew him. Hitchens faced death as he lived.
Even though Hitchens and I differed on matters of faith, we did hold in common a love of literature, and an attraction to the eloquent word. Why just say something when one can say it well? Thus, it is not surprising that Hitchen was one of those quotable individuals. Two of my favorite "Hitchenisms" are,
"The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law,"
"Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others."
I have always appreciated individuals who have a superior command of language; Hitchens had few contemporaries who were more articulate.
If there is one place where I was disappointed in Hitchens it was his unfair name-calling of certain figures, particularly religious ones such as Mother Teresa. When her collection of letters were published posthumously, Hitchens viewed Mother Teresa's times of doubt and darkness as vindication of the atheism he embraced and hypocrisy on the part of Mother Teresa. Of course, Hitchens may be forgiven for this since only the great saints can understand the dark night of the soul that can invade the life of faith. Hitchens was no saint and would take such an epithet as a compliment. And while, his ad hominem attacks were cause for concern, it must not be forgotten how many believers level such attacks against atheists, as if doubting the existence of God automatically makes one evil and immoral. Hitchens was the specific object of many such attacks.
Christopher Hitchen faced death as he lived life. It seems appropriate, therefore to heed the words of James K.A. Smith who writes,
Let us not do Hitchens the injustice of wishing him eternal peace. Let's be honest and honor his memory by recognizing he didn't want it. Granted, I would certainly be grateful if the witness of Francis Collins and the prayers of many were effective; it would certainly make for interesting conversation in the new heavens and earth. (In which case, let's hope sardonic wit is not a sin--and that there are still certain latitudes of grace in the kingdom. It's hard for me to imagine a sober Hitchens being much fun.) But I don't want to impose my fantasies on Hitchens.
So I won't retroactively baptize Christopher Hitchens as I mourn his passing today. Better to honor his brash defiance.
And for those of us who believe in eternity, we will leave that matter between God and Christopher Hitchens. I have no need to comment on this and those who feel the need, do so more out of their own need for the affirmation of their faith than on Hitchens' own destiny.
The English poet and priest, John Donne (1572-1631) wrote, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." And while I do not believe that every individual's death diminishes us (I have a hard time believing that about Adolf Hitler), all of us are less today because of the passing of Christopher Hitchens.
And if, by the grace of God, there is a place for Christopher Hitchens in the eternity he denied in this life, I, for one, will be very happy.
Sad but fitting end. Unfortunately dignity is a cold comfort in the grave.
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