Honouring Christopher Hitchens

Death is never something to be made light of.

Even - perhaps especially - when an 'opponent' of yours dies, it is right to honour their memory [1]. In life, someone may have taken on the role of persistent sparring partner or even sworn enemy but in death they are always your fellow human being.

Less than two years ago I had the honour of watching Christopher Hitchens dismantle a rather bumbling Catholic philosopher at a debate in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. At the book-signing afterwards, I brushed past him as he passed by me on a quest for a glass of whiskey; his cancer diagnosis was to follow in a matter of weeks. It is hard to believe that he is now gone.

While alive, he was a force of nature. Armed with a razor-sharp wit, an inimitable turn of phrase and a caustic tongue, he invariably evoked a mixture of admiration and horror as it would dawn on his unsuspecting listeners that the delightfully cheeky ripostes they were giggling at were in fact attacking their own position and worldview.

Now I am not trying to make light of the profane; Hitchens undoubtedly said some very harsh things about the God of the Bible, whom I worship. Yet - and I do not say this simply because it is the spirit of our time - there is something distinctly more repellent and vulgar about a hypocritical Christian than a consistent atheist.[2]

The fact that in their respective dealings with opponents Richard Dawkins is a brute while his comrade, Hitchens, was always a gentleman, is neither here nor there since their relativistic, individualistic, secular framework does not prescribe for them any particular kind of attitude or approach to have. The Christian apologist, however, has no such freedom; for the Christian is called always to value others above themselves (Phil 2.3), never to disdain and ever to be gracious and gentle in their dealings, especially with opponents. If they fail to do so then they either have not understood the gospel and should not be in Christian ministry or they are charlatans, hypocrites and the worst kind of manipulators and blasphemers.

The implication is that, looking back over Hitchens life, we might say that frequently when we see him being mean about certain inconsistent Christians, we have little choice but to take his side over theirs. Take for instance his comments on Mother Teresa meeting the Pope:

"When Mother Teresa first met the pope in the Vatican, she arrived by bus dressed only in a sari that cost one rupee. Now that would be my definition of behaving ostentatiously. A normal person would put on at least her best scarf and take a taxi. To do it in the way that she did is the reverse of the simple path. It's obviously theatrical and calculated. And yet it is immediately written down as a sign of her utter holiness and devotion. Well, one doesn't have to be too cynical to see through that."

See also his less than complimentary words on Jerry Falwell:

…allowed Falwell to prove, almost every week, that there is no vileness that cannot be freely uttered by a man whose name is prefaced with the word Reverend.

In person, he actually treated his enemies with great respect (cf. his relationship with Calvinist pastor, Doug Wilson) and even in debates was known to laud publicly the difference between a reasoned apologist (ie. Dinesh D' Souza) and a canniving opportunist (a catalogue of names). Doug Wilson had this to say about him:

‘During the time we spent together, he never said an unkind thing to me—except on stage, up in front of everybody. After doing this, he didn’t wink at me, but he might as well have.’

His intransigence as a debater and writer, then, clearly did not translate into his interpersonal relationships, as his reconciliation with his brother reveals. He was also no lone ranger, insulting all in his path like some kind of lifelong adolescent. His lifelong solidarity, friendship and loyalty to Salmon Rushdie and his obvious affection for Martin Amis reveal a grown up man not afraid to stand upon his principles and open himself up to scorn for the sake of his friends and his views.

Ultimately, we must say that Hitchens was a complex fellow with a zest for life, a thirst for culture and annoying refusal to play the system, jump on bandwagons and accept sanctioned forms of injustice. [3]

It is his death that reveals a restlessness that his staunch materialism could never satisfy. Writing during his illness, he stated that:

"I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient."

Of course I can just imagine him prophesying, even as he was writing those words, that they would be twisted by people like me to point to the cross of Christ. And of course he would be right. For Christ did not just risk his life for the good of others, he freely gave it. One of Hitchen's final articles concerned the wish to seek death merely as a means to avoid his own suffering (seeing how his own suffering made a mockery of the aphorism "whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger"). Therein lies the difference not between me and Hitchens - as believer and non-believer - but between Hitchens and Christ - as mortal and saviour.

The one who cannot save himself and has rejected out of hand even the possibility of salvation has only one recourse in the face of suffering; to seek a more swift end. Even Hitchens grew out of love with his own curiosity to remain as lucid as possible right to the end in order to experience the full span of life.

The one who is himself the saviour, however, needs no recourse to anything but simply throws himself lovingly and willingly into the depths of suffering to identify with and then, finally, to put to bed the suffering of those he came to save. Christ did not just alleviate our suffering with his own, he vanquished it.

Jesus is not the twisted God of Hitchen's imagination who "created us sick and then commanded us to be well", he is the God who came to take on our infirmities - which we had brought on ourselves - and, in so doing, to heal us with the very life that flowed from his body.

Returning to Hitchens… today the world lost an admirable man, a great man, a hero of mine and hopefully of yours too. Yet when we remember Hitchens, let us not just remember his gifts and his work, let us also remember the restlessness and the grasping for transcendent meaning, the openness to surprise that made an elegant and refreshing presence amongst a growing horde of brash and unpalatable atheists. We cannot say where he is now but we can point to the one who is his (and my) antithesis: the Lord Jesus Christ, the only one whose death truly had eternal significance and led to the everlasting good of many.


[1]: Except perhaps in instances when someone has perpetrated crimes against humanity of such gravity that they render such a tribute inappropriate and unwise
[2]: Jesus himself was matter-of-fact about Herod, calling him a fox (which, let's face it, he was), whereas he became emotional talking about the hypocrisy of the Bible teachers of his day (Matt 23).
[3]: That Dawkins is the opposite of this, a one-dimensional figure of intolerance and a rallying point of disdain, probably says little more than the fact that he probably shouldn't be a public figure.