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On Hitchens

21 December 2011

For obvious reasons, a search for the New York Times in my browser history would turn up more hits from the obituary section than it would in a normal week. I confess to being somewhat addicted, actually. Reading obits of folks who warrant more than just one is somewhat akin watching a civil war renenactment : all their stances—persuasive and clunker alike—are rehashed by true afficianados for an audience that wasn’t there the first time around.

In accord with the sheer profligacy of his work, Christopher Hitchens’ death last week has warranted pretty robust tribute. And perhaps the rancorous rehashing of his cheerleading for the invasion of Iraq is a fitting send-off. By all accounts, the man would not have wanted nice things to be said simply because that’s what one does at funerals. By the same token, maybe he would have appreciated the parting shots at his lack of deathbed conversion. The adage of “Death before Dishonor”—disingenuous sentiments being tantamount to the latter—seems to be commandment to Hitchens’ moral universe, to be applauded in others as much as in one’s self.

 But a couple of columns tried to wrestle with the ‘proper’ way for theists of all stripes to respond to Hitchens’ death. The subject of Hitchens’ post-mortem residence, beyond being out of our hands, is a bit touchy for the setting, but most of these take the form of a salute to a supremely worthy—yet ultimately defeated—opponent. Ross Douthat’s is the most quotable of them: 

Intellectually minded Christians, in particular, had a habit of talking about Hitchens as though he were one of them already — a convert in the making, whose furious broadsides against God were just the prelude to an inevitable reconciliation.


Recognizing this affinity, many Christian readers felt that in Hitchens’s case there had somehow been a terrible mix-up, and that a writer who loved the King James Bible … surely belonged with them, rather than with the bloodless prophets of a world lit only by Science.

Experience tells me that whenever someone writes of “Christian readers”, it’s a reasonably solid bet that they are not talking about me. Still, from up here in the theological and cultural nosebleed seats of Christianity, I question why so many are comfortable in saying that Hitchens was ever not on our side. The obvious answer, of course, is that the question of belief in God is, for the fundamentally minded, rather fundamental. If you conclude that individuals are only saved from the place of much fire and serious dental problems by belief in Jesus as the Christ, then that line is drawn pretty clearly. I don’t, of course, so I have the luxury of not contending with that particular division.

I’ve read only excerpts of God Is Not Great, though I’ve read enough essays and seen enough of Hitchens’ debates in promotion of the book to comprehend the platform. It seems rather transparent to me that, while certainly rooted in a judgment of the implausibility of most traditions’ claims, the spark of Hitchens’ advocacy has much more to do with opposition to the evil that so often seems to emerge from a sealed hermeneutic of faith. That’s an old, and frankly easy, argument. What’s tough is stretching it far enough to encompass the book’s subtitle while accounting for a literally infinite variety of theologies. It’s a tall order, and one that I’m inclined to believe is impossible to fill. Indeed, the fact that Hitchens had to attempt the somewhat bewildering argument that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a ‘nebulous humanist’ in order to make his case is telling. Taking the most lived of concepts and discussing it as a monolithic concept with predictable effects upon the invidual is an attack on a straw man that bears not even the slightest resemblance to the real McCoy.

But his criticisms of hate and hypocrisy were a rather glorious form of truth-telling. Yes, it was sometimes utterly hyperbolic, and could come of as brimming with personal invective. And he made some astoundingly naïve, and occasionally ill-informed arguments. Yet I cannot help noticing that a devotion to justice, fairness, and a complete disregard for power or status in seeking both. If often overzealously and in ways that I found distasteful, Hitchens said things that needed to be spoken loudly and eloquently—all with profound affection and love for those with whom he shared his existence.

And however off the mark his critiques of religion were, I know they instilled in many believers who took them seriously a sense of the precariousness of their position. Holes in arguments were exposed, ones that had been either neglected or, more likely, purposely avoided. It’ s likely many convictions were shed or revamped as a result of what he wrote. I don’t know for sure, since it never had that particular effect on me. But what beliefs remained were just a little less secure, a little more in touch with the uncertainty that lies at the heart of everything—including, especially, God. I’ve long felt that many Christians have exchanged this awareness for the ability to discern for themselves, judging and ascribing meaning in God’s stead. When we claim certainty about such things, we truly worship only ourselves with all our petty motives and passions. There is no easy antidote to this most tempting failure, but those who take a turn at raking it over the coals cannot hurt.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” However arrogant and harsh he may have been prone to be, the fearlessness intertwined with these traits may have been the very thing that allowed Hitchens to inspire people to do all three. I think he missed some things in his search. Undoubtedly, so have we all. But as someone said recently, we rarely get to choose our teachers. Perhaps more to the point, we also rarely get to choose the lessons we teach each other. All we can do is listen, and apply what we can with a sense of humility–and gratitude. 



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