Sympathy for a Philosopher

I like Christopher Hitchens. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I don’t like what he says or what he believes. But I like how he says it, and I like him for his own honesty and straightforwardness. And I always liked his rather “devil may care” attitude to the enjoyable things of life. Given a choice of having a smoke and drink with Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, I would choose the latter any day. (Does Dawkins even drink or smoke?). For that matter, I really don’t think I would sit down with Prof. Dawkins if I had the choice, and I would choose Mr Hitchens over a lot of other people.

I truly think it is a great tragedy, both for him personally and for us, that Mr Hitchen’s is experiencing Stage Four (“there’s no Stage Five”) cancer of the oesophagus. It is true that he has had much to say about us believers that is both insulting and vilificatory, but I have never taken that personally, and (far from wanting to take him to court on these matters) always found him challenging and entertaining.

Part One of Terry Jones’ interview on ABC TV’s Lateline last night was a moving experience (part two is on tonight, I think). I had difficulty picturing the man on the screen as the same one that appeared on Q&A and other shows in the past. His illness has greatly weakened him.

Some parts of the interview interested me very much, like this bit on Christians praying for him (I am one of these, but not one of the first category that Jones cites):

TONY JONES: How do you feel about the people who are praying for you, because there are some, there are some who are praying for to you go to hell? [I actually think that this is appalling behaviour for a Christian. God would never heed such prayer, because he only hears prayers that are in accord with his will and he “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:4)]

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Yes.

TONY JONES: There are many more in fact who are praying for you to be cured and some who are praying for you to be converted? [this is true Christian prayer]

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: That’s right – or converted and cured, to be fair to them. Well, to the people who pray for me to not only have an agonising death, but then be reborn to have an agonising and horrible eternal life of torture, I say, “Well, good on you. See you there,” sort of thing. [he might be right on this – I hope not] I don’t feel I’d be very much obliged to engage with them.

For the people who ostensibly wish me well or are worried about my immortal soul, I say I take it kindly. I mean, it’s a show of concern, it’s a show of solidarity, which is a very important word to me. [See? This kind of prayer is a witness to Christian charity – very powerful] It’s a kindness. If it doesn’t do any good, and I’m sure it doesn’t, it doesn’t really do any harm.

The only objection I have is one I touched on a moment ago which is it seems to me a bit crass to be trying to talk to people about conversion when you know they’re ill. The whole idea of hovering over a sick person who’s worried and perhaps in discomfort and saying, “Now’s the time to reconsider,” strikes me as opportunist at the very best and has a very bad history in the past.

There’ve been false claims made by people who bothered Thomas Paine while he was dying or – and published reports later that he’d recanted on his death bed. Even tried that on Charles Darwin; there was an attempt at a false story of that kind. This I think is shameful, and to the extent that it reminds me of that, I resent it.

I am amazed that he didn’t cite the case of Oscar Wilde. Perhaps he doesn’t know about that one. Anyway, it is in this regard that I really sympathise for Mr Hitchens. Jones takes this further:

TONY JONES: The New York Times says your illness has actually spurred one of the most heated discussions that they can remember of belief, religion and immortality. It’s almost inevitable, isn’t it, when a famous atheist faces death, that this will happen?

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Yes. Yes, it’s an occasion and people never tire of saying when – as they do, many people write to me or email me, including perfect strangers, readers, well-wishers, sometimes former students or people who know me a little bit, they all, one way or another, make the point that, “OK, I won’t pray for you, don’t worry,” or, “Perhaps you won’t mind if I do.”

They are all doing as if they’re doing it for the first time. It’s rather touching. But as I say, the argument’s about immortality, the supernatural, the last things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – are or are not valid quite independently of my mental or physical state. And so there’s something fishy to me in the suggestion that, “OK, now that your system is breaking down, wouldn’t it be a good moment for you to repudiate the convictions of a lifetime?” Again, there’s something about the underlying assumption there that I want to resist.

And this is what I mean by the title of this post. I recognise Mr Hitchen’s desire as a philosopher to remain true to his philosophy, even when he is facing the situation he spoken of in the abstract in a real, existential way. His “resistance” is understandable, but he has rather backed himself into a corner. This is pride. He cannot allow himself to let go of the very pride that seals his destiny. “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you”, writes St James in his letter. The experience of illness and the looming reality of death is an opportunity that God gives us (not one that Christians should cynically or opportunistically impose upon the sick or dying) for repentance. Cancer is a merciful disease in at least this aspect: it gives us time and opportunity to consider our eternal destiny and our relationship with God. But because of his philosophy and because of his philosophical honesty and integrity – which is really pride even though it appears admirable from another perspective – Mr Hitchens is unable to humble himself when the hand of God is most heavy upon him.

And I find that very sad. I will continue to pray for him.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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17 Responses to Sympathy for a Philosopher

  1. Peregrinus says:

    And yet there is another way to look at this.

    Hitchens is in pursuit – genuine pursuit – of truth, and he holds fast to what he believes to be true. (John the Evangelist would approve.) Now he is facing in a very stark way the fact that, if what be believes is the truth is in fact the truth, it is not to his advantage. I don’t know that sticking to his guns in this circumstance is pride. Maybe it is better seen as integrity? Going through the forms of worshipping God “just in case” would not, I think, be humility.

    • Schütz says:

      Of course, Perry. That is the tragedy. We can admire him for sticking to his search for truth. But his “pride” as a philosopher seeking truth (and such a “pride” in normal circumstances are, I think, admirable and desirable) in this case closes him to accepting that his new circumstances and experience may indeed be an occasion for rethinking his past stand.

      • Tony says:

        The experience of illness and the looming reality of death is an opportunity that God gives us (not one that Christians should cynically or opportunistically impose upon the sick or dying) for repentance.

        For Hitchins, this is an assertion without foundation. It is therefore reasonable to speculate that it is not pride that holds him back but, as Pere suggests, integrity.

        I agree with your general assessment of Hitchins as a person though, but, at the same time, I also agree with Alfredo in that ‘with regards to his philosophy though, it’s actually quite terrible’. Mind you, in my assessment, he’s a cut above Dawkins, who I find a genuinely sad one-dimensional character.

  2. Alfredo Watkins says:

    I have to share your sentiments here. I genuinely like the guy, he’s usually able to be respectful with his opponents, and his rhetoric is very nice. He’s a real pleasure to listen to, whereas Dawkins is just a pain. With regards to his philosophy though, it’s actually quite terrible. William Lane Craig, the Christian philosopher, wiped the floor with him. I’m not so sure that he was really interested in the truth. His rhetoric and emotion tended to get conflated with substantial argument. Still, I like the guy (though I guess we should like everyone), and I do pray for him.

  3. Matthias says:

    Those who are praying for Hitchens to go to hell,are examples of what i call Ungrace. As Christians we are meant to be charitable even to our persecutors,and to live lives of grace. For so called Christians to indulge in prayers of this type makes my blood boil

  4. Pax says:

    I too have been praying for Mr Hitchens since I heard of his affliction. Paul was once Saul . I hope he will be nursed with kindness and compassion and a loving and merciful God may well judge him as earning a place in heaven because he got people to think about religion which is better than apathy!

  5. adam george says:

    Sorry but cannot agree re Hitchens.
    Have seen the guy so much on Tv ranting, raving, attacking and blasting people.
    But especially his attacks so personal and degrading on M Teresa which were really abominable and also on Benedict XVI.
    But his personal attacks on the integrity and holiness of M Teresa were just over the top, way out of order and totally scandalous. M Teresa could not answer back and now we see the guy in a terminal state which is sad but then, like all of us, will have to face.

    The man ought retract the words he wrote of Mother Teresa. If not, why not?
    Adam

  6. Jim Ryland says:

    David,

    I understand your feelings. Many decades ago I was a participant in a series of panel discussions that included bishop James Pike. There is no doubt that the man was a first-rate heretic and a major contributor to the doctrinal rot now present in the American Episcopal Church and sister communions. He was, however, an engaging person and in many senses a formidable intellect. I enjoyed my time with him. It’s a case of “Hate the sin but love the sinner”.

  7. Paul G says:

    David, I share your admiration and affection for the Christopher Hitchens I see via the media. He is a stubborn old coot, so if he were ever to have a conversion, the deathbed would be the least likely place for it to happen. God knows if this is pride or integrity.
    A few weeks ago he had a public conversation with his brother, reported in Peter’s blog
    ( http://tinyurl.com/26b2j7m ).
    The topic for the conversation was whether civilisation can exist without God. One thing Peter reported from the conversation was Christopher’s attempt to answer his own “trick” question about the value of religion…..

    “What struck me most forcefully about the occasion were some words my brother said. Those of you who have followed the great religion debate will know that he has many times issued a challenge. ‘Can you name any moral action or ethical statement that could be made or performed by a believer but could not be made or performed by an unbeliever?’
    He has maintained that it could not be answered. During this Washington conversation, he answered it.”
    I don’t know whether or not this reflects pride, but I think it does show intellectual honesty and a willingness by Christopher to challenge and test his own ideas.

    I’m no theologian, but I’ve always understood that there is a difference between Evangelicals and Catholics about salvation. Evangelicals who “declare for the Lord” are thereby saved and can be sure of eternal salvation. The corollary is that if you don’t publicly convert before you die, you are damned. Hence the urgency they feel to evangelise their fellow creatures and to plead and pray that Christopher publicly accepts the Lord. Catholics, as I understand it, are more inclined to shrug their shoulders and say “God knows”. They are less certain of their own salvation (because they can mess it up at any time), or of someone else’s damnation. So is it not possible that if Christopher dies an atheist but has led an honest life, he could still be saved?

    (By the way, Christopher Hitchens’ answer to his own question was the Polish Catholic union leader Lech Walesa who at a time when things were going badly in his battle with the government said “I am not frightened of anything but God or anyone but God”)

    • adam george says:

      I have to say I am srtunned that any Catholic or Christian or person of moral integrity could have ‘admiration and affection’ for PH. His libelous attacks on Blessed M Teresa and her Misssionaries of Charity warrant condemnation and abhorence.
      Has no one on this blog heard and read what the man said about the holy woman? Just abominable and I for one think the man needs to repent publicy for what he said and wrote of her. God will judge him like all of us one day, but to have ‘affection’ for this man is just like supping with abominable evil. Strong words? Yes, but see what he wrote and said in the world media of Bl M Teresa.
      Adam

      • Paul G says:

        Hi Adam, CH is normally a reasonable man, but I admit that what he says about Pope Benedict and Blessed M Teresa seems driven by emotion. However, at least he is arguing a consistent position. There are many people who loudly say they disagree with everything the Pope has written, said or done, and yet publicly and repeatedly say they are Catholics. And they are fawned over by some Catholic communities, priests and bishops. I’m afraid I would still prefer to sup with CH than these people, although I’m not prepared to judge any of them as evil.

        • Paul G says:

          By the way, Adam, PH is Christopher’s Christian brother, Peter.

        • adam george says:

          Opps…meant CH not PH who are both very different.
          I still stand by comments that CH’s attacks on the very integrity of M Teresa were horrendous and scandalous. Not just a writer’s opinions. They were directed at the very core of her work as head of Missionaries of Charity and sought to destroy the very fabric of her work. He needs to recant of those scandalous writings on Blessed M Teresa. Whilst still alive he ought do so. Like all of us God will judge what he has said in such a calamnous manner of the great saint of Calcutta.

      • Louise says:

        I don’t like CH at all, nor any other foaming at the mouth atheist. All the same, I pray for his healing and conversion.

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