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.