After battling for several years with a form of terminal cancer, widely read polemist Christopher Hitchens passed away last night at the age of 62. As we reflect on this man’s life, I cannot help but wonder if he will be remembered by Christians for the wrong reasons, the most obvious of these being his bellicose rhetoric.
Hitchens’ works have long been a staple of the anti-theist diet, and evangelical Christians are understandably indignant when they encounter remarks this firebrand made throughout the course of his tenure. In one of his first penned attacks on religion, Hitchens wrote, “What [religion] can deliver me is the prospect of serfdom, mental and physical, and the chance to live under fantastic and cruel laws.” This provocative approach to his writing endured since and won him distinction as the best-selling author of God Is Not Great (2007), among other works. It is not surprising, then, that Hitchens’ prose is liable to leave a repugnant taste on the palate of American Christians and that his legacy may, first and foremost, be a compilation of disdainful populist catchphrases on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble.
Yet, from the other side we find that many prominent evangelical Christians heaped praise upon Mr. Hitchens. In a recent piece written in the Washington Post, Christian writer and current Director of the National Institutes of Health Francis Collins wrote: “Some observers have expressed surprise that the atheist intellectual and the Christian physician-scientist could become friends. … But I would like to think that Christopher’s sharp intellect has challenged my own defense of the rationality of faith to be more consistent and compelling.” Mr. Hitchens received similar expressions of gratitude from the likes of Philip Yancey, William Craig and Douglas Wilson. For those Christians who managed to brave the rhetoric, Hitchens played the important historic role of the Socratic gadfly, buzzing incessantly in the ears of Christian apologists and academics and requiring them to approach their work with due diligence. In Hitchens’ own words, “Exceptional claims demand exceptional evidence.” The alternative to a cantankerous populist figure, then, may be that of a formidable adversary.
Yet, if we are left only with these asymmetric perspectives, then Christians will have sorely mistaken the best this controversial individual had to offer. C.S. Lewis reflected upon the following point in Mere Christianity: “Most of man’s psychological makeup is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off of him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things we thought our own, but which were really due to good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.”
While we do not have the ability to see Mr Hitchens in such a light at present, it is nevertheless impingent upon the Christian to look past the posturing and the polemics and to first study the life this man led and the motivations that guided him.
To this end, it is particularly instructive to turn to Mr. Hitchens’ political writings. Even at a cursory glance, we find something rather puzzling: On the one hand, Hitchens dedicated considerable ink to lambasting republican and rightist figures like Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell and George W. Bush; yet, these compositions coexist alongside equally scathing critiques of liberals and leftists like Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton and Michael Moore. Commenting about the merits of Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Hitchens stated: “To describe this film as dishonest and demagogic would almost be to promote those terms to the level of respectability.” A more thorough inspection of these and similar narratives reveal an author chiefly interested in the diagnosis of flagrant hypocrisies, injustices and the consequences of fallacious logic which might otherwise go unattended. A compilation of Hichens’ essays entitled Love, Poverty and War evinces the tenor of a man whose prose are shaped by cautious thought and conviction, rather than evincing a subscription to the political ideologies or agendas that often characterize today’s journalism.
Hitchens was not without his share of accusations for these political pieces. He came under heavy fire for his support of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Hitchens participated in a series of back and forth articles in The Nation, arguing against Noam Chomsky about the appropriateness of an interventionist response. Roughly one year after this exchange, Hitchens left his post at The Nation, remarking, “In the past few weeks I have come to realize that the magazine itself takes a side in this argument, and is becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden.” Following his departure, Hitchens continued to write more aggressively against the position of his former colleagues in favor of the War on Terror in Afghanistan and later Operation Iraqi Freedom. In this foremost example, and in Mr. Hitchens’ willingness to upbraid figures on both sides of the political aisle, we find a figure comfortable with the prospect of risking his station and political allies in order to advocate his perspective.
Turning back to Hitchens’ engagements in religious debates, we might note similar surprises. First, we find a willingness if not an eagerness to engage in public discourse about the coexistence of faith and reason. For all of his invective, Hitchens could easily have scoffed at or dismissed the challenges put forth to him by Christian theologians and philosophers. Yet, in comparison to the other three “horsemen” of the New Atheism Movement, Hitchens was far and away the most amenable to open dialogue. On several occasions, he even entered into the hornet’s nest, so to speak—to defend himself on the campuses of Christian colleges and universities, as well as before largely Christian, Muslim and Jewish audiences.
In each such instance, he expressed his gratitude for the hospitality that believers bestowed upon him in providing him the opportunity to defend his claims. And rather than bloviating in recondite terms about complex metaphysical and phenomenological concerns associated with theism, Hitchens opted to assume a more humble narrative approach in which he described issues he found he could not help but wrestle with or aspects of religion that could not help but strike him as absurd or bizarre or implausible.
Of course, in the final analysis it is God’s role—not ours—to judge one’s heart and motivations. This does not mean, however, that we are permitted to focus exclusively on Hitchens’ calumniations and religious diatribes at disregard for the life of public service he led through his penmanship, or his willingness to assume unsavory political and ideological positions and to receive harsh criticism as a result. In this “call-it-like-you-see-it” demeanor, I dare say we find in Hitchens a dimension of character embodied most fully by Jesus of Nazareth, a man prepared to become a pariah in order to speak forcefully and forthrightly on controversial issues. Let us not be mistaken—Hitchens was not a Christ-figure, and he would have undoubtedly despised any such analogy. But for all of his repudiations, there may be have been more of Christ in him than he—or we—would have cared to think.
Ryan McBain is a graduate student at Harvard University and a longtime reader of Chris Hitchens’ writings.