Friday, December 16, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Rest in Peace

Christopher Hitchens passed away last night. Having done serious battle with the debilitating Stage 4 esophageal cancer that overran his life some 18 months ago -- as he put it, "There is no Stage 5" -- he finally lost the fight he knew would be a losing one.

A lifelong political journalist, Hitchens didn't hit the national spotlight in America until after 9/11, an event that changed his life in more ways than one. Once a card-carrying communist -- literally: in his memoir there is a picture of his "commie card" from the late 1960s -- Hitchens remained a leftist of some sort all his life; but 9/11 marked a line in the sand his former comrades found themselves on the wrong side of. Thereafter he became a recognizable spokesman for two things above all: the West's war on Islamist terrorism, as led by the U.S.; and a radical secularism bent on exposing the poisonous evils of religion.

This is largely how Hitchens' death will be received: as that of the secular fundamentalist who betrayed his politics in order to back an imperial invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. And that description is no doubt earned. (Though I do wonder about the extent to which his politics were ever so far from where he eventually landed.)

However, Hitchens' death raises a different set of issues, and feelings, for me. See, Hitchens was (is!) one of my favorite writers. Though our politics were (are -- tense is challenging here) opposed, our worldviews disparate, our convictions contradictory, I loved the man's work. Over time I developed that curious feeling for his writing -- and so for him -- that is somehow capable of attending signs on a page or screen: affection. Whether reading his weekly piece in Slate, his longer monthly essay in Vanity Fair, his random book reviews and speeches to fellow atheist believers, or his fascinating memoir, Hitchens' writing brought me what I know he sought to occasion -- namely, pleasure. The literary world for Hitchens was not unlike a vast and unending pleasure machine; if we learn and grow, enculture ourselves in the process, all the better. I'm happy to know that, churning out material even in his final dying weeks, Hitchens the man succeeded in the singular thing he knew his life was preeminently given and ordered to, that which he so evidently loved with an almost religious fervor. Writing was his life, and he died one of the half dozen or so best living essayists in the English-speaking world. A happy thing, to die having fulfilled your call.

The second set of issues raised by Hitchens' death, hinted at by some of my language in the preceding sentences, is his radical atheism. I am a Christian, and a theologian in training. What does it mean to have affection for Hitchens, a man who in no uncertain terms ridiculed any and all who belonged to the Christian faith, as well as the God of that faith? And what does it mean to remember him in his passing, given traditional Christian convictions about postmortem consequences for those without faith?

The first question, though problematic for some, is not for me. As I knew and know him in his writing, Hitchens was and is a friend -- one gained, to be sure, from books and essays and speeches, and so an odd sort of friend, but a friend nonetheless. Therefore there is nothing strange in having affection for him and his work, just as I have had and do and will have friends in life with whom I disagree fundamentally about ultimate matters. I would have been happy for Hitchens to know while living that he had a Christian theologian -- a "true believer"! -- for an admiring reader. I'm sure he would have laughed, and got on with it. Fine by me.

The second question seems to me the more pressing. How do Christians pronounce the blessing Requiescat in pace on behalf of a man like Hitchens without some irony, doubt, or even hypocrisy nagging at their conscience? Not because we do not want him to rest in peace, but because the overwhelming claim of the tradition is that he will not in fact do so.

The challenge is not solved by a resolute universalism. For, as Hitchens was quick to point out to his still-evangelizing Christian readers, would it not be better for him to retain the integrity of his convictions to the end, rather than abandon them out of fear and self-concern? From the Christian vantage point -- this is perhaps the voice of C.S. Lewis -- should we not afford an unbeliever like Hitchens, following God's own lead, the courtesy of his commitments and so not relegate him to heaven's dark corner of unwilling converts?

I don't have a quick fix for these theological problems. Christians trust the God of cross and resurrection to act in exact accordance with the love, mercy, and grace revealed in Christ. In this way -- in a profoundly freeing way -- the fate of the departed is simply and completely out of our hands. It is just not up to us.

Given this position, then, what are we we left with? What is our "stance" in such a situation? I have two suggestions.

The first is an absolutely steadfast faith in the victory of God's love in Christ. Christopher Hitchens was as subject as you or I to the vagaries and consequences of a world filled with sin, violence, falsehood, and death. And the God who created Christopher Hitchens, who upheld him at every moment of his life, who quite literally loved him into being and sustained him in love for more than six decades -- this God came near in Christ and acted once for all to deliver all things from bondage to death. If Christian faith excludes the Christopher Hitchenses of the world from the scope of God's redemption, it might as well give up the game.

My second suggestion is much smaller in focus, a rather homely theological gesture. I shared above of my affection for Hitchens. Though it did not take much effort -- and, of course, required zero cost -- this could be interpreted as a kind of literary love of enemy: Hitchens' distaste with me-and-mine could not win out against my genuine fondness for him. In the face of the rhetorical violence he perpetrated against "religious people," and even the actual violence he commended against those he deemed unworthy of life, I sincerely desired Hitchens' well-being; I wanted him to flourish, to succeed, to know love and health and long life. (I also hoped he would lose his enchantment with the Enlightenment, and open a book of real theology, and reject the myth of redemptive war -- but then, those are forms of loving him, too.)

In other words, my affection for Hitchens the atheist fundamentalist overwhelmed any other feeling or attitude I might have had for him. And I suspect this is something like the stance Christians should take in relation to all the (radically) unbelieving departed; for when I say "rest in peace," I really mean it. Not because I have worked-out ideas about the afterlife, or a backdoor deal with God, or secret hope that Hitchens was "right with the Lord" when he died -- although, to reiterate the first point above, Christian faith should presume and pray for the universal victory of God's love. No, my blessing on the life of Christopher Hitchens, and on his passing, comes not from intellect or doctrine, but from a love that overrules these other instincts. And my sense is that something like this overruling love is closer to where we ought to be than sure knowledge of any person's eternal fate.

A last time, then: Rest in peace, Christopher Hitchens. May the wordy affection your work inspired in this believer be a testament to your lifelong gift, and a lasting irony you would have enjoyed to no end.

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