Hitchens Gets What’s Coming to Him

Richard Lindsay shares his reflections on the death (and life) of Christopher Hitchens, the power of words, and the love of God. More after the jump.

Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. And as he had predicted, there were no stories of a deathbed conversion or recanting of his atheism.

If Jesus was the “wounded healer,” Hitchens was the “bullied bully.” Something about his demeanor and well-known abuse of his body through alcohol and tobacco suggested a man who had been deeply scarred by the events of his life. He used his prodigious talent at writing and argument to tear down both the good and the evil, the just and the unjust. Whatever calculus he applied to come to his intellectual opinions (and, as one writer suggested, his main ideology seemed to be apostasy from previously held positions) whoever ended up on the wrong side of a debate with him, God help them. He would resort to ad hominem and straw man attacks while denouncing his opponent for doing the same. He would confound his opponent with obscure words and writers and a certain slurred charm that would soon have his enemy holding onto the wrong end of the cobra. While it was enjoyable to see him do this to a religious charlatan like Ralph Reed, or a gargoyle like Henry Kissinger, his merciless attacks of Mother Teresa were in bad taste, and his defense of nitwit neoconservatives like Paul Wolfowitz was downright dangerous.

My own life is worse for Hitchens having been on this planet. One of my best and closest friends had been in a contentious relationship with his Catholicism for some time when he read God Is Not Great. Imagining Hitchens’ bigoted screed to be a new and heretofore unmet argument against religion, my friend finally lurched into atheism. If my friend was not cut out to be a Christian, he made an even worse atheist. Whatever spiritual duct tape had been holding him together through bouts of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder came unglued, and he plunged into near-suicidal despair. After my desperate pleas for him to get help from a counselor, he finally emerged from this period, spiritually broken but still alive. Perhaps as a means of survival, he had taken on cynicism towards many of his previous ways of thinking, including his former spirit of generosity and openness to the world. After several e-mails this past January in which he expressed virulent anti-Islamic sentiment using overwrought Hitchensian prose, I have chosen not to keep in contact with my friend for most of the last year.

I suspect, like Hitchens, my friend, who had experienced the trauma of bullying, both from his father and from schoolmates, had tried to become the bullied bully. Do I know for sure the changes in my friend’s personality would not have happened had he not read that book? No, I don’t. There were numerous other contributing factors to his breakdown. But the many encomiums after Hitchens’ death suggest that ideas and words really do matter in how they shape personal thought and public debate. Otherwise, why would we care that another pundit has met his reward? (Or lack thereof.) Public intellectuals are people who, through their erudition and eloquence, have an uncanny ability to crystalize opinion and move the world to action. They have an awesome responsibility to use these talents for the greater good.

Hitchens himself reflected on this in a late essay of uncharacteristic humility in which he described attending the funeral of an American soldier who had joined up to fight in Iraq after reading Hitchens’ powerful, pro-war essays. One wonders how many families of the nearly 4500 soldiers killed, or thousands of Iraqi orphans, he would have had to meet before he would finally admit he was wrong about the war. For all of his claims to scientific rationalism, if Hitchens had merely listened to the sound objections of the Vatican, the World Council of Churches, and several public Christians like Jim Wallis, Stanley Hauerwas, William Sloane Coffin, and Jesse Jackson, he would have come out on the right side of history in opposing America’s war on Iraq. His unapologetic cheerleading for this horrific misadventure was his greatest misdeed as a writer and producer of public opinion.

For the man who wrote, on Jerry Falwell’s death, “It’s a shame there is no hell for him to go to,” it’s a shame there is no hell for Hitch. How I would love to imagine a No Exit scenario in which Hitchens is forced to endure an eternal cocktail party (with low quality booze) with Falwell and Saddam Hussein, in which his only succor would come by asking forgiveness from his nemesis Mother Teresa.

But I suspect what will really happen is that Hitchens will get what’s coming to him, what’s coming to all of us, atheist and believer alike: an encounter with the all-encompassing, penetrating, and awesome love of God. Whether or not in the state in which he died he would be capable of accepting this gift is of some question; God’s love is freely given and has to be freely accepted, no one will force him to take it. This is really the only eternal judgment we face: whether after a lifetime, we can stand in the light of such a love that burns away the dross of our hatred and fear and leaves us both individually whole and communally connected to God. I believe this love can be resisted, in death as in life, but it is awfully tenacious, and I don’t think any of us—not Hitchens, not my friend, not Saddam or Jerry Falwell—can hold out against it forever.

In this life we like to imagine that at the End we’ll get some “accounting” of events, some kind of weighing of right and wrong. In general, we imagine this for other people, those we dislike, rather than for ourselves. (Although there is a certain spiritual S&M in my natal Calvinism that would be disappointed if we weren’t all just a little punished). After all, we tell ourselves that God is a God of justice. And God is, at least this side of the material/spiritual divide. But I find it hard to believe that any of us, if we truly experienced an overwhelming love that salved our wounds and enveloped us in the fullness of the Ground of All Being, would be quite so concerned with such earthly concepts as “justice.” The gerund that comes to mind from such a love seems closer to “basking” (in God’s love) than “bitching” (about those who don’t deserve it).

Atheists like Hitchens would no doubt find my speculation on what happens after death incredibly naïve and even a bit silly. I’m not sure I disagree with them. But I guess that’s what I count on, what gives me the spark to keep living in what is sometimes a painful and always uncertain existence: my somewhat naïve, somewhat silly insistence that Love wins out in the end.