Is Christopher Hitchens about to convert?

Could Christopher Hitchens become a Christian?

It’s a possibility that doesn’t seem laughable anymore. Hitchens, the celebrated British journalist, angry atheist and roué, has a very powerful piece in the January issue of Vanity Fair. Hitchens has been in Houston undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer, which he was diagnosed with in 2010.

In his essay, Hitchens rejects a popular aphorism attributed to Nietzsche: “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Hitchens had thought of the phrase at different points in his life where he narrowly escaped death — experiences told well in his memoir “Hitch-22.” After enduring chemotherapy and radiation treatments that made swallowing unbearable and left his entire body a rash, Hitchens rejects Nietzsche’s slogan. “In the brute physical world,” Hitchens writes, “and the one encompassed by medicine, there are all too many things that could kill you, don’t kill you, and then leave you considerably weaker.” Hitchens speculates that some maladies are so devastating that it may be better to have not lived, while acknowledging that sometimes we push through the pain and reach the other side glad that we hadn’t given up.

Rejecting one of the more sophomoric of Nietzsche’s aphorisms may seem small, but out of such moments are great conversions made. I am currently working on a documentary about Whittaker Chambers, the great writer who left communism in the late 1930s and wrote a masterpiece, “Witness,” about the ordeal. Chambers’s faith in communism began to unravel when he watched his baby daughter Ellen eating at the breakfast table. Chambers began to focus on the young girl’s ear:

The thought passed through my mind: “No, those ears were not created by any chance coming together of atoms in nature (the Communist view). They could have been created only by immense design.” The thought was involuntary and unwanted. I crowded it out of my mind. But I never wholly forgot it or the occasion. I had to crowd it out of my mind. If I had completed it, I should have had to say: Design presupposes God. I did not then know that, at that moment, the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.

Perhaps Hitchens’s admission that Nietzsche might have been wrong, even about something small, will lead him to a healthy curiosity about Christianity. Up until now, Hitchens has had nothing but bile for Christianity and all religion — including the religion of Marxism, which Hitchens, a former leftist, eventually admitted could not survive “the onslaught of reality.” But Hitchens’s attacks on religion were always propelled by the kind of fury that one usually finds in zealots and former believers; it’s always the ex-Catholics (Maureen Dowd, etc.) who are the hardest on the Church. I found “God is Not Great,” Hitchens’s anti-religion rant, unreadable not because it argues against religion, but because it does so in such an angry, scattershot and childish way. As David Bentley Hart once wrote, “God is Not Great” is “a book that raises the non sequitur almost to the level of a dialectical method.” Oh, for the book where Hitchens takes on Aquinas, Augustine, Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Robert P. George, George Weigel and Hans Urs von Balthasar. I guess it’s much easier to pick on Mother Teresa, which Hitchens has done with particular gusto.