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.
Hitchens certainly has the intellectual ability to take on some great Christian thinkers and perhaps reassess his prior positions. I knew that he was a brave soul as far back as 1989, when I was an intern at The Nation magazine. Hitchens had been a writer for the magazine (he had just moved on to Harper’s when I arrived), and I remember finding a bunch of hate mail addressed to Hitchens in a file. It was from feminists who were angry that Hitchens had come out as pro-life (video evidence can be found here). I knew at that moment that he was a brave and honest thinker. A couple weeks later, I met the man himself at a party. I engaged him in conversation and tried to sell him on the greatness of the band the Clash. He didn’t buy it, calling the group “nihilistic.” A colleague from The Nation pulled me aside and said that Hitch would probably be better if I asked him about 19th-century British poets.
I remained a fan of Hitchens over the years, but didn’t see him up close again until January 2010, at a party for the launch of The Daily Caller. As soon as I saw him, I knew something was wrong. I had been diagnosed with cancer (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma) in 2008, and when I saw Hitchens, I felt like I was seeing myself from two years prior. He had the same ashen look. I reintroduced myself and reminded him about our conversation about the Clash. He examined my face and then said, “Yes, I think I do remember that.”
A few months later, Hitchens was diagnosed. Since then he has done something that is not easy — write with great insight and originality about cancer, a disease that lends itself to cheesy empowerment sloganeering and weepy martyr kitsch. His latest piece in Vanity Fair is the best yet. He avoids the cheap sentiment that’s part of so much writing about the illness. He celebrates life while saying that it’s also okay to die if it comes to that. The only one who did it better was Richard John Neuhaus in his book “As I Lay Dying.”
In his piece, Hitchens admits that the brutality of his treatment has made him reassess the bravado he showed about death in “Hitch-22,” where he claimed he wanted to be fully awake and conscious at the moment death came, in order to enjoy the ride fully. Now that death has, if not arrived, at least driven by the house, Hitch is not so sure.
I wouldn’t tell Christopher Hitchens that now is the time to get right with the Lord, or to pray or read the Bible. I wouldn’t try and convince him of the resurrection. I would only ask him to entertain the notion that love — the love he has for his life, his wife and his children, the love his readers have for him and the love that the doctors and nurses are showing him — is a real thing whose origins are worth exploring without glibness (sorry, saying “love for your fellow mammals” doesn’t require religion, as Hitchens did once, doesn’t cut it). It also can be done without Christophobia. I know that my discovery that I had cancer focused my mind on discovering the true nature of things, and I’m not talking about wishful thinking.
Ironically, there is a kind of symmetry between Hitchens and his declared enemy, Mother Teresa, whom Hitchens wrote a nasty book about and called a fanatic and a fraud (yawn). In her 2009 book “Come Be My Light,” published posthumously (Mother Teresa died in 1997), Mother Teresa writes of long periods, indeed years, of “darkness” and suffering, during which she felt that God wasn’t there. After the book was published, Hitchens went on TV to gloat. Even Mother Teresa didn’t believe it! In fact, Mother Teresa was going through what many saints do, a dark night of the soul. Such things can make us doubt God, and that is anything but an unholy thing. As Chesterton noted, Christianity is the only religion that allows God to be an atheist (“Why have you forsaken me?”). Perhaps Hitchens is going through something similar. And as Mother Teresa’s pain made her doubt her God, in second-guessing Nietzsche, Hitchens may be doubting his.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.