Saturday, December 17, 2011
The Death of a Beloved Atheist
It is not every day that such a preposterous phrase is put together, because it is not every day that the announcement of an atheist's death should bring such collective sorrow. I am not sure what it was about Christopher Hitchins' atheism, but if it can be said, he was truly a lovable atheist. In many ways he was like a villain in a play that you like primarily because he's got personality. In an age where Christianity has all but turned into a kind of warmed over Theism, he was what Flannery O'Connor referred to as the scourge of God, demanding that Christians make an account of their faith.
Perhaps my favorite Christopher Hitchins moment occurred at King's College during a debate with Catholic apologist Dinesh D'Souza. When asked what his thoughts were on the omnipotence of God, he responded by comparing heaven to "a celestial North Korea," and then adding, "but at least you can get out of North Korea when you die, for Christians death is when the fun really begins!" When I heard him say this, I have to admit I wanted to stand up and applaud, not because I agreed with it, but because I thought it was incredible theatre. The villain has spoken, and now the hero, if he is in fact worthy of that title, must respond with equal, if not greater, vigor. In an unmanly time, he demanded an intellectually virile response from Christians (and anyone with whom he disagreed).
Indeed, he was so much the "Devil's advocate," that he literally played one during the canonization process of Mother Theresa; a role that even the most seasoned controversialist wouldn't have touched with a ten foot pole. During the process, he pointed out that the Church used to do this themselves when evaluating possible candidates for sainthood, though it had regretfully ceased to do so in recent decades. Frankly, I agree with him on this account, and hope that the Church will bring back this noble tradition.
This is not to suggest that he himself was secretly working on the side of the Church (though sometimes I fancy he was). Nevertheless, he always kept about himself two things that distinguished him from the rest of the so-called "new atheists". First, he had a sense of humor. Agree with him or not, and there was much to disagree with him on, there was always a twinkle in his eye (and a drink in his hand) whenever he was conducting an interview or a debate. I do not think that Richard Dawkins ever possessed the same levity. Secondly, he believed in an objective moral norm, though he could never quite effectively argue why a Darwinian primate should have such a strict moral code. Indeed, he was more than willing to travel to some remote location if only to shed further light on some particular injustice. Once again, I do not see a similar willingness on the part of the other "Brights" (as Dawkins likes to call them). They are good at assessing blame, but are ultimately a bunch of grouses that do nothing.
No one should confuse Christopher Hitchins with a saint, he was not. But in some mysterious way he did help shed light on a particular Biblical passage that is nothing if not paradoxical; "Love your enemies". Of all the enemies of Christ and His Church, I would have to say that Mr. Hitchins was probably the most lovable. Maybe it was because, as Flannery O'Connor once put it, "he was walking backwards towards Jerusalem". I do not know. What I can say is that his candor and creative prose will be sorely missed, and that despite what some may say, he was doing the Church a great service by demanding that She give an account of Herself. It is true that God rebuked Job for his tremendous presumption, but it is equally true that Job's wife and his companions were rebuked even more so for their facile solutions to the problem of evil. Let it never be said of Mr. Hitchins that he fell into that latter category.