Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
"The path to bliss abounds with many a snare;
Learning is one, and wit, however rare.
The Frenchman, first in literary fame
(Mention him, if you please. Voltaire?—The same),
With spirit, genius, eloquence, supplied,
Lived long, wrote much, laugh’d heartily, and died;
The Scripture was his jest-book, whence he drew
Bon-mots to gall the Christian and the Jew;
An infidel in health, but what when sick?
Oh—then a text would touch him at the quick;
View him at Paris in his last career,
Surrounding throngs the demi-god revere;
Exalted on his pedestal of pride,
And fumed with frankincense on every side,
He begs their flattery with his latest breath,
And, smother’d in’t at last, is praised to death!
Yon cottager, who weaves at her own door,
Pillow and bobbins all her little store;
Content though mean, and cheerful if not gay,
Shuffling her threads about the live-long day,
Just earns a scanty pittance, and at night
Lies down secure, her heart and pocket light;
She, for her humble sphere by nature fit,
Has little understanding, and no wit,
Receives no praise; but though her lot be such
(Toilsome and indigent), she renders much;
Just knows, and knows no more, her Bible true—
A truth the brilliant Frenchman never knew;
And in that charter reads with sparkling eyes,
Her title to a treasure in the skies.
Oh, happy peasant! Oh, unhappy bard!
His the mere tinsel, hers the rich reward;
He praised perhaps for ages yet to come,
She never heard of half a mile from home:
He, lost in errors, his vain heart prefers,
She, safe in the simplicity of hers."
-William Cowper, "Truth"
Encomia are flowing throughout the blogosphere today upon the news that the Voltaire of our generation, Christopher Hitchens, has lost his battle with esophageal cancer and passed away. Many of these tributes are excellent. Michael Gerson's is well worth the read, as is Douglas Wilson's. Other odes to the life and personage of Hitchens do something of a disservice to the man. He had no patience for exaggerated flattery. What would he think of various inflations of personality traits which he, if he in fact had them, seemed to do his best to conceal? One would think the man were the very paragon of the virtues of kindness and respect for others, rather than the man who ridiculed and mocked in the strongest terms imaginable anything and anyone even remotely related to religious faith.
Christopher Hitchens led a wild, exciting, entertaining, full, and yet dissipating and tragic life. He was critically-acclaimed as a great public intellectual, a writer of extraordinary breadth and depth, and was by all accounts armed with an uncanny and acerbic wit. My reference to Voltaire is not incidental. Like the French poet, Hitchens was a staunch defender of the Enlightenment project, and, also like his French predecessor, spent a great deal of effort denouncing, ridiculing, and trying to exterminate Christian Faith in the world. You see, because it "poisons everything."
Hitchens rode a very high horse. He might even be remembered as the Great Denunciator. The objects of his skewering were seemingly chosen without passion or prejudice. He ripped the right; he ripped the left; he ripped fascists, communists, and God; he even famously ripped Mother Theresa. And all the while, there sat Christopher Hitchens, high up above everybody and everything, dispensing judgment.
The only authority Christopher Hitchens never questioned was his own.
The great intellectual was invited, repeatedly, the opportunity to offer his credentials for why he should be heeded. Why would anybody caught up in the chaos and randomness of a basically meaningless universe (the bedrock of his own gospel!) bother listening to moralistic lectures? Confronted with that fundamental question, he simply misdirected: Atheists can be moral, too! As if that has anything to do with anything. For all the intellectual firepower, I found Hitchens to be profoundly intellectually dishonest on the most important question: the philosophical foundations for his own judgments.
This is not to minimize his gifts. But we would do well to remember that those gifts are gifts. His unique abilities with the English language, his quick wit, his eye for irony - all the things people are praising today - were gifts from God. The tragedy of Christopher Hitchens is that he used those very gifts to, at every possible opportunity, spit in the face of the very One who gifted him. I am reminded of Martin Luther's rebuke of Erasmus:
"I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should be carried in vessels of gold and silver."
That aptly sums up how I feel about Christopher Hitchens: a man who used his golden implements to haul excrement.
Much has been written of the possibility of a deathbed conversion for Hitchens. Doug Wilson's reflections on that are wonderful. I do hope that Christopher yielded to his Maker in the end. If he did not, he is not in for, as Daniel Foster absurdly writes, a "glorious surprise." That's just the kind of saccharine sentiment Hitchens himself would rightly find appalling. In the event he was wrong, Christopher certainly did not expect a glorious reception. He took Christian claims about hell way too seriously for that. Would that we Christians take it as seriously!
Cowper so eloquently highlighted the chasm between great and small, the learned and ignorant, the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of the cross.
"Oh, happy peasant! Oh, unhappy bard!
His the mere tinsel; hers the rich reward;
He praised perhaps for ages yet to come;
She never heard of half a mile from home."
Another unhappy Bard has departed this life. I sincerely hope that, before the end, he became a "happy peasant."