Saturday, July 17, 2010

Prayers for Hitch

As at least one of my two readers know, I have great affection for Christopher Hitchens. Now, before a third reader shows up and freaks out, having affection for him, liking his style of writing and inquiry (i.e., straightforward, honest, and true to his convictions) and thinking him a great literary commentator, as well as liking some of his books and no small number of articles, is a far cry from agreeing with him on every point. His book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, takes a very valid point (i.e., that religion has been, is now, and may well continue to be something about which people fight) and blows it so terribly out of proportion that it becomes an absurd exaggeration. Hitch, as he is called familiarly, was also very critical of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, as his book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, indicates. Nonetheless, in 2008 he debated Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete in New York on the proposition Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete? He has had similar exchanges with his brother Peter, his ideological opposite, whom I also like a great deal, on the question of God around the U.S., too. I recommend reading Peter Hitchens' How I Found God and peace with my atheist brother, which he composed for his own Daily Mail blog back in March.

Recently, Hitchens wrote and had published Hitch-22: A Memoir. I have not yet had the opportunity to read it. Of course, the title of his memoir is a take on the late, great Joseph Heller's truly classic novel Catch-22. By way of digression, my favorite Heller novel remains God Knows, his telling of the story of King David, which takes place by way of reminiscence as he lays on his bed in old age, being kept warm by the young Abishag the Shunammite. For years I have been constructing a syllabus in my head for a class on the Hebrew Scriptures, the texts for which would be novels, like God Knows, and the Scriptures, no dry biblical scholarship! When it comes to good books, some books you read and like very much, other books you cherish. I cherish Hitch's Why Orwell Matters.

Anyway, shortly after his memoirs were published, it was announced that Hitchens had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Given his very public and strident atheism, the question very quickly arose as to whether is was appropriate to pray for him. Of course, it's always appropriate to pray for anyone and everyone facing difficult circumstances, going through personal crises, or dealing with illness. In the initial absence of any statement by Hitch, Rabbi David Wolpe, who was quoted by the New York Times as saying, "I would say it is appropriate and even mandatory to do what one can for another who is sick; and if you believe that praying helps, to pray. It is in any case an expression of one's deep hopes. So yes, I will pray for him, but I will not insult him by asking or implying that he should be grateful for my prayers," gets it right. I would add that I pray on the basis of my own faith, not that of the one for whom I pray, or their lack of it.

I always find it interesting that a question, like Should I pray for Hitch, is asked, debated hotly for a day or two, then dies away, even before the subject of the question weighs in on it. In an interview he did with Hugh Hewitt, mostly about his memoir, he finally spoke out on all the hubub over whether to pray for him or not. In his characteristic manner, which, despite his stridency, is reasonable and even gracious, he said: "I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine. They don’t do any good, but they don’t necessarily do any harm. It’s touching to be thought of in that way. It makes up for those who tell me that I’ve got my just desserts … I wish it was more consoling. But I have to say there’s some extremely nice people, including people known to you, have said that I’m in their prayers, and I can only say that I’m touched by the thought." As a Christian, meaning one who has experienced God's mercy given me in Christ, I pray for nobody to get their "just desserts" because I sure as hell don't want mine!

Via Quaerere Deum, it bears noting that in his memoir he wrote about something I experienced profoundly at the age of 8, during Christmas vacation: "The fact is that all attempts to imagine one’s own extinction are futile by definition." As long as someone doesn't lose or deny these kinds of intuitions, hope abounds. Besides, people like Christopher Hitchens do Christians a favor by challenging us, provoking us not to succumb to sentimentalism, which is detachment from reality.


  1. I just started *Hitch-22*, my first Hitchens read. I'm very intrigued. I am bored by the usual rationalistic debates on what is for us a Mystery, and it seems Albacete didn't bother to try to "convince" him of something that has to be approached so differently. But this serious concern about death is a reason for hope indeed. I wonder if we often ponder so deeply what is at stake.

  2. I've always wondered if Hitchens ever saw this article about him; sadly, it's now the first thing that comes to mind whenever I hear his name (though I think he'd be amused):,165/

    As for "just desserts" well, as Hamlet would say, treat after man after his desserts and who should scape whipping? One reason I get slightly anxious at prayers for restoring justice in the world and the like. Not that they're badly intended, just that the fallout, were these prayers to be granted, could be unpleasantly interesting.

  3. It's an interesting point you make about praying for justice. I think you're quite right. I wonder how many people stop and think, What if God granted my prayer in just the way I intend it? Besides, many of these kinds of petitions arise from a misplaced sense of righetous indignation, even smugness, thus failing to take into account all of the factors involved.

    Sharon- Indeed, boring is the word. All I need to do refute Dawkins is focus on the kind of intuition Hitchens is not afraid to be honest about, which is enough to keep me from reducing my humanity down to being a hyper-conscious mud puppy.

    God Knows is a great book. I always wanted to see it made into a film.


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