Yesterday I attended a conversation between Christopher and Peter Hitchens at the Pew Center in Washington, DC. The relationship between the two brought a certain warmth and a palpable mutual respect to the conversation that was in refreshing contrast to the series of debates that was coordinated with the release of God is Not Great, which were often strident and filled with bitingly personal attacks. As Peter said, “Why spoil a good argument by getting upset?”
Michael Cromartie, who moderated the conversation, made a wise decision in introducing the brothers through, in Christopher’s case, reading a review in which it was stated that it was difficult for those who disagreed with him also to dislike him — and, in Peter’s case, reading an excerpt from The Rage Against God in which Peter describes an act of brotherly (and surprisingly domestic) care from Christopher. Cromartie, an old hand at these things, established a nice tone, and when Christopher was essentially invited to profess his love for his brother (something any good Brit would find distastefully exhibitionist), he was able to point to the excerpt from Peter’s book and say, rather sheepishly, that it nicely captured their relationship.
Christopher, whose advanced cancer leaves him slim odds for survival, looked surprisingly good from a distance. I even thought to myself, “Christopher Hitchens looks better bald than thatch-roofed.” He had a sort of worldly, rough-hewn, Bruce Willis look to him. Upon closer examination, however, in conversation after the event, the signs of strain were more evident. There is so much erudition and wit, eloquence and artistry, passionate conviction and raw, brash will encased in those layers of failing flesh that it almost gave the sense that Christopher Hitchens would float to the ceiling if the cancer treatments could scrape away enough skin.
I shared the evening with a dear friend and returned home last night, for the burial of my wife’s grandmother this morning. The funeral, as all funerals are, was a reminder that even the best of things — and people — pass away in this world. She was in her nineties, a kind and gentle woman who died of “natural” causes — except that no death is natural, unless by nature we mean the order of the fallen world. Death is not, at least, the end for which we were intended. This is not the way it was supposed to be. Death is not the end of the story, and death does not have the last word.
Man is such a strange creature. Capable of such love and transcendence; capable of such violence and brutality; capable of such brilliance and creativity.
The question upon which the Hitchens conversation was centered was, “Does Civilization Need God?” Of course, they do not really mean God; they mean belief in God, or perhaps religion. To answer the question as posed, however…
Yes. All creatures and all things live and move and have their being in God. Everything at all times depends upon God for preservation. All that is contingently depends on That Which Is necessarily. I know this is not how the question was intended, but it teaches us an important lesson. We think too narrowly when we consider what needs God or what God provides. If all things everywhere and always are absolutely dependent upon God for their very being, then every moment is God’s gift. If God in a single moment could withdraw his sustaining will and all things would simply cease to be — and God does not need us, but chooses to give us to ourselves in love — then, yes, the most minute particle of time, the smallest thing, the most insignificant person and the most overlooked relationship is a gift, a sheer gift, and worthy of treasuring.