Christopher Hitchens, Suffering, and Deathbed Conversions

Christopher Hitchens, Suffering, and Deathbed Conversions December 18, 2011

It was one of the now-departed Christopher Hitchens’ most considerable virtues that he inspired many essays.  I only met “Hitch” once, but the meeting served as the point of departure for a sardonic piece on “Santacide” and a more substantive reflection on suffering and finding Christ in its midst.  I have been migrating some pieces from my old column to my new blog (this blog), so the latter is offered below, in his memory:

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My pain illuminates me from within. It pulls back the curtain of my flesh and makes me visible to myself. Nothing else in my life does this.

The tenth of February was the fifteenth anniversary of the day on which I broke my neck in a gymnastics accident. I have always noted the anniversaries inwardly, in a kind of morbid remembrance of that fateful day—that single moment, really, in the early evening—that changed my life decisively and irrevocably.

Of the 5,475 days that have passed in those fifteen years, I have felt spinal pain in nearly every one. The pain arrives swiftly, like water rushing over the shore, and recedes slowly like water sinking into the sand. And it does something else. When the pain presses down from my neck and carves a sharp burrowing path down my cervical spine and through my shoulders into my arms, I can feel my bones. I’m not normally aware of my skull, my vertebrae, my clavicle. They are submerged within me, senseless and mute. When the pain arrives, however, I can count my bones. They ache and mourn—and I am aware of them. Pain illuminates me.

This came to mind recently as I was considering the case of Christopher Hitchens. The irascible commentator and rakish champion of militant godlessness suffers from esophageal cancer. He has complained that many Christians, knowing his plight, have communicated to him that “Surely now would be the perfect time for you to abandon the principles of a lifetime.”

The complaint is understandable. Christians have a standard stock of counterfeit sympathies they send into circulation around the suffering and bereaved. It can seem coldly opportunistic when Christians respond to the suffering of a non-believer with: “Perhaps it will turn him to God.”

But Hitchens shows that he has not understood Christianity well. Christians, in this case, are standing squarely in the richness of their tradition. That tradition does not teach that sufferers are so wearied and weakened that they will abandon their moral and intellectual scruples. Rather, it teaches that suffering makes certain things plain to us. Suffering has the power to penetrate our illusions, shatter our masks, and unveil the fundamental realities of who we are and who God is. Like pain in the body, the lamp of suffering illuminates the architecture of the spirit.

I can imagine the concerned cries of the professoriate that I am “valorizing” suffering. So let it be said: sometimes suffering is simply devastating and destructive. Countless many have suffered far worse than I, and there may be suffering so severe that it effectively extinguishes the human spirit and any power it might have possessed to find something redemptive within the experience. And suffering sought for its own sake, or wielded against oneself as a tool of self-hatred, is foolish and sinful. There is nothing redemptive in suffering itself, and each person over the course of a lifetime will have abundant opportunity to endure and learn from suffering without having to court its company. And I am bracketing the question of why there is suffering in the first place; I am not asking why there is evil, or why there is suffering (which are not the same), but what good can be drawn from suffering by those who are willing.

I know for certain that some suffering can be valuable instrumentally—in its consequences within and around us. And I know in faith that nothing can separate us from the love of God, which always seeks us and seeks through our joys and sorrows to draw us unto him. Certain truths, certain essential truths, are only learned by a willing student in the school of suffering.

It’s a common misconception that suffering binds us together. Suffering first isolates—in order then to bind. No person is more deeply alone than the sufferer surrounded by the babbling throng but absorbed in an interior world of pain and despair, a world that cannot be shared. Even those who love the sufferer cannot take his pain for a day to give him rest. Yet there is something good in this. Some of us will not become authentic individuals until suffering draws us out of the chattering crowd and shows us the emptiness and futility of the crowd’s way of living. While the crowd seeks enjoyment and entertainment, anything to distract its collective mind from the fearful realities of our existence, the individual stands alone in suffering and—if he is willing to see it—alone before his brute actuality.

C. S. Lewis likened suffering to a megaphone, yet suffering makes itself heard not by raising its voice but by dampening the voices of others. I think of suffering as an isolation chamber where the sufferer might hear again, for the first time perhaps in years, the still voice within. And when one has been isolated, when suffering has made one different from others, and therefore an object of anxiety, loathing or pity, the sufferer learns who his true friends are. When sufferers are bound together again, they are bound together as individuals, as people who walk together but stand alone before their fate. And in their separation from others they are prepared for God and what God might teach them through their experience.

There is nothing more important for a person to learn—and no lesson suffering is more suited to teach him—than his own nothingness. Suffering does not make us stronger, but neither does it sap our strength until we are ready to find convenient consolation in God. Rather, suffering reveals that we have been weak all along, that our strength is an illusion and our sense of permanence and invulnerability has always been a façade. Suffering shows us that we are powerless to secure what we are most eager to possess, that everything the world has given can be swept away in the blink of an eye.

At a recent event at the Pew Forum, I asked Hitchens whether he ever doubted his views on God and faith. Immaculate certainty is an essential part of his public persona, but was he ever troubled in the dark of night by the possibility that there is a God who loves him? Hitchens answered (as he did in God is Not Great) that he is one of those, referenced by Pascal, who is so constituted that he simply cannot believe. (He is misusing Pascal here, but that’s another matter.)  Like any skilled debater, Hitchens prides himself on his ability to argue both sides of an argument. In the case of Christianity, he said, he could not even begin to make it seem credible.

Yet I did not ask whether he could begin to believe the Christian gospel. I asked whether he could begin to doubt his own standpoint. Hitchens, asked whether he ever doubted himself, spoke instead of the doubtfulness of a view that was not his own. The nineteenth-century Danish writer Søren Kierkegaard once wrote that false doubt is boastful and delights in pointing out the doubtfulness of other things. True doubt, the doubt that saves, doubts itself over all else. This is what suffering can teach. Suffering shows us our own horizon; it lays bare our weaknesses; it reveals that we, even in those seasons when we felt self-sufficient and invincible, have always been utterly dependent upon God for all things.

Just as importantly, suffering teaches the sufficiency of God. Shortly after I broke my neck, as they wheeled me into the hospital and drilled a halo into my skull, and then throughout my stay in the hospital, I was filled with an inexplicable joy. In one moment I laughed uncontrollably; in another I wept joyfully, shattered into a thousand pieces by an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I had seen in a single blessed glance how weak and powerless and empty I am by myself—and how strong and sufficient and rich I am in God. I know of many who have had the same experience. When you see that the world cannot strip away the one thing needful, that nothing indeed can separate you from the love of God, it is a liberating and life-changing thing.

Finally, the reason so many find God in “the land of malady” is because Christ has made himself present there. The ancient faiths and philosophies recoiled at the notion that God should enter into history in the agony and effluvia of birth, much less that God should be tempted in the wilderness or be spat upon or suffer and die upon a cross. Yet such is the revolutionary claim at the heart of the Christian faith, that God, in Christ, entered into the condition of suffering humanity. Even in the fiery furnace, even in the isolation chamber, the Son of God is there.

And God has not only made himself present in suffering; he has transformed it. God is no mere cosmic sympathizer, no Oprah in the Sky who claims to feel our pain but does nothing for it. Just as Christ has taken the sting from death by vanquishing its hopelessness, and achieving a new life beyond the grave, so Christ has taken the sting from suffering by filling it with purpose. The emptiness, the hopelessness, the loneliness are taken away. We do not find Christ in suffering. Christ finds us, if we are willing to be found, in the promise to work all things to good for those who love him and are called by him. Those who are willing will be refined in the furnace of affliction. And we know too that there shall be a last day for tears, beyond which there will be no more suffering.

Christopher Hitchens may or may not find the Way, the Truth and the Life in the midst of such extraordinary hardship. He may or may not experience a deathbed conversion. But it is there for him, waiting to be found. Suffering makes us visible to ourselves in all our poverty and powerlessness, and discloses the secret that the one thing needful can never be taken away, and in our suffering we may hear the call of the suffering Christ. Perhaps it is true, for Hitchens as for many of us, that the Way can be found nowhere else. Perhaps some have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death in order to learn that the Lord is their shepherd, whose goodness and love will follow them all their days and take them to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.


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