by Mattias Caro
Does a person die or do they pass away?
Before he died last week, Christopher Hitchens should have answered that question for me. I never met Hitch; we only chatted through his writings. Years ago he arrived like a storm at my alma mater, William and Mary, to decry Henry Kissinger as a war criminal. His mere presence set off a two-year uprising among the student population, a movement to oust Kissinger as our College’s chancellor. Missionary Position, his exposé on Mother Teresa, canonized by Hitch himself as a fraudulent saint, swayed me that Hitch’s writing deserved the garbage bin.
Death eventually interrupts every conversation, every moment. Babies still born. Children with unfortunate accidents. Young adults suddenly collapsed. Young children, new orphans. Even a long life being lived, the old suffer death. Suffer…death….no one simply dies. But death, whether shortly given by the ravages of time or suddenly bestowed as an unwanted gift, comes.
At a young age of 62, Hitch suffered death. There is no other way to describe the ravishing pain of esophageal cancer, a lifetime of smoking and drinking heavily to thank, most likely. Hitch never hid this pain in any of his writing, although he knew his mere words weren’t enough to allow us to experience it. Every man’s pain is his own.
His, a sharp and acerbic wit, made us forget: the mere gift of a person—our abilities to write, to think, to persuade, to create something worth relishing—sets us apart in the universe. Hitch lived because he loved his humanity, in all his gifts he possessed. It seemed his writings ultimately had but one target: unreason casting itself as a poor excuse for humanism. Pure humanism was the doctrine Hitch prophesied.
Once Hitch had an encounter, as he oft did, with a well-respected Christian believer. As the story was relayed to me, after a full boxing round worth of whiskey, Hitch turned to his friend. “You know the difference between you and me is,” he remarked, “you have the gift of faith and I don’t.”
Can faith anticipate death? Are our stories and memories of an event none of us have yet to experience the right manner to prepare? Not so long ago, cemeteries were in town centers, on the eastern side of churches, awaiting the sun rising, a natural glimpse of hoped for eternal resurrection. Where are cemeteries now? Where do people go to wait the coming of our deathly friend? Are the halls of sterilized hospitals and nursing homes—most certainly away from the the public eye—the new River Styx? Death—how we fear your yet experienced memory.
Even in his last days, Hitch did not regard death to be cheated or to be slain or to be avoided. He was no stoic blind, no epicurean pleasured. Writing in the public eye his death remained open for all to read. A few years before discovering his cancer, Hitch wrote, “Socrates was mocking his accusers in their own terms, saying in effect: I do not know for certain about death and the gods—but I am as certain as I can be that you do not know, either.” (God is Not Great, p. 257)
Hitch wrestled. Not with dictators and fools, but with the Tyrant over reason, modernity’s experience of God himself. Father Neuhaus once casually observed that the present day atheist is a Christian atheist. They reject not Zeus, but the Almighty, the Lord, the Father, that is, the One God. Reading Hitch, he railed not so much against God; who yells into the night saying to silence “YOU DON’T EXIST!” only to have his fading echo disprove his own words. No Hitch railed against the salt of faith, which had lost its flavor, and which in his mind, stood good only to be thrown into the fire.
If we pass away, then death is an event that is suffered. The pain and agony of the final moments—be they minutes, hours, days or years—quickly gives way to a next step. But who can really know? Who has been there and back again and said, “I’d rather stay here for awhile.” Skepticism on death seems rightly placed.
Hitch’s bite was never necessary to advance the place of atheism. Nor was he a genuine skeptic. He was one convinced only that certainty came through reason and reason was informed by a gifted encounter with the world. But he could not suffer the faith of so many modern people, who build humanism out of the straws of un-lived truths. His rage against faith was because he saw only men fallen, only deep sin and lack of compassion. If by their fruits they are known, for Hitch the modern world provided little evidence to look beyond the here and now.
Death. You and me alone. You win. You have no meaning. You were never part of the plan. But what if out of your disorder, somehow order was made? Would that change the way I lived?
The last time I heard Hitch debate atheism in the Federal City, he turned to his interlocutor at the beginning and said, “Let me ask you but one question: why do my sins require a blood sacrifice and death in order for me to find salvation?” That question came just weeks before he learned that his time for suffering death had just sped up.
O death, where is your sting? O death, where is your victory?
Rest in Peace, friend.
Mattias Caro is a lawyer from Great Falls, Virginia. In addition to his JD from George Mason University, he holds an MA in Moral Theology from Christendom College and a BA in History from the College of William and Mary. Mattias’s interests include history, theology, philosophy, law, and baseball. He currently dedicates himself to the practice of corporate law.