As some of you readers know, I have made a cross-country move to a new university. This is the reason for my long hiatus from the Crux. This week we take a brief pause from Don’s excellent investigation and critique of the “social justice” movement to look at a spiritual conundrum. How to pray for the world’s most cantankerous atheist. First the news. Christopher Hitchens has cancer. And not just cancer but cancer of the one part of his body that means the most to him–his throat. Hitchens announced recently that he has throat cancer. He will be cutting short his book tour for his memoir Hitch-22 to undergo chemotherapy. As usual anything Hitch does or says is a lightning rod for controversy. The lastest is whether or not believers should pray for him and for what should they pray: his recovery, his damnation, his speedy demise, his conversion. You get the idea. It seems to me there are a few questions that are paramount:
Should we pray for Hitch? If yes, what should we pray for? Should Christians announce that they are praying for Hitch? Finally, what should we expect in return?
The answer to the first question seems simple. As one blogger put it, “Of course. What part of ‘love your enemies, pray for your persecutors’ isn’t clear?”
The more interesting question not directly addressed by Jesus’ admonition is for what should we pray. Should we pray for his healing? his conversion? that God would show himself to Hitchens? Some people have a hard time praying for the continued existence of a vitriolic ne’er do well who once called Mother Theresa “the Ghoul of Calcutta” and Jimmy Carter “a born-again creep.” But there is good reason to pray for Hitch to get better. The least of which maybe that the longer Hitch stays alive the longer the hound of heaven has to hunt him down. After all, it already found his brother Peter. In Peter’s case God used a late medieval painting to bring Peter back. Its not too far fetched that throat cancer could do the same for Hitch. Of course, that last sentence would be looked on by Hitch and most atheists as immoral and repugnant–the idea that God would inflict cancer in order to corral Hitchens into the fold. But this post can’t quite delve into the problem of evil this week, so I will set that one aside. There is one other good reason to pray for Hitchens’ remission. He’s part of the loyal opposition. Militant atheists keep us on our toes as well as on our knees. They sharpen our arguments quicken our sense of urgency. As Peter Hitchens says, “My brother and I agree on this: that independence of mind is immensely precious, and that we should try to tell the truth in clear English even if we are disliked for doing so.” If there is one thing Hitch champions its an independent mind that says what it thinks is right regardless of the hatred that accompanies such exercises. This brings us to the last, perhaps most integral questions of this whole controversy: Should make our prayers known and if so what should we expect?
One Rabbi commenting on the controversy advises us not to expect too much: “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.” When we make our prayers public, what is our motivation? Is it, as the Rabbi implies, simply an expression of our deep hopes or rather do we hope to persuade them to our cause. Some believers, it seems, made their prayers public specifically hoping to express themselves and be heard by Hitchens. One blogger writes:”Dr. Hitchens as a person of faith, the thought of your early departure seems to me unbearable. Who else could there be to keep us on our toes and thinking? For this I am truly thankful. May your recovery be swift and without incident. You and your family will be in our thoughts and prayers.” I do think we should make our prayers known and to do it as part of our persuasion of the viability of faith. For anything less would be insincere and hypocritical. Two things Hitchens finds as repugnant as theistic belief.
“Religion,” he wrote in God Is Not Great, “does not, and in the long run cannot, be content with its own marvelous claims and sublime assurances. It must seek to interfere with the lives of nonbelievers, or heretics, or adherents of other faiths.” Never were truer words spoken. But when one realizes that Hitchens thinks this abhorrent, one wonders why? If Christians truly believe as they do, of course they want to interfere. If they didn’t, they’d be immoral. At least one ardent Atheist recognizes this. Penn Jillette confesses that he admires Christians who proselytize. Hitchens, on the other hand, loathes believers for their interfering. This, I must confess baffles me. Why the vitriol? If an independent mind, as his brother says, is valuable then why not admire passionate proselytizing especially if it comes with some intelligent argument? That’s certainly something for which to pray–Hitchens to get over his hate and open his heart and mind, since hatred isn’t even remotely necessary to be part of the loyal opposition.