Saturday, December 17, 2011

Speaking no ill of the dead

Okay, there are plenty of Catholic bloggers who are writing darn-near rhapsodical eulogies to the late journalist and God-hater Christopher Hitchens. But as many speak of his honesty and bravery, I think it better respect to his memory to not inject any false sentimentality.

If no one else will say it, I will: Thank God Hitch can no longer write his poisonous bilge.

The fact of the matter is, Hitchens could write brilliant prose. However, that sparkling, glittering flow poured forth a singularly malicious, stream-of-consciousness anger that skipped minor premisses by the mile to get to a conclusion completely detached from its first step; if you couldn't see the logical connection between A and Q, well, that just meant you were a dolt compared to him. While I wouldn't accuse him of dishonesty in his personal relationships, what others consider "honesty" was often little more than bluntness verging on character assassination; he was not above evidential distortion or presenting half a fact when the whole fact would undo his argument.

This is especially true whenever Hitch wrote about religion, especially Christianity. What the hell was Newsweek thinking to have him analyze Bl. Teresa of Calcutta's "dark night of the soul" letters? Putting Hitch on the job was like asking Rush Limbaugh to review a book by Hillary Clinton; the result was a hack-and-slash job completely unbefitting a writer of any caliber. The editors of that magazine must have intended that result, since: 1) Hitch hated Bl. Teresa even before she died, and 2) Hitch had a nasty tendency to pass water on the graves of dead celebrities (his comments on the deaths of Ronald Reagan and Bob Hope come immediately to mind).

But beyond the usual leaps of logic and mistreated facts Hitchens employed in his non-religious writing, whenever he turned his angry gaze on God, straw men abounded, vicious circles flew, and ad hominem attacks piled on each other like two football teams trying to recover a fumble at the goal line. And through it all, that lucid writing held none of the acid back. I stopped reading his posts and columns after a while because I couldn't get through more than a couple of paragraphs without feeling like Hitch was barfing on my shirt. Nor am I alone in this assessment; P. Z. Myers reportedly said Hitch scared him because he gave the impression that "he wanted to put a bullet in every God-haunted brain".

No, Hitch wasn't that great a writer; it takes more than the occasional memorable phrase and a bit of old-school-tie to make a great journalist. What he did for his readers was more mendacious: by slandering and slashing those whom he disagreed with, he encouraged those who agreed with him to revel in their shared superiority. In fact, he reminded me very much of Hunter S. Thompson, another journalist who built his reputation on bile and sneer.

I know, it's a bit presumptuous of a blogger on the C-list of the Catholic blogosphere, itself a small school in the great lake of the Internet, to criticize an internationally-respected author and writer. Besides, doesn't the rule De mortuis nil nisi bonum apply here?

I'm sure Hitch must be smiling sardonically at such a thought ... he who honored that rule in the breach of it himself. As much capital as he made of Christian hypocrisy, I think he would have been pleased at the thought of someone paying him back in his own coin. As Benedict XVI has written, charity and truth are inextricably bound together; for all the talk of his honesty, Hitch would have been more intellectually honest had he been more charitable.

And I think Hitch would have been more charitable, more like his brother Peter, had not events in his life paralyzed his emotional growth, leaving him howling at the unfairness of the universe and raging at God for allowing bad things to happen. Had he let go of his anger and allowed himself to heal, he might not have written with such power, but he would have been a less alienating and arrogant personality. He even might have been able to connect the dots and see God's face.

Having said all that, let me repeat what I said near the end of my post on The Other Blog:

Hitch once said, about Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, “I wish I believed in Hell so I could hope she were there.” He later apologized for this gratuitous piece of nastiness, which marks the difference between him and other prominent atheists: I don’t think, for instance, that P. Z. Myers will ever apologize for nailing together consecrated hosts, unless (mirabile dictu) he were to have a conversion experience.

Now I do believe in Hell, and I hope that Hitch isn’t there. I hope his mind gave way — not to insanity, but to Hope that reaches beyond fear. I hope his pride and anger collapsed, that he let them go as part of the ephemerae of nature, the transience of life, and allowed himself to finally embrace God.
This is not false sentimentality. I have prayed for his soul. For one thing, we can never know in what state his heart was when he passed. For another, even though Catholicism teaches that final impenitence is an aspect of unforgiveable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (CCC §1864; cf. Mk 3:29, Lk 12:10), I believe that God takes into account psychological limitations on our ability to change.

Besides, I never met Hitch. I didn't like his writing; doesn't follow I wouldn't have liked him. Considering the kinds of people I've been blessed to call my friends, who knows? Perhaps he and I could at least have shared a drink in harmony. 

So God bless you, Christopher Hitchens. I hope you've found peace and joy at last.

Various Christian writers salute their fallen enemy:
Deacon Greg Kandra
John Schwenkler
Schwenkler again (a clip you should watch)
Pat Archbold
Elizabeth Scalia
Peter Hitchens
Thomas Peters
James G. Wiles