A Song For Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011)




Take the risk of thinking for yourself - much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.

- Christopher Hitchens


British-born author and atheist Christopher Hitchens passed away yesterday at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He was 62 years old.

In June 2010, Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. He battled the cancer for over a year, all the while retaining his staunch atheism and insisting that the cancer would in no way prompt a conversion. He wrote: "As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business, though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be 'me.'"

Hitchens' diligent and impassioned opposition to all things religious hardly needs emphasis - in fact, the title of his most famous book, God Is Not Great, emphasizes his central claim that religion "poisons everything." He was often seen as public enemy number one of organized religion, due in large part to his radiant wit and charming demeanor (qualities which, quite honestly, fellow atheists Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris lack). 

So it may seem a strange and even insulting thing to honor the life of this notorious atheist with a song by J.S. Bach, whose baroque compositions (St Matthew's Passion, Magnificat, Mass in B minor) all reek of incense and candles. But what many may not know about this brilliant and hilarious man of letters is that Bach (along with Bob Dylan) was his favorite musician

Rather than take a conventional approach to Hitchens' life and work, I want to honor the man's originality by focusing in on this strange biographical tidbit, in such a way that will probably make atheists and theists both uncomfortable.

Christopher Hitchens was never one to back down from an unconventional stance - this is partly why I admired him so much. For example, he sided with religious neoconservatives in his support for the Iraq war, but stood in fierce opposition to even secular moralists in his condemnation of Mother Theresa as a "lying, thieving, Albanian dwarf." I believe that it was in this spirit that Hitchens was so drawn to the music of Bach - it was a strikingly unique preference, because it was uniquely his.

He never elaborated on that particular musical attraction (though he did speak about music in general, which we'll get to in a minute). Thus, one can only speculate about the details of Hitchens' love for Bach.

My guess is that he felt it was empowering to let himself be carried away by the quintessentially religious music of Bach without at all being swayed by its inspiration or "message." Or, as Aristotle said, "it's the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it."

J.S. Bach
This is no easy task. Many religious people are quite convinced that it's nearly impossible to study and listen to the complete works of Bach and go unscathed by grace. Theist philosopher Peter Kreeft, wrote: "I know three ex-atheists who say, 'There is the music of Bach, therefore there must be a God.'" Clearly, Hitchens' intellect was not so easily set aside - even by a powerful aesthetic experience.

So what can religious people learn from Hitchens' love for Bach?

Quite simply, it shows that one doesn't have to be religious to seek out, appreciate, and live the good and the beautiful. It is one thing to argue about what these realities are grounded in, and how we're bound to them (if at all) - it's quite another to say that access to goodness and beauty are somehow denied if you aren't religious. (The "virtuous pagans" are prime examples of this - one of which we've already named, who St. Thomas Aquinas revered simply as "The Philosopher.") To put it simply - you can certainly be good without believing in God, and make and appreciate great art as well.

Yet, this is not the common perception among many (if not most) Christians, who are quite convinced that, apart from explicit faith, you essentially sever yourself off from the grace of God's goodness and the experience of true beauty. At least one renegade theologian has disagreed, writing:

"There are also people...who are committed to peace and to the good of the community, although they do not share the biblical faith...Within them they have a spark of desire for the unknown, for the greater, for the transcendent...

And Augustine says that even...among the non-believers, there are people who possess this spark, with a sort of faith or hope...With this faith, even in an unknown reality, they are truly on their way towards the true Jerusalem."

Surprisingly, these words come from none other than Pope Benedict XVI. On this account, God is goodness and love - and so a hopeful and honest pursuit of that goodness and love, however it's manifested, can be a conduit toward God.

Hitchens cited the Pope as one of the contemporary figures he "most despised." Yet, Benedict the theologian contended that the pearly gates to be, in some mysterious way, wide open for atheists, while many Christians and Muslims were saying openly (or secretly) that Hitch was on the highway to hell.  

But there is an aspect of Hitchens' love for Bach that is equally scandalous for atheists: that religion does not poison "everything." Far from it. 

We saw Hitchens contradict his book title precisely with regard to music last year in a debate with Tony Blair:

"The sense that there's something beyond the material - or, if not beyond it, not entirely consistent materially with it, is I think a very important matter. What you could call the numinous, or the transcendent, or at its best I suppose the ecstatic...We know what we mean by it when we think about certain kinds of music perhaps; certainly the relationship, or the coincidence but sometimes very powerful, between music and love...I think religion has done a very good job in enshrining it in music and in architecture."

There a few interesting admissions here. First, Hitchens seemed to concede something mystical or "other" about the world - something that exists in, or at the very least points to, a mysterious and/or immaterial realm beyond us that we can tap into. Second, he seemed to admit that this pleasant feeling of "ecstasy" can be experienced by listening to music, which is intimately related to love. Lastly, he conceded that religion did a "very good job" of "enshrining" the pursuit of this big, strange, pleasant, transcendent realm in its art.

This may seem like just one small step to a religious person, hardly worth commenting on - but it is a giant leap for an atheist who had condemned religion as perpetually noxious, and who was constantly in the company of materialists who reduce all love, art, freedom, and feelings to chemical reactions, subjective illusions, and/or evolutionary accidents.

It seems as if the religiously-oriented music of Bach enshrined and confirmed what Hitchens already knew through experience - that there is something "extra" about being human, something peculiar and beautiful, something bound up with love and worth pursuing with the intellect. Religion found its highest expression of this pursuit in art - and so, whatever else it may have poisoned, even Christopher Hitchens had to admit that it did not poison music or architecture. (Pope Benedict XVI, also a fan of Bach, says that the enshrining of transcendent beauty in the Church's music and architecture is a result of the galvanizing "joy" of faith.)

Both of these scandalous points about Hitchens' love for Bach rest in the reality that the good and the beautiful are real and accessible to all. Where these gifts come from, what they point to (if anything), and whether we are required or even pleased to pursue them is an open question worth debating. We should take Hitchens' advice and search with honesty and openness and independence for answers to these questions. We should think for ourselves, consider all sides, draw from our own experience, and ask: what is truth?

But even as we ask this, we all experience the ecstasy of great music, share the glories of love, behold natural beauty, give of ourselves to others - we are inundated with glimmers of what is best described as godly, even as we continue to disagree about its source and signification.

Whatever the truth, we know one thing for certain: yesterday, the world lost a brilliant, hilarious, and insightful man who rightly garnered admiration and praise from both atheists and apologists.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Christopher Hitchens and his family on this sad day.

Rest in Peace (1949 - 2011)

9 comments:

  1. Nice post but please note that Hitchens was a naturalized American not British. He was British-born though. You should respect that he was very proud of this decision.

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  2. @Anonymous Duly noted, and no offense was meant at all - I meant "British-born" and so changed the opening appropriately.

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  3. Silly.. But there seems to be a lot of people trying to infer that somehow Hitchens might have become religious as he was dying and yet there is not a shred of evidence. Hitchens was never one for not saying something... So please give up looking. It just seems that accepting that an Athiest could die without believing in some God is impossible... Because for some reason religious people need to think that an atheist has to somehow come to their line of reason because - heck - if they don't maybe you are wrong and Hitch was right after all! Scares too many people to think they might be wasting their time in life.

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  4. @Anonymous Sorry, but you sorely misread this article, which is about Hitchens' love for Bach and music. I said nothing of a deathbed conversion or anything like it.

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  5. One of the gifts that we did not lose among the many forfeited preternatural gifts was the desire to posess what is good, honorable, trustworthy, true, beautiful, lovely and worthy of praise. This was an act of mercy, to ensure that we be directed toward transcendence; and the path that this pursuit takes manifests itself in ways as unique as man himself, and is seldom able to be expressed or discerned with words or logic. As far as the east is from the west are God's ways from our ways; and He who designed the ear hears even what the heart says. Thank God that we are not the arbiters of each other's lives. None of us would make it.

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  6. I too listen a great deal to composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn, who all wrote beautiful settings of the Mass texts and, in Haydn's case, the Bible itself. I find myself moved by such music, in its beauty and in its sublimity, but, more relevantly, in its humanity. All of the love possessed by all religious people who have ever lived has been human. Where men and women have seen the image and the beauty of god, there has been, in reality, only the love of human beings acting from their own benevolence, and we should be proud of that. Perhaps the true rendering of the phrase should be thus: caritas deus est.

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  7. By way of beauty indeed.

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  8. The Mona Lisa is a great painting regardless of which museum it's in - or no museum at all. Religion may inspire as a prevailing mythology, but Christian myths are pretty pathetic compared to what the ancient Greek cooked up.

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