The final hitch

17 August 2010 - 09:58 By Andrew Sullivan

Christopher Hitchens talks to Andrew Sullivan about death without God

'I'm dying," my longtime friend Christopher Hitchens replied to the ubiquitous "How are you doing?" He followed up with the necessary caveat, "We all are."

Then, in my interview with him earlier this month, my fellow British-born controversialist addressed the question that will always dog a famously public atheist as he faces extinction: Would you have a deathbed conversion?

Hitchens replied, with admirable clarity, that impending death did not affect his unbelief one iota. In fact, he insisted that we should discount in advance any rumours in that regard. If he were to turn to the divine at the hour of his death, it could only be because sickness or dementia or drugs had caused him to lose his mind. For Christopher, in the end, is a believer in reason as the defining quality of what it is to be fully human.

I've known and loved Christopher for more than two decades. For me, his illness is not a moment for debate but for grief. But Hitch rarely fails to turn an experience into a column, so allow me to join in.

The great divide between us was not my love of, or his contempt for, Ronald Reagan, or my journey away from the American right and his drift towards some parts of it. It was my faith and his unbelief.

He teases me mercilessly about it and we have spent some long evenings talking of it. All I can say is that his composure and, if he would pardon the word, grace in the teeth of cancer are as great an advertisement for atheism as I can imagine. If I were persuadable, I would be persuaded.

I feel a little about this the way James Boswell felt about David Hume when he, too, was in the presence of the visibly dying sceptic. Hume remained of the faith, but was more than a little wobbly.

"I asked him if it were not possible that there might be a future state," Boswell wrote. "He answered that it was possible that a piece of coal put upon the fire would not burn, and he added that it was a most unreasonable fancy that we should exist forever."

How can one not respect that kind of integrity to the end?

Damon Linker, the brilliant young American writer, also thought of Primo Levi's recollection of a cathartic moment in a concentration camp. In October 1944, Levi wrote, "Naked and compressed among my naked companions, with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the 'commission' that, with one glance, would decide whether I should go immediately into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed. One does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, or when you are losing."

Linker notes how this is the real divide between those of us with religious faith and those without it. It is really about the limits of reason; whether it defines us as human or whether, in the end, as Pascal had it, we must press past reason to reach the ultimate truth.

A Christian, Linker wrote, "believes that the experience of suffering discloses essential truths that cannot be discovered or known in any other way. What are these truths? That we are fundamentally weak and needy creatures. That we are anxious animals, longing for someone or something to soothe us, to protect us from, and relieve us of, our worries."

Christianity's radical claim is that it is in suffering alone that we approach our defining condition, mortality, just as Jesus' intense suffering on the cross makes sense only as an act of God's solidarity with us in this mortal, existential panic. The position you take on this cannot be reduced to an argument. It is much deeper than that. It connects to the great question of theodicy: How can an omnipotent God allow such suffering?

I have some experience of this. In my late twenties I watched one of my closest friends die of Aids. There was one night when we lay on his sickbed together, his once-strong, muscular body now a fragile, feverish coil of bones. I asked him - because I knew no one else would and I was his only HIV-positive friend - what he thought was coming. He said he saw it as a great black nothingness coming towards him. All I could do was hold him. What on Earth could I possibly say?

And yet I do not believe it. I revere reason and respect atheism. (I think the writer who most taught me about the need for mutual respect between atheists and believers was an atheist, Albert Camus).

Hitch is dying as he lives, with integrity and passion. And since we all die in the end, alone, it is an impertinence even to enter this zone of another's last things. But for me, the human being, for good and ill, is more than reason. Reason must govern us, but it cannot explain us.

We live alone in a universe so vaster than we are and with an expiration date that defies our own attempts to understand it. We are wired to fear death and suffering, and in the spiritual transcendence of death and suffering we exercise our greatest humanity. The moments I have felt closest to God have been when I have been stripped of every security, the moments when I have felt no human love, known no safe home, witnessed unspeakable cruelty - and was rescued by nothing but His ineffable, boundless and yet intimate caritas.

This is not an argument, I know. It can easily be dismissed as wish fulfilment. All I can say is: this is not how I experienced these moments. They were real. In suffering I have felt and known God reach into my life and grab me by the scruff of my neck and shake me with the brusque affection of a father's compassion.

I know Christopher feels none of this, has never felt any of this, which puzzles but does not vex me. Friendship, in the end, is about the lack of any desire to change another person.

It is about loving him as he is. And in that love there is the only human redemption and, in my view, the true intimation of the divine.

That love, I feel sure, will survive him. And me. For it is connected to something greater than both of us. - © The Sunday Times, London

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