“Do Not Trouble Deaf Heaven With Your Bootless Cries”

Christopher Hitchens, it seems, is dying of cancer. And he asks, in an article penned for October’s Vanity Fair, that you do not pray for him.

This is probably not news to many of you, if not most. I do not follow the man’s career, and am in fact only vaguely aware of him as one of the luminaries of the fundamentalist atheist movement of the 21st century. 

As I read the piece, I found myself thinking about how sad it is that he is so bitterly intractable in his belief that God is not. There is an emptiness, a pitiable pointlessness to a life lived without such purpose that comes through in his shallow rebuff of prayers (or words of condemnation) offered on his behalf. He shows some graciousness in accepting the intercessions in the spirit in which they’re offered, before he summarily dismisses them as “bootless cries,” when he writes:

Of the astonishing and flattering number of people who wrote to me when I fell so ill, very few failed to say one of two things. Either they assured me that they wouldn’t offend me by offering prayers or they tenderly insisted that they would pray anyway. Devotional Web sites consecrated special space to the question. (If you should read this in time, by all means keep in mind that September 20 has already been designated “Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day.”) Pat Archbold, at the National Catholic Register, and Deacon Greg Kandra were among the Roman Catholics who thought me a worthy object of prayer. Rabbi David Wolpe, author of Why Faith Matters and the leader of a major congregation in Los Angeles, said the same. He has been a debating partner of mine, as have several Protestant evangelical conservatives like Pastor Douglas Wilson of the New St. Andrews College and Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation in Birmingham, Alabama. Both wrote to say that their assemblies were praying for me. And it was to them that it first occurred to me to write back, asking: Praying for what?

As with many of the Catholics who essentially pray for me to see the light as much as to get better, they were very honest. Salvation was the main point. “We are, to be sure, concerned for your health, too, but that is a very secondary consideration. ‘For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his own soul?’ [Matthew 16:26.]” That was Larry Taunton. Pastor Wilson responded that when he heard the news he prayed for three things: that I would fight off the disease, that I would make myself right with eternity, and that the process would bring the two of us back into contact. He couldn’t resist adding rather puckishly that the third prayer had already been answered…

So these are some quite reputable Catholics, Jews, and Protestants who think that I might in some sense of the word be worth saving.

As someone who has toyed, in my darker moments, with temptations of atheism, lost as I’ve sometimes gotten in the seeming contradiction, paradoxes and intellectual inconsistencies of the things we believe, I sympathize with some of Mr. Hitchens’ bewilderment in the text with the behavior of some believers. Christians are nothing if not hypocrites, to be honest. After all, if we weren’t, there’d be no need for Christ.

But at the end of the day, something I’ve discovered that seems to have eluded Mr. Hitchens’ grasp is the simple realization that outside of any particular conviction or creed, without something good and and noble to believe in, I am a petty, selfish, ugly person. The realization of the meaninglessness of a life without God goes a long way in motivating a man to at the very least desire faith. Even if he struggles with it. Even if he is quite certain he will never perfectly attain it.

I recently spoke to an atheist who had tragically lost someone very dear to them, someone who vehemently believed that there was no God. This individual recounted how a family member at the funeral expressed a desire that the deceased was “with God” and “in a better place.” He was outraged when he heard the comment, because the person who said it knew what the deceased believed, or, rather, didn’t. He thought it would have been a huge disappointment for the deceased to wake up and find themselves in heaven after spending so long believing that there could be no such thing.

I made a passing attempt at analogy, offering the suggestion that if a person spent their life believing that they would hate sushi, and finally liked it when they had the chance to try it, would that be such a bad thing? Would heaven be a let down to a person who got there and found that it was great after all?

We will, of course, pray for Mr. Hitchens’ salvation whether he wants it or not. If he’s right, he’ll come to no harm from it. If we’re right, we can only hope he’ll be given a chance to see the truth before it’s too late.

By

Steve Skojec serves as the Director of Community Relations for a professional association. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he earned a BA in Communications and Theology. His passions include writing, photography, social media, and an avid appreciation of science fiction. Steve lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Jamie and their five children.

  • Zoe

    I think “desiring faith” is itself a kind of grace, and surely there are many things we all do and possess — including Hitchens — that prevent the Holy Spirit from working on and within us. There may also be fierce stubbornness. The last thing Hitchens would want is for the enemies of atheism to be proven right! He would need humility in spades. I also think that a hardness against the possibility of faith is often born of emotional reasons, and who knows what those might be for Hitchens. The good news is, prayer is powerful and hardened hearts have turned to God over the centuries. There is also the possibility that he will continue to choose to be without God, and the Lord in his mercy, mysteriously allows this, too.

  • Margaret Cabaniss

    As I read the piece, I found myself thinking about how sad it is that he is so bitterly intractable in his belief that God is not. There is an emptiness, a pitiable pointlessness to a life lived without such purpose that comes through in his shallow rebuff of prayers (or words of condemnation) offered on his behalf.

    I felt the same way reading his column, Steve — especially when he talked about potential rumors of a death-bed conversion, saying that doing such a thing “wouldn’t be him,” so we should all know now that it’s not possible. Who else protests stories that haven’t even happened yet — as if he were more afraid of looking foolish than being right, or being happy?

    His comment about the way his children are taking all this was pretty sad stuff, though. Those people who are taking this opportunity to kick him while he’s down might want to remember them first.

    Also, this — “outside of any particular conviction or creed … I am a petty, selfish, ugly person” — equals very yes. (For me, I mean. I reserve judgment about you. Heh.)

  • Marthe L

    Or maybe he his protesting too much, which might mean that he is being reached by God in some way and he is still “fighting and kicking”…

  • Jason Negri

    There’s nothing like a public confession to strengthen one’s resolve. How could Hitchens say anything BUT what he’s now saying, given his very public statements about God and atheism? To recant his position because his death is now closer than it seemed to be last year would appear the height of cowardice and make him out to be the hypocrite he accuses Christians of being. He’d sooner die.

  • Pammie

    “As someone who has toyed, in my darker moments, with temptations of atheism, lost as I’ve sometimes gotten in the seeming contradiction, paradoxes and intellectual inconsistencies of the things we believe, I sympathize with some of Mr. Hitchens’ bewilderment in the text with the behavior of some believers. Christians are nothing if not hypocrites, to be honest. After all, if we weren’t, there’d be no need for Christ.”

    How very well said and apropos to more than a few of us! It is well to remember that our Faith is truly a gift and one not given to all .

  • Mark

    Pride blinds and then it kills. I will continue to pray for Mr. Hitchens whether he likes it or not because I believe it is God’s will.

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