By Bill Lewellis
Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed during the spring of 2010 with stage-four metastasized esophageal cancer. He may may have been our best known and most bitter atheist – author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Reviewing the book in the Washington Post, Boston College professor Stephen Prothero wrote that he had “never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.” Hitchens went after easy targets. Most would be on my list of “bad religion.”
During the next few months, he wrote three brutally honest pieces for Vanity Fair on his experience of “the unfamiliar country” of people undergoing treatment for cancer. The same critic who panned Hitchens’ knowledge of religion wrote that Hitchens' reflections ranked up there with the best writing he knows on the topic of cancer. “In whatever kind of a ‘race’ life may be,” Hitchens wrote in VF, “I have very abruptly become a finalist. Like so many of life’s varieties of experience, the novelty of a diagnosis of malignant cancer has a tendency to wear off. The thing begins to pall, even to become banal. One can become quite used to the specter of the eternal Footman, like some lethal old bore lurking in the hallway at the end of the evening, hoping for the chance to have a word. I don’t so much object to his holding my coat in that marked manner, as if mutely reminding me that it’s time to be on my way. No, it’s the snickering that gets me down."
Then he lost his voice. "Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs ... I wait impatiently for a high dose of protons to be fired into my body at two-thirds the speed of light. What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.
The oncology bargain, he wrote, is that "in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery. So here’s the wager: you stick around for a bit, but in return we are going to need some things from you. These things may include your taste buds, your ability to concentrate, your ability to digest, and the hair on your head."
During his battle with cancer, there were people who told him in hard, hard copy or online that God is punishing him, especially with the loss of his voice, for his "blasphemies" against God and religion. I could not understand such people. Because Hitchens was an atheist, they wanted him to agonize in his illness and then go to hell rather than discover our compassionate God in the undiscovered country of death and what lies beyond.
Read articles in the NYTimes and the Daily Beast.
Bill Lewellis, Diocese of Bethlehem, retired
Communication Minister/Editor (1986-2010), Canon Theologian (1998)
newSpin blog, Email (c)610-393-1833
Be attentive. Be intelligent. Be reasonable. Be responsible.
Be in Love. And, if necessary, change. [Bernard Lonergan]