An atheist and a minister walk into a bar. The atheist orders Johnny Walker neat. The minister eyes it wistfully, asks for cranberry juice with a twist, smiles and says, “So, tell me about the God you don’t believe in, because I probably don’t believe in that God, either.”
Like most “guy walks into a bar” stories, this one never happened. I wish it had, and that I could have been a fly on the wall, or better yet tending bar and covering the tab just for the privilege. But I did the next best thing: I read the book each wrote while living with the knowledge he was dying.
The atheist is Christopher Hitchens; the minister, Forrest Church. Both wrote prolifically and brilliantly, and spoke thoughtfully and eloquently, in particular about religion. Each died of esophageal cancer, Church in 2009 at age 61, Hitchens two years later at 62. Church took his terminal diagnosis into the pulpit; that isn’t exactly where Hitchens went with it.
As much as I loved Hitchens’ towering intellect, as much as he made me think and smile and reassess aspects of faith best studied closely and warily and packed away where quaint ideas are kept with the curios, Church connected heart and mind like they were one and the same, inseparable, with wise counsel and powerful preaching. He pastored to my wife’s terminally ill step-father, officiated at a family wedding, and gave hope to a Jewish-Catholic couple who decades later hold deep gratitude for the foundation he helped them to build when their own traditional religions offered them nothing. They arrived as outcasts at his Manhattan sanctuary, the appropriately named All Souls, and found welcome.
Hitchens doesn’t seem to have needed that, certainly not from a minister. I never met Hitchens, and yet find his writing, like Church’s, to hold enormous power. Both possessed minds on fire. Both had intense gazes and wonderfully human smiles. Each possessed, in his own way, a prophetic voice.
“Love & Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow,” the book Church wrote toward the end of his life, is constructed in part from sermons written and delivered during that time. There is no scriptural reference in the subtitle of the book Hitchens wrote about dying. In chronicling his own demise, he kept it simple. He titled the book “Mortality.”
Reading the two books consecutively, I was struck at how much the authors had in common, and that their shared humanity destroyed my own sense of their religious divide. They even shared an anger at harm done in the name, or under the cover, of religion. When I read these words — ”Some half of all Americans apparently reject evolution, including three of ten Republican presidential candidates (a group that seems to offer some corroboration of this belief)”– I hear them in Hitchens’ voice, and yet they belong to Church, from a 2007 sermon.
I was left wondering, how would the author of “god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” who denied the deity the capitalization he awarded without quibble to Amex, have replied to Church’s invitation to “tell me about the God you don’t believe in”?
Hitchens loved to drink, and so did Church, though he quit and seemed to like even more the depth of relationships sobriety allowed him. But I suspect Church might have gone out of his way to engage the philosophical brilliance of Hitchens, especially had it been shared mortality that brought them together. Perhaps Hitchens, too, would have welcomed it; though he found Church’s Unitarians “weak-minded,” he also said they didn’t give him much to disagree with, and was rather heartened by the Unitarian resurrection of the Jefferson Bible, which was Church’s project.
I bring them another round, and leave them to talk.
Hitchens: “Suppose I ditch the principles I have held for a lifetime in the hope of gaining favor at the last minute? I hope and trust that no serious person would be at all impressed with such a hucksterish choice. Meanwhile, the god who would reward cowardice and dishonesty and punish irreconcilable doubt is among the many gods in which (whom?) I do not believe.”
Church: “We sit on this tiny, munificently fixtured rock arguing over who has the best insider information on the Creator and the creation. Is it the Christian? The Buddhist? The atheist? The humanist? The theist? Please! We human beings trumpet our differences, even kill each other over them, while, in every way that matters, we are far more alike than we are different. Theologically speaking, we are certainly more alike in our ignorance than we differ in our knowledge. In fact, by the time we die, we will barely have gotten our minds wet. The wisest among us will have but the faintest notion of what life was all about. This counsels humility, but it also affirms oneness. Truly we are one.”
Hitchens: “I have been in denial for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair. I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in any direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”
Church: “We cannot look God in the eye any more than we can stare at the sun without going blind. This should counsel humility and mutual respect for those whose reflections on ultimate meaning differ from our own.”
Hitchens: “Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
Church: “It’s not that I disbelieve in an afterlife; I simply have no experience of an afterlife, and therefore have little to say concerning one. I do know this, however. First, nothing (including any imaginable afterlife) could possibly be any weirder or more amazing than life before death.”
Hitchens: “Ordinary expressions like expiration date. Will I outlive my Amex? My driver’s license? People say — I’m in town on Friday. Will you be around? WHAT A QUESTION!”
Church: “When I was young, I thought death took courage. I was wrong. Dying may take courage, but death requires little courage at all. It is love that requires courage, because the people we love most may die before we do. Dare to love and we instantly become vulnerable, a word that means susceptible to being wounded.”
Hitchens: “It’s even in the obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality.”
Church: “At such moments, the courage to love is nothing less than the courage to lose everything we hold most dear. Love another with all our heart and we place our hearts in jeopardy, one so great that the world as we know it can disappear between the time we pick up the telephone and when we put it down. Love is grief’s advance party.”
Hitchens: “I sympathize afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”
Church: “Theology is poetry, not science. … The text of meaning is vast, its nuances many and various.”
Hitchens: “As with the normal life, one finds that every passing day finds more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise?”
Church: “Theology’s heartbeat is the miracle of our own existence. This miracle encompasses both birth and death.”
Hitchens: “So we are left with something quite unusual in the annals of unsentimental approaches to extinction: not the wish to die with dignity but the desire TO HAVE DIED.”
Church: “Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, before she got lost in the mystic haze, did important studies of how people respond to their own death announcements. Shock. Disbelief. Anger. Bargaining. And then — finally, yet only perhaps — acceptance. The lesson here is simple, yet profound. We cannot embrace our life fully until we find a way to accept our death.”
Hitchens: “I came across an article on the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. We now know, from dearly bought experience, much more about this malady than we used to. Apparently, one of the symptoms by which it is made known is that a tough veteran will say, seeking to make light of his experience, that “what didn’t kill me made me stronger.” This is one of the manifestations that “denial” takes.”
Church: “To this miracle, we must do everything in our human power to awaken. Awakening is like returning after a long journey and seeing the world — our loved ones, cherished possessions, and the tasks that are ours to perform — with new eyes. Think of little things. Reaching out for the touch of a loved one’s hand. Shared laughter. A letter to a lost friend. An undistracted hour of silence, alone, together with our thoughts until there are no thoughts, only the pulse of life itself.”
Hitchens: “I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline. I repeat, this is no more than what a healthy person has to do in slower motion. It is our common fate.”
Church: “The acknowledgement of essential unity is the central pillar of my faith. “
Hitchens: “Whatever view one takes of the outcome being affected by morale, it seems certain that the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.”
Church: “Religious fundamentalists, rightly perceiving the Light shining through their own window, conclude that theirs is the only window through which it shines. They may even incite their followers to throw stones through other people’s windows. Secular materialists make precisely the opposite mistake. Perceiving the bewildering variety of windows and worshippers, they conclude there is no light. But the windows are not the Light; the windows are where the Light shines through.”
This perhaps goes without saying, of Church as well, but Hitchens died with quite a lot of incomplete thoughts. The final chapter in “Mortality” consists of fragments and jottings, the last of which quotes “from Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel “Einstein’s Dreams,” set in Berne in 1905: With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts … and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadow of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own. … Such is the cost of mortality. No person is whole. No person is free.”
Amen to that, as they say. Even Church didn’t factor God, at least not by name, into his definition of religion, which he called our response to “the dual reality of being alive and having to die.”
So maybe one man’s benediction is another’s last call.
All quoted materials are from the written works of Hitchens and Church, and primarily from “Mortality” (Twelve/Hachette Book Group) and “Love & Death” (Beacon Press). Their original context is to be found there. In the reading, you might find a way of acknowledging your own mortality. The authors most certainly helped me to do so, and that is something to be grateful for.