The death of Christopher Hitchens coming as it did during the Christmas season may be viewed by some as poetic. For me, it is poignant. It’s a reminder of how voices like Hitchens are vital to the well being of the faith. I smile when imagining the proverbial meeting Hitchens is having with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, not because I think he will be getting his comeuppance. I smile because I think Peter may have met his match.
If you read Hitchen’s book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, you’ll know the self-proclaimed atheist had no bone to pick with Jesus of Nazareth. Likewise, if you really read the Bible, you might find Jesus had no bone to pick with Christopher Hitchens either.
To be clear I am not equating Hitchens to Jesus. Neither would appreciate that. But each had something important to say about religious malpractice.
Hitchens’ disdain was reserved for what others had done with Jesus’ words, teaching and memory. Whenever I read Hitchens or listened to him speak, I thought him to be not so much one who did not believe there was a God as one who believed God to have been slandered by the religionists. Whenever I read the Gospels, I see, in much the same way, the disdain Jesus had for the scriptural literalists of his day.
Their views of religion proved to the people that “God was not great.” God was the weapon used by those with power to keep others in line and on the margins. Indeed Hitchens and Jesus raised much the same complaints about the self-styled gatekeepers of the faith. “Religion,” wrote Hitchens, “has caused people not just to conduct themselves no better than others, but to award themselves permission to behave in ways that would make a brothel-keeper or an ethnic cleanser raise an eye brow.”
Jesus of Nazareth was speaking about those of his time who used religion in much the same manner that provoked Hitchens. “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23)
Hitchens once told an audience that the very word “Jesus” says at once too little and too much. Similarly, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” In those few words, both have left us with thoughts worthy of our time. As a 2nd year seminarian, I was once interviewed for an interim pastorship at a Colorado Springs church. An older gentleman on the church board asked the first question. “Are you a liberal or a conservative?” I replied, “When I talk about loving Jesus, they think I am a conservative. But when I repeat the words of Jesus, they think I am a liberal.” I didn’t get the job.
There is something prophetic in Christopher Hitchens leaving our world at the height of the season when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Prophetic in the Biblical sense. As the “Pearly Gates” dialogue continues between Hitchens and Peter (and I can see it might take a while) we are left with all of the open- ended question he raised.
It begs the question to simply cry, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Both Hitchens and Jesus take us beyond crude bumper sticker theology. I believe Jesus would not appreciate his birthday being used as a means of dividing his followers from others. He’d have been just fine being greeted with “happy holidays.”
Christopher Hitchens called our beliefs “Christian fantasies.” We unwittingly give weight to his argument when we permit dogmatic slogans to get in the way of our relationships with those whose guesses about the nature of God differ from our own.