Did Christopher Hitchens, the late pundit and world-class atheist, actually consider a "deathbed conversion" to Christianity?
That is what author Larry Alex Taunton is suggesting, in his recent book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World's Most Notorious Atheist.
Taunton recounts a road trip that he and Hitchens took together.
As Mr. Taunton drove, Mr. Hitchens read aloud from the Gospel of John and mulled over the precise reason Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. “Where is grace in the Old Testament?” Hitchens asked at one point, in Mr. Taunton’s telling. “I see it in the New Testament, but God is different in the Old Testament,” Mr. Hitchens observed, leading to a discussion of God’s covenant with Abraham.
And who wouldn't have wanted to convert Christopher Hitchens?
Talk about a prize catch.
In fact, as Kimberly Winston writes, it is highly improbable that Jesus was on Hitch's later-in-life mind.
I admired Christopher Hitchens, despite his tone-deafness on Israel; he once expressed the snarky desire to go to Jerusalem and to move into the house that his friend, the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, had once supposedly lived in.
Nevertheless, as Daniel Oppenheimer writes in Exit Right, in other areas Hitchens had migrated from his leftist positions, and came to embrace what some people would call a neo-conservative position. He had become convinced that the West was facing an implacable enemy, i.e. Islamic terrorism.
And because of that, he no longer felt, as a former leftist, that the use of power was always bad. Sometimes, he admitted, it was necessary.
And, yes, let it be said of the late pundit: To paraphrase the Yiddish poet, Jacob Glatstein: The god of Hitchen's unbelief was magnificent.
His book, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, culminates in a call for humanity to
escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection ... to know the enemy, and to prepare to fight it.
But, for a public intellectual, Hitchens was decidedly anti-intellectual in his treatment of God. He didn't do his God homework. He betrayed no evidence of having read any works of theology -- in fact, little besides the Bible.
Hitch was also quite happy with choosing fanatics as his sparring partner. The version of faith that he was battling was the narrowest version.
But now, let's deal with Hitchen's (almost) conversionary statement -- that Christianity would have offered him a God of love, which he had not seen in Judaism.
Oh, Hitch (I say this to you in heaven, whether or not you believe that it really exists): Christianity did not invent the idea of a loving God.
It was Judaism.
Jewish liturgy proclaims it very clearly: "With a great love You have loved us." "God gave the Jews (and the world) the Sabbath -- in love." Jewish liturgy is filled with words like ahavah (love), rachamim (compassion) -- and chesed, the closest thing that Jews come to what Christians call "grace."
A forthcoming book, Encountering God -- God Merciful and Gracious—El Rachum V’chanun, edited by Lawrence Hoffman (Jewish Lights) (full disclosure: I have an essay in it), explores the meaning of God's compassion in Judaism.
Henry Slonimsky, one of the most sensitive and yet unheralded Jewish teachers of the last century, put it this way: “God is primarily a great heart, caring most for what seems to be important and sacred to us, namely, our loves and aspirations and sufferings."
To insist that the "Old Testament God" is mean, and that the "New Testament God" is compassionate, is actually, well, anti-Semitic. It goes back to Marcionism, an ancient Christian heresy that tried to sever early Christianity from its Jewish roots by denying the goodness of the "Jewish" god.
I don't buy it. When you put together the Crusades, blood libels, inquisitions, forced conversions, etc. -- not a whole lot of "God of grace" going on there. Just sayin'...
Later in life, Hitchens discovered that his mother was Jewish -- which means that, according to Jewish law, he was also Jewish (or, maybe, "Jew-ish"). Apparently, his daughters were being raised and educated as Jews.
If Hitch had wanted to return to God, he need not have done so as a Christian. As a Jew, he had free access to the loving God 24/7, and yet he chose to ignore it.
About faith: this is what I think.
Faith is a talent, or a skill. Some people are "naturals" at it. Some people just cannot pull it together, no matter how hard they try.
And others who want to get good it can probably do so. But you have to want to do it.
I wish that Christopher Hitchens had wanted to do it. And I wish that he had wanted to do so -- as a Jew.
We have so much that we would have wanted to show him.