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Was Christopher Hitchens Religious?

The Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell is Minister Emerita of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, and is the subject of the documentary film, "Raw Faith." She is the author of several books, and edited four volumes for Beacon Press, including Breaking Free: Women of Spirit at Midlife and Beyond.  

Chrisopher_hitchensLess than a year before his death, I interviewed Christopher Hitchens for Portland Monthly magazine. I didn't want to do the interview. As I told editor Randy Gragg, "I don't like Christopher Hitchens. He is rude. He is a bully. So why should I help get his work before more people?" But Randy prevailed upon me. After all, Hitchens would be giving a lecture -- about God, of course -- in my hometown of Portland soon, and people would be passionately interested. I agreed to do the interview, and I'm so glad I did.

I knew that my job in approaching the interview was to not get hooked by Hitchens' jabs at Christianity, or at me, for that matter. I had my list of questions all ready to go. During the interview, I had the feeling that I was encountering a "bad boy," a playful persona honed to perfection, one that he was totally conscious of and used brilliantly for PR purposes. I also sensed underneath the persona a deeply wounded, angry child. I don't know where that anger came from, but it was a given from which he moved, and then used his brilliant intellect to focus, parse and dissect. No one could encounter that extraordinary mind without marveling. That day Hitchens simply spoke in whole paragraphs of perfectly constructed concepts, consistently, for more than an hour.

After his lecture on Jan. 5, a small group of us were invited to have dinner with Hitchens. There were several of us clergy present, including Marcus Borg, the internationally known Jesus scholar; plus Andrew Proctor, the head of Portland Arts and Lectures; Emily Harris, local radio personality; and of course Randy Gragg. Hitchens was known for his ability to drink great quantities of alcohol and never lose his sharp edge, a capacity in full flower that evening. He downed one glass of red wine after the next, hardly pausing except to ramble on, and managed to insult, in particular, the clergy. An African-American minister mentioned how much gospel music meant to him, and in response Hitchens quoted Percy Bysshe Shelley, and then told the minister that the words of Shelley were much more meaningful than "that gospel stuff." Marcus Borg attempted to speak of his devotional life, but Hitchens would have none of it. Borg left the dinner early, with a kind but oblique remark to Hitchens: "Whatever you are doing, you do it quite well."

I tried to encourage Hitchens to pause from time to time and listen to what others around the table were saying, but I was largely unsuccessful, as you might imagine: He charged on ahead, totally dominating the conversation. I was one of the last ones to leave the dinner, and found myself on the sidewalk in the dark night, still talking with Christopher, who still held a glass of red wine in his hand. Unaccountably, I felt a clean, clear sense of affection for him. I know in my own life the anger that is always there, waiting to be tapped. I know that this rage has its uses, to counter ignorance and injustice, and I know it sometimes bullies and hurts.

The interview itself revealed a surprisingly religious Christopher Hitchens. He ended up using words like numinous and transcendent and soul. He said, "I can write and I can talk, and sometimes when I'm doing either of these things, I realize that I've written a sentence or uttered a thought that I didn't absolutely know I had in me until I saw it on the page or heard myself say it. There is a sense that it wasn't all done by my hand." A bit later he added, "Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there's more to life than just matter." At the end of the interview, I told Hitchens, "I would love to have you in my church because you're so eloquent, and, I believe some of your impulses -- excuse me for saying so -- are religious in the way I am religious." And Hitchens responded, "I'm touched that you say, as others have that I've missed my vocation. But I would not be able to be this way if I were wearing robes or claiming authority that was other than human. That's a distinction that matters to me very much."

Hitchens did not miss his vocation. He has done more than most anyone to focus popular attention on the egregious dimensions of religion. He just wanted the world, and all its people, to be pure. Unfortunately, we are not. Hence, the impulse for religion.

Read the printed interview, or hear the entire audio interview: Questions of Faith

Photo by Andrew Rusk on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.