At The Hour Of Our Death


Damon Linker is, in my view, one of the most arresting and honest writers of his generation on the subjects of faith and politics. And now he takes the extraordinary composure and rational grace of Hitch facing his own mortality and compares it with Primo Levi's refusal to succumb to religious temptation at the hour of his death. Levi wrote about the concentration camp he survived:

I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death . . . naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the “commission” that with one glance would decide whether I should go immediately into the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working. For one instance I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed; one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, nor when you are losing.

Damon respects this composure, as I do. And, I think the great failing of today's atheists is a lack of respect for the alternative: which is, as Damon writes, not the use of faith as some kind of crutch for less anxious living and dying, but the belief that being human is not simply about our rationality, that

a Christian believes that the experience of suffering discloses essential truths that cannot be discovered or known in any other way. What are these truths? That we are fundamentally weak and needy creatures. That we are anxious animals, longing for someone or something to soothe us, to protect us from and relieve us of our worries.

Christianity's radical claim is that it is in suffering alone that we approach the truth about our ultimate condition, just as Jesus' intense suffering on the Cross makes sense only as an act of God's solidarity with us in this mortal, existential panic. The position you take on this cannot be reduced to an argument. It is much deeper than that.

I revere reason and respect atheism. (And I think the writer who most taught me about the need for mutual respect between atheists and believers was an atheist, Albert Camus.) Watching my friend die in this remarkable fashion is as persuasive an argument for atheism as I can imagine. Hitch is dying as he lives - with integrity and passion. But for me, it is the fear too that informs us, the dread and the pain and the loneliness of dying and suffering. The moments I have felt closest to God have been when I have been stripped of every security, the moments when I have felt no love, known no safe home, witnessed unspeakable cruelty - and was rescued by nothing but his ineffable, boundless and yet intimate Love.

This is not an argument, I know. It can easily be dismissed as wish-fulfillment. I beg of you only to respect that this is not how I experienced these moments. They were real. In suffering, I have felt and known God reach into my life and grab me by the scruff of my neck and shake me with the brusque affection of a father's compassion. "Andrew, Andrew ... you fret and are anxious about so many things. But only one thing is necessary."

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

(Photo: John Moore/Getty.)