An infant and a corpse. They are the most common images of Christ ― the baby in the manger or his mother’s arms, the dead man on the cross ― and they offer a final refutation and a last hope for Christopher Hitchens for all time.
Hitchens, the great pugilist pundit, died a little over a week ago, and he went out with a beautiful flourish. His last essay, “Trial of the Will” in the new Vanity Fair, does what every writer dreams a last essay will do: It distills his worldview, attaches it to the moment, and leaves it as a last testimony.
It’s the last contrarian stand of a man who spent his life being contrary ― most famously in his polemical, pointed, angry book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, which he used as a launching pad for a twilight career as an atheist debater.
In “Trial of the Will,” Hitchens looks at the maxim “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” and explains in brutal detail the maladies that have disproven it. He tells us how Friedrich Nietzsche (to whom the phrase is most often attributed) descended into dementia before dying painfully. He recounts how Kingsley Amis angrily begged to be killed on his death bed. Hitchens, in the throes of esophageal cancer, adds that he himself is suffering terribly as he dies.
Some things don’t make us stronger, but weaker, he says. Some things break us, and leave us without our dignity. He offers the most extreme examples of human weakness: dementia, which leaves us human shells of ourselves; or intolerable, unstoppable pain; or the helplessness of the dying.
But these are precisely the qualities of infancy. Babies can’t put two thoughts together. Babies cannot tolerate pain. Babies can do nothing for themselves but cry. The newborn baby has the mental ability of an Alzheimer’s sufferer, the helplessness of a comatose person.
Yet this is the great mystery of Christmas: Not that God became a man, but that he became a baby.
“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulder dominion rests,” prophesied Isaiah. “They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.”
How can a helpless, trembling infant who is unable to think straight be the “God-Hero”? Because of the power of presence and love…