” We are all dead men on leave.”
—Eugene Levine, 1919
“Ah, words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away.”
—John Clare, “Rememberances”
Dallas Willard’s body died momentarily the other day. He was a Philosophy professor at USC, a graduate of some institutions, a man with a mind and a Christian soul. He did not call himself “simple,” as so many Christians do, when they actually mean “lazy,” or “silly.”
That is, he would never pray “God, we are a simple people” and wear it like a red badge of courage. No, he was a complete man, not some creature kept in an infantile state by a juvenile culture. Dallas Willard transcended his world.
Dallas Willard was 77.
And, for some reason, Dr Willard’s dying made me think of Christopher Hitchens. Mr. Hitchens led a fragmented, rum soaked life full of self-congratulation. He died in 2011, also of cancer. Mr. Hitchens was a pundit, that most useless of voices, for a pundit, like a preacher, must always be vocal but never actually has to be right.
And his dying haunts me. He has a believing brother, Peter, but Mr. Hitchens claimed to hate all religion and the idea of God to the end. He wrote a book titled, god is not Great, mostly in defense of his friend Salman Rushdie, a non-observant Moslem who wrote The Satanic Verse, daring to scourge the prophet and so earning himself an as yet unfulfilled fatwah of death.
Mr. Rushdie reportedly told Hitchens to remove the word “Great” from his title and so make his book perfect. Hitchens laughed.
Hitchens was the son of a former Royal Navy officer and a closeted Jewess who was murdered by her lover in Athens. Hitchens was a non-believing member of two Christian churches in America. He took his oath of American citizenship holding a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. He loved mostlyeverything about America and, so, spent a lot of time trying to make America as big a failure as his native Britain.
I think Mr. Hitchens would have been a wonderful evangelical fundamentalist. He seemed most energized while he pilloried the innocent views of helpless others. He retreated when asked to actually debate issues on their substantive meaning, as when Dr. Jim Dennison demolished him in a religious debate. Mr. Hitchens simply changed the subject and, apparently, never bothered to appear on the same stage with Dennison thereafter.
So, I think he would have been a good fundamentalist. He only had to believe one or two things, laughed off the able arguments of others and repeated his mundane mantra with enormous satisfaction. He was the Leftist Jerry Falwell. One waited vainly for him to arrive at a conclusion, or even make a point. He was fatuous, drunken and self-congratulatory. He missed the heart of religious fundamentalism at no important point.
And, I could wish he lived yet. Mr. Hitchens might have arrived at a point (perhaps he did arrive at a point) and the way he went he almost inevitably would have discovered the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Like religious fundamentalists, Mr. Hitchens expected catastrophe just around the corner. He would have been a great pre-millenial dispensationalist because he took such joy at the coming catastrophe. He seemed to think he had found “the perfect illustration” for life’s calamities and so dismissed people with casual ease, since they were worm fodder anyway.
And, yet, I mourn his passing as much as that of Dr. Willard, perhaps more. Dr. Willard loved, settled on kindness and service, thought and acted. When someone asked Dallas Willard what he thought, he could tell them. Dallas had a shy grin he used in private conversation, as if to offer his interlocutor a reason for hope beyond empty verbage.
I once served with a being so shallow she could not apprehend another person’s view. She was the perfect religious evangelical; self-absorbed, a virulent consumer who spent her family into decrepitude without ever working a day in her life. People were a burden to her: she expected to lead without effort, to command without sacrifice. I think she was more like Hitchens than Dallas because she savaged others with joy but without meaning and then expected to be thanked.
She would have liked Christopher and hated Dallas. Religion does not make people bitter but it often does not make us better. Dallas was carried through life by his religion and never had to lay down his deep thoughtfulness. Religion made Hitchens better, as much as he claimed to hate it for his mother’s sake. He just never made the logical next step.
And, as for me, I miss them both. If only Hitchens had a soul like Willard.