Dr. Francis Collins and Hitch
I don’t know when I first heard of BioLogos, but Dr. Francis Collins was a name I began to recognize over a decade ago. I was very interested in knowing how famed writer Christopher Hitchens, “Hitch”, was doing, since it was public knowledge he was battling cancer. I became curious about the Christian doctor treating Hitch, because I assumed there were two different, impossibly incompatible personalities, focused on one goal. How did this unlikely doctor-patient relationship come to be? It all started with the thoughtfulness of the BioLogos founder, reaching out to Hitchens, a self-described blasphemer of Christianity.
A little backstory about why I was so intrigued by this developing ‘friendship’: I was not a fan of Hitch, yet I liked him very much. Of course, I am contradicting myself. He was a famous atheist, blabbering obscenities about God and dumbed-down evangelical Christians every time he was on TV. His words were viscous, scandalous and sarcastic; yet the sharp wit and raunchy-style of his arguments always kept me coming back. If Hitch was a panelist on a news program, I paid attention. It was a guilty pleasure, to watch his interviews and read his columns. Yet, I wasn’t supposed to like him. He wasn’t saying anything endearing, but I enjoyed the energy of his interviews — and again, the biting, take-no-prisoners wit. I even laughed hard at times, from his piercing remarks. He earned the status of a legend, in journalism and authorship.
When I heard of an American Christian scientist offering revolutionary treatments to Hitch, I needed to find out more. Since knowing this foul-mouthed character had made mocking and denigrating religious people part of his mass (no pun intended) appeal, I was hoping and praying for Hitch’s physical and spiritual healing. Instead of despising the Bible, maybe he’d start reading it. I imagined salvation and restoration for the author of God Is Not Great.
Dr. Collins reflected from that time period in which he was treating Christopher Hitchens:
“Over these last few months, we have not talked directly about faith. He [Hitchens] knows that I am praying for him. But my prayer is not so much for a supernatural intervention — as a physician I have not seen evidence for such medical miracles in my own experience. Instead I pray for myself and for Christopher along the lines of James 1:5 — “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” And I then give thanks for the chance to share in a deepening friendship.”
Hitch described himself as a “guinea pig”, as Dr. Collins provided DNA genome treatments for him, with the intention of obliterating the cancer cells. Unfortunately, Christopher Hitchens died in December 2011. I remember crying at the news, feeling the loss of this enigmatic, admired man, hoping his soul had been redeemed. Perhaps an angel escorted him to the great beyond — the mystery will remain.
In a recent interview from Atlantic magazine, Dr. Collins was asked by Peter Wehner about “what it was about the relationship with Hitchens that was special.
‘You know, I think it was the opportunity to see what lies underneath a very hard-edged perspective that you would normally be really put off by. It’s a reminder of the fact that if we really want to understand each other, we can’t be put off by those kind of superficial, admittedly sometimes difficult to listen to, perspectives. There is real humanity in everyone. This was a guy who was intensely curious about everything. It was a guy who cared deeply about his wife and his daughter. It was a guy who was in many ways a little isolated, maybe a little lonely, who cherished the chance to develop a friendship, and especially with somebody who was very different from him.’”
Just the notion that the author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief became a close confidant of the writer of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything is a stunning thing to comprehend. The humble, wise scientist participated in the Vanity Fair memorial service for his friend, playing on the piano his masterfully beautiful “Hitchens Sonata” (you can find it on YouTube). If the two men hadn’t connected personally after the adversarial nature of their first meeting on a debate stage, this would not have been possible. The example of this friendship captivated my heart and imagination — that perhaps our humanity can more strongly reflect the divine spark that is in all of us, whether we choose to see it or not. Now more than ever, we need to appreciate people like Dr. Francis Collins, for demonstrating how to be Christlike, if just for creating a space for a conversation.