In one of those viral videos that populate so much of YouTube and Facebook, a straight-faced reporter on a college campus asks students passing by who won the Civil War. The look of so many deers caught in so many headlights ensued, and the answers ranged from “I don’t know” to “the Confederates?”
So I tread on soil with a lot of viscosity and bring up two dead English leftists, and the interwoven and divergent paths their lives took. Both the late Christopher Hitchens and the departed Malcolm Muggeridge came from a long tradition of British socialism. For Muggeridge, the romance may have been an even deeper flirtation with communism when it appeared to be ascendant.
Hitchens, who was younger and an absolute unrepentant individualist, broke away from the more traditional Soviet model and carved out his own contrarian universe writing and commentating on world affairs and everything in between. To some he remained a dyed in the wool Trotskyite, to others a huckster neo-con who was pro-Iraqi war. Personally I think Hitchens basked in the glow of people who were angry at him for not being this or that.
One campsite he pitched his tent in, and a place from which he never wandered, was his devout disbelief in anything supernatural or divine. Though he saved his most caustic thoughts for the folly he thought was embodied by the Catholic Church, I always appreciated his integrity and would have gladly shared a pint or two with him. He wasn’t one of those “Jesus was a kind-hearted teacher but…” guys. He actually took the road mapped out by G.K. Chesterton that was impossible to have Jesus that way. According to Chesterton, if you rejected the divine claims Jesus made in the Gospels your only logical path was to consider him a madman or a fraud. Hitchens, from every vowel or consonant I ever saw him string together, certainly fell into that category.
Points for integrity I guess.
Hitchens publicly held on to his “unbelief” system until the day he died in 2011. No deathbed confession — at least none known to us — and any speculation of a deathbed conversion is strictly wishful conjecturing.
Muggeridge is a man basically forgotten by time. He was born when the last century was only three years old, and the devastation of communism, fascism and two world wars were something no sane person could have predicted. Though decades divided them, Muggeridge and Hitchens shared the same kind of English upbringing that weaned them both on a strong belief, not in God, but in the collective. Late in life something happened to Muggeridge — something that shook his belief (or non-belief) system to its very core.
Muggeridge was probably the most influential component for the world getting to know Mother Teresa. While on assignment for the BBC in Calcutta India, Muggeridge heard about this Albanian nun working with the poor and he produced a short BBC documentary on the subject. Though the documentary had no request for assistance to Mother Teresa’s then-fledgling order, offers of assistance poured in and Muggeridge followed up the documentary with the equally popular book “Something Beautiful for God” — and the result left Mother Teresa an international reputation and an irresistible instrument for God.
Like a modern version of a biblical prophet, Muggeridge understood that after his job of letting the world in on a very important secret, he had to decrease and Mother Teresa increase — which she did in remarkable ways. For the rest of her life, kings and potentates, presidents and popes would share the stage with her, but none of them, not even one of the greatest popes in the history of the Church, could outshine this hunched over woman from a place in Europe few college students could find on a map — a woman with no visible means of support, whose earthly possessions could fit inside one or two plastic shopping bags.
Muggeridge continued to write and remained a staple of the talking class in Britain for the most part, and a little in the U.S. until his death in 1990. In the later chapters of his life, this onetime card carrying member of a Godless ideology entered into communion with the Catholic Church.
The intersection of Mother Teresa was another touch point where Muggeridge and Hitchens met. Whereas Muggeridge was awed and transformed by her, Hitchens took it upon himself to “debunk” her and spew his particularly caustic venom toward her, claiming, among other things, that she was nothing but a self-centered fraud. Two men from the same country, with similar upbringings, with almost identical political and nonreligious views meet the very same person. One is changed forever and the other turns his back — sounds so New Testament.
In a recent papal audience, Pope Francis urged listeners to “desire always the salvation of those who offend us.” If Mother Teresa was even aware of Hitchens I have no doubt she would have kept him in her prayers as strongly as he kept her in his contempt. In relation to Mother Teresa, Muggeridge and Hitchens were like the needle on a compass, with one end pointed in a northerly direction while the other end in the opposite in response to the magnet pull of the same fixed object.
May we all point north this Lenten season.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.