By FRANCIS COLLINS
I first met Christopher Hitchens at a “salon” organized by Ben Wattenberg a few years ago. The evening was advertised as a wide-ranging discussion of many topics, but soon evolved into a debate between Christopher and myself about whether a rational person could also be a person of faith. As expected based on our respective public writings, Christopher took the negative position, and I took the positive. It was an energetic and entertaining opportunity for intellectual jousting, and the quickness and edginess of Christopher’s wit was on full display – as was his remarkable command of history and literature. (In fact, I suspect he knew more about the Christian Bible than many of the Christians in attendance.)
It was with dismay that I learned in June that Christopher had been diagnosed with cancer. And this was a very serious situation – esophageal cancer that has already spread to regional lymph nodes has a poor prognosis, and pursuing all avenues of intervention, even if experimental, would be highly advisable. As the Director of the National Institutes of Health, I am in a position to be aware of new developments in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Advances are occurring with great rapidity as technologies arising from the success of the Human Genome Project are making it possible to get a comprehensive understanding of what drives malignancy. The ability to match cancer drugs to the characteristics of an individual tumor is growing rapidly. New drug targets are being discovered. New protocols for treatment of cancer, listed in www.clinicaltrials .gov, are being developed every month.
So as I have done in other situations where a friend was in trouble, I reached out to Christopher and his wife Carol Blue to offer assistance. They welcomed that possibility, and we’ve met several times since then in their apartment. That relationship has led to some interesting ideas about how to optimize his treatment. Christopher will no doubt be writing more about these in his powerful series of essays in Vanity Fair.
Some observers have expressed surprise that the atheist intellectual and the Christian physician-scientist could become friends. After all, in the current political climate in Washington, anyone who doesn’t agree with you is supposed to be your enemy. But I would like to think that Christopher’s sharp intellect has challenged my own defense of the rationality of faith to be more consistent and compelling. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).
On a personal level, I have been blessed by getting to know Christopher and Carol better – despite the “enfant terrible” reputation, Christopher has a warm humanity that is easy to perceive. And his willingness to be utterly open and transparent about his cancer diagnosis provides a breathtaking window into his personal integrity.
Over these last few months, we have not talked directly about faith. He 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.
Francis Collins is Director of the National Institutes of Health, the researcher behind the Human Genome Project and a Christian who explained how he reconciles science and faith in his book, “The Language of God.” This is adapted from the On Faith blog at www.washingtonpost.com, which is featuring a weeklong video series on Hitchens, his disease and his beliefs.