Friday, August 24, 2007

Mother Theresa and Doubt

As the Guardian regularly makes sport of religion (and Christianity, in particular), I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by the inane column that appeared today, where Andrew Brown asks the question, “Was Mother Theresa an Atheist?”. The basis for this provocative title are some recently publicized letters in which the saint describes her crisis of faith. Brown writes: “Even as she was receiving the Nobel prize, she asked her confessor to pray for her because she could feel nothing when she prayed herself and no longer had any experience of God.” He cites the following letter, written at her confessor's request, in which he claims that Mother Theresa “sounds like an adolescent Dawkins”:

‘I call, I cling, I want ... and there is no One to answer ... no One on Whom I can cling ... no, No One. Alone ... Where is my Faith ... even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness ... My God ... how painful is this unknown pain ... I have no Faith ... I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart ... & make me suffer untold agony.

'So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them ... because of the blasphemy ... If there be God ... please forgive me ... When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. I am told God loves me ... and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.’"

(How does this sound like Dawkins at all? Dawkins has never experienced the “dark night of the soul” – his faith in Reason is far too strong for that. Who could ever imagine him saying, “If there be God ... please forgive me”?). Regardless, from this quote Brown concludes that Theresa was a full-blown atheist, and thus nothing but a hypocrite and a fraud (although he admires her determination to stick with an institution that she no longer believed in). He even mocks her earlier professions of faith, saying that her talk of a “union” with Christ “seems to have come from a bodice-ripper.” Clearly, Brown is aroused by his irreverent tone and shocking language; he perhaps imagines himself brave, although he is merely engaging in adolescent iconoclasm.

Brown is most surprised that “the letters have not been revealed by one of her avowed enemies, like Christopher Hitchens, but by the man who is responsible for promoting her canonization, the Rev Brian Kolodiejchuk.” Shouldn’t the Catholic Church be scandalized by these professions of doubt? After all, it turns out that one of their star players was really a double-agent, working for the other side. But apparently the Church is taking it all in stride; indeed, some in the Church say that "it will give a whole new dimension to the way that people understand her." Brown concludes: “Only the most hardened atheists will not be shocked by the ease with which the Catholic church has assimilated the news that its most famous saint thought of herself as a hypocrite when she talked about the love of God.”

But this goes to show that Brown understands nothing about the nature of real faith. For him, any expression of doubt indicates that the so-called believer is really just an atheist who is lying to themselves. The slightest wavering and your faith is a lie, as true faith necessarily excludes doubt. But Christians have always understood doubt to be a integral part of faith (see my previous post on this topic here). Mother Theresa continued to trust Christ even when she couldn’t trust herself. This is not so unusual. God’s hiddenness has been experienced by nearly all “great” Christians through history (just think of Luther, to name one), and, most significantly, Christ himself felt forsaken by God on the Cross. So why should it be any surprise that this saint was granted the opportunity to follow Him into the darkness of faith?


phillip said...

If someone's determined to be a Prat there's no helping them. Jacques Ellul in 'Hope in the Time of Abandonment' insists that God has indeed abandoned Man to his own devices but this in no way detracts from him having faith, but it's hard not to feel that God has indeed left us to choose our own delusions has a result of our abandonment of Him, when the Son of Man returns shall he find faith? Ignoring those beourgoise apologists is real faith possible and consistent with material excess? Is God not effectively marketed as the equivalent of a Psychologists' pep pill with all the depressing babble concerning spirituality when isn't it obvious that it is only those who are truly conscious of the absence of God that will seek Him the more earnestly through the obedience of faith.
'Even if Peter sinks, that does not mean that Jesus Christ does. And as long as Jesus does not sink, Peter cannot go under entirely either' (Barth - Bremen Sermon)

CPA said...

Actually, I would not be surprised if some day, Dawkins' executors release letters in which he laments how Reason seems so absent.

"I look out into the stars and I see no awe or wonder out there. I look into myself and see no logic or reason or any acceptance of reality, but only a desperate desire to flee to some irrational faith. . . . My reason seems to be going . . .

"I debate Christians and inside something says to me, 'Hypocrite! You don't really accept the meaninglessness of the universe at all! Inside yourself you still hug the pathetic theistic fallacy that you matter!' . . .

"Oh, it is agony, this trying to live up to the highest atheist confession, when everything in my genes drags me down to degraded superstition . . . " etc., etc.

Elliot said...

The Nation had an interesting interview with Richard Rodriguez in which he argued that Theresa's doubts make her doubly meaningful for Christians today. I think it's still online.