Monday, August 27, 2007

Doubt, Faith, and Mother Theresa

During the course of declaring Mother Theresa a Saint, the Catholic Church (and now most everyone) has discovered an astonishing truth: she was, after all, a human being.

The recent unveiling of her private correspondence show that the servant of Christ in Calcutta expressed doubt in the existence of God and in the presence of Christ. Toward the end of her life, she gave up prayer.

"Where is my faith?" she writes. "Even deep down … there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. ... If there be God — please forgive me."

"Such deep longing for God," she writes. "… repulsed, empty, no faith, no love, no zeal."

"What do I labor for?" she asks. "If there be no God, there can be no soul. If there be no soul then, Jesus, You also are not true."

Two groups of people are now jumping on these letters: conservative evangelicals and committed atheists. The latter seek to show that even the most heroic of our saints has the sense to disbelieve God but lacks the courage to liberate herself. The former seek to show that she had "religion" but not a "relationship." That is, she was convictional Catholic, but an unbeliever.

Both responses are fundamentally flawed.

First, to the triumphal atheist: Expressions of doubt by the faithful are not chinks in the armor of theism, but are authentic expressions of a real and vibrant theism. The God of Christianity is not, and never will be, a passive harmless object of mild-mannered believers. Rather, he lies beyond human ability to manipulate, control, or defend by human conceptuality. The true believer never has God absolutely within her grasp. He slips away, just when we think we've got him.

Secondly, to the conservative evangelical (and I am one): We must remember that true and living faith is an inward, active and restless thing. Faith is not characterized merely by consistent assent to a body of propositions; rather, faith is characterized by a life shaped by the contours of the life, death and rsurrection of Jesus himself. Faith is relational, dynamic, and calls for a continual relinquishment of our own ability to control our lives, even to control our belief. We believe, sometimes, on the strength of the absurd (Kierkegaard) and sometimes that means we may lack the strength to believe at all. Most importantly here it's good to remember that Christ's faithfulness to us is more significant than our faithfulness (or faithlessness) to him. That understanding is the foundation of a life lived in freedom to God and in response to the liberating power of the Gospel.

Finally, to all: Mother Theresa spent her adult life caring for the most destitute of the most hopeless. Who among us, were we to immerse ourselves in the deepest, darkest pit of suffering, would not be tempted to also ask, "Where is God?" It would be hard for her--as it would for us--to see that her life, in fact, was a powerful response to that very question. God was there, where she was, being the body of Christ to a suffering world.


Shane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shane said...

I wonder how much she doubted God's existence simpliciter and how much she (more particularly) doubted his character--that he is a certain kind of God (i.e., one who cares or is lovingly involved in his creation). If things like the problem of evil, divine "hiding," and the dark night of the soul are going to move a person away from Christian theism, they should arguably move her or him to deism before atheism.

The existence motif does raise interesting questions pertaining to the idea of relationship with God though, I think. I have difficulty getting my mind around the notion that one could honestly question the very existence of some real other if they've had a genuine and significant relationship with that other. Question their character? Sure. Intentions? Certainly. Some of their particular actions? No problem. But their very existence? I'm not sure what to make of that.

I'm not a fan of asserting (in good "perseverence-of-the-saints" fashion) that they simply "never had a genuine relationship" with God. I that can create significant epistemic problems for the rest of us who claim relationship with God. But neither do I want to say that such relationship is impossible, much less that there is no God with whom we can have that relationship.