Saturday, August 25, 2007

Hieronymo's mad againe

These could be simply fragments I have shored against my ruin; but my thoughts refuse to run in one simple course and illuminate a meaning for me.

Scott Simon this morning opining on Mother Teresa presented to me again all that is wrong with the public discourse on religion. Mother Teresa "doubted the existence of God"? I seriously doubt that, and not because I don't believe Mother Teresa despaired and asked, more than once, "Where is God?" Answering that God is the child dying in your arms is cold comfort indeed, if scripturally and theologically accurate. Of course he has to be topical and drop in Christopher Hitchens' name (without, thankfully, giving his new book any more publicity, nor shall I), but the reference to Hitchens is useful, since it, too, goes so wide of the mark as to actually mark on of the edges of the proper discussion of the topic.

Hitchens, Simon says (sorry!), on the news of Mother Teresa's doubts, compares such sentiments to Communist leaders who couldn't see that Communism, as a political/economic system, was not the salvation of the world; could not see, even as it was collapsing, that the efforts of Communism had failed. Well, set aside the many threads of the collapse of government in the former USSR and Eastern Europe (does New Orleans mean capitalism and democracy failed? Or triumphed? Or that we're strong enough to ignore entire cities of "minorities"?) that attempt at analysis blurs into pointlessness, and just take Hitchens, arguendo, at face value. Is he right, in any meaningful sense?

First, we need to set out some terms. "Doubt," to begin with, is not the opposite of "faith." Simon mentions that "even Jesus" said "My God, why have you forsaken me?" Simon doesn't mention, of course, that those words were not original with Jesus, but are the first line of Psalm 22. Doubt, it would seem, incorporated into the very heart of the Hebrew Scriptures (is it accidental that, at least in the Christian version of those scriptures, the Psalms lie almost at the center? ). The Psalms, let us recall, were the prayer book of the early church, and still play a central role in every Christian daily office I know of. And it must always be remembered that the psalm just before the beloved, much read, and almost overused Psalm 23 is....Psalm 22.

I taught my lay caregivers as they went out to serve Christ by serving other church members that you don't get to Psalm 23 without first going through Psalm 22.

This business about the "doubts" (I put the word in quotes only because it is a term that needs to be defined, not to disparage her suffering or her experience) and Mother Teresa is not exactly a new one; it is newsworthy now because we get to read her own words. But doubt is the enemy of faith only if your definition of faith is "believing what isn't true." In that case, of course, doubt is the beginning of the end of faith. But for faith to be that simplistic, billions of people throughout time have to be considered as hopeless dullards and fools, a position about as tenable as claiming the world is out of sync and only you have true understanding and insight. If you cannot pardon the world for not agreeing with you, then there is little more that can be said to you about anything.

For the rest of us, belief may still be a difficult matter to define, but human experience alone dictates it represents something other than "believing what isn't true." It may be believing what isn't true to claim that Communism will still be proven superior to capitalism, and that it will still produce the greatest paradise on earth that human effort can achieve. There is, indeed, little evidence at all to indicate that outcome is either inevitable, or even possible. But faith as Mother Teresa had was surely tested on another field altogether.

Mother Teresa, the story goes, had visions of Christ, powerful mystical visitations of the type many Christian mystics have described: the true "presence of God" which draws one out of the world into another place. Her last such vision directed her to go to Calcutta to serve the poor. She never had another such vision in the 50 years she served there. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?," indeed. And what, precisely, about that service would be soul-nourishing, soul-satisfying, soul-fulfilling? Do we, then, blame God, or human foolishness? And say nothing of the society that permits such conditions to exist, that ignores them, the thrives on them?

I'm still working my way through Harry Potter 7, albeit for the second time (and there are spoilers from here on, for those who wish to be warned). The amount of Christian imagery, references, and theology, in it is really quite surprising. Dumbledore, for example, is clearly presented as a saint (more on that another time), but the interesting bit here is how Dumbledore, as a young man, succumbed to the lure of "Magic is Might" which finally overtakes the Ministry of Magic ("MOM"! The libertarians should love that.) when Voldemort rises to power. As a young Hogwarts graduate, we learn Albus Dumbledore was himself tempted by "Dark Magic" to declare magic should be employed "for the greater good" (the phrase Rowling uses). Which, as Harry later argues, is what you sometimes have to do: think about the greater good. The crucial distinction between young Dumbledore and young Harry Potter is exemplified, not discussed, in the novel: young Dumbledore was willing to sacrifice others to achieve the goal of "the greater good." Indeed, it is a pursuit he follows until an argument between himself, his brother Aberforth, and his then-friend Grundlewald, ends in the accidental death of his sister, Ariana. It is a perfect example of the result of pursuing power: arguing over who should have power, and how it should be wielded, one of the three wizards fires the curse which kills the innocent bystander, the one who had no voice, who was not consulted, who was not considered, because pursuit of their "greater good" was for her, not for them. They, of course, forgot to ask her about their goals; they simply assumed it would be to her benefit, and they would shoulder the burden of achiveing it. All for her, of course.

Harry's course is a bit different. His friends continually shoulder burdens for him that he regrets them undertaking. He doesn't even see that his stand against the powers of Dark Magic, of any kind of oppression, give hope to others, however small that hope may be. Neville tells him this, late in Book 7, but Harry hardly seems to notice. What Harry notices is how hard it is to be brave, to do what is right, to stand up against power that would supress, and how it sounds so much better in the telling than in the actual experience of defiance. In the end, when so many have willingly sacrificed in the fight, Harry finally understands, and offers himself as a willing sacrifice: not in a duel, not in battle, but in complete vulnerability. He comes to "a condition of complete simplicity/costing not less than everything." It is only then, that he begins to understand.

Did Mother Teresa ever understand? I hardly know. That she persevered is enough to qualify her for plaudits, perhaps even for sainthood. When Ron faces his own struggle against evil and finally overcomes it: "That makes me sound a lot cooler than I was." Harry replies: "Stuff like that always sounds cooler than it really was." We like to focus on the lives of saints and heros because they inspire us to do great things; or at least to do a good thing once in a while. If we denigrate our heros has people with feet of clay, proclaim our saints mere plaster, do we harm them, or ourselves? Did Mother Teresa despair? Working among the poor of Calcutta, wouldn't you? Who, after all, wants the Sisyphean task, the hopeless effort that cannot be stopped but cannot be accomplished? But hers was not the task of Sisyphus; she was not being punished by the gods for her presumption, nor for her misplaced trust in an outmoded metaphysics; if Teresa was punished at all, it was by the world, for her compassion. It was not, after all, God who created the poor in Calcutta: it was the democracy and capitalism Christopher Hitchens still holds up as righteously triumphant over communism. Which is not to say Communism would have done any better for the lot of the poor, but both systems suffer from the error the young Albus Dumbledore made: the idea that some person, or persons, have the burden to establish the greater good for everyone else, because they have the power (Dumbledore and Grundelwald, in the world of Harry Potter, were two of the most powerful wizards in the world; Voldemort is the third. The lesson on what power creates, is clear.) or the vision ("for the greater good," as even Harry immediately understands, is very little different from "Magic is Might," a motto which places wizards and witches well above non-magical folk), is the root of the problem. It always asks others to sacrifice so that you will be comfortable.

Mother Teresa made those sacrifices, willingly, selflessly, and at great cost to her spiritual comfort, perhaps even her faith (which must be understood as trust, not simply equated with "belief"). Hitchens makes no such sacrifice at all; nor can we demand that he do so. But we can weigh his deeds against hers, his words and hers, and decide which way the scales tilt. We can think about the matter of lighting a candle, versus cursing the darkness. Or, as Hitchens does, argue merely about which darkness is preferable.

Did Mother Teresa doubt the existence of God? Perhaps. Of what surprise is that? The question of existence is a poorly understood one, and doubts about it are usually equated to absolute presence, rather than the far more difficult concept of being. It is probably more accurate to say Teresa despaired of the presence of God, not of the reality of God, but even that is a presumptive statement on my part. Is faith a matter of absolutes, of final and unassailable knowledge, or of attitude, mental condition, perception, thought? Does it matter, finally, what we think, or what we do? A funny distinction, almost; one also brought up on NPR this morning. Odd that Anglo-Saxon philosophy would stand up to defend against a Continental presumption that faith is only a matter of mind. That, however, is another topic.

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