Monday, January 02, 2012

Playing with fire

Bouphonia moves me to want to say something about the late Christoper Hitchens, though I am mindful of the admonition never to speak ill of the dead, as they cannot respond. I am also mindful that I can't do better than this:
As you can see, things even out nicely. Granted, Hitchens' political miscalculations have a body count. But how about all those dragons he killed? (Or not actual dragons...but, y'know, the whole idea of dragons qua dragons, per se, in nuce, und so weiter. And not actually killed...but, y'know, personally disputed in some adamantine, ontically oppositional sense of not agreeing with 'em nohow, so there.)
There is also the matter that I don't really want to speak ill of the late Mr. Hitchens: I didn't know him, I marginally know his work, and I was never terribly impressed with his polemical style (so I still haven't tried to know much about his work). My experience has been that polemics and eloquence usually mask a lack of thought, and that Mr. Hitchens work was often, to quote a review, "Thought-provoking but poorly referenced." There's something to be said for provoking thought; but there's also something to be said for being annoying. Socrates provoked thought, too; but he was also, at least in Plato's representation, thoughtful. Again according to Plato, Athens didn't finally think so, though they later recanted (but Socrates refused to play the game with them), so perhaps he was even successful there, too. Who can say? Someone always writes history, and we always move on with the messy and contentious present. But I had heard about Hitchens' famous denunciations of Mother Teresa so I thought, without pretending to do real research into his efforts, I would look into the subject just a bit.

And this, honestly, is as far as I got: his article in Slate about her possible canonization (which is more about the Pope moving swiftly to canonize a saint, more than about the public figure), and a review of his book about her (and frankly, stunts like "Mommie Dearest" and "Missionary Position" don't do anything to endear me to Mr. Hitchens' thinking. Cute and smart-ass are not hallmarks of profound insight; they are the work of schoolboys. It's a reason I've never been enamored of Mr. Hitchens' work.) Alright, I've harumphed; let's get down to business.

Hitchens, notoriously fond of George Orwell, can't resist quoting him in his Slate article. It's supposed to be a clever choice, implicitly comparing the "sainted" (not officially, yet, I don't think) Mother Teresa with the beatific Mahatma Gandhi. But Hitchens doesn't get past the first line of the essay, which is too bad, really; because Orwell is much fairer to Gandhi than Hitchens ever is to Mother Teresa. Of Gandhi, Orwell writes:
In Gandhi's case the questions on feels inclined to ask are: to what extent was Gandhi moved by vanity--by the consciousness of himself as a humble, naked old man, sitting on a praying mat and shaking empires by sheer spiritual power--and to what extent did he compromise his own principles by entering politics, which of their nature are inseparable from coercion and fraud? To give a definite answer one would have to study Gandhi's acts and writings in immense detail, for his whole life was a sort of pilgrimage in which every act was significant.
It's a perfectly fair question, and part of the old "in the world but not of the world" dichotomy so familiar to Western spiritual thinking (but not necessarily Western spirituality). There is, in fact, a problem with Western thinking on matters spiritual: we want our holy men (and women!) truly "holy," which is to say heilege, set apart, limned. We want our holy persons to be truly pure, truly unscathed by worldly matters, but then they are so otherworldly we mock them for their uselessness and ask if they are contemplating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. We preach it, as the old judge said to me once, round and square, and are frustrated that we cannot have it both ways at once. Gandhi must be holy, and wholly apart; Gandhi must be influential, or what's the purpose of being holy, except self-satisfaction? Orwell wrestles (more or less) with this question. Hitchens blows past it without even seeing that it is there.

The end result seems to be an either/or: either Mother Teresa was a blessed soul who never erred and followed the will of God at all times (yet spent her life in Calcutta seeking, selfishly or not, another mystical experience of God which, from recent reports, she never again had), or she was a charlatan televangelist, an Oral Roberts in India, lacking only the 900 foot tall Jesus. The truth, most likely, is somewhere in between, and while Mr. Hitchens' work cursed Mother Teresa's candle, he did little more himself than curse the darkness. Is that an entirely fair assessment? No, probably not. It is, itself, poorly referenced. Was Mr. Hitchens a bad man? Heavens, I don't know, neither do I care. "Judge not, lest ye be judged" is a fine idea, but a poor one for bloggers and people who make their living writing polemics. Was Mr, Hitchens really any good at what he did? I never thought so; and nothing has changed my mind since his passing. According to Tim Challies, Mr. Hitchens plays the fundamentalist atheist in his book, coming off like the strident and unthinking proponents of Christianity he so loved to debate. I always thought it interesting he never debated a true theologian, in front of an audience of theologians and seminary students, or even before a group of philosophers of religion. He might have been surprised at how thoughtful and well-educated they were. Then again, he might not have noticed. I never saw anything in his work to indicate he would notice much of anything he didn't already think was worth noticing.

The whole matter reminds me of my favorite quote from the film version of "Angels and Demons":

"My church comforts the sick and the dying. My church feeds the hungry. What does your church do? Oh, that's right, you don't have a church!"
That's a bit of a slap, but not an unfair one, considering the kinds of diatribes Mr. Hitchens seemed to prefer. The sad thing is, he might have provoked a discussion along these lines:

The liberal must “save” the poor from poverty. The conservative must keep the poor from indolence. Both pity the poor as something less desirable. Neither attempts to challenge the basic idea that the poor are ultimately disprivileged.

[...] True Christian charity, therefore, is something more than our common definition of pity. White guilt is pity. Condescension is pity. Even inaction might be pity, for some conservatives. And what pity obscures is the paradoxical realization that the poor are, by certain biblical definition, worthy of higher honor. They own something we do not. And the means by which we might participate in that honor with them is charity.

12.2 Ultimately, Henreckson is arguing that empathy — specific Christian empathy — should replace pity. I agree.
Which makes me think of Dorothy Day:

I am reading (Simone Weil's) essays as a part of my Lenten reading...She says that we "...must experience every day, both in the spirit and the flesh, the pains and humiliations of poverty...and further we must do something which is harder than enduring in poverty, we must renounce all compensations: in our contacts with the people around us we must sincerely practice the humility of a naturalized citizen in the country which has received us."

I keep reminding the young people who come to work with us that they are not naturalized citizens...They are not really poor. We are always foreigners to the poor. So we have to make up for it by "renouncing all compensations..."
Mr. Hitchens would probably just eschew Simone Weil, too, and point out that Ms. Day was never the fundraising evangelist for her cause that Mother Teresa was; he would do it and think he'd scored a point, when he'd be missing the point, once again, altogether. He probably wouldn't take kindly to her claim about being foreigners among the poor, and would probably quote another of Orwell's essays about his experiences with poverty, missing the point again and going still further off the mark. I can't say, really; I can only speculate. But if we try to "renounce all compensations," and we fall short; well, we should be called on it. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God....oh, wait, that's Christianity, isn't it? I suppose it's unfair to bring that into a discussion with an atheist, also.. Oh, dear, it is so hard to know just what to say about, and to, the dead.

Perhaps I should say this:
The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
And say I'm quoting T.S. Eliot, and even mention that it's on his marker in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. It at least gives me more of an excuse to discuss Mr. Hitchens' words, since they are left with us and he is gone.

The point is that there is a branch, a mode, a type of Christianity, which thinks its obligation is to set the world aright and do so on terms agreeable to the agent of such change; and there is a branch or mode or type of Christianity that wants to seek change by taking the world as it is, and responding to the particularities of each person and the life they lead. Mr. Hitchens, per Mr. Challies' review, is disdainful of the cotton diapers used by Mother Teresa's order, noting they use Pampers to impress Hillary Clinton. The implication is they should always use Pampers, but surely the disposal problems of Pampers are as important an issue as the poverty of the people Mother Teresa at least recognized as people (quick, how many truly poor people do you know? By name? Personally? And how many more are simply invisible to you, in your neighborhood and town and in the wide, wide world? Now, how many did Mother Teresa know, or Dorothy Day? And are you a better person if you at least try to help such ministries, even if you try to wash your dirty laundry clean with their good moral purposes?). Religion, like politics, is always inseparable from a certain amount of coercion and fraud. But sometimes it is the goal that matters, not just the means. And sometimes it is the means that matter, not just the goal.

It's just not much of an argument, is it, that what someone is doing in the name of charity is not what you would do? Especially if all you do is point out that they aren't doing it right, at least not by your lights. And what have you done to make the world a better place, besides point out the hypocrisy as you see it? How many mouths did that feed, how many of the dying did that comfort, how many of the sick do your actions, directly or indirectly, help in any way? Oh, I'm sorry, is that unfair? Are we discussing abstractions and ideals and angels on pin heads, and not physical hunger and pain and loneliness and an invisibility that few of us will ever know or, if we do, will ever read about or write about or have any of the luxuries of bloggers or opinion writers or the well-off at the top of the global economic ladder? Yeats wanted to finally end where all the ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. Hitchens wanted only to sneer at those who thought such a place could exist, and damn the ones who made any attempt to acknowledge its reality, and do anything at all to improve it, or at least make it more bearable.

It's just not much of an argument, to say that Mother Teresa didn't fit your model of what should be done, that she didn't go far enough in one direction, or went too far in the other, or even that she's undeserving of sainthood. Who cares? Who cares?? Walker Percy at least asked the questions about living a life that matters:

What happened to marriage and family that it should have become a travail and a sadness?...God may be good, family and marriage and children and home may be good, grandma and grandpa may act wise, the Thanksgiving table may be groaning with God's goodness and bounty, all the folks healthy and happy, but something is missing...What is missing? Where did it go? I won't have it! I won't have it! Why this sadness here? Don't stand for it! Get up! Leave! Let the boat people sit down! Go live in a cave until you've found the thief who is robbing you. But at least protest! Stop, thief! What is missing? God? Find him!
Mr. Hitchens wouldn't even ask you to leave the table. He'd only ask that you join him in mocking some public figure because he'd found out she was, after all, only another human being. And if all that matters is that you berate one other human being, if that is what makes you feel wise or vindicated, or just makes it possible for you to earn that Thanksgiving table groaning with God's goodness and bounty, then there is something missing. And what's missing is not what Mr. Hitchens thinks is missing:

The rich world has a poor conscience, and many people liked to alleviate their own unease by sending money to a woman who seemed like an activist for "the poorest of the poor." People do not like to admit that they have been gulled or conned, so a vested interest in the myth was permitted to arise, and a lazy media never bothered to ask any follow-up questions.
It is a mean thing to seem to be an advocate for the poor, when you are in fact merely taking care of yourself. But it is a meaner thing to damn an advocate for the poor, while yourself doing nothing for the poor whatsoever, when all the while only doing something for yourself and your pocketbook. Mr. Hitchens left us still swinging that club; what he didn't do, was leave us seeking for understanding. In his writings, at least, he meant only to bludgeon, and seldom, if ever, to discern. But the world has enough and too much of people willing to bludgeon others, metaphorically if not physically, to assert their positions. What we need a bit more of are people more willing to engage in the hard practice of epiphany; of understanding and discernment. We need someone willing to tangle the holy with coercion and fraud, if that's what it takes. One could make the case that that's the line that Jesus trod: his parables we think so simple and clear are, in reality, as complex and confusing and almost fraudulent today as when they were first uttered. The kingdom of God is like a pearl that a man bought by selling all he had? It is like a woman who spends more than the coin is worth burning oil at night to find it, then wakes the family to have a party and spend more to celebrate finding it? It is like an assassin who practices throwing his blade before he goes out? It is like yeast, which makes the whole measure of flour unclean, rather than heilege?

Discernment is much more interesting than polemics; if it isn't nearly as much fun.

And I suspect had he examined Mother Teresa's work, rather than set out to savage it, he might have done the world a great deal more good.It might almost, dare I say it, have been an epiphany.

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