Sunday, August 23, 2015

"For I am very holy...."

So I was in a bookstore the other evening thumbing the remaining copy of Lapham's Quarterly, where I came across Christopher Hitchens' piece on Mother Teresa.  It was as harsh as I'd heard it was (I'd never read it before, and unfortunately it is not available online), and it relied mostly on the work of Robin Fox in an article about Mother Teresa for the Lancet.  It was, I've since learned, an excerpt from a book, apparently more like a long pamphlet, which was Hitchens' attack on Mother Teresa and her work with the poor in India.

Interestingly, in his essay in that issue Lewis Lapham notes that: "the word philanthropy first appears in Western thought in the fifth century BC, in Aeschylus’ play Prometheus Bound to name an act of rebellion and denote the crime of treason."

I'm not so interested in the controversy surrounding Hitchens' critique of Mother Teresa, except as it reveals the fundamental distinction in thinking between the religious leader and the religion critic.  A little Google searching reveals Simon Leys (pen name of Pierre Ryckmans) was Hitchens' bete noir on this subject.  The only argument by Leys I can find on-line (I'm a lazy researcher) references a complete review of Hitchens' tirade against Mother Teresa, but I can't find it on-line.  Apparently it exists in a book of Leys' collected essays, and includes this reference to Hitchens:

Mother Teresa is not a philanthropist. She is a Christian. A philanthropist is a person who has a fondness for anthropoids. A Christian is a person who loves Christ.
That is a perspective that has to be kept in mind when dealing with someone like the Blessed Teresa.  Saints are very strange persons to most of us.  Of her love of Christ, the reviewer of Leys' book of essays goes on to say:

 This "weird belief that a dead man called Jesus is still alive should command all the deeds and all thoughts of a Christian", writes Leys, "is the key to understanding Mother Teresa's vocation". Whether or not you agree with Hitchens's assertion that religion should not intrude on good works, Leys's understanding of basic Christian doctrine exposes the totalising character - and so the narrowness - of the journalist's rationalism.
It is that "totalising character...of the journalist's rationalism" that intrigues me.  Ultimately, one cannot argue that Hitchens is wrong and Leys is right, nor vice versa.  We are talking about two irreconcilable views of reality; and one cannot appropriate the other.  We are back to Wittgenstein's observations on believers:

Christianity is not a doctrine, not, I mean, a theory about what has happened and will happen to the human soul, but a description of something that actually takes place in human life. For 'consciousness of sin' is a real event and so are despair and salvation through faith. Those who speak of such things (Bunyan for instance) are simply describing what has happened to them, whatever gloss anyone may want to put on it.
 Ludwig Wittgenstein, "Ethics, Life and Faith," The Wittgenstein Reader, ed. Anthony Kenny (Oxford, Blackwell Press 1994).

Or perhaps more to the point:

In religion every level of discourse must have its appropriate form of expression which has no sense at a lower level. This doctrine, which means something at a higher level, is null and void for someone who is still at the lower level; he can only understand it wrongly and so these words are not valid for such a person.
In Wittgenstein's terms language games are not wrong or right, valid or invalid:  there can be violations of the rules of one "game," but what makes sense in one game may be nonsense in another.  Establishing a hierarchy of systems, however, is impossible.

And so we can have this obituary of Mother Teresa:

Mother Teresa admitted, in a famous series of BBC interviews, that she was not really doing all that much to ease the lot of the poor in India. The editor of the Lancet, visiting her Home for the Dying in 1994, reported that stocks of medicine were insufficient, and that not enough was done to cure the sick or ease the pain of the dying. But Mother Teresa believed it was not “things” her patients needed; they needed to feel wanted, and to die at peace with God. The secular view of death, as something to be resisted, met, in Mother Teresa, the religious view that death should be joyfully surrendered to. Neither side could hope to understand the other.

The obituary notes that Mother Teresa's order was a Franciscan one, "dedicated on Franciscan principles to serving the destitute and dying in the slums."  What little knowledge I have of Francis (not the plaster saint, but the real one) tells me she lived in strict accordance with his understanding of God, and no, it is not one most of us would find either pleasant or rational.

Which is the point:  not to rebut Hitchens (others have done that more ably than I can), or to argue for the saintliness of Teresa (again, others have done so beyond my abilities).  It is to point out the tension between God and the world.  When we say Jesus died on the cross for our sins, it makes Jesus  more comfortable for us.  It means he did it for us, much the way we imagine soldiers now die for our freedom.  It's a comforting mistake in understanding.  But if we follow Paul's teachings, we know Jesus died for faithfulness to God; and that is a stranger and harsher thing by far than dying for us, for our sins.

It makes God wholly Other, and frighteningly other, too.  It creates a tension, and not even a tension we can think of as a creative tension.

"The motif of the circle will obsess us through this cycle of lectures."


 "Now the gift, if there is any, would no doubt be related to economy. One cannot treat the gift, this goes without saying, without treating this relation to economy, even to the money economy. But is not the gift, if there is any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no longer gives rise to exchange? That which opens the circle so as to defy reciprocity or symmetry, the common measure, and so as to turn aside the return in view of the no-return? If there is gift, the given of the gift (that which one gives, that which is given, the gift as given thing or as act of donation) must not come back to the giving (let us not already say to the subject, to the donor). It must not circulate, it must not be exchanged, it must not in any case be exhausted, as a gift, by the process of exchange, by the movement of circulation, of the circle in the form of return to the point of departure. If the figure of the circle is essential to economics the gift must remain aneconomic. Not that it remains foreign to the circle, but it must keep a relation of foreignness to the circle, a relation without relation of familiar foreignness. It is perhaps in this sense that the gift is the impossible.

"Not impossible but the impossible. The very figure of the impossible. It announces itself, gives itself to be thought as the impossible. It is proposed that we begin by this."

--Jacques Derrida, Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, tr. Peggy Kamuf (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1994), 7.

Sorry to interrupt with that long quotation, but this idea must be placed precisely in context.  The presence of the wholly Other in our lives disrupts all notions of economy, or a circle, of payment and reward, cause and effect.  The wholly Other breaks the circle, and gives only a gift.  But that gift is terrible and frightening from the view of the world; it costs not less than everything, as the poet said, and that seems no gift at all.  However, the cost is what is measured by the world; it is not an aspect of the gift.  This is a truly disruptive tension, a truly decisive break.  This sets aside classical soteriology with its economy of repentance and redemption, payment in blood and gain in eternal life.

"A Christian is a person who loves Christ."

Yes.  And what a strange, strange person that is.  Such a person truly makes an act of philanthropy an act of rebellion and a crime of treason.  "Never share my hearth, never think my thoughts, whoever does such things."  There's a reason those lines come from the "Hymn to Reason."


  1. The first quote from Wittengenstein is as good an explanation of Christianity as I've least Christianity from my point of view.

    Rmj, after all these years, I still blame you that I'm haunted by Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. Thanks a lot. ;-)

  2. " there can be violations of the rules of one "game," but what makes sense in one game may be nonsense in another. "

    This is precisely the cornerstone reason of why I hate charges of hypocrisy thrown around in political discourse. I might not agree with the worldview, but I can't accept that certain fundamentalists are really hypocrites when they believe they're defending actual humans from indiscriminate murder, anfd also believe that poor children shouldn't be fed by the gummint teat because their parents should make better choices. I mean, I'm against war and the death penalty, and I don't find my pro-choice stance to be hypocritical because I don't see a foetus as a human being with rights, nor abortion to be murder.