More Mother Teresa

the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" Blog is focused this week on the reports of Mother Teresa's crisis of faith. Not unexpectedly, the atheist and religious members of the panel have quite different perspectives.

Susan Brooks, President of the Chicago Theological Seminary, is critical of Mother Teresa--not for the crisis of faith, but for her decision to hide that crisis.:

What a tragedy it would have been for Mother Teresa’s letters to be destroyed. The publication of her piercing confessions of doubt and spiritual loneliness will be of immeasurable help to the millions of people of faith, like myself, for whom God’s silence is a constant companion and who live with piercing doubt every day.

What is truly tragic, however, is that Mother Teresa never expressed these doubts in public while she was alive. The contrast between the real spiritual life of Mother Teresa as documented in these letters and her public statements is astonishing. What is even worse is that she knew the contrast for what it is, hypocrisy of the worst sort.

. . .

In her letters she writes, "I am told God lives in me -- and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul." "I want God with all power of my soul -- and yet between us there is terrible separation. I don't pray any longer. " "In my soul, I can't tell you how dark it is, how painful, how terrible -- I feel like refusing God."

And finally she does wonder whether her smiling appearance of absolutely confident faith doesn’t, in fact, tempt others to hypocrisy. "People say they are drawn close to God --seeing my strong faith. Is this not deceiving people? Every time I have wanted to tell the truth -- that I have no faith the words just do not come -- my mouth remains closed. And yet I still keep on smiling at God and all."

The professional atheists are crowing, of course, for they see in this stark contrast between the inner and outer Mother Teresa a confirmation of their view that all faith is a lie.

That’s not exactly true. What is true is that the pretense of faith is not faith—it is truly hypocrisy. Religious leaders and indeed all of us need to quit pretending that faith is a cakewalk and all doubt is the enemy. Doubt isn’t the enemy of faith but its constant companion.

In addition, the lesson to take from Mother Teresa’s life and letters is the need to proclaim that self-denying faith is not faith but the route to spiritual suicide. Mother Teresa was looking for God in the poor of Calcutta and, at the same time, denying her own doubts and needs. When Jesus instructs us to “Love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself,” many people, including Mother Teresa, leave out the last part. You need to love yourself or you can’t love God or the neighbor.

But I want to caution you that in my experience this insight is no cure for spiritual loneliness and doubt, though it does help. The struggle to love the self, to love the neighbor and to love God is, in my life at least, a daily struggle and there are no magic words or deeds that make it any easier.

Brian D. McLaren of the Emerging Church movement uses this as an opportunity to discuss the paradoxical importance of doubt to faith:

Doubt, in my experience, is like a spiritual drought that forces our roots to go deeper. Nearly all of us experience these dry, dark, difficult times when God doesn't seem real and it's hard to keep going, much less growing. Sometimes these low tides of faith are connected with events … the death of a loved one, a broken relationship, the loss of a job, a prolonged illness, questions raised by a book or professor. But sometimes they seem to come out of nowhere; it's sunny and bright outside, but inside you feel dark, cloudy, gray, empty.

As a pastor, I have had to deal with matters of faith and doubt on a daily basis. But it's not just other people's faith struggles I have had to face; I experience my own high and low tides of faith even in the midst of ministry. Through it all I have learned that doubt is far more common than most admit. That's why it helps so much when leaders like Mother Teresa are honest about their doubts.

When people come to me to talk about their doubts, one of the first things I say to them is this: doubt is not always bad. Sometimes doubt is absolutely essential. I think of doubt as analogous to pain.

Pain tells us that something nearby or within us is dangerous to our physical body. It is a call for attention and action. Similarly, I think doubt tells us that something in us … a concept, an idea, a framework of thinking … deserves further attention because it may be harmful, or false, or imbalanced.

. . .

In my book "A Search for What is Real: Finding Faith," I talk in some detail about the role of doubt in the life of faith. I describe how faith seems to grow in a kind of iterative, ascending spiral that has four stages. I call the first stage simplicity, where everything is simple and easy, black and white, known or knowable. Then there's complexity, where you focus on techniques of finding the truth – since the scenario has gotten more complex. Then there's perplexity, where you become a kind of disillusioned learner, where you doubt all authority figures and absolutes, where everything seems relative and hazy.

I used to call the fourth stage maturity, but a friend pointed out it would be better called humility, because in stage four you come to terms with your limitations, and you learn to live with mystery, not as a cop-out, but as an honest realization that only God understands everything. You carry out of stage four a shorter list of tested and cherished beliefs that you base your life on, and a lot of your previous dogmatisms are now held more lightly. In a sense a person keeps finding faith and then becoming frustrated with it and in a sense losing it, and then finding a better version of it, and so on, maybe like a software upgrade…

I sometimes think that our religious lives are like California, built on a San Andreas fault of suppressed doubt. Under a beautiful surface, the pressure of unexpressed, unresolved doubt is building for more and more people, and sooner or later, the whole landscape will crack and crumble. The situation is intensified by this precarious point in history in which we find ourselves, where unquestioned religion is too often used as ammunition.

Finally, humanist Danniel Dennett uses this as an opportunity to suggest that Mother Teresa would have been better off accepting that he doubts were the reflection of a rational mind and stopped beleiving:

Some people can juggle three tennis balls for minutes on end without dropping them. Most people can’t. Some people can whistle a happy tune beautifully, but most people can’t. It is obvious, is it not, that whether you can juggle or whistle has nothing at all to do with whether you are a good, honest, loving person. If only it were equally obvious that those who can manage the intellectual gymnastics required to keep alive a conviction that God exists in the face of all the grounds for doubting it have no moral superiority at all over those who find this proposition frankly incredible! In fact, there is good reason to believe that the varieties of self-admonition and self-blinding that people have to indulge in to gird their creedal loins may actually cost them something substantial in the moral agency department: a debilitating willingness to profess solemnly in the utter absence of conviction, a well-entrenched habit of deflecting their attention from evidence that is crying out for consideration, and plenty of experience biting their tongues and saying nothing when others around them make assumptions that they know in their hearts to be false.

Mother Teresa’s agonies of doubt are surely not all that unusual. What is unusual is that she put them in writing and now they are being revealed to the world, in spite of her explicit wish that they be destroyed. I get mail all the time from religious leaders who admit to me in private that they do not believe in God but think that the best way to continue their lives is to swallow hard and get on with their ministries, concentrating on bringing more good than evil into the lives of their parishioners and those for whom their churches provide care. I would never divulge their names without their consent, but I do wonder: How many millions of priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, nuns and monks around the world are living lives of similar duplicity? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the outing of Mother Teresa inspired a few thousand of them to come out of the closet and acknowledge their atheism! Then it might start being obvious not only that faith in God is not a requirement for morality, but that the loss of faith in God often goads people into living more strenuously helpful lives, as seems to be the case with Mother Teresa. Of course, such honesty carries a price: you have to change your mission in a way Mother Teresa never did. She could have devoted herself more single-mindedly to helping the poor instead of trying to convert them. Perhaps it was her guilt at being unable to convert herself that drove her to work so hard to convert others to take her place among the believers.

Read all of the panelists here.


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