“But faith goes up and down doesn’t it?”
I was encouraging a young friend to consider water baptism. Her first query concerned her faith or the apparent fluctuation of her faith. It was a good question and I tried to help her understand the difference between faith, which is more akin to faithfulness, and feelings of faith, which may indeed fluctuate.
As I thought about my exchange with my young friend, it hit me afresh that in many church circles today, feelings are everything. “You know that God is real because you can feel His presence.” Which brings me to the recent controversies surrounding the publication of Mother Teresa’s private letters. It seems that for the longest time she did not feel the presence of God.
“So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy – If there be God – please forgive me – When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven – there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my soul.
I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. — Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”
Was Mother Teresa a hypocrite? Was her life a lie? There seems to be such a dissonance between her public persona and the things she wrote. The church and the world are scrambling to make sense of someone who, for much of her adult life did not feel the presence of God yet gave her life to sacrificially care for some of Calcutta’s most destitute. What gives?
Christopher Hitchens, avowed atheist and antitheist believes that the root problem is Christianity itself. It is a “dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.” (“The Dogmatic Doubter”, Newsweek International, September 10, 2007, p.49.) Hitchens believes that Teresa worked so hard to help others because it was her way of compensating for the death of her faith.
“It seems, therefore, that all the things that made Mother Teresa famous — the endless hard toil, the bitter austerity, the ostentatious religious orthodoxy — were only part of an effort to still the misery within.” (Hitchens, p.50) In other words, the worse her doubts, the harder she ministered.
We will of course disagree with Hitchen’s assertion that Christianity is a dogma “that asks people to believe impossible things.” Indeed we would argue that the evidence for “impossible things” was so overwhelming that the earliest Christians believed even when it cost them their lives. The basis for Christianity is historical and reasonable for all who truly seek.
We also disagree with Hitchen’s conclusion that Mother Teresa was de facto an atheist. We disagree for a number of reasons. Firstly since Mother Teresa is not around to clarify precisely what she meant in her letters, and the actual context(s) in which they were written, we should be cautious about drawing any major conclusions from them.
Next, the present furore about the letters may tell us more about the age we live in then about Mother Teresa. Rev Brian Kolodiejchuk, the compiler and editor of Mother Teresa’s letters has this to say:
“The tendency in our spiritual life but also in our more general attitude towards love is that our feelings are all that is going on,” And so to us the totality of love is what we feel.
But to really love someone requires commitment, fidelity and vulnerability. Mother Teresa wasn’t ‘feeling’ Christ’s love, and she could have shut down. But she was up at 4.30 every morning for Jesus, and still writing to him, ‘your happiness is all I want.’
That’s a powerful example even if you are not talking in exclusively religious terms.”
(Quoted by David Van Biema in “Her Agony,” TIME Asia, September 3, 2007, p.33.)
I was preaching from James 2:14 – 26 recently. Using James’ criteria in this passage, Mother Teresa is on solid ground. There is nothing here about having the right feelings as the basis for true faith. Orthodox beliefs are assumed but by themselves do not bring life. True faith, saving faith, is demonstrated by Christ like behaviour. Compassionate care for the poor in particular is singled out for special mention. Interestingly John (1 John 3:16-17) and Paul (Galatians 2:10) also single out sacrificial care for the poor for special mention. I think we need to hear James again in a time where good feelings and individualism reign supreme. Which brings me to another thing that struck me about Mother Teresa.
At every point of her journey she had someone to share her struggles with. Father Celeste Van Exem, Rev. Joseph Neuner and many others served as confessors and spiritual directors to Mother Teresa in her long lonely years. She may not have felt the presence of Christ but she was always plugged into the community of Christ.
I will be the last person to call for a return to the Roman Catholic confessional system. But for all my doctrinal disagreements with the system I acknowledge that it forces my Catholic friends to open their hearts to another believer in a context where they can bare their souls. I am sure that this is by no means a perfect system but I compare this with the superficiality of relationships in many of the evangelical churches I am associated with.
There is therefore much then to be learnt from Mother Teresa on the 10th anniversary of her death. In an age that pushes feel-good feelings as a key focus of the Christian faith, we need to point people towards a faith that is expressed in “commitment, fidelity and vulnerability” and a compassion for people. In a day of rampant lonely individualism, and here the church is not much better than the surrounding culture, we need to hold on to a faith that is expressed in true community. Here then are some things for me to bear in mind when I have my next chat with my young friend considering water baptism.