Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Mother Teresa and the Reformation

Many people have been reflecting on the newly-published letters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta (which, for obvious reasons, she had wanted destroyed). "I have no faith," she wrote, out of an agony which lasted for decades. Many excellent letters to editors and op-ed pieces have been written since this disclosure, honing in on the truth that doubt is faith’s constant companion. Flannery O’Connor has been quoted to good effect; some of her most interesting letters were directed to a querulous Catholic convert (identified in her collected letters as "A"). She wrote:

What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God…You arrive at enough certainty to be able to make your way, but it is making it in darkness. Don’t expect faith to clear things up for you. It is trust, not certainty. (The Habit of Being, p. 354)

With regard to Mother Teresa, one letter-writer astutely observed that she had not lost her faith. What she had lost was her youthful sense of the intimate presence of God. Those are two very different things. There is something important here for future generations of Christians. It is a mistake to encourage people to expect to feel God's presence in their lives. Indeed, what we feel as the presence of God may be something else altogether. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wittily shows how the devil exploits expectations of high levels of religious feeling.

In recent decades, partly as a reaction against late 60s activism in the church, there has been a tremendous increase in teaching about "spirituality," somewhat to the dismay of those (like me) who do not feel at all "spiritual" according to the prescribed modes and have never felt the presence of God. This current enthusiasm for spiritual exercises and disciplines mirrors the practice of the church of the first centuries, but -- and this is crucial -- it does not mirror the New Testament church. There is nothing in the New Testament about "spiritual journeys" or "faith journeys." Prayer and fasting are indeed called for by our Lord, but not as a means of personal development. Jesus himself withdrew often, but this can be interpreted as his own uniquely Messianic, eschatological warfare. Paul does not recommend such a practice when writing to his churches, and the Epistles in general say remarkably little about such "spiritual" withdrawal. It is hard to imagine any of the apostles keeping a "spiritual journal." Far more central to the New Testament is the work of evangelism and the stance of "watchfulness"—both of which suggest an alertly outward-looking, world-observing stance in which the Christian community discerns the signs of the times, rather than focusing inward on personal spiritual growth.

As many have noted, Mother Teresa's life is an illustration of James' saying, "By my works I will show you my faith" (2:18). The fact that some deserved criticism can be, and has been, brought to bear against her works does not weigh against the pertinence of the verse for her case. She did not allow her inner struggle to cause her to cease her work. In that sense she seems not only more human but also more heroic.

If Teresa had been a child of the Reformation (like Flannery, who in spite of her fierce Roman Catholicism was always more Protestant than she herself realized), she might not have suffered so much. In the Scriptures there is an "objectivity" about faith (the Church Fathers knew this too, but it is clearer in the Reformers). Faith is not a feeling. I can honestly say that I have never "felt" the presence of God. What I have relied upon all my life is the truth and trustworthiness of God's Word. Our lives as Christians are wholly dependent on the grace that comes to us from outside ourselves, not on our own religious proficiency. This central insight of the Reformation needs to be relearned every day; the motto semper reformanda always being reformed) refers to the power of the Word of God perpetually to overtake our mistakes and correct them.

Almost every week I think about the importance of the Reformation. A few days ago on NPR there was a long discussion about the unequalled importance of reading and how reading shapes the mind in ways that nothing else can, certainly not video games. (It was heartening to hear that the advanced oral traditions of certain illiterate and pre-literate cultures have played the same role in this respect as reading has done in literate cultures.) One of the panelists started talking about the harnessing of the printing press by the Reformation. He argued that this phenomenon unleashed a great surge of intellectual freedom that only now showed signs of slowing as people are reading less and less. This argument about the Reformation is not new, but hearing it reminded me of the power and significance of the Protestant idea. This is no time for the Church to turn its back on the Reformation! We necessarily live now in a post-Enlightenment age -- that is a given, no matter how much the heirs of Thomas Jefferson may want to reverse the course -- but thank God for the Enlightenment and its very Protestant reaction against superstition, fortune, and fate. The American Founders were not, for the most part, Trinitarian Christians; but a belief in Providence -- a central Reformed doctrine -- was at the very heart of their peerless achievement. "Do you not think," wrote one Founder to another, "an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this storm?"