Sunday, September 16, 2007

The myth of Mother Teresa

There are two aspects to the modern myth of Mother Teresa. (Wannabe philosophers learn never to pass up a good opportunity to throw the word "myth" around.) The first is that she was a paragon of moral virtue. The second is that she was a paragon of religious faith. (This much of the myth is generally accepted across religious lines, and accepted also by the non-religious. The religious generally also go on to connect the first bit to the second bit.)

The second bit of the myth was called into question with the recent news that her (formerly) private writings were full of expressions of a decades-long crisis of faith (e.g., from Time):
"[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, — Listen and do not hear — the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak ...
Mother Teresa's religious admirers have taken her sense of divine absence and transformed it into evidence of an even deeper presence. Mother Teresa's non-religious detractors have called this a bunch of hooey, and chalk it all up to Mother Teresa figuring out that God doesn't exist, and then living the rest of her life in denial.

Well, I'm not all that interested in the Mother's spiritual life, but here's another hypothesis. It's pure speculation on my part, but I think it's fun speculation, and it gets at the first aspect of the Teresa myth, which is the bit that I really care about.

Here it is. Maybe her sense of God's absence was real. Maybe God sent her some chilly vibes to try to wake her up from her hypocrisy.

I don't mean the hypocrisy she attributed to herself; I don't mean the hypocrisy of speaking as if she had a deep relationship with God while privately feeling she had nothing of the sort ("I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love.... If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"). I mean the hypocrisy of presenting herself to the world as a humble helper of the sick and the poor, when really she was anything but.

Well, OK, those are fighting words. I might be laying the rhetoric on a little thick here. But, see, I'm really bitter about this myth, and it's a real sore spot for me, because I used to be a completely unreflective subscriber to it.

And I'm frustrated that, in all the recent discussion of Teresa, I haven't noticed any discussion of the arguments (which I think are pretty clearly conclusive) against her reputation as the great humanitarian of Kolkata (Calcutta). Which, I guess, isn't too surprising. You might be suspicious of the myth if you're actually familiar with Kolkata. (It turns out there is absolutely no mention of her on the city's Wiki page. Is this absence evidence of her genuine irrelevance to the city, or evidence of an even deeper relevance?) Or maybe if you followed the work of Christopher Hitchens back before he lost his cool. Or if you happened across a couple of Teresa's other (more level-headed but much less publicized) critics. But, for the most part, the Teresa myth is bizarrely powerful.

Speaking of Hitchens, he's been the major western debunker of the Teresa myth. He's probably the major reason why I first started to question what grounds I really had for attributing such a superlative character to Mother Teresa (it was no genius on my part). But I could only find one article by him about the recent Teresa news, and it totally misses the juiciest bits of criticism he gave voice to back in the day. (Perhaps his recent status as iconic antitheist has caused him to lose sight of what someone who isn't crazily anti-religious might find genuinely offensive about the Teresa myth.)

OK, this post is getting long already, and I feel that a person who heaps verbal abuse on a nearly universally admired dead nun should probably justify himself carefully. So I'll do that in another post (or two or whatever).

In the meantime, I might as well throw up some links: one of Teresa's former nuns, a Kolkata-born critic, and some pre-nutjob Hitchens.

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