25 August, 2007

Mother Teresa, the atheist? part 2

Save me, O God,
for the waters have risen to my neck.
I have sunk into the mud of the deep
and there is no foothold.
Let those who hope in you not be put to shame
through me, Lord of hosts:
let not those who seek you be dismayed
through me, God of Israel.
This continues the previous post, but with a different theme.

The memory. What I really wanted to write about is how Bede's description of the atheists' reactions remind me of something I learned a long time ago about Dostoevsky. I always thought Dostoevsky was a Christian, based on what I read in his books. Maybe I read too much into this, because as I noted three years back, a significant number of people read him and draw the conclusion that he was an atheist. The basic reasoning is that Dostoevsky struggled with doubts, whose arguments he puts rather forcefully in the mouths of the characters Raskolnikov, Shatov, Stavrogin, Ivan and Dmitri Karamazov, and so forth. Since Christians never struggle seriously with faith (see my previous post), Dostoevsky was not a Christian.

I don't see it myself; in the end, Dostoevsky seems to give the final word to the characters Sophie, Mishkin, Shatov, and Father Zosima (through Alyosha Karamazov). I emphasize "the final word"; it's not just that their ideas are the last ones spoken. Dostoevsky seems also to believe that they are the most truly human, however imperfect their faith may be. As an example, Sophie is a prostitute but a Christian as well, and Dostoevsky clearly sees her as saving the intellectual atheist Raskolnikov. The man received a Christian funeral in Orthodox Russia, which does not smack of an atheism either public or private.

These flawed characters appeal to me as well. Not so much Dmitri Karamazov and Nikolai Stavrogin, I'll admit. But Shatov, very much so, and to a lesser extent Ivan Karamazov (the rational atheist) and Raskolnikov. Shatov's wife mocks him at one point as being deeply religious even though he does not believe in God. I have days like that. I am assailed by doubts, and am convinced that usually I fail as a Christian. I am not, in my darkest times, a million miles away from atheism; I am, at best, a step away, and that step is often quite tempting. Does that make me an atheist?

I don't think so, and that's what makes me admire Dostoevsky's novels so much: the existential struggle of faith. By contrast, most of the "Christian fiction" that I've read is little more than a self-gratifying polemic with a shallow story wrapped around it.

Truth be told, there has only ever been one true Christian, and the rest of us follow after Christ, stumbling most of the way. If, after an initial burst of joy and love, Mother Teresa suffered agonizingly for the rest of her life with doubts and a increasing lack of spiritual sweetness, then she appears to join the company of other Christians whose Christianity I deeply admire: Lorenzo Scupoli, say, or St. Bernadette Soubirous, Thomas à Kempis, Fr. Damian of Molokai...

If it surprises you that strongly devout Christians have felt this way, then you should look into this aspect of Christianity. It's quite easy, and doesn't require much time at all. Start by clicking on the links to Psalms 22 and 69. Read them and ask yourself if these are the words of someone who is confident and self-assured in his faith. They are the words that millions of Christians pray.


Clemens said...

I pretty much agree with this. At one time in my youth I often met self-proclaimed Born Again Christians who were quite convinced that having had the Born Again experience, they were happy and content, and had no further questions. It wasn't very convincing, especially when you got to know more about their lives and their character.

If there is no doubt it is hard to see how one's faith could have any strength. It wouldn't be much more than a feel-good lifestyle choice. It just doesn't make any sense to me.

Nor should it to any Christian who has bothered to read all the way through the New Testament. Jesus himself, the perfect Christian you refer to, had doubts at least twice and maybe thrice: 'take this cup from me,' 'My God, why have you foresaken me' and, perhaps, when Satan tempted him in the wilderness. On that last point I have always had the impression that it was a genuine struggle the outcome of which had import.

But, that's just me. You will, however, convince me to read Dostoevsky yet.

And I'd sworn off long Russian novels after Dr Zhivago and my second reading of War and Peace.

jack perry said...

Jesus himself, the perfect Christian you refer to, had doubts at least twice and maybe thrice:

I have long found those moments in Christ's life reassuring. He also cries from the cross the opening verse of Psalm 22 (see previous post): My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?

You will, however, convince me to read Dostoevsky yet.

Well, if you have a lot of time—and I know you don't from your last post :-)—the best is said to be The Brothers Karamazov, and based on the four novels I've read I can't disagree. If you're short on time, you don't even have to read the entire book; just one chapter will give you an idea of what I mean: The Grand Inquisitor. (I say that even though I consider the passage grossly unfair to the Catholic Church.) Look for the translation by Richard Pevear and Laura Volokhonsky. They're more readable than the Constance Garret versions, IMHO.

If you want something not quite so heavy, try Demons.

BTW, I didn't mean to single out "Born-Again" Christians, many of whom I admire in fact; it's just that they're so, well, "loud", and often obnoxious, and they seem to equate obnoxious with faithful. For example, I perceive a similar attitude among universalists and/or indifferentists, who tend to be quite common among "liberal" Christianity. My difficulty in this case is that they don't seem to want to call others to repentance—although they may be quite faithful themselves.

It take all kinds to make the Church of Christ, I suppose. "In my house are many mansions."

I'm also supposed to confess that the word "seductive" was my wife's idea.

Clemens said...

Yes - it's not just the Born Again, though they are the ones I have the most doubts about in my peculiar experience. Others might think of, say, Episcopalians as particularly smug and secure, though their church was founded with a "don't ask don't tell" cast to it.

Certainty would seem to be the last thing a Christian should possess. Frankly, I am a little mystified why people seem to think that what Mother Theresa said, on occasion, about her doubts somehow invalidates her faith or her deeds.

We know, historically, where absolute religious certainty leads: not to Heaven but to persecution and a couple of hundred years worth of religious wars. The reaction was not a loss of faith, but only in a loss of certainty.

We could all be wrong.

btw, one way of looking at Jesus' words is that by quoting a Psalm, he expected everyone who heard him to supply the rest of the verse, the context. They would have known that after the doubt, this:

"Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel."

Now that I have looked up the whole passage, it is quite moving that he would have said that.

Maybe my next morning coffee book will be the Brothers K.