Monday, September 3, 2007

Thank You, Mother Teresa (Part 2)

For those with faith, no explanation is necessary. For those without, no explanation is possible. -Thomas Aquinas

Continued from PART 1

The biography, "Come Be My Light," that Time magazine says is coming out consists of letters Mother Teresa exchanged with her church superiors. The letters may only reveal that she felt as if God had withdrawn his presence "…neither in her heart or in the eucharist," according to Brian Kolodiejchuk, the book's editor. Some excerpts from Teresa's letters seem to reveal a deep depression:

I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.

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 & hurt my very soul. — I am told God loves me — and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.

Anyone who thinks the Mother Teresa quote above is about doubt doesn't know what doubt is. The kinds of "doubts" expressed in the few quotes I've gleaned from Mother Teresa’s letters (just from a few online articles I've read) make me wonder what kind of expectations for God’s presence are made in the Roman Catholic church. What kinds of stories of God’s presence are told about the Eucharistic presence of Christ? They are apparently promising some people in the church hierarchy a feeling of the presence of God. Mother T. expected to feel God. But as far as I know there is no scripture or recorded experience that gives a coherent view of any expected experiences.

Now, Pentecostals, who do things like speak in tongues, are known to preach on the joy of feeling a divine presence and think they get some “holier than thou” status from it, but are Catholics doing the same? Mother T's letters suggest they are doing it and my not knowing that until now no doubt reveals how ignorant I am of Catholicism.

When I watch a preacher in an evangelical TV megachurch say “I can feel Christ’s presence here tonight, God is going to work miracles...,” I suspect he may honestly feel something -- but whatever it is, it is not an objective reality perceptible to an outsider. It's only his internal, subjective, experience and it is mediated through expectation and interpretation. Others in the church might shout out that they feel it too, but what do they actually feel? Have they ever compared the sensations? Any weird good feeling might seem to be the presence of God and once others confirm that interpretation you'll think whatever weird feeling you had is God's presence. The expectation comes from the promises and possibility of God’s presence that the preacher makes and has heard before.

When it happens I don't see any testing or questioning of what is felt. No one asks, "Can you describe what God's presence feels like?" And if they did would someone say; "No, no, God's presence is more like a warm tingle along the spine with a warm glow in you belly." When I search the web with Google looking for entries on "testing whether it is the presence of God" or "testing for the presence of God" I don't get any hits. When I remove the quotes I get a ton of stuff that looks irrelevant to the question I'm asking. Maybe I just don't know what I'm looking for?

I suspect that most people, when they "feel the presence" of God, are probably misinterpreting some induced psychological state, some chemical, neurological high that, judging by Mother T's account, has addictive properties. It's a kind of spiritual heroin, a real opiate of the masses. Need a quick high? Get a does of God’s presence. The word hallucination isn't quite right, but the word illusion probably fits. They would be superimposing a theological, spiritual interpretation onto a highly emotional but natural neurological state. But as I said before, it's easier for us to doubt other's experiences than our own. I can eliminate a lot more probable causes when it's my own experience I'm judging. Who knows what causes other people's experiences? I can't even be sure they're honest.

It seems to me that if people are going to claim to experience some direct awareness of God that such experience be subjected to some kind of testing. They should at least have some tradition of community discernment, which would still be a poor test considering what happened to the researchers who claimed to replicate René-Prosper Blondlot's N-ray experiments.

The best that Christians on the web had to offer was stuff like this "How do you know if it is God speaking to you?" where the only test is of verbal messages from God, not a vague feeling of presence. And the test is only whether it agrees with the Bible. That might be okay if the Bible itself wasn't full of crazy and dangerous stuff and it still wouldn't be a proper test even then. What if the Bible is wrong? Well, for that they only have the circular reasoning of the Bible's own insistence that it's the word of God.

So, if a "cured" Ted Haggard tells a bunch of Christians that God has told Ted that God wants all true Christian men to cut off their penises in order to avoid sexual temptation they'll do it if Ted can show them this Bible passage where Jesus says, as in Matthew 19:11-12, "There are some eunuchs who were born that way, and there are some who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Anyone who can accept this should accept it." Jesus also said, "If your right eye offend you, pluck it out . . . . If your right hand offend you, cut it off . . . . If your foot offend you, cut it off. If your family gets in the way, hate your father, hate your mother."

Another test offered was no test at all:
How do I know when God is talking to me? I just know. His voice is always crystal clear to me, and it is not an audible voice either. His words, when they come to me, bring a very deep peace and contentment. Some of His beautiful words have simply been, "I love you". Sometimes he gives me word pictures.

I also found this, "Entering the Presence of God," where they openly admit there’s a lot of confusion about worship and the presence of God. Then we get this strange bit of meaningless white noise that just side steps the whole 'what is the experience like' question and redefines all terms; “Fundamentally, then, drawing near to God means believing the gospel and making ‘personal appropriation of salvation.’” And then:

Objectively, what brings us into the presence of God is the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. If we ascribe to worship (meaning, in this context, our corporate praise and adoration) something of this power, it will not be long before we think of such worship as being meritorious, or efficacious, or the like. The small corner of truth that such expressions hide (though this truth is poorly worded) is that when we come together and engage in the activities of corporate worship (including not only prayer and praise but the Lord’s Supper and attentive listening to the Word…), we encourage one another, we edify one another, and so we often feel encouraged and edified. As a result, we are renewed in our awareness of God’s love and God’s truth, and we are encouraged to respond with adoration and action” (Worship by the Book, 50-51).

All of which misses the point. Instead of trying to find any objective measure of what an experience of God's presence is like or how to test it they just encourage subjective self-validation and that is a highly dangerous and irrational approach. Revelation and strange experiences inevitably carry an authority for the experiencer and if that experiencer is mentally ill, how would you know it? Do you just blindly encourage it and tell them to have "faith"?

Mother T. never got to the point of atheism. Atheists do not "struggle with their faith." A lot of Christians will say that "it takes more faith to be an atheist," but that depends on what you mean by faith. It really takes no faith at all as Christians seem to understand "faith."

There’s an old story about a physics teacher who, on the first day of class, showed his class a huge pendulum with a heavy iron ball on the end. He takes the ball, holds against his nose, and then lets go of it. The pendulum swings away, then starts swinging back, the class gasps as it looks like the heavy ball will smash the teacher's face. But the ball, almost touching his nose, seems to stop and then starts swinging back away. The teacher never flinched. He looks at his class and says: “Now that’s faith!”

The teacher had faith in the laws of science. We don’t really know that god won’t give that ball an extra boost of energy and smash the teacher's nose. He just believes a pendulum can never return to a point higher than the point from which it was released. It must fall short, because of friction and gravity, when it swings back to, but cannot reach, its origin point. Each time it swings it makes less and less of an arc, until finally it is at rest. This point of rest is called the state of equilibrium, where all forces acting on the pendulum are equal.

Is that faith or is that knowledge? It's both, and that's the key. I know that pendulum can't swing farther than the teacher's nose as surely as I know anything, but I don't know absolutely and I'm not sure I wouldn't flinch the first couple times I tried it, but I could learn not to flinch. My knowledge is based upon both experience and replicable, scientific evidence.

This is not a faith one has to struggle with. If pendulums stopped behaving the way I've always experienced them then my beliefs about pendulums would change. That kind of faith is a natural faith derived from experience. There is no struggling with that kind of faith, so it is in no way like any Christian or religious "faith." The struggle is just keeping track of all the little facts and mathematical formulas we collect to describe how the world works. At least it's not like those who "struggle with their faith." There simply is no struggle and faith shouldn't be a struggle. If it is, then something is wrong.

We all live with this kind of easy faith in physics facts everyday. But the replication of some scientific experiments we have to take on trust, or "faith." I can study a pendulum myself easily, but I can’t replicate experiments done on billion dollar particle accelerators, I just trust them. Astronauts sit on top of huge firecrackers that have been known to blow up on occasion for short trips into space and that could be called "faith" too. We take expensive drugs on the say-so of our doctors and that's faith too. We have a faith in science and scientists that goes beyond our everyday experience. But again, the scientists have earned our faith and it comes easily, too easily. I had to learn not to trust everyone who calls them self a scientist. Parapsychologists claim to be scientists, they claim replicable, scientific evidence, and yet I doubt them now.

When I was in my first years of high school there were guys, like Uri Geller and the Amazing Kreskin, showing up on TV and I bought into their psychic powers claim easily, I saw it and believed. I trusted and had faith without questioning for a little while. One of the things that made it easy to believe in Geller was the claim that Geller had been tested at the Stanford Research Institute by scientists. It wasn't until I found James Randi's book about Geller that I learned to doubt. I had no idea that someone could get away with being that dishonest while exposed to national media attention.

Faith was easy, it's doubting that is the hard work, and it's enjoyable work. It takes more thought and creativity to doubt than it does to believe. It requires questioning things you never thought to question before. We trust assertions by authority figures too quickly and easily. Doubt may lead to a bit of disillusionment and disappointment, but it shouldn't cause the kind of pain and suffering Mother T. expressed.

To an atheist like me doubt is not a pain to suffer or an attitude of conviction about the non-existence of God. I don't believe in God because I have no good evidence that there is a God. Doubt and skepticism are, as the Barefoot Bum says, tools. Doubt and skepticism are embedded in the very method of science and it is that which links science and atheism. It's a process of subjecting our beliefs to logical and sensible scrutiny. This is apparently something that religious people are not doing very well. How can they be if there has never been any investigation into the subjective experience of God that Mother T. suffered for? It's a mystery and they don't ask questions about what they hunger for.

To struggle with faith, to act as if convinced of it when you really aren't sure, is not the kind of faith I know, it's what Sartre called "bad faith." Based on Mother T's letters we can not even conclude that some believers do in fact "doubt" in the sense that I discussed above, the sense of creative questioning. You haven't really doubted until you've applied the tools of skepticism and science to what you doubt.

So, the point of attack I suggest is this -- when religious people tell you they doubt too, challenge that. Explore whether they even know how to doubt effectively.


Michael said...

Another excellent article. You are really good at summarizing these concepts.


David Marjanović said...

The Catholic church makes no promises of such an experience, but Mother Teresa nonetheless had one near the start of her career -- and then never again. That's what drove her mad.

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