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Comprehending radical doubt


In Mark’s gospel a father brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus for healing.  The father implores Jesus for help:  “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  “’If you can’?” Jesus replies – it is difficult to say whether this is a rebuke or not – “Everything is possible for him who believes.”  And then (9:24), “immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”  Jesus gives the family the healing they seek.

The paradox expressed in the father’s response – “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” – articulates a sentiment immediately comprehensible and, I think, effusively overflowing with meanings:  I do believe.  I do not believe and am ashamed that I do not believe even in the moment of asking for your help.  I do not believe.  I do not know if I believe or not and am whipsawed by ambivalence.  I believe but not completely enough, and I require a miracle to reaffirm my confidence.  The father’s statement is a confession, a challenge, a test, an inarticulate plea, an awkward straddle, proud, shameful, honest, humble, human.

So much of the architecture of contemporary life is built on doubt, on the sheer unwillingness to affirm one’s faith in anything:  the future, home, a president, politics, the Church, relationships, and this fact makes the father’s statement resonate now with particular force.  Once asked to specify his epitaph, William F. Buckley said he wished it to read:  “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”  It is the utter and simple certainty of the rearticulated scripture that makes it so jarring to the contemporary ear.  For doubt is the engine of enlightenment (the topic of the first three of Decartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy), skepticism its quintessential method, and its repetitive expression the driving force animating scientific inquiry and knowledge generation, and the shattering subverting force of the skeptic’s question – “who are you to say so?” – is the death knell of superstition and the rule of kings and arbitrary clerical power.  All this has been supercharged by the logics of postmodernism, predicated invariably on the need, as Lyotard argued, for a skepticism toward all the meta-narratives of our age:  Progress, Reason, Truth, God, Justice, Beauty.

And yet, while doubt is perhaps the necessary ancillary to confident faith, this is a paradox that expresses something of a mystery, and not simply in the theological sense.  How, finally, is one to square the circle?  How is one to live, when acting requires one to make confident judgments whose merits are finally unsubstantiated?  How is one to escape the sometimes torturing sense that one’s doubts are not simply demons to be held at bay but actually constitute one’s central existence?  In Christian circles this is an uncomfortable question, often raised (as it must be, given the central conundrum of faith in the gospels) euphemistically – “yes, of course, everyone encounters dark nights of the soul…” – only to be dismissed with other euphemisms that obscure the mystery, such as the idea that if one simply acts “as if” one believes, then belief will come.  I have always found this position alternatively confidence inducing and unsatisfying, since acting “as if” can be understood as simply turning off the on switch of intellection – as in, “yes you have doubts but just ignore what your brain is thinking and pretend otherwise,” which is to say, “risk acting delusionally.”  At other times the question lingers unasked in the minds of devout believers who fear that by expressing their genuinely agonizing unbelief they will either be diluting their witness or committing a blasphemy, neither likely to enhance one’s heavenly reward.  If heaven exists, that is.

This is what makes all the more astonishing the publication of Mother Teresa’s last half century’s correspondence with her superiors.  Edited by Brian Kolodiejchuk, the letters are a breathtaking engagement with these issues.  The title of the collection – Come Be My Light – might be mistaken as nothing more than the confident prayer of a saint, when in fact it expresses the agony of someone whose sojourn in the darkness is not temporary but inexplicably unending.

In one letter Teresa wrote, “Now Father – since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss – this untold darkness – this loneliness this continual longing for God – which gives me that pain deep down in my heart – Darkness is such that I really do not see – neither with my mind nor with my reason – the place of God in my soul is a blank – There is no God in me – when the pain of longing is so great – I just long and long for God – and then it is that I feel – He does not want me – He is not there–  …God does not want me – Sometimes – I just hear my own heart cry out – ‘My God’ and nothing else comes – The torture and pain I can’t explain.”

These are not incidental roadbumps encountered in the broader contexts of light and joy.  Rather, the sentiments here dominate the letters written in her later years.  Guided by her superiors, Teresa embraced the view that her inability to find a way out of unceasing darkness was the price to be paid in becoming one with the Suffering Christ – that her agony reflected the “imprint of Christ’s Passion on her soul.  She was living the mystery of Calvary – the Calvary of Jesus and the Calvary of the poor.”  But I think it hard to wind one’s way through the sheer depths of her struggle and find comfort in this rationalization, which after all seems inconsistent with the Gospel message itself – after all, one of the last statements made by Jesus (John 15:10-11), given to his followers, promises “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”

Teresa’s correspondence can be more troublingly read as her debunking, time after time, the happy rationales offered by the church for her total lack of belief and her radical doubt.  To the suggestion offered at one point that she cannot see God only because he is actually so close at hand to her inspired work, she replies: “I don’t understand this, Father – and yet I wish I could understand it.”

Christian commentary on these letters seems to largely insist on a reading more hopeful than warranted.  Kolodiekchuk himself dedicates his volume to “those, especially the poorest of the poor, who find themselves in any form of darkness, that they may find in Mother Teresa’s experience and faith, consolation, and encouragement.”  But what is the source of encouragement in Teresa’s pain?  Speaking of her desperate wish that her letters be destroyed (implying that she herself did not believe her doubts would induce confidence in others), Kolodiekchuk writes that the reason for her “insistence can be found in her deep reverence for God,” but it seems equally plausible an explanation that her ungranted wish expressed her shame and not her adoration for a God whose existence she simply did not feel.  Again and again she refers to Jesus as “the Absent One,” a finally obliterative shorthand.

Secular reactions offer a wider range of response.  Christopher Hitchens, author of the recent bestseller in defense of atheism, sees the letters as nothing more than Teresa’s attempt to awaken from irrationalism.  Made the subject of a Time magazine profile, the cover story writer contextualizes Teresa’s work as an unfolding journey which met its own share of doubt but which by sheer endurance persists as faithful, even while conceding her final apparent failure to find joy.

Still others, both Christian and nonbelievers, explain the phenomenon psychoanalytically – driven to renounce her own pride in a growing global recognition, Teresa’s punishment was self-inflicted.  Or, as Pope Benedict argues in the context of his assault on postmodernism, the problem is that humanity’s capacity for reason, the ability to apprehend Divine Truth, was damaged in the Fall – this degraded capacity to recognize God is in part the basis for priestly authority and a central claim of the Protestant Reformation was a renunciation of this view and a reaffirmation of a Priesthood of the Believer able to commonsensically understand gospel truth.

Both moves – psychoanalytic and papal – seem unsatisfying.  For if radical doubt is the inevitable human condition and the engine either of enlightenment or belief, pressed onward either by philosophy or religion and only seen in its exquisite extremity in the life of one dedicated to its renunciation, then rendering it as pathological risks a dangerous reversal where Enlightenment skepticism is transmuted into an illness in search of a Therapist and religious doubt a cancer only excisable by ecclesiastical power.

SOURCES:  Mother Teresa – Come Be My Light – The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” edited and with commentary by Brian Kolodiekchuk, M.C. (New York: Doubleday, 2007).

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