I’ve made no secret that Christopher Hitchens is my least favorite of the big three “New Atheist” writers: he’s a masterful essayist, but being deft with words doesn’t necessarily prevent your arguments from being crude. I’ve also made no secret that I think trying too hard to psycho-analyze the beliefs of others is, to put it mildly, a rather dangerously indulgent vice.
So with those two things going against him, it comes as something of a surprise that I thought Hitchen’s essay on the latest hubbub over Theresa’s missing Jesus joy is worth a read. Hitchen’s brief quotes in the original Time article were somewhat clumsy and off-key, and of course won him no love from thoughtful Catholics. In this latest article, Hitchens is no less harsh, but develops a narrative of Theresa’s life and suffering that is, if not exactly a full or fair judgment on her life, at least provides some plausible balance to all the saccharine peans to the misery of doubt.
Catholics are more than justified in defending their faith from simplistic swipes and gloating on this issue (especially from Protestants, eager for signs that Catholicism is a dead end). But at the same time, many of these defenses are just too glib and tidy to be believable. When literally anything at all is explained away as just more evidence and testimony to the importance of faith, it’s not clear that anything is being explained at all. As I said before: sometimes doubts are a message worth listening to rather than a grand opportunity for a mental passion play.
So is it really so impertinent to suggest that perhaps Theresa might have been happier if she loosened up even a little on her fanatical devotion? Or, instead of jumping straight to the conclusion that she was a saint suffering on a wondrous spiritual cross, at least entertaining the idea perhaps she suffered needlessly from untreated clinical depression? Isn’t it possible that, just as Mother Theresa exploited and was exploited by the simplistic image of herself as uncomplicated savior to the helpless people of Calcutta, her very human sufferings are now set to be endlessly exploited for the benefit of utterly unapologetic apologia?
- Sam Harris toys with some of these same themes in his latest On Faith blog entry.
- You can also watch Bill Donahue and Hitchens yell at each other if you really want.