An Open Letter to Christopher Hitchens

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The new book of Mother Teresa’s personal letters entitled Come Be My Light, has created a stir because many of the confessional pieces she penned over a 50 year period of her ministry to the poor in Calcutta demonstrated that she at times had doubts about God. She asks hard questions, and wrestles with God’s silence towards her appeals for intervention and encouragement. Mixed in with these struggles, however, are many statements of her contentment, her trust in Jesus, and her devotion to God and what He called her to.
Christopher Hitchens, a political pundit, literature critic, and public statesmen for atheism (in fact, he is so aggressive in his vitriol about all things transcendent that he calls himself an Anti-Theist), was asked by Newsweek to write a commentary on Come Be My Light. An interesting choice by those editors, considering that Hitchens wrote a scathing appraisal of Mother Teresa’s life and ministry in his 1995 book Missionary Position, where he alleged she was a fake and had considerable ties to unsavory political leaders. I mean, it’s akin to asking someone who has willingly cut off both arms and legs to give the critique on cycling to those who are riding. From a different perspective, wouldn’t Christopher find it strange if Pat Robertson were asked by Time to criticize the teachings of Madalyn Murray O’Hair?
Hitchens has carved out a slice of modern media attention with his writings and regular appearances on TV and radio. Many find him intimidating because he is blessed with a stout intellect, and utilizes his acerbic wit to argue cleverly. But in many ways, he has become the Anne Coulter of atheists…a wonk who makes a living by complaint and stirring the pot with shrill and sweeping accusations all intended to sell more books. All the while offering little to nothing in ways to actually improve the situation. It strikes me at times that they are the ilk that William James spoke of when he stated “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”
With that in mind, here is an open letter to Mr. Hitchens…
Dear Christopher,
I have heard you on many occasions, and have read a fair amount of your work. I appreciate your keen mind, and have often chuckled at your humorous observations on things political. I’ve even found some of your views on God, and the abuses of organized religion in His name to be stimulating.
But when it comes to your attacks on Mother Teresa, I am puzzled as to your relentless dogma. It seems odd, that someone like you who is so unsure about God’s existence and any set of moral rules in which to live by would simultaneously hold someone else so accountable for having any doubts. It would seem to me that you would actually rejoice that someone else had misgivings in their faith from time to time, rather than admonishing her.
But my point in writing goes beyond that. From my perspective, and most anyone who has walked in faith for any amount of time, the very presence of doubt should be of great solace. I don’t think you realize that faith cannot exist without doubt. And, in your case, the opposite is equally true: you cannot have doubt without a little faith being present. In our human and finite condition, we most certainly are not capable of understanding infinite truth and all encompassing knowledge. Hence, we have created Science to study all that is before us, and often to hypothesize about where we are headed. We have Philosophy and Religion to try to put all these “unanswerable”s” into some narrative context…attempts to systematize our feelings. We have Art and Literature to creatively reflect upon the place we find ourselves in—both good and bad. I am thankful for that outlet for our angst or celebration.
You will have to admit, Christopher, that so much of what we find ourselves swirling around in, whether the greater cosmos or the complexity of the human heart, involves a degree of the transcendent—all that lies beyond the ordinary range of perception.
Finite minds cannot understand infinity. Period. Quit trying to act like you or anyone else can. It is beyond our scope of comprehension. This is where doubt comes in. If anyone of us feels we have fully arrived at complete understanding or all-encompassing divine revelation (or in your case, a lack of one) we are sorely deceived. As Frederick Buechner said “whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.”
I like the way Oswald Chambers looked at it, and, I think with your inquisitive mind, you will as well: “Doubt is not always a sign that a man is wrong; it may be a sign that he is thinking.”
Even your fellow atheist, John Paul Satre, recognized this when he said “a finite point has no meaning unless it has an infinite reference point.” But since he and the rest of us cannot clearly locate the reference point on our own, let alone understand it, we are hovering in the ether of uncertainty.
This is where faith in something bigger than our understanding comes in. The immensity and order of the known universe certainly point towards something or someone who set it in motion and gave it design. Most every scientist now adheres to the “Big Bang” theory…that the universe exploded outward in a blinding instant of massive creativity billions of years ago. So if it was created from nothingness…then it had to have an instigator…a creator.
Since neither you or I or anyone else in the brief 5,000 or so years of written human history were present for this event, we can only surmise as to the When and How. That is mind-boggling enough. But when we enter into the Who and (perhaps most perplexing of all) the Why questions, that is where we wrestle with ultimate meaning.
For a pure empiricist as yourself, Christopher, you stand by the viewpoint that “seeing is believing,” and that direct knowledge is the only real knowledge. My friend Jim Thomas responds this way:
The weakness of empiricism is that it would have to exclude knowledge of things we cannot taste, touch, smell, hear, or see such as magnetism, gravity, wind, electricity, hope, love, justice, or goodness. And ultimately, the principle “seeing is believing” would have to be excluded from empiricism as well, as it is a concept and not something one can “see.”
Belief relies on observation and experience, but it also adds the element of common sense based on human reason. Belief involves raw data coming in through the five senses, which is then organized by human reasoning, evaluated for credibility, discerned morally, and then, in the end, judged by a person’s common sense. Belief involves the senses, the mind, the will, and the heart of a person. They work together to convince us that something is true. There are varying degrees of conviction in our beliefs. These sometimes fluctuate, but ultimately we choose, either actively or passively, what we will believe. Of course, what we choose to believe does not in any way affect the nature of reality. We might very well believe things which are not true. Whether you believe in God or not does not alter whether or not God actually exists. But for the rational person, the goal would be to discover and believe those things which are true, those things which correspond with reality.
Knowledge and belief show up in many areas of our lives. I know there is a car parked in my driveway, But I believe that love between two people is something that is real even though it is often unpredictable and not as verifiable or consistent. I know that fire is hot, but I believe that murder is morally wrong.
This does not mean that belief and knowledge must stand opposite and against each other. To the contrary, to get to the truth of a matter, especially in terms of faith, they must stand side by side. As Blaise Pascal said “Faith indeed tells what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them.”
If one truly believes that there is no God, and hence, no source of rights and wrongs, morals, or even the unpredictable emotion we know as “love,” then they should never shed a tear due to death or suffering. Because to them, ultimately, a loved one’s death should have no more significance than a rock falling into the water, since there is ultimately no point or reason behind our existence.
Even your fellow atheist, Frederich Nietzche, hit the nail on the head when he said “He who has a WHY to live can bear almost any HOW.”
Like muscle and bone, faith and doubt are intertwined into our souls. The skeleton needs the intertwining sinew, and those chords and the surrounding flesh would have no structure without the frame. That balance is crucial. One cannot exist without the other. It is not and either/or proposition. It is both/and. Rationality and emotion…hurt and healing…anticipation and arrival…faith and doubt. It often makes no sense, and certainly does not always feel right; but it is indeed what makes us fully human.
Because Mother Teresa has shown vulnerability in these letters and in her prayers (indeed, she was open about these haunting doubts in other writings and discussions over the years), makes her all the more human, despite the nearly super-human efforts she demonstrated on behalf of the poor. And it is misleading to try and make Come Be My Light into some sort of declaration of her apostasy for there are plenty of positive confessions of her deep and abiding love for God permeating those pages in between her dark nights of the soul.
The Bible is full of people who had doubts. David, whether he was a teenager experiencing God’s provision while escaping the wrath of jealous authorities, or when he eventually became king, left prevalent testimony of his deep anguish throughout his life the Psalms. Those poems that bemoan his pain and open acrimony towards God—those “Psalms of Lament”— make up 40% of that entire book. And despite that rancor, the scriptues later refer to David as “a man after my God’s own heart.”
John the Baptist, who had been full of so much confidence in the message of the Messiah’s impending arrival, and even baptized Christ, later became full of profound doubt when he was imprisoned and about to have his head chopped off. He sent messengers to Christ asking hard questions about whether he was truly the promised one. In his response back, Jesus didn’t admonish or even reject John for having these doubts…but he encouraged him in the midst of his pain.
Look at Jesus himself. Ultimately, this is one of the very attributes that draws people to Christ, for even He wrestled with doubt. He agonized about His impending fate in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his mockery of a trial and barbaric crucifixion. And while hanging beaten and bleeding on that Roman cross he cried out with bitter tears “My God, why have You forsaken me?!”
Christopher, as I read your works and listen to your complaints on television, I often wonder who might have disappointed you so greatly earlier in your life? I ponder if you felt forsaken somewhere along the way, or someone claiming to represent God might have hurt you deeply. My guess is this is so, because nearly every atheist I have ever met or studied is carrying profound anger and bitterness of this sort from earlier in their life.
I am sorry this may have happened with you. I hurt for you. I have felt similar anguish at times in my life. And even as a follower of Christ now, I still experience frustration and doubt. As Bono has said “Being a Christian does not give me all the answers…if anything, it has given me a whole new set of questions.”
I am convinced that God encourages these questions. He is not threatened by our complaints. In fact, it would seem that he even invites them, or at least allows us the right to let him know we are not satisfied with the perplexity of being finite beings with souls that ache for infinite knowledge.
But this is where faith comes into the quotient. The strength of Mother Teresa’s faith is not found in her. It was not about how much faith she had in terms of volume or quantity. It was not about drumming up a level of emotional confidence. It was not about setting her mind on a fixed course and refusing all doubt. It was more about having a humble heart, one that admitted its weakness and looked to God for refreshment and strength. It was and is about her recognizing that the object of her faith was also the source of her faith.
My hope, Christopher, is that your questions haven’t transformed into set-in-stone attitude, because that would seem to be contradictory to your probing mind. You strike me as ultimately being curious. All I ask is that you allow others to be curious in their exploration of the transcendent…allow others to demonstrate weakness and doubt.
A one-time fellow atheist, the brilliant G.K. Chesterton, ended up reversing his beliefs after he was established as a writer and social commentator in turn-of-the century England. He sums up my point well: “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”
Humbly,
Mark

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