Mother Teresa’s Doubts

Mother Teresa’s letters, which are to be published by Doubleday next month as Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, reveal that she was tormented by doubt throughout her fifty years of ministry. The editor of the book believes that her doubts “maker her more human.” (For more, click here.)

Malcom Muggeridge came to faith in God by investigating Mother Teresa’s work with the poor in England. The only journalist mean-spirited enough to criticize her work has been Christopher Hitchens.

How do we account for doubt in the heart of one of the world’s great saints and servants?

In the Bible, of course, anyone on whose life God has a claim, i.e., all followers of Jesus are called saints; but let’s allow the use of the word in the popular sense: a saint is a hero of the faith. I will read the book when it comes out, but for now I will risk a few guesses.

1. Great people have great faults and great struggles.

Michaelangelo’s David was made from a piece of flawed marble. The sculptor used some of the cracks in the piece to form natural lines in the masterpiece. In the same way, as St. Paul says, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” Saints are damaged earthen vessels God uses carry the treasure of his love. (Lucy Fuchs has an interesting blog post on saints here.)

2. Cycles of doubt are part of the life of faith.

It is true of many of the heroes in the Bible. Job, famous for his patient acceptance of suffering, cursed the day of his birth. Jeremiah complained to God, “You deceived me.” Paul spoke of a time when “we despaired even of life.” St. John of the cross spoke of the dark night of the soul. Jesus on the cross prayed a prayer from the Psalms of David, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Most of us experience moderate, short-lived cycles of faith and doubt. Most of us experience a mixture of some faith and some doubt at the same time. Teresa had an extreme cycle: one year of visions and fifty years of doubt.

3. The nature of her ministry may have contributed to the depths of her doubting.

Mother Teresa lived with, identified with, and shared in the sorrows and sufferings of the poorest of the poor, the most wretched of the forsaken and dying. If one taught a prosperity Gospel in which God is on the side of the rich and powerful, in which wealth and health are signs of God’s blessing, such a Gospel could be self-fulfilling. People would pay to be confirmed in their complacency. It would be easy maintain faith in a Gospel of comfort, as long as one was comfortable.

But it’s a little harder to maintain confidence when one believes that God is on the side of the poor, the dying, the godforsaken. It is harder to maintain a joyful faith when one identifies with those who feel abandoned by God.

4. Faith is commitment more than it is positive thinking.

Teresa exhibited in her life what one philosopher called, “long obedience in the same direction.” Her refusal to give up when her faith had apparently left her is in itself a form of faith.

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HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION III

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

A friend who taught a survey course on the Bible at a community college mentioned that the students were surprised at “how bloody” the Old Testament is. In addition to Israel’s frequent wars, the death penalty was apparently required for several crimes. Hostile critics of faith see this as incredibly barbaric, while enthusiasts for capital punishment see it as a divine mandate. Both fail to read the Bible historically. A historical reading would reveal several facts:

1) Capital punishment was widespread in the ancient world for a variety of crimes including religious offenses and insults to kings and governments. It was a bloody, cruel world. When all the facts are considered, the laws in the Old Testament represent a great restraint on death and cruelty. Death, for example, is never the penalty for property crimes or insulting a king; as it was in other nations. Bodily mutilations are common penalties in the laws of Hammurabi but (with one rare exception) are not prescribed in the Torah.

2) The rhetoric of the Middle East is considerably more uninhibited than that used by English speaking politicians. For example, when David heard of a man who murdered his neighbor’s pet lamb, he cried out, “The man deserves to die!” Then he adds the strangely anticlimactic “moreover, he shall repay fourfold.” David could not literally execute the man; the law only provided for a monetary fine–but he could express his outrage in angry rhetoric. Our national leaders might express outrage at an NFL football player arranging dogfights, but they wouldn’t say, “he deserves to die.” That kind of language is reserved for talk radio.

3) In many of the passages that say someone guilty of a sin, such as blasphemy, “shall surely die,” God is the presumed enforcer of the law. In other words, the commandment is a warning, “God will get you.” If blasphemers do not in fact drop dead, it is to be taken as a sign of God’s mercy, not a call for human intervention. Joe Sprinkle has shown that such commandments are a vivid way of teaching morality, appropriate to the ancient culture of the Bible. (see here)

4) In other cases, such as negligent homicide, a ransom was allowed in lieu of death.

5) In ancient Israel, capital punishment for murder was administered by the next of kin of the victim. The case was tried before a court. If the accused was found guilty, he was turned over to the “avenger of blood,” i.e., the next of kin who had the social obligation to kill the murderer.

6) The testimony of two eyewitnesses was required before any capital sentence was given.

7) In historic Judaism, the courts were extremely reluctant to order execution. The Talmud declares a Sanhedrin that hands down a verdict of death once in seventy years is a bloody court.

If we understand capital punishment in the Torah historically, two conclusions become clear. First, from a redemptive movement perspective, there is clearly a move away from automatic instantaneous retaliatory violence. Compared to neighboring civilizations, the number of cases in which capital punishment was applied was clearly restricted. Further, precautions were taken to assure that the penalty was not applied to an innocent person.

The second conclusion that becomes clear is that the law of capital punishment places a high value on human life. Because a human life is valuable, because human beings are created in the image of God, nothing can substitute in value for a human life. As a moral principle, “a life for a life” is still valid.

In applying capital punishment today, we still need to be guided by two facts.

First, Christ taught us to seek reconciliation rather than vengeance. He himself paid the debt that murderers and all sinners owed. He offered his life in exchange for the guilt of the world. The early Christians in the first three centuries were opposed to capital punishment.

Second, we do need to remember practical factors. Our legal system is imperfect, and the state cannot give back a life wrongly taken. The fact that several death-row inmates have been exonerated by DNA evidence should be a sober reminder. The fact that capital punishments places us in league with “Axis of Evil” nations like North Korea and Iran, should also be a sober warning.

Giving the state the power of life and death is giving it too much power.

Opinion polls show that American citizens deeply distrust the officials they have elected. Why would we grant these same politicians the power to take life?

HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION II–SLAVERY

Slavery was never God’s will. God created humans, male and female, in his image and gave them authority and dignity to take care of the rest of God’s creation but not to rule over each other. When the descendants of Jacob became slaves in Egypt, God heard their cry and liberated them from slavery.

Yet the historical Torah has provisions concerning slavery.

William Webb in a article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (48:2, 2005: 331-49) argued that we need to use a “Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic” to understand these texts. What this means is that we need to compare the laws in question to their historical context. When we do this, we will see that the laws are moving in the direction of improving the condition of slaves, moving toward the ultimate abolition of the institution.

The assumption behind this way of reading the Bible is that God met people where they were and moved them in the direction he wanted them to go. Here are some of the improvement in the treatment of slaves found when the Torah is compared to its background:

1) Protection against murder. Unfortunately the law in Exodus 21:20-21 is often mistranslated, giving the opposite impression. The word translated “punished” is from the Hebrew root N-Q-M, which refers to vengeance. The law treats the murder of a slave as any other murder, subject to vengeance. If a slave dies from negligent homicide, it is treated the same as if the slave were a free man. The owner must pay a fine or “ransom” for his own life. Negligent homicide is not a capital crime because there was no intent to commit murder.

2) Protection against beating. In a world where corporal punishment was ubiquitous, a slave who was abused resulting in the loss of a tooth was granted freedom (Exodus 21:26-27).

3) Refuge for runaway slaves (Deuteronomy 23:15).

4) Rest on the Sabbath (Exodus 23:12).

5) Freedom after six years (Exodus 21:2).

Why was slavery allowed at all? Probably because it was so deeply ingrained in the ancient society and economy that people could not even comprehend its abolition. Rather than give an unrealistic ideal, the Torah provides actual help for slaves, while waiting for the day when slavery and all forms of injustice would end.

The most common way one became a slave in ancient Israel was through debt. A slave in effect sold his labor for six years to cancel out debts; it was the ancient form of bankruptcy. People fell into debt for a variety of reasons, but one common reason was crime. For example, someone who stole his neighbors ox was required to pay a five-fold restitution. Debt slavery was a way of working off this fine.

It may seem harsh, but is our system any better? We also deprive thieves of their liberty. Is our system actually better than the ancient Israelite’s system.

See the “Resources” page for more information on ancient laws.

HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE–I

This will be the first of two or three posts on understanding the Bible historically.

Eternal Torah and Historical Torah

Christians inherited their first Bible from the Jews. In Judaism the Torah is the original and most authoritative part of the Bible. The Torah contains the 613 commandments (mitzvot) that every Jew must learn and observe upon coming of age and becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

As an expression of God’s character and will, the Torah must be eternal. Some of the Rabbis even said God consulted the Torah when creating the universe. The eternal Torah is expressed in two forms: the written Torah and the oral Torah.

Because it expresses God’s will for humans, the Torah must be historical. The Torah is written in human language–but the word “language” is an abstraction. There is really no such thing as language in general; there are only the particular languages spoken by particular people at various times and places. Language is intimately tied to history and culture, to the understanding available at any point in history, to the natural and social realities of any point in history.

The rabbis recognized the historical nature of the Torah, and they recognized the difficulties of reconciling the historical with the eternal nature of God’s revelation. For example, as the expression of the eternal will of God, the Torah is universal; yet it was given to Israel, not to the Gentiles. Only Israel is required to observe all 613 commandments; the Master of the Universe will be pleased if the Gentiles keep about seven of them: the laws against murder, incest, adultery, and so forth.

The Torah contains God’s commandments, but as a book written at a point in history, it must have a human author. Since Moses is the intermediary through whom God gives the commandments, he is considered the author of the whole collection of five books, even though at the end of Deuteronomy there is a third-person account of the death of Moses. Some of the rabbis said that Moses wrote those words with tears in his eyes, following a vision God had given him. Others said it is better to be silent about the fact.

The oral Torah also is considered eternal. The oral Torah includes the interpretations of the laws as ultimately codified in the Talmud. Even though the Talmud reports the individual discussions and debates and names the rabbis who gave various rulings at particular points in history–these rulings are still considered part of the eternal Torah.

The rabbis recognized one other conflict between the eternal Torah and the historical Torah. Changing conditions call for flexibility in interpreting and applying the commandments. This is found even within the Torah. In Exodus Moses commands that a debt-slave must be released “freely, without any charge” at the end of six years. The similar law in Deuteronomy goes beyond this and commands the master to be generous and pay a newly-released slave for his services.

Since Moses taught that by keeping the commandments “you will live,” Judaism established the rule that commandments must be interpreted in a way that advances life, never in a way that threatens life.

The rabbis would not say that there are contradictions among the commandments; but they did recognize contradictions in life. Because the world is not right, the commandments must be interpreted in a way that repairs the world.