The Cries That Bind

Why Doubt Puts Us In Good Company

Twenty years ago, on August 31, 1997, Princess Diana died in a tragic crash in Paris in a car with her boyfriend while her husband and two children waited for her in London. Five days later, Mother Teresa of Calcutta died due to complications that apparently developed after a decades-long battle with heart disease that worsened with her contracting malaria the year prior. Over the next three months Princess Diana graced the covers of the major news magazines Newsweek and others at least nine times. The world grieved. Her story led the evening news every night and her funeral was broadcast live to millions. Sir Elton John even re-wrote a song for her.

Meanwhile, Mother Teresa barely warranted mention in the news tsunami that left her swamped behind the flash and glitz of the princess. This said more about our cultural values than Mother Teresa ever could have said herself.

But this week that changed. Suddenly, Mother Teresa is newsworthy … the lead story no less … cover material. This week Mother Teresa has even supplanted the backwash tsunami of the ten-year remembrance of Diana’s death. But it is not the ten-year remembrance of Mother Teresa that the press has found so marketable. It is not even a belated appreciation for her 60 years of work with the poor and dying in India.

No, what is so tantalizingly important about her now is that she had a “crisis of faith” that has recently been revealed in letters which she had specifically requested not be made public, but rather destroyed. (Funny how the press’s commitment to its sources’ privacy changes from time to time — especially when they can scoop a story like this one). The hook, you see, is that Mother Teresa, a world-renown icon of religious commitment, sometimes questioned her faith. Time magazine reports that …

… one of the great human icons of the past 100 years, whose remarkable deeds seemed inextricably connected to her closeness to God and who was routinely observed in silent and seemingly peaceful prayer by her associates as well as the television camera, was living out a very different spiritual reality privately, an arid landscape from which the deity had disappeared.

That, to a secular press hell-bent on de-legitimizing faith or anyone who claims to have it, is too juicy to not be shouted from the rooftops. Mother Teresa has become a target for their secular wrath. And that is the only reason they have any interest in her now. In her crying out to God, militant atheists like Christopher Hitchens see nothing but an opportunity to exploit. Hitchens despises a:

… Church [that] should have had the elementary decency to let the earth lie lightly on this troubled and miserable lady, and not to invoke her long anguish to recruit the credulous to a blind faith in which she herself had long ceased to believe.

But just what was Mother Teresa’s “crisis”? At various points in her life, she questioned the existence of God because He seemed hidden and unreachable amid the squalor and misery of life that engulfed her. God’s hiddenness was painful to her, her longing for Him palpable:

For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,—Listen and do not hear—the tongue moves but does not speak … Such deep longing for God—and … repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal.—[The saving of] Souls holds no attraction—Heaven means nothing … What do I labor for? If there be no God—there can be no soul—if there is no Soul then Jesus—You also are not true.

How is it that someone as smart as Christopher Hitchens; someone who claims his vast intellectual superiority will not allow him to accept the mindlessness of faith; someone whose presuppositions preclude any possibility that his own anti-theism may be wrong; someone who blithely rejects all possible evidence for the existence of God without consideration — someone, in other words, who blindly accepts his own atheism — How is it that someone like him can fault someone like Mother Teresa for succumbing to the false deception of a “blind faith” when he reads those words?

Read her words again and listen … Are these the thoughtless ruminations of someone who accepts her faith unquestioningly? How could anyone read those words and not see the intellectual wrestling match that is going on within Teresa’s tortured head? Call it doubtful, or despairing. But please don’t call her faith “blind.” The fact is that Mother Teresa, like any legitimately thoughtful seeker, struggled to see God in the misery of a fallen world — yet committed herself to demonstrating His presence to others anyway. And she did so while still being honest enough to ask herself the toughest questions of all.

Can any of the so-called “new atheists” claim such an honest pursuit of the truth for themselves?

Finally, those who are so quick to disparage both Mother Teresa and her religion on the basis of her questioning faith should know that Mother Teresa is not alone. Other fairly famous believers have shared the same sentiments:

  1. How long, O LORD, will I call for help, and You will not hear? Why do You make me see iniquity, and cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; strife exists and contention arises … Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?
  2. Why is life given to a man whose way is hidden, whom God has hedged in? For sighing comes to me instead of food; my groans pour out like water. What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me. I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil.
  3. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
  4. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”— “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The first is Habakkuk. The second is Job. The third is David. The fourth is Jesus himself, speaking in agony from the cross in his human nature with the only words he could muster, in a call for his hearers to remember David’s similar cry.

I don’t make a habit of quoting the Bible here but in this case I will make an exception. I do so because this last quote of Jesus is a line commonly used to question not only his commitment to “the cause,” but His very divinity itself. Though his physical condition would only allow him to speak the first lines of this passage, those who knew and understood the Scripture to which he was referring would have instantaneously recognized that the rest of the Psalm 22 to which Jesus alludes is not only prophetic in its description of His actual circumstances on the cross, but ends in a radically different light:

3 Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.

4 In you our fathers put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.

5 They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.

6 But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.

7All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads
:

8“He trusts in the LORD;
let the LORD rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

9 Yet you brought me out of the womb;
you made me trust in you
even at my mother’s breast.

10 From birth I was cast upon you;
from my mother’s womb you have been my God.

11Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help
.

12 Many bulls surround me;
strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.

13 Roaring lions tearing their prey
open their mouths wide against me.

14 I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.

15My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.

16Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet
.

17 I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me
.

18They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing
.

19 But you, O LORD, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.

20 Deliver my life from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dogs.

21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lions;
save me from the horns of the wild oxen.

22 I will declare your name to my brothers;
in the congregation I will praise you.

23 You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!

24For he has not despised or disdained
the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
but has listened to his cry for help
.

25From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly;
before those who fear you will I fulfill my vows
.

26The poor will eat and be satisfied;
they who seek the LORD will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!

27All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him
,

28 for dominion belongs to the LORD
and he rules over the nations
.

29All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
those who cannot keep themselves alive
.

30Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord
.

31They will proclaim his righteousness
to a people yet unborn—
for he has done it
.

The tone is completely different from the one we are led to believe Jesus held. These are not the words or thoughts of a skeptic. They are the clearly confident claims of a victor who holds to an overall eternal view of a temporarily hidden God.

It seems, in other words, that when considered more closely, Mother Teresa’s groaning for an absent God puts her in the company of faithful giants. Her pleading and doubt is far from an admission of a loss of faith. Instead, it is a demonstration of the inevitable result of the fallenness of rebellious creatures. Our yearning for a hidden God is an inevitable but temporary condition — the result of our separation from our only Source of hope. It is a recognition of the futility of life without Him that drives us to despair.

But that despair, it must be remembered, is self-inflicted. The hiddenness and separation in the relationship between God and humanity did not begin with God. We hid from Him first.

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. (Genesis 3:7-8)

Our cries for God to reveal himself to us — to stop hiding from us — are the common lament that defines the human condition. From the most skeptical unbeliever to the most honored of the saints, those cries bind us together in the search to recapture meaning from an otherwise meaningless existence. From the labs of modern scientific laboratories, to the editors’ desks of the “new atheists”; from the Hollywood rehab clinics and the overcrowded jail cells, to the filth of the ghettos of Calcutta, the cry is always the same — and the answer to the cry is never far away and never hidden from our sight:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Thinking About The “New Atheists”

Engaging The Belief Police

[This is a re-post from several years ago that I think is still completely relevant today]

Two books on the NY Times Best Seller list share a common thesis — that religion in general, and Christianity specifically, is not just wrong, or off-base, or a subject worth debating — but that it is evil, deluded, dangerous, and the righteous target of the thinking man’s scorn. Sam Harris’, “Letter To A Christian Nation,” (# 31 on the list) and Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion,” (# 14 and on the list for 24 weeks) don’t just want to appeal to their atheistic brethren, but want to question the sanity of religious belief itself and suggest that we would all be more safe if religion were forcibly banished from the public square.

This view of religion is nothing new to Dawkins who, blasting the intolerance of Creationists in his 1986 book, “The Blind Watchmaker,” claimed that …

It is absolutely safe to say that, if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I’d rather not consider that).

With an incredibly ironic inability to see the intolerance of those two ideas existing in parallel, Dawkins denies any respect to those who happen to disagree with him — and instead offers them nothing but contempt. Disgusted by the proselytizing of religious folk, he engages in a little proselytizing of his own when, on the fifth page of his most recent book he claims that, “If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down.”

For all the bluster these two claim about their own “healthy” and “vigorous” minds as compared to the mental midgets who oppose them, it is a little too convenient that they fail to even mention the significant input to science and philosophy that has been contributed by theists throughout history. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the fact that most of the greatest scientific minds — Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler — were all devout men who studied the physical universe because they believed it was ordered and a reflection of the mind of God. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the great philosophers throughout history — Augustine, Aquinas, Pascal, C.S. Lewis — who were not only Christian theists, but that began as atheists and reasoned their way to faith. It is a little too convenient that they make no mention of the fact that the Bible itself challenges us to “test everything” and that the scientific revolution began with Christian scientists who did just that.

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New Atheists (6); Apples To Oranges

Sam Harris despises religion — so much so that he has blinded himself to an intellectually honest assessment about the differences between them. To put that claim in context, Harris (as discussed earlier here), misunderstands the concept of condemnation to hell and, because of that misunderstanding, believes his in-your-face his chest beating has some force behind it when he says:

The fact that my continuous and public rejection of Christianity does not worry me in the least should suggest to you just how inadequate I think your reasons for being a Christian are.

His serious delusion regarding the public impact of his own views aside, Harris’ taunt (p. 4) rings hollow. I can only speak for myself of course, but it seems that Harris fails to realize that we Christians don’t hold our view based on the popularity or reputation of those who may, or may not, share it with us. To be honest, most Christians had never heard of Sam Harris before his book hit the stores. But this kind of misunderstanding on his part leads him to make what can only be described as completely baseless associations like this:

Assertion (p. 6-7):

Every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian. And yet you do not find their reasons compelling. The Koran repeatedly declares that it is the perfect word of the creator of the universe … The burden is upon them to prove that their beliefs about God and Muhammad are valid. They have not done this. They cannot do this. Muslims are not making claims about reality that can be corroborated

Understand that the way you view Islam is precisely the way devout Muslims view Christianity. And it is the way I view all religions.

Response: To put it is nicely as I can, Harris’ complete ignorance about the nature of religion in general, and the relationship between Christianity and Islam in particular, is stunning.

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New Atheist Rebuttals (5)

Hitchens’ Childhood Epiphany

Christopher Hitchens begins his screed against God and religion by recounting his awakening, as a 9-year old “insufferable little intellectual,” to the “overreaching” comment of his grade school teacher, Mrs. Watts. The statement that is burned into Hitchens’ memory from that day is this: In an attempt to …

fuse her two roles as nature instructor and Bible teacher, she said, ‘So you see, children, how powerful and generous God is. He has made all the trees and grass to be green, which is exactly the color that is most restful to the eyes. Imagine if instead, the vegetation was all purple, or orange, how awful that would be.’

Assertion: I have to note that Hitchens is charitable in his assessment of Mrs. Watts. His only description of her is as a kind and loving woman with sincere motives. But Hitchens’ memory of this incident is that he was “appalled” by what she said. Knowing nothing of the argument from design, the claims of Darwinian Evolution, or any of the related issues, Hitchens remembers that he “simply knew, almost as if [he] had privileged access to a higher authority, that [his] teacher had managed to get everything wrong in just two sentences. The eyes were adjusted to nature, and not the other way around.”

This epiphany led him to notice other “oddities” over the next few years, such as:

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New Atheist Rebuttals (4)

On My (Qualified) Agreement With Sam Harris

To restate from the last post on this topic

Assertion: Sam Harris was compelled to pen The End of Faith on September 12, 2001 and wrote his Letter To A Christian Nation a few years later. He is one of a growing number who equate the travesties perpetrated by Muslim terrorists with anyone who claims what he calls a “rigid” religious view. Rigid thinkers are dangerous in this world because they become too extreme.

Keep that idea in mind as you consider some points of agreement that Harris claims to share the hard-core “Christian right.” In summary, Harris agrees that (p. 3-4) …

  • If one of us is right, the other is wrong.
  • The Bible is either the word of God, or it isn’t.
  • Jesus offers humanity the one, true path to salvation, or he does not.
  • True Christians believe that all other faiths are mistaken and profoundly so.

For all the relativists out there I want to point out that Harris, like me, appears to believe in the existence of objective truth. That being the case, we each must admit that one of us is right and one of us is wrong. It has to be so. We cannot hold completely contradictory views and both be right.

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New Atheist Rebuttals (3)

On Sam Harris’ Understanding of Condemnation to Hell

Assertion: In the introduction to his Letter To A Christian Nation, Harris is quick to differentiate between harmless, liberal/moderate Christians and “the religious right.” Harris scolds the former if they should cover for the latter because, by doing so, liberal/moderates “give shelter to extremists of all faiths.” That’s the setup and it is important to remember in this discussion.

Remember that Harris was compelled to pen The End of Faith on September 12, 2001 and wrote his Letter a few years later. He is one of a growing number who equate the travesties perpetrated by Muslim terrorists with anyone who claims what he calls a “rigid” religious view. Keep that idea in mind as you listen to the beginning of Harris’ argument against the Christianity he despises …

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New Atheist Rebuttals (1)

As promised earlier, this is the first in a series of rebuttals to the so-called “New Atheists.” I will try to keep them short and sweet, citing a quote or argument from their book(s), complete with a page number for reference. I will then attempt a response. Your comments are welcome …

Assertion: (The God Delusion, p. 4) “…delusion [is] ‘a persistent false belief held in the face of strong contradictory evidence, especially as a symptom of psychiatric disorder’. The first part [of this definition] captures faith perfectly. As to whether it is a symptom of a psychiatric disorder, I am inclined to follow Robert M. Pirsig … when he said, ‘When one person suffers from a delusion it is called insanity. When many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion.’ … Of course, dyed-in-the-wool faith-heads are immune to argument.”

Response: On what basis does Mr. Dawkins separate himself from the possibility of being likewise deluded? Yes, there are people for whom faith is a blindly accepted belief devoid of the need for evidence. Likewise, there are atheists, apparently like Mr. Dawkins, who fully admit that they could never be convinced of the existence of God, regardless of evidence produced to the contrary. Is it too much to ask that, instead of mischaracterizing the position of his opponents, Mr. Dawkins would instead engage the arguments of those who do not accept their faith blindly? Can Mr. Dawkins offer an example of what amount of evidence it would take to convince him to change his belief? Some like him claim that no amount of evidence would convince them — proving that their atheism is not intellectually based, but rather volitionally or emotionally based.

I would also offer that many who profess atheism could likewise be accused of suffering from a psychological disorder stemming from the absence or abuse of the father figure in their lives (see: Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless). If it is acceptable to see religion as a compensatory psychological disorder, fair play would demand that atheism should also be subjected to the same test.