Monday, June 25, 2007

Atheist, scientist, & Mother Teresa

Religion and science, evangelism and atheism, are hot subjects in the news. The cacophony of voices would be less confusing if these subjects were discussed in a more inclusive way.

My background roots me in Catholicism., so Christian terms like “Reign of God” and “paschal lamb” reverberate with meaning for me, but Buddhist, Muslim, or Native American terms less so.

Still, I like to step out of the Christian envelope and get a larger viewpoint. Seen from outside, the only-through-Jesus preaching of Christians appears cramped.
It imagines the mysterious Source of everything that is or could be as an individual humanlike person, a “He.” Christian teaching claims that a man called Jesus differs from the rest of creation in being the only son of God.

It's useful to distinguish between religion and spirituality. Religions are various ways of being spiritual, various brands, usually with particular beliefs and practices. The problem develops when we insist that our brand is better than your brand—“we have God’s exclusive revelation and God’s son.”

But this image contrasts with the historical Jesus discovered by scripture scholars. I have more respect for the Jesus who actually lived as a Palestinian Jew two thousand years ago than for the God-image. One of the compliments for God Is Not Three Gods in the Sky that pleases me most is this from a friend: "I like Jesus a whole lot better since reading Jeanette's book!"

Jesus of Nazareth didn’t think he was God and didn’t claim he was dying to save others. He said nothing about abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, or creation spirituality.

At the same time that shrill Islamic extremists and Christian right wingers are competing for dominance, a quiet revolution is brewing.
Underneath the din simmers an alternative way of being spiritual that includes people of religion as well as atheists. We hear that atheists are more unpopular than gays, but the ones I know think more deeply about spiritual matters than do many Christians. They are reflective people likely to care about feeding, housing, clothing, educating and providing health care for all.

And they make sacrifices for their spiritual convictions, bringing on the condemnation of religionists because they don't conform. They have a strong sense of right and wrong. They take risks for peace and justice, volunteer in homeless shelters, and speak truth that is unwelcome to powerful people.

For me the most exciting spiritual thoughts come from scientists. Einstein is one. He did not believe in a personal God but in “something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions.”
I like the way Einstein fused science with religion by saying that “a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe.” He famously stated, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Oxford professor Richard Dawkins forcefully argues the atheist position in The God Delusion. Interviewed in Time magazine, he said “we need to work on” questions about “the purpose of existence and whether God exists.”
Asked if the answer to the questions could be God, he said
there could be something incredibly grand and incomprehensible and beyond our present understanding.
That’s God,” answered Francis Collins, a genome scientist and Christian convert.
Beautiful. This is my idea of God. I don’t believe God is an individual person or set of persons, and neither did the premier Catholic thinker of the twentieth century, Karl Rahner. He emphasized that God cannot be merely an individual alongside other individuals.
The ideas of great Christian thinkers resemble those of other spiritualities. This would become clear if we had informed discussions about God in public discourse.

Atheists and Mother Teresa
What have atheists, Mother Teresa, and fundamentalists held in common? They’ve been stuck on the same impossible interpretation of religious language.

Before anyone has heart failure, I hasten to say that I admired Mother Teresa lavishly for the unbelievable depth of her self-sacrifice. But she disappointed me when she fought for regressive and repressive religiosity.

I was reminded of that part of her history by atheist Christopher Hitchens in Newsweek. The author of God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, he reports that Mother Teresa “violently opposed” the reforms of Vatican II and comments, “What could be a clearer indication of a deep need to suppress all doubt, both in herself and others?”

He correctly analyzes the reason for her agony of doubt:
It is the inevitable result of a dogma that asks people to believe impossible things and then makes them feel abject and guilty when their innate reason rebels.
Right on. But Christopher Hitchens, wait! Don’t assume the same of all religious people. In an excellent Washington Post review of God Is Not Great, Stephen Prothero wrote that Hitchens’belligerent atheism “assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery.”
Again, right on! Describing naïvete in religious people, Hitchens exposes his own naïvete by assuming that the empty and literal belief of his description captures all religion and spirituality. As Prothero comments,
If this is religion, then by all means we should have less of it . . . I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject.
While irrelevant dogmas and religious rules dominate the airwaves, deep and pure experience with inner divinity flourishes under the surface. I invite atheists and religious literalists alike to give less attention to the Three Guys in the Sky and more to authentic spirituality radiating from within.

Dear Mother Teresa! How I wish she had been able to get past the external deity, the idol, the god, the “He,” the man-like being out there somewhere. And how I wish the same for atheists and all religious people!

Mystics, atheists, & Mother Teresa, August 29, 2008
The news that Mother Teresa doubted the existence of God gave atheists grist for their mill. But I insist that atheists and many Christians share an image of God that leads both groups astray and cannot be sustained in deep reflection—an external deity, a humanlike individual, a separate being. Theist belief in such a god is rightly denigrated by atheists.

Mystics, who experience what is called God more closely than the rest of us, tell us that It is not to be described as any thing or any person. I’ve not seen a better description of It than the one Huston Smith passes on from the yogas of Hinduism. He writes that the “only literally accurate description of the Unsearchable” is to say, “not this . . . not this,” of everything in the universe. “What remains will be God.”

This realization is common among mystic seers, whatever their tradition. In Christianity, apophatic mysticism says God is no thing and every thing. The Tao de Ching begins with the words, “The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.” In other words, It’s unknowable, indescribable. Those who experience It and try to find words for It fail, but they can’t stop trying.

Mystics experience this mysterious something, but they are conditioned by background, by language and culture. So Christian mystics usually begin with the Jesus image but their meditation transcends this image.

Thomas Merton converted from communism to Catholicism and became a Trappist monk. Toward the end of his life he also became a Zen Buddhist, like Thich Nhât Hanh mingling Buddhism with Christianity. In one of Merton’s works on Zen Buddhism, he expressed astonishment that he had more in common with Zen Buddhists than with members of his own religion. Since Merton, Catholic monastics follow his example of merging traditions.

I wish Mother Teresa had strayed from literal Christian belief. She would not have written, "Jesus has a very special love for you,” and then been assailed with “darkness,” “loneliness,” and “torture” when she looked for God. She would have known that a human figure can lead us to what we call God, but cannot be It.

What I wish for theists like Mother Teresa I also wish for atheists—the direct experience of the something that is the Ground and Source of all that is or could be. I finish with a mystic’s statement I like very much: “It is best to have an intimate relationship with God and best not to insist that she exists.”

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think we all know that atheists and scientists don't have that many great insights about God and religion. In fact, many of their ideas about God are simple-minded. Sure, we can say that atheists and scientists can be spiritual as well, but in general, they still tend to be spiritually less mature than your average devout Christian.

As for Christian spirituality being "cramped", I think most people who say that just haven't yet tapped into the ocean of spiritual riches in Christianity. But I think one does have to believe and accept Christianity first, which does mean accepting the only-through-Jesus claim. Sorry if that offends other religions, but the fact is that people find Christianity preferable to most of the religions that have existed in human history. Maybe some religions are simply better than others, just as some forms of government are better than others? Certainly you don't think Islam, for example, can hold a candle to Buddhism or Christianity, do you?

You say that the Christian idea of God is "specific", which I guess is supposed to mean that it is "cramped". But then you say that most Christians think of God as a "mysterious source of everything", which is actually more vague than specific. So the Christian understanding of God is quite broad to begin with; its misleading to say that we actually have to go outside of Christianity to find all the liberating concepts of God that people are looking for. The Francis Collins idea of God which you find so beautiful is actually quite compatible with the Christian idea of God. (And I don't believe Karl Rahner's idea of God is as unorthodox as you insinuate.)

Regardless, even the specific Christian ideas about God and, in particular, about Jesus, do not contradict the historical Jesus discovered by scripture scholars. Jesus of Nazareth did claim he was God and he did die for others. Certainly, we can't say that we know for sure that he did not. There isn't enough a consensus among scholars for that. And just because we don't have all of Jesus' words documented, does not mean we are free to put words into his mouth. We can quite easily guess what Jesus would have said about abortion and homosexuality, simply from the assumption that he was a devout Jew. It would be ridiculous to seriously hypothesize that Jesus would have condoned these things if he did not condone things like adultery and divorce. The morality (especially the sexual morality) that Jesus espoused was, in the main, quite conventional.

Jeanette said...

"We all know" simply states prevailing views of "your average devout Christian," who "knows" that Christianity is preferable while knowing little about other religions and nothing about the emerging spirituality uniting all spiritual currents, religious and secular.
Evidently two misapprehensions need to be cleared up. Yes, of course the beautiful idea of God is compatible with the Christian one. That's the point! And Rahner is eminently orthodox.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Robert Barron from the Archdiocese of Chicago, often talks about the fact that God is not one being amongst all the other beings of the Universe, but rather the incomprehensible ground of all existence; completely other in relation to all other beings. Is that what Karl Rahner and you are referring to?

He points to the Nominalism of Ockham and its later influence on thought as the reason for this way of looking at God as just a really big and powerful version of the rest of us, rather as something completely and qualitatively different who is the source of our Being.

Anyways I found that comment interesting about Dawkins. That it seems that what he is open to is what the best of Christian tradition is really saying about God.

Tom said...

The last comment about the image of God mentioning Dawkins and Rahner was mine. I didn't realize that this was posted 4 years ago, I'm sure you barely remember even writing it.

Jeanette said...

I agree. Dawkins and other atheists who don't deny the existence of spiritual reality share much common ground with serious Christian theologians.
But too many atheists are hung up on the silliness of literal Christian belief in myth and don't graduate to sober reflection on spiritual reality.