Mother Teresa, Divine Hiddenness, and Social Justice
Mother Teresa’s Internal Darkness
The life of Mother Teresa has once again occupied the minds of many due to both the recent announcement of her pending canonization and a tragic terrorist attack made on a Sisters of Charity convent in Yemen, which reminds us of the extraordinary sacrifices her followers continue to make for the poorest among us. Scathing criticism of Mother Teresa’s unconventional nursing practices, questionable political associations, and misallocation of donated funds has also re-emerged in light of the current public interest in her ministry.
However, in the context of Holy Week and especially Good Friday, the dying words of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:26) have led me to reflect on the interior darkness and implacable feeling of abandonment Mother Teresa attests to have experienced while serving in the slums of Calcutta. With the revelatory publication of Come Be My Light – a posthumous collection of some of Mother Teresa’s personal letters written to her spiritual advisors – Mother Teresa makes the surprising confession that she struggles with believing in God given God’s apparent hiddenness and lack of consolation. In one of the most detailed descriptions of her internal darkness, she writes the following:
“In the darkness . . . Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The child of Your love – and now become as the most hated one – the one You have thrown away as unwanted – unloved. I call, I cling, I want – and there is no One to answer – no, No One on Whom I can cling – no, No One. – Alone. . . . I have no faith. – I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd my heart – and make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them – because of the blasphemy. – If there be God, please forgive me. . . . I am told God loves me – and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul.”
Mother Teresa’s confession seems to suggest that she struggles with faith or trust because she does not sense God’s presence. Though I think this is obviously true, I think that her felt darkness was likely more fundamental than a mere lack of trust. She discloses that she possesses many unanswered questions that she is afraid to uncover out of fear of committing blasphemy. In a subsequent letter, the reader gains some insight into what the content of such questions might have been:
“They say people in hell suffer eternal pain because of the loss of God – they would go through all that suffering if they had just a little hope of possessing God. – In my soul I feel just that terrible pain of loss – of God not wanting me – of God not being God – of God not really existing (Jesus, please forgive my blasphemies – I have been to told to write everything).”
In this portion of the letter, Mother Teresa is more explicit about the seemingly blasphemous questions she harbors within. As we see, Mother Teresa’s lack of trust is symptomatic of her lack of confidence in the claim that God exists. It seems, therefore, that a plausible interpretation of her internal mental situation was that the absence of awareness of God’s presence led her to question the truth of God’s existence.
This interpretation of Mother Teresa’s interior darkness, I think, has an interesting structural similarity to a recent problem in contemporary philosophy of religion, which is the problem of divine hiddenness. Moreover, I think that Mother Teresa’s positive theological construal of God’s hiddenness offers a possible and compelling solution to the problem.
The Problem of Divine Hiddenness
The problem of divine hiddenness probably riddles most believers who try to reflect about how God should interact with the world given God’s supposed loving and personal nature. In its colloquial form, the problem of divine hiddenness boils down to the question: Why doesn’t God make Godself more evident to people, especially since God is thought to want to be in a relationship with human creatures?
I have known about this problem since my undergraduate days as a philosophy major; however, the problem did not become as bothersome to me until I became a father. After my wife courageously endured a grueling 40-hour labor, my son was held in the NICU where he was being examined for possible epilepsy. Fortunately, all of the exams came back negative and the pediatrician’s initial evaluation of my son’s behavior was ruled out. However, while my son was in the NICU, I found myself desperately wanting to be with my son and wanting him to know that I was there, either by gently holding his hand or with a subtle whisper in his ear, “Daddy is here; everything will be alright.”
As a result of this trying experience as a new father, I developed a deep intuition – one that did not carry the same glaring aura when I was just in college – that any father who is loving would desire both to be with their children and for their children to know about his loving presence. It is this intuition that is operative and at the core of the problem of divine hiddenness.
J.L. Schellenberg, a contemporary philosopher of religion, is largely responsible for articulating and defending the problem of divine hiddenness, which he has done in both advanced and introductory formats. According to Schellenberg, there seems to be a tension between a perfectly loving and all-powerful God existing, on the one hand, and what he calls nonresistant nonbelievers, on the other. What is a nonresistant nonbeliever?
For Schellenberg, a nonresistant nonbeliever could be characterized as certain former believers – people who used to believe in God and presently concede that it would be a good thing to believe, but after a careful examination of all of the evidence pro and con for God’s existence, come to the conclusion that the evidence is insufficient for reasonable belief. At this point, the intuition I mentioned above becomes relevant: Wouldn’t a loving God want to make Godself known to people who actively seek to be in divine relationship by providing stronger evidence? If God is like a perfectly loving parent, doesn’t God’s love entail the provision of sufficient evidence so that none of God’s creaturely children who are actively seeking is outside of relationship with God?
There are two commonly proposed solutions to the problem of divine hiddenness. The first response grants that God is hidden in the sense that there is insufficient evidence for belief, but offers various great goods that could be realized by virtue of hiddenness (e.g. God’s hiddenness allows human creatures to more significantly trust in God, or to freely choose moral actions, or to more steadfastly seek after God, etc.). The second response holds that God is not hidden in the sense that there is sufficient evidence for belief, and then goes on to argue that there are no nonresistant believers, because, “no one is righteous . . . no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10-11).
I think most would find the first response more promising only because to defend the second might appear provincial or arrogant. For example, Mother Teresa seemed to struggle with significant doubts with respect to belief in God, and if anyone is going to qualify as a nonresistant nonbeliever, it is going to be her. Certainly, many people might deceive themselves about how diligently they seek to know God, but surely there are at least some rare cases (like Mother Teresa) that count as exceptions.
But even if the first response is more promising, it still encounters its own problems. That is, couldn’t an all-knowing God know how to modulate the quality and quantity of evidence so that it didn’t gravely jeopardize the realization of the aforementioned goods?
Both responses, if properly developed, could offer interesting solutions to the problem of divine hiddenness, and indeed, many philosophers and theologians have developed these responses in rigorous ways. However, I want to propose a possible solution that serves as a sort of middle-way between the two from above. The defense that I want to offer affirms that God is not hidden in the sense that God has provided sufficient evidence for belief and that there are nonresistant nonbelievers, people who fail to believe in God at no immediate fault of their own.
A Defense from Social Sin
Recall that the second response to divine hiddenness maintains that there are no nonresistant nonbelievers because all persons are individually sinful. For the Protestant theologian, John Calvin, sin has a damaging effect on one’s cognitive and affective faculties, and thus, impairs one’s natural ability to sense the divine. If sin does in fact have this noetic effect on our faculties, then it is plausible that other types of sin will have a similarly deleterious effect, like, for example, social sin. Social sin manifests itself in the form of structural injustices, e.g., racism, widespread poverty, genocide, excessive consumerism, environmental degradation, factory farming, militarism, and so on. If social sin can have a noetic effect on one’s cognitive faculties, then it could be the case that (1) God is not hidden in the sense that God provides sufficient evidence, (2) some persons are intellectually and affectively disposed to knowing God, but (3) the social environment fosters a confused and damaging milieu for the function of one’s faculties.
In case the notion that one’s social environment can negatively affect the functionality of one’s cognitive faculties is not clear, consider the following story. Imagine that a scuba diver, Emma, finds herself in a really unfortunate situation. While exploring an underwater cavern off the coast of Mexico, Emma’s L.E.D. light flickers and suddenly gives out, leaving her in pitch-black and unable to see her surroundings. Emma has a strong will to survive; yet, since the cavern is now pitch-black, Emma’s perceptual faculty is not able to function properly. Furthermore, since she is underwater, anything she hears is opaque and distorted, rendering her auditory faculty severely impaired. Moreover, since the environment prevents her from seeing, Emma is not able to direct herself to anything in particular and thereby use her sense of touch to hopefully feel herself out of the cavern. Emma’s faculties are fully functional, but the dark, underwater environment she now finds herself in prevents her sensory faculties from properly functioning.
Perhaps a similar phenomenon occurs with respect to our cognitive faculties such that the various social injustices and structural dispositions that transpire in the world create cognitive contexts that are unfavorable for our intellects to apprehend what is true and right and our will to be directed toward what is good. For example, a highly militarist social milieu might persistently challenge a personally fostered disposition toward peace-making; a highly consumerist society might hinder an individual’s genuine desire to understand true value; environmental degradation in one’s community might inhibit one’s desire to intuit beauty in nature; the subordination of women in a social setting might thwart one’s inclination to perceive all human persons created as equal. Along similar lines, Benedict XVI makes the interesting point in Charity in Truth that a “culture of death” in which practices of manipulating and dictating the conditions of life (i.e., In vitro fertilization, embryo research, cloning, abortion, eugenics, etc.) are so prevalent can have the tendency to “foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life” (#75). If that’s the case, then such a culture could pose a negative cognitive environment for one’s attempt to seek the supernatural. In all of these cases, the individual’s intellect and will are properly functioning, but the corrupted social context severely impedes their ability to operate.
If it is plausible that social environments have this effect on our cognitive abilities, then it seems equally plausible that a corrupted social environment could restrict one’s ability to know God. The Bible routinely claims that one’s individual sin interferes with one’s relationship with God, but I think it is reasonable to hold that corporate sin could also interfere with one’s ability to know God, as in the case when God excoriates the Hebrew people for ignoring the systems of oppression and poverty (e.g., “bonds of injustice,” Isa. 58-59). Depending on the truth of this proposal, this defense from social sin gives an interesting and novel response to the problem of divine hiddenness. If social sin has inhibiting consequences for the functionality of our cognitive faculties, then it could nevertheless be the case that God provides sufficient evidence for belief and that there are nonbelievers who are intellectually and affectively nonresistant to God, but that our ability to adequately access and evaluate the evidence that God has provided is weakened by the prevalence of social sin.
Knowing God through Social Solidarity
At this point, one might raise various questions about the efficacy of social sin on our cognitive faculties. If social sin could have such an impeding effect, why do demographics indicate that religion is globally ubiquitous? Given the pervasiveness of social sin and structural injustice in the world, wouldn’t we expect far less theistic belief? Moreover, even if social sin has this effect, why would God allow our cognitive faculties to be hindered in this way? I will address both questions in turn.
The current demographics of theistic belief I think actually confirm the proposal that social sin negatively impedes our cognitive faculties. Though belief in a God is globally widespread, conceptions of God vary significantly from culture to culture, and varying conceptions of God is what one would expect if the structural sins of different social environments had an impairing effect on our cognitive abilities.
To use the example of Emma the scuba diver again, we could imagine that there is another diver, Aiden, who is exploring a neighboring underwater cavern that branched off from the cavern that Emma is exploring. Let’s suppose that Aiden’s L.E.D. light also suddenly gives out, leaving him in a dark, underwater environment. However, unlike Emma’s situation where she is in a pitch-black cavern, Aiden’s situation is not as dire since hazy sunrays peak through openings at the ceiling and dimly light his cavern. Aiden’s environment still makes it difficult to sense his surroundings, but his perceptual faculty, unlike Emma’s, is not as radically impaired and he is able to more accurately navigate his way toward the opening of the cavern.
Analogously, the unique social and structural injustices within various cultures and communities might impose different noetic effects on people’s cognitive faculties, perhaps resulting in some environments being more or less conducive to knowing God. Just like Emma and Aiden might have diverging conceptions of the location of the cavern’s opening, so too might people in different social environments have diverging conceptions of God. Thus, rather than thinking that the demographics of theistic belief undermine my proposal, to the contrary, I think that it offers a partial explanation for the plurality of theistic belief.
Even if all of this were true, why would God allow evidence of his existence to be obscured by social sins and structural injustices? We can’t pretend to arrive at conclusive answers when trying to understand God’s reasons for action. However, my proposed account seems to imply that God might allow social sin to have such an obstructing noetic effect because a possible significant good could follow from it, namely, that if one truly desires to know God more fully, then knowing God does not just require an individualized intellectual and affective conversion, but also a commitment and engagement with the social issues in one’s community and in the world. Unlike the case of Emma and Aiden who have no control over fixing the undermining effects of their underwater environment, we have significant influence over correcting and healing the injustices in our social environments. Indeed, the Bible attests to the fact that God’s hope for the world is much broader than individual salvation, but the assembly of a kingdom of heaven that is built on the foundation of love, justice, and solidarity. As such, God’s sanctioning of social sin to inhibit the functionality of our cognitive faculties has the possible upside of propelling us to acts of social engagement and solidarity with the oppressed so that God’s kingdom can be established and that evidence of God’s presence can be more plainly experienced. Knowing God and loving one’s neighbor, therefore, are intimately related.
Although some think that Mother Teresa struggled with the hiddenness of God till the end of her life, she eventually construed the feeling of divine abandonment as a means by which to subjectively identify with the poor in Calcutta. The agony that God’s hiddenness invoked gave her insight into how it might feel for the poor and oppressed to be abandoned by their families, friends, and communities, the realization of which spurred her to deeper forms of solidarity that went beyond meeting the mere material needs of the poor. Her efforts in solidarity brought her to the understanding that the outward appearance of the poor disguises the actual presence of Christ, as is thought to be the case with the outward appearance of the bread and wine in the Eucharist. However, Mother Teresa believed that it was only by active and loving engagement with the poor that the superficial and obscuring appearances would fade and one would be able to sense Jesus as truly present. For Mother Teresa, social justice is the best response to problem of divine hiddenness.
Mother Teresa’s theology of poverty can be generalized to other social sins and negative structural dispositions. If one agrees with Mother Teresa that abject poverty can disguise the true presence of Christ, then it is plausible that other social injustices have a similar impeding effect on our intellectual and affective abilities. Yet, it is possible that God allows social sin to hinder our cognitive abilities because a significant good could follow from it; that is, insofar as one is nonresistant to knowing God, one should seek to know God not just in introspection, but also through deep forms of solidarity and engagement with the bonds of injustice, which obscure the evidence of God’s presence in the world. Such social engagement allows human creatures to be involved in the process of cultivating the kingdom of God on earth and changing our social environment to one that is more conducive for our faculties to experience and know God.