Thanks to her church, the sorrow of Mother Teresa’s loss of faith has been plastered all over the media in the past few days, provoking commentary from atheists and orthodox with seldom a word from those of us who have found spiritual peace somewhere in between those two extremes.
An article in Time Magazine by David Van Biema set the stage: “A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever--or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, ‘neither in her heart or in the eucharist.’”
I don’t buy the clerical justification for violating Teresa’s trust by publishing her letters. As I read the pain-filled excerpts included in Van Biema’s article, I felt only compassion and regret for the emotional devastation she endured while laboring for decades in the slums of Calcutta.
I suspect Mother Teresa, like many of us, lost faith in an image of the divine described in a column by James Carroll in the Boston Globe as “the all-powerful, all-knowing, unmoved Mover; the God of damnation, supernatural intervention, salvation-through-appeasement, patriarchy, Puritanism, war, etc.”
I’m guessing, however, that none of Teresa’s confessors ever suggested to her an alternative understanding of God that emerges, for example, in process theology.
In their book, Process Theology, an Introductory Exposition, authors John Cobb and David Griffin state at the outset that process theology rejects several traditional attributes of God:
As “divine lawgiver and judge, who has proclaimed an arbitrary set of moral rules…and who will punish offenders;”
As “unchangeable, passionless, and absolute.”
As “controlling power.” God isn’t the almighty boss who determines every detail of the world ― a cruel notion that makes God responsible for all the horrific tragedies down through the ages, leaving the bereft to ask questions such as why several miners died in last year’s Sago mine disaster and only one survived;
As “sanctioner of the status quo.” Obedience to God does not require preserving the status quo.
The assignment of power is obviously a major difference between traditional notions of God and the process model. Process theology resists conventional hierarchies, beginning with divinity, by claiming, “God can’t control life but acts to nurture and sustain it.”
The God of process theology does not seek power over human beings, but seeks instead to empower us by calling us to faithful partnership as co-creators of the world in which we live.
That means we have to grow up and take responsibility for ourselves — we can no longer get away with blaming God for everything that goes wrong – our action or inaction contributes to the outcomes in everyday reality. For instance, investigations later revealed that human negligence played a role in the Sago Mine tragedy.
The source of all creativity and novelty in the universe, the God of process theology never resorts to force, but affirms our free will by unceasingly inviting us toward the best possible response to each newly arising set of circumstances, the response offering the greatest possible good for all concerned.
However, those sacred impulses, received primarily at the level of our unconscious, must compete with previous conditioning, advice from others, television commercials, attack ads in political campaigns, nagging relatives, and other influences.
It follows that process theology encourages an occasional time-out from our daily lives to tune into to the sacred in meditation or contemplative prayer.
The good news is that no matter what befalls us, God is there with us, an ever-present spiritual companion in both our suffering and our joy.
From her letters, it would seem that Mother Teresa’s expectations of God went beyond the spiritual to the satisfaction of her emotional needs, more likely to be found in relationships with other human beings. Accordingly, process theology encourages our participation in mutual community, which tragically may not have been available to Teresa.
Finally, process theology ― in another break with tradition ― teaches us that God’s love is not reserved only for the group with whom we affiliate. As Ian Barbour, among others, has suggested, process theology offers a bridge between religions including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism; and also between science and religion; and sometimes even between liberals and conservatives.
Forrest Church, pastor of All Souls Unitarian-Universalist Church, New York City, puts it this way: “In what I call the Cathedral of the World, there are millions of windows…each illuminating life's meaning. In this respect, we are many. But we are also one, for the one Light shines through every window. No individual, however spiritually gifted, can see this Light—Truth or God, call it what you will—directly. We cannot look God in the eye any more than we can stare at the sun without going blind. This should counsel humility and mutual respect for those whose reflections on ultimate meaning differ from our own.”
On that note, some ten years after her death, may Mother Teresa be allowed to rest in peace.
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