This book's cover sports a suggestive subtitle: "Following Mother Teresa in search of an authentic life", I imagine that an unsuspecting reader who pi...moreThis book's cover sports a suggestive subtitle: "Following Mother Teresa in search of an authentic life", I imagine that an unsuspecting reader who picks this book in the Spirituality aisle in a bookstore would probably think that it is one of the seemingly endless books extolling the virtues of 'The Living Saint of Calcutta'. If so, after reading this memoir, he or she will either feel surprised, justified or appalled, depending on what their preconceived notions of the woman whom thousands of her sisters simply called 'Mother' was. According to Mary Johnson, a.k.a Sister Donata, who spent twenty years as a 'spouse of the crucified Christ' in the Missionaries of Charity, Mother was never this woman who 'had no worries and always shone with joy', as others in her order has claimed, instead, she was sometimes 'angry, confused, worried, disappointed and lonely' --- and liked candy --- in other words, she was human, subject to the same human frailties like the rest of us.
One of the most striking of these human qualities is her capacity of doubting the existence of the very God that she so fiercely served, something that only came out in a book written by the priest who was her spiritual confidante years after her death (but prior to her beatification). "Where is my faith?", Mother Teresa wrote, "--- even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness... --- I have no faith. --- I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd my heart --- & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me --- I am afraid to uncover them --- because of the blasphemy". This doubt tormented her until the day she died. Who would have known? Those who want to keep her on a saintly pedestal downplay this life-long crisis of faith and spin it into a 'trial of faith', a sort of a final obstacle course towards sainthood. But Mary Johnson, who had extensively studied and taught Mother Teresa's theology as a novice mistress, suspects that "Mother's refusal to uncover those questions may cause her darkness to linger". And not only did this unresolved issue caused great personal suffering for her, but it also gave her an idea that "her feelings of 'torture and pain' pleases God. Over the years, she encouraged her spiritual daughters to become 'victims of divine love'. Mother often tells the sick, 'Suffering is the kiss of Jesus' ". This translated into deliberately wearing sandals that are too small for years until her toes became deformed, harsh 'discipline' (self-scourging with knotted ropes and spiked armbands), deliberate sleep deprivation and other 'sacrifices' for her nuns, and --- if these reports here https://www.facebook.com/missionaries... are accurate --- substandard, even inhumane care in her hospices. If human suffering, even easily preventable ones, pleases God, why should terminal cancer patients get powerful analgesics that can relieve their pain?*
The most interesting part in this book for me is Mary's description of the effect of such ethos on the nuns, including herself. Starved of even simple friendships (the sisters may only love their 'crucified spouse'), some of the sisters, including Sister Donata, got into sexual relationships with other nuns and priests. Required by their vow to obey blindly, some nuns, especially the superiors, became harsh, petty enforcers of dogma and authority. Sisters were encouraged to snitch on priests who betrayed even the slightest deviation from the approved party line --- and on other sisters. Curtains in the basement of a mission house became a fiercely contested isssue. On the other hand, a known sexual predator was allowed to take final vows, a good priest's career was almost destroyed for nothing, and the door towards higher theological education for the sisters was slammed shut because "statistics showed the more education the sisters receive, the more likely they were to leave".
"So much depends on the stories we tell ourselves, and on the questions we ask, or fail to ask".
* There are refutations, or at least justifications, for these accusations. Honestly, I don't know how valid these criticisms are, but if true, how appalling! (less)
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. There were lots of forged writings in the ancient world, including biblical ones.
2. Out of...moreWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. There were lots of forged writings in the ancient world, including biblical ones.
2. Out of the 27 books of the New Testament, 10 might have been forged works --- depending on which biblical scholar you talked to.
3. Some modern-day scholars of biblical textual criticism prefer to call them “pseudepigrapha” (“falsely attributed”), but this term is misleading, as the authors of these works intended to pass themselves off as someone else, typically an apostle or someone who was perceived as having authority in the early church, so these works should properly be deemed forgeries.
4. Other scholars argue that writing under someone else’s name, usually a master or leader of a religious/philosophical school is an acceptable practice in the ancient world. Biblical writers who wrote as Peter, Paul or any other authority figures merely followed this tradition. However, there is no evidence whatsoever that such a practice was deemed acceptable by people at that time: forgery, as it is now, was roundly condemned.
5. The inclusion of these forged works explains factual and theological inconsistencies in the New Testament. Did Paul forbid women leaders in the church or not? Did Peter and Paul get along famously from the beginning, or was there any friction between them? Did Peter think that sharing a (presumably non-Kosher) meal with Gentile converts OK or not? Did Paul think that physical resurrection is a future event that will happen at the end of time or something that had already happened?
6. Pontius Pilate, the man who ordered Jesus to be crucified, is a saint in the Abyssinian Church. This is largely due to forgeries that exonerated him from executing Jesus, placing the blame squarely on the ‘perfidious Jews’ instead.
7. Thomas is Jesus’ twin brother, at least according to the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic forgery from the Second Century.
8. According to the Acts of Peter, another non-canonical forgery, Peter proved himself as a true, miracle-working man of God by raising a smoked tuna from the dead.
9. Jesus was a mischievous 5-year old, according to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an ancient forgery fan fiction:
“The account begins with Jesus as a five-year-old playing by a stream near his home in Nazareth. The young Jesus gathers some of the water of the stream into a pool and orders it to become pure. And it does so, by his word alone. Jesus then stops down and forms twelve birds out of the mud. A Jewish man who is walking by becomes upset, because it is Sabbath and Jesus has violated the law by “working.” The man heads off to tell Joseph what his sons has done, and Joseph rushes to the stream to upbraid the boy for breaking the Sabbath. In response, Jesus claps his hands and cries out to the birds to come to life and fly away, and they do so. Here Jesus is shown to be above the law and to be the lord of life. Beyond that he has gotten off the hook with his father by destroying, in effect, any incriminating evidence. Mud birds? What birds?” *
10. If you had believed that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and discovered otherwise through your textual criticism studies, you will want to spread the word with a missionary zeal.
*The Koran 5.110: " When Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour unto thee and unto thy mother; how I strengthened thee with the holy Spirit, so that thou spakest unto mankind in the cradle as in maturity; and how I taught thee the Scripture and Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and how thou didst shape of clay as it were the likeness of a bird by My permission, and didst blow upon it and it was a bird by My permission, and thou didst heal him who was born blind and the leper by My permission; and how thou didst raise the dead by My permission; and how I restrained the Children of Israel from (harming) thee when thou camest unto them with clear proofs, and those of them who disbelieved exclaimed: This is naught else than mere magic;" (less)
Being neither Muslim nor Western, but nevertheless a citizen of what CNN and other Western media regularly dub “the world’s largest Muslim nation*”, I...more Being neither Muslim nor Western, but nevertheless a citizen of what CNN and other Western media regularly dub “the world’s largest Muslim nation*”, I often feel baffled by the so-called “clash of civilizations” between these two entities. And lately, not just baffled, but also profoundly disturbed by the scale and frequency of sectarian violence in my country, the majority of which allegedly perpetrated by those the author of this book calls “jihadists”. The overwhelming majority of Indonesians are no doubt moderate and tolerant, but there is no denying the fact that acts of violent extremism have increased exponentially and that at times, the perpetrators seem to have acted with impunity. Is this the inevitable result of a Huntingtonian clash of civilizations?
Tamim Ansary, an Afghan-American “secular Muslim”, thinks that it is something else altogether:
“The conflict wracking the modern world is not, I think, best understood as a “clash of civilizations”, if that proposition means we’re-different-so-we-must-fight-until-there’s-only-one-of us. It’s better understood as the friction generated by two mismatched world histories intersecting.”
The key word here is “mismatched” --- the West and the Muslim world have been developing more or less separately for centuries and have been talking at cross purposes for much of their (relatively recent) shared history:
“Did the perpetrators of 9/11 really see themselves at striking a blow against freedom and democracy? Is hatred of freedom the passion that drives militantly political Islamist extremist today? If so, you won’t find it in jihadist discourse, which typically focuses, not on freedom and its opposite, nor on democracy and its opposite, but on discipline versus decadence, moral purity versus moral corruption, terms that come out of centuries of Western dominance in Islamic societies and the corresponding fragmentation of communities and families there, the erosion of Islamic social values, the proliferation of liquor, the replacement of religion with entertainment, and the secularization of the rich elite along with the ever hardening gap between rich and poor.
One side charges, “You are decadent.” The other side retorts, “We are free.” These are not opposing contentions; they ‘re nonsequiturs.”
Ansary is no apologist and is not interested in sweeping away potentially divisive issues under the rug of political correctness:
“On the other side, I often hear liberal Muslims in the United States say that “jihad just means ‘trying to be a good person,’” suggesting that only anti-Muslim bigots think the term has something to do with violence. But they ignore what jihad has meant to Muslims in the course of history dating back to the lifetime of Prophet Muhammad himself. Anyone who claims that jihad has nothing to do with violence must account for the warfare that the earliest Muslims called “jihad.”
Like the holy books of other so-called Abrahamic religions, the Koran contains verses that might be interpreted as advocating violent acts.
Likewise, he doesn’t shy away from the darker side of Islamic history. Islam, though originally conceived as an admirably “epic, devotional social project”, was also a political entity. And very soon after Muhammad’s death, it became an empire. An empire of epic proportions that stretched over continents and ruled millions of non-Muslims. Long before Westerners colonized the Muslim world, Islamic empires ruled over large swathes of Christendom. And like other empires, including those that adhered to Christianity or other religions, it was not immune of the usual bloody internecine fighting --- some involving Muhammad’s close relatives and companions --- and oppression of people who became their subjects.
Ansary tells the rest of Islamic history in a light, conversational style that is eminently readable, even if he necessarily simplifies certain aspects of it (perfectly understandable, considering that he has to cover 1,300 years of history in a relatively slim book). We learn of the different interpretations of Islam, ranging from the comparatively liberal, tolerant Sufism to the literal, rigid Salafism and Wahabism. We also learn of the theological and racial factors that gave birth to Shiism and other schisms in Islam. We are reminded of how Islamic scholars “saved” the works of Greek philosophers, long forgotten in the West, and of the reasons why despite of that, science and technology failed to develop during the Abbasid Caliphate’s golden age. And of how the Crusades, a pivotal event in European history, was barely a blip in the Muslim narrative (the most traumatic event in Islam’s history is instead the 13th century Mongol invasion, which had an impact akin to the Black Death in Europe).
The most interesting, and pertinent part of the narrative for me is the chapters that cover the interaction between the West and the Islamic world in the last two centuries, as the roots of the current conflict could be traced to the events that happened in those crucial eras. The gist of it is that Western colonialism and continuing meddling in Muslim countries, aided by their corrupt and/or westernized elites, fuels extremist rage:
“Helping the Iraqis was a way to weaken Iran and possibly keep the Soviets at bay. Here again as a catastrophic intertwining of the Muslim and Western narrative still about secular modernism versus back-to-source Islamism, the other still about superpower rivalry and control of oil, though couched in rhetoric about democracy and totalitarianism.”
“In the Muslim world, the difference was not just economic but cultural and therefore the gulf between the worlds fed alienation and produced a more anti-colonialist flavor of resentment, but against the nation’s own elite. This resentment led to occasional civil unrest. Since these culturally divided countries had no democratic institutions to mediate disputes, governments casually resorted to force to suppress disorder.”
A plausible explanation for conflicts in Muslim countries in the Middle East, but probably not entirely adequate to explain sectarian violence in other Muslim countries which are democratic, and where Western interference is minimal, like Indonesia. I wish Ansary had spent some pages discussing such countries, but perhaps they are considered too peripheral in comparison to the Middle East to worth analyzing.
* Indonesia is not a Muslim country, in the sense that it is not based on Islam (or any other religion). Indonesia’s state ideology, Pancasila, and its constitution guarantee the freedom of religion for all of its citizens. (less)
WARNING: avoid this review if you are someone who believes that religion is one of the three topics that should not be discussed at the dinner table.
C...moreWARNING: avoid this review if you are someone who believes that religion is one of the three topics that should not be discussed at the dinner table.
Catholicism 101: Final Exam
Required Text: The Catholic Church A Short History, Hans Kung, trans. John Bowden, Modern Library chronicles, 2003. Hereinafter referred to as “short history”.
1. According to the short history, who founded the Catholic Church?
A. Why, Jesus himself, of course. Next question. B. Peter, who was entrusted to build the Church by Jesus and became the first Pope (see question no. 3). C. Paul, who founded the first churches in the Gentile world. D. His followers. Jesus did not found the Church, but from the earliest times, it has been a fellowship of those who believe in Christ.
2. Was Jesus Catholic?
A. Isn’t that obvious? What the Catholic Church has always said and intended is what Jesus Christ himself originally said and intended, so in principle Jesus himself would already been a Catholic. If you are a Traditional Catholic, it is mandatory for you to choose this answer. B. Of course not! As everyone knows, he was a Methodist, or at least a sort of a Protestant. C. No. To call Jesus “Catholic” would be an anachronism, since the Church has not been founded yet during his lifetime. He was a Jew through and through. D. It is doubtful whether a Church which is: a. rigidly hierarchical; b. stubbornly patriarchal; and c. into celibacy as a condition for its priests could claim Jesus as its own, when his teachings are contrary to such principles.
3. The Catholic Church bases its authority on Peter, who was the first Bishop of Rome. Does this claim have any scriptural or historical basis?
A. Of course! The Church wouldn’t make such claims without clear evidence. It’s all there in my sixth grade Catechism book. B. No. Such claims have no historical basis whatsoever, not to mention scriptural. Pure Papist propaganda! C. Again, it’s an anachronism. There was no Catholic Church during Peter’s lifetime. D. We simply do not have any conclusive evidence, biblical or otherwise, that Peter was ever the first Bishop of Rome. And more importantly, there is also no evidence that the Bishop of Rome held any primacy over other Christian bishops during Peter's lifetime.
4. When did the requirement for priestly celibacy became mandatory in the Catholic Church?
A. It has always been mandatory for priests to be celibate since Jesus and Paul were celibates. B. There has never been any such requirements prior to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1209. C. It was promulgated by Pope Innocent III in the 13th century, but was never actively enforced until relatively late in the 16th century. D. After the Second Lateran Council of 1139, when priestly marriages were regarded as a priori invalid, priests’ wives were regarded as concubines, and priests' children officially became the church's property as slaves, resulting in furious mass protest by the clergy.
5. The proceedings against the accused are secret. The informants are unknown. There is no cross-examination of witnesses, nor are there any experts. Accusers and judges are identical. Any appeal to an independent court is ruled out or is useless. These are the principles of which court?
A. The Roman Inquisition during the middle ages. But it’s much better now, as heretics are no longer burned at the stakes. B. The Superior Court of Judicature during the Salem witch trials. C. The People’s Court of North Korea. D. The Holy Office; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the modern version of the Roman Inquisition.
6. How did the doctrine of papal infallibility came into being?
A. It’s biblical and should not be questioned by any loyal Catholic. B. More Papist propaganda! C. It originated from the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and other fathers of the church. D. It was not officially promulgated until the controversial First Vatican Council in 1871, where its definition was challenged (unsuccesfully) by the majority of German and French episcopates.
7. What is the Second Vatican Council?
A. An abomination. B. Finally, the Catholic Church recognized that Martin Luther was right. C. It dragged the church to the modern age, somehow. But clearly not enough was done. D. It is an epoch-making and irrevocable turning point for the Catholic Church. It integrated fundamental paradigms of the Reformation, the Enlightenment and modernity (anti-Semitism is not OK; there is salvation outside the church; democracy, human rights and science are good, etc.). Unfortunately, it was hampered by curia shenanigans and even now partially repudiated by reactionary church leaders.
8. So, what’s wrong with the Catholic Church today?
A. Nothing’s wrong with it whatsoever. Perish the thought. B. Obviously, there’s something very wrong. But it is only to be expected from the Whore of Babylon. C. Humans err. Priests molest. But a few black sheep are to be expected in a flock the size of the church. D. The church is in trouble because it wants to roll back the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The two main reforms that are desperately needed are those concerning the law of celibacy and the episcopal ministry. Without such reforms, the church will become a reactionary force that can't deal with modernity.
Essay (approx. 100 words)
In your own words, what do you think of the short history?
It’s an interesting introduction to Hans Kung’s views, who like the current pope was a theological advisor to the members of the Second Vatican Council (his authority to teach Catholic theology had been rescinded since). He does a decent job covering the most salient points of the theological and institutional history. However, much of it is rather cursory, very opinionated (detractors would say biased) and could be confusing to readers who have no prior knowledge of the subject. He seems to be much more interested in airing his criticism (many of which I personally agree with) of the church’s theology. The book should really be called something like The Catholic Church: What’s Wrong With It.
------------------------------------------------------------------------ Key: For all multiple-choice questions, D is the correct answer according to the short history. (less)