That was just the opener for what turned out to be a four-hour conversation—about God, faith, and more—as I waited one night in his Palo Alto living room for my 6 a.m. airport shuttle pickup. Perhaps “argument” is the better word. Whenever Hitchens scented an argument, he was relentless in pursuing it. “The world I live in is one where I can have five quarrels a day, each with somebody who really takes me on over something,” he wrote in Hitch-22, his autobiography. “And if I can’t get into an argument, I go looking for one to make sure I trust my own arguments, to hone them. I would often rather have an argument or a quarrel than be bored, and because I hate to lose an argument I am often willing to protract it for its own sake rather than concede even on a small point.” That is what I discovered that night during our wide-ranging conversation about religion in general and Mother Teresa in particular. And there was another discovery: Christopher and I were speaking two different languages—and mine was alternately objectionable and incomprehensible to him.
On his own turf—the turf of the hard materialist—he was invincible. Nobody ever out-argued him on the history, politics, and social evils of religions of all sorts, not even scholars and theologians who were more knowledgeable than he was. If you doubt me, you can watch any of the dozens of his debates with religious believers available on YouTube. If an audience had been watching the two of us that night, I am sure they would all have agreed that Christopher easily outpointed me on matters of Church history and comparative religion. (Just weeks before his death, weak and visibly ill, he took part in a public debate on the value of religion with a master of parliamentary dueling, Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and Catholic convert. Hitchens won convincingly, with 68 percent of the audience vote.)
Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice is the subtitle of his book about the saint. Yet I find that Hitchens nowhere exhibits any clear understanding of Mother Teresa’s “theory”—that is, the beliefs that formed her practice. Christopher was “religiously unmusical,” as Max Weber once described himself: tone-deaf, as it were, to whatever was not measurable and definable in materialist terms. “The evidence of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1)? That—along with the evidence of things unheard or untouched—was not “evidence.” The evidence of our five senses, and what science could infer from that, was all. That meant that Hitchens always spoke a partial truth—to which he was quite partial. Since only sensory experience was deemed admissible in the court of his judgment, all mysticism was just mystification, which had proven quite useful to tyrants throughout history.
He was a bit taken aback when I conceded in the main all the crimes of Christianity that he listed. Pedophile priests? Check. Venal anti-popes? Check. Indulgences and penitential “tariffs” for sale? Check. Crazed Crusaders? Check. Whether or not they are divinely inspired, the major religions are human organizations of human beings. You can find ample evidence in the five thousand years of human history that “religion poisons everything”—just as I can find countless examples that it purifies everything. Contaminant or cure? Human beings will use and abuse it to diverse ends.
Hitchens was right to be wary of zealots and fanatics. He was also right that “what is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Yet what about the “evidence of things unseen”? Because his materialist stance completely denied the possibility, I readily admitted that I had no language with which I might reach him. If you close your ears to the music, there is no music. Hitchens insisted that there was nothing distinctive about a “religious” experience; it was confused with aesthetic experience by people “of a certain temperament.” The sublimity of the Parthenon, he wrote, “exerts an effect on me of the numinous and the transcendent”—the same effect claimed for religious experience by mystics writhing in ecstasies and reporting visions of the divine.
If you view Mother Teresa in humanistic terms, according to secular reasoning, then you cannot but criticize, or even condemn, much of her “practice.” Yet “the theory” is, in its simplest terms, that we must all love one another, as Jesus Christ demonstrated by dying for each of us. To love and follow him was to “love Wisdom,” and Mother Teresa understood her work as simply her willed assent to his call (or “call within the call,” as she famously described her request to shift from teaching children to serving the poor). She served the poor not only because they needed her, but also because Jesus called—and she answered. She was obedient to God’s call. Her famous, or notorious, inattention to equipping her facilities with modern technology also reflected her faith. Prayer was her “technology,” and her care for the dying was about more than their bodies. She and the other Missionaries of Charity prayed for all those who came within their orbit. They investigated neither those who came to them for help nor those who offered donations. It was rumored that people came for food and medical supplies and then sold them in the streets. Likewise, numerous corrupt figures sought to gain a halo effect from their association with her. It was argued, by Hitchens and others, that they were trying to launder their reputations with their donations to Mother Teresa. But she did not solicit the donations. She accepted what was offered.
Let us remember that this was not a worldly woman. Agnes Bojaxhiu was a sheltered eighteen-year-old Albanian girl when she left her village for an Irish convent to learn English. Until the age of forty, Sr. Teresa taught girls in a small Catholic school in Calcutta. After taking up her mission to serve the poor in 1950, she labored largely in obscurity for the next dozen years. It was not until 1969, when she was nearing sixty, that a BBC crew filmed her work with the poor and she became known in the West. Are we to believe that she plotted and connived for decades in the slums of Calcutta, making do with worldly possessions that fit in a shoebox, only to gain the wherewithal, as Hitchens declared in a 1992 Nation column, to “prostitute herself for the worst” of the powerful and “perpetrate [an] extraordinary deception” on the world?
Of course, I could not out-debate him on any of this. Not at all. Here again, I simply believed, then as now, that there were more things in heaven and on earth than were dreamt of in Christopher’s philosophy. Mother Teresa could not be located, in either theory or practice, on the materialist’s map. That she was canonized as a saint does not mean she was perfect—no more, say, than Dorothy Day. The world mistakenly hailed Mother Teresa as a successor to heroines of social activism such as Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Jane Addams, and Mary Baker Eddy. Yet her motivation was not theirs; nor were her priorities.