Faith without Borders
Edited by Françoise Meltzer and Jas Elsner
University of Chicago Press, $29, 432 pp.
Before becoming one of the four horsemen of the “new atheist” apocalypse, the late Christopher Hitchens made his debut as an antireligious provocateur with his scathing takedown of Mother Teresa. In the BBC documentary Hell’s Angel (1994) and the book The Missionary Position (1995), Hitchens excoriated the “living saint” for ministering more effectively to the guilt of the criminally rich and powerful than to the needs of the innocently poor and pitiable. But the primary target of his ire was not the “angel” herself. An erstwhile Marxist, Hitchens understood that spiritual commodities are produced as much from the desperate desires of the materially insecure as they are from the efforts of those who might exploit such desperation. “If Mother Teresa is the adored object of many credulous and uncritical observers,” he remarked, “then the blame is not hers, or hers alone. In the gradual manufacture of an illusion, the conjurer is only the instrument of the audience.”
From the other side of the faith divide, Dorothy Day—no stranger to Marxism or Christianity—seemed to share Hitchens’s suspicion of manufactured illusions, at least when it came to her own canonization. As David Tracy recounts in Saints: Faith Without Borders, a reporter once opened an interview of Day by confessing, “I am told you are a saint,” and received a truculent response: “Do not trivialize me, young man.” Hitchens and Day...