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How do you study a problem like Mother Teresa?

ht view Updated: Mar 23, 2014 22:30 IST
Gëzim Alpion
Mother Teresa

Compiling a bibliography on Mother Teresa is a daunting task even for her avid title-spotters. And yet, the most written about woman in modern times is finding it rather difficult to become a serious topic of academic enquiry.

There are several reasons why academia is still giving her the cold shoulder. A recent spate of studies by and large reflects the weaknesses apparent in the writings of her die-hard supporters and blinkered detractors.

Mother Teresa has some staunch critics in academia who, it appears, barely comprehend her or even try to. Germaine Greer’s superficial understanding of the sister, for instance, is seen in her 1990 ‘religious imperialist’ sweeping statement. Mother Teresa’s preference for an indult of secularisation in 1948 indicates the extent to which this ‘obedient’ nun was prepared to challenge a patriarchal institution like the Catholic Church if her persistent request to leave the Loreto order was not approved. Richard Dawkins is hardly enlightened about the nun. His contribution to the scholarship consists almost entirely of name-calling, as is apparent from his 2006 outburst against ‘the sanctimoniously hypocritical’ woman ‘with cock-eyed judgement’.

The main reason why to this day Mother Teresa continues to be ignored or treated largely in a biased way, however, is because of the jaundiced view that the late Christopher Hitchens took of her work. This is not to say that Hitchens did not raise some serious issues about her; after all, he will always be an important footnote in Mother Teresa scholarship. His abrasive style of writing is a poor substitute for the absence of balanced research. Hitchens coveted notoriety as an uncompromisingly belligerent journalist at the expense of a religious pacifist he arbitrarily put at the top of his list of celebrity crooks. That the target of Hitchens’ vitriol herself turned out to have suffered from serious doubts about God makes the relentless lynching that he and fellow fundamentalist atheists like Dawkins subjected her to in life and death even more of a sorry affair.

Cross-disciplinary cooperation will be vital to understand better why Mother Teresa became a nun, the reasons why Loreto superiors accused her of being mad, vain, evil, and also of having an inappropriate relationship with one of her spiritual directors, and what kept her going in spite of the fact that she was never cured of her spiritual aridity. Academia will enable us to understand better how, with her faith in action, a charismatic religious visionary like Mother Teresa paved the way for public religion today.

Gëzim Alpion is the author of Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?

The views expressed by the author are personal