Guwahati: In a path breaking study, a Mother Teresa scholar has taken on avowed and lifelong critics and friends (read custodians) of the global charity icon in an article published on March 23 in a leading national newspaper in India.
Writing an op-ed piece in The ‘Hindustan Times’ entitled ‘How do you study a problem like Mother Teresa?’, author of two books ‘Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?’, and ‘Encounters with Civilisations: From Alexander the Great to Mother Teresa’, Dr Gëzim Alpion of Birmingham University, UK, has taken on the Nobel Laureate’s contemporariessuch as the celebrity iconoclast Christopher Hitchens, arch feminist Germaine Greer, and self-proclaimed atheist Richard Dawkins.
Besides pointing out the issues in numerous major lectures on Mother Teresa presented over a decade at internationally renowned universities in the UK, Australia, India, the US, Canada, Finland and Italy, Professor Alpion had initially taken issue with Hitchens and Greer in 2007 in his book ‘Mother Teresa Saint or Celebrity?’
Though Mother Teresa is the most written about woman in modern times that so many well-known universities, including Oxford, conferred upon honorary degrees, she is finding it rather difficult to become a serious topic of academic inquiry, says Albanian-born Alpion, who is considered ‘the most authoritative English-language author’ on Mother Teresa.
“Compiling a complete bibliography of the ever-expanding literature on Mother Teresa is a daunting task even for her avid title-spotters,” contends Mother Teresa’s countryman Alpion, citing several reasons why academia still gives this most public of missionaries the cold shoulder.
Speaking to mattersindia.com on March 24, Alpion insists, “Mother Teresa has some staunch critics in academia who, it appears, barely comprehend her or even try to.”
Citing an example he says: “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 secularization (turning from a vowed nun into a laywoman) in 1948 indicates clearly 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.”
Alpion quickly adds, Richard Dawkins’ contribution to Mother Teresa scholarship consists almost entirely of name-calling, as is apparent from his 2006 outburst against ‘the sanctimoniously hypocritical’ woman ‘with cock-eyed judgement.’
However, Alpion does not hesitate to state the main reason why, to this day, Mother Teresa continues to be ignored or treated largely in a biased way. In his words, this 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 Mother Teresa; after all, he will always be an important footnote in Mother Teresa scholarship. All the same, as I have mentioned in ‘Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?’ his abrasive style of writing is a poor substitute for the absence of balanced research.”
Explaining further Alpion says: “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.”
In a scathing appraisal of the non-academic stance of Mother Teresa archives’ custodians today, Alpion says: “A huge burden of responsibility for the ad hoc, sensationally hostile and predominantly hagiographic nature characterizing Mother Teresa scholarship lies with the keepers of her private writings who are inclined to grant access to her archive mainly to researchers prone to praise her unconditionally.”
Alpion further asserts: “Mother Teresa is a conundrum that will not be solved at once. And in this challenging intellectual exercise no specific field of knowledge, theology included, should be given a privileged status, let alone be seen as the only discipline capable of unravelling the truth about the introverted woman behind this public nun.”
Referring to his recent study on Mother Teresa’s charism/a, published in the ‘International Journal of Public Theology’ in February 2014, Alpion contends that “the publication of some of Mother Teresa’s private writings in recent years, has provided a wealth of information which, in addition to theologians, is of interest to scholars from a number of academic disciplines such as sociology, missiology, psychology, celebrity studies, gender studies, cultural studies, postcolonial studies, and race and ethnicity studies.”
Alpion believes that “cross disciplinary cooperation will be vital to understand better why Mother Teresa became a nun in the first place, 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 more importantly perhaps, what kept her going in spite of the fact that, different from medieval and modern canonized mystics like John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila and Thérèse of Lisieux, she apparently was never cured of her spiritual aridity.”
On a positive note, Alpion concludes saying: “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.”