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Brad S. Gregory

Saints' Lives Decoded?

How not to read hagiography.

Aviad Kleinberg begins his book on late antique and medieval Christian saints' stories with a revealing personal anecdote about Mother Teresa. He saw her on television telling an interviewer about the very first dying leper in the streets of Calcutta whom she picked up, cleaned, and fed. When the leper asked why she had done it, she said: "Because I love you." Kleinberg, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, relates his own response to her words, which "shocked and confused" him: "I believed her. For an instant, at least, I believed that those words were the pure truth, that she had truly loved him, the leper dying in her arms." But then, as he tells the story, he came to his senses, recovering his usual stance toward religion: "I am a skeptic by nature, and when it comes to religious phenomena, my field of specialization, I am even more skeptical." According to Kleinberg, "Freud forever demolished the sublime. When saintliness is not a con, it is self-deception … . The subconscious [sic] is a cruel master. Some find their pleasure in feeding their id, some in nourishing their superego. The moment of 'faith' that took hold of me while watching Mother Teresa was brief. Immediately I was filled with doubts, beset by my usual cynicism. I was almost ashamed of my naïveté."

Not much can be said to someone determined to believe that Mother Teresa's apparent holiness was really just her version of pleasure-principle bondage to her unconscious (which is presumably what Kleinberg intends as the correct rendering of Freud's Unbewusste, insofar as the subconscious, das Unterbewusste, plays such a marginal role in Freud's thought). What might have been—pace Freud—an initial response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit working through the televised broadcast of Mother Teresa, Kleinberg regarded as an embarrassing lapse from the interpretive clarity ostensibly afforded by skeptical cynicism. For fifty years Mother Teresa served the wretchedly ...

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