Monday, January 19, 2009

Mary Poplin on Finding Calcutta

Mary Poplin (MP) is a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University in California. Her book Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service won a 2008 CPYU Bookshelf Book Award.

CPYU: What motivated you to take a sabbatical to work with Mother Teresa?

MP: In November of 1992, after a vivid dream of Christ, I began to consider Christianity. By January of 1993 I had begun to follow Christ. Later that same year I saw a documentary of Mother Teresa where she said their work was “religious work not social work.” Since my own work had often focused on educating the poor, I felt this understanding might help me see both my work and my faith in new ways. I believed that if I was really to understand it, I would have to do the work day in and out, side by side with them. So when it came time for my sabbatical in spring of 1996, I sent a letter and asked if I could come and work with them. At some level, I naively was thinking of the experience as a sort of anthropological study of the question of how religious and social work differ.

CPYU: Early in your book you mentioned that you struggled for many years to write about your experience. What were the challenges? Why was it such a difficult book to write?

MP: The challenge for me was I wanted to write about her in a way that would make her understood by a large group of people (secular, Christian or other religious). But I found in trying to make her understandable and attractive to everyone I had to distort her – I was either leaving things out and/or distorting what she really believed. It’s odd now thinking back on it – here I was going to understand the difference between religious work and social work and now I was trying to reconvert it. So when I really understood what I was doing and that she could not be understood except from a Biblical Christian worldview, I stopped all that. Once I did, the whole book seemed to write itself. Ultimately, the sort of climax of the book is toward the end when I confess that from any of the worldviews currently taught in the university (naturalism, humanism, and pantheism) Mother Teresa is completely incomprehensible.

CPYU: What surprised you the most about Mother Teresa?

MP: I was surprised by how radically they followed Scripture, how absolutely faithful they are to Jesus, how austere they live their lives, how peaceful and contented they are, and how hard the work was in terms of just physical labor in a hard place.

CPYU: The title of your book comes from a quote by Mother Teresa: “You can find Calcutta all over the world, if you have eyes to see.” How have you found “your Calcutta” working in an American university?

MP: The title comes from a brief conversation with Mother Teresa when she said to me – “God doesn’t call everyone to work with the poor or to live like the poor as he has called us, but God does call everyone to a Calcutta, you have to find yours.” Yes, I found mine. My Calcutta is to discern and teach all the worldviews, including the Christian one as it relates to whatever content I am teaching. All worldviews (secular or sacred) begin with foundational principles that have to be accepted on faith; Christianity is no different than secular worldviews in that respect. But for many years, the secular experiment has become increasingly narrow and ultimately has limited, rather than expanded, what gets taught. For example, Christianity has a completely different approach to solving psychological problems that cannot be mimicked by secular psychology. To leave these principles out of the options taught to students is to limit their education.

CPYU: The book is full of interesting and insightful quotes by Mother Teresa. Do you have a favorite?

MP: I think it was her insistence that God has called us not so much to great things, but to do “small things with great love.” It is such a great description of what God asks from all of us and look at what He did with it – she ended up developing a great thing – a new order in the Catholic Church – a worldwide, multiethnic compassion ministry to do small things with great love!

Related Links:
A review of Finding Calcutta can be found on page 17 of CPYU’s Engage journal.

Listen to Mary Poplin’s lectures for the Veritas Forum, university events that engage students and faculty in discussions about life's hardest questions and the relevance of Jesus Christ to all of life.

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