The Real Spiritual Impact of 9/11

Americans don't go to church more often now, but 9/11 was still one of the most important spiritual moments in recent history.

BY: Steven Waldman and the Staff of Beliefnet


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Barna, an evangelical Christian, offered this bleak assessment: "Churches succeeded at putting on a friendly face but failed at motivating the vast majority of spiritual explorers to connect with Christ in a more intimate manner. The September 11 tragedy was another amazing opportunity to be the healing and transforming presence of God in people's lives, but that, too, has now come and gone, with little to show for it."

Perhaps Americans experienced 9/11 much in the same way as a death in the family. For many, worship services provide powerful, comforting rituals that help them get through short-term crises but don't aid in the long run.

Explaining that he wasn't surprised that the pews emptied, Richard Mouw, the president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, speculates that the seekers left after a few months because real religion is too challenging. "The religion I care about is a serious matter. God wants us to confess our sins on a regular basis, and to plead for the grace to live in obedience to the divine will. I suspect that some of the people who returned briefly to traditional places of worship realized that they were entering spaces in which much is required of them. They realized that they could not just dip briefly into the spiritual resources available there without making a new commitment to a life of faith. So they left with a resolve never to return."

A mainline Protestant might view it slightly differently. "You cannot gauge spirituality by worship attendance alone," says the Rev. Wayne Dreyman, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Summit, NJ. "A lot of people have been asking deep spiritual questions about the meaning of life and the mystery of suffering in the world. But we are in a post-Christendom world where many people are experiencing a spiritual renaissance outside of institutional religion."

One result of this questioning may be, for some, a fundamentally different view of God--one not often spoken of from the pulpit. Bishop John Shelby Spong, the liberal former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, wrote shortly after the attacks, "The image of hijacked planes crashing into buildings killing thousands of people gives us no hiding place for theological pretending. The skies are empty of a protective deity ready to come to our aid. God defined theistically has died." This does not mean atheism, Spong argued, but that "God is rather the power of love, which flows through each of us, calling us to life, inviting us to step beyond whatever binds our humanity."

For many closest to the tragedy, there is still clearly some anger at God, enough so that they might not be inclined to visit church.

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