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.

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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.

It is also possible that people whose minds had opened up to religion in the first two months--when much religious activity was focused on grieving, interfaith dialogue, and forgiveness--became alienated when attention shifted to the conflict between religions. Religiously-speaking, 2001 was about spiritual unity and 2002 about competition and conflict between the faiths--as Christian leaders increasingly attacked Islam and suicide bombers in the Mideast continued to remind us of the violence of some variants of Islam. It was also the time that the Catholic Church crisis exploded, shaking the faith of some of the most traditional church-going people in the nation.

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The Attacks Affected Character and Soul

Though worship patterns seemed unaffected, that doesn't mean individuals weren't changed.

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A group of psychology researchers had begun in January 2001 measuring the presence of certain positive personality and character traits in the population. They found that after 9/11 seven traits showed noticeable increases: love, gratitude, hope, kindness, leadership, teamwork, and spirituality. These scores have started to slip but remain much higher than pre-9/11 levels. The researchers speculate that these effects have persisted because they are self-sustaining. "Love is reciprocated; hope opens doors previously unseen; kindness begets kindness," says Christopher Peterson of University of Michigan, one of the leader researchers.

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