This tragedy brought a wide variety of religious leaders to public attention, each seeking to provide comfort. Their pious rhetoric, however, was strangely stilted, unconvincing, and sentimental. A few were actually bigoted and evil. Jerry Falwell, in a televised interview, said that this tragedy was God's punishment on America for tolerating abortionists, feminists, homosexuals, and pagans. Pat Robertson smiled in agreement.
A desperate need seemed to exist among these religious leaders to demonstrate that God was still in charge. One suspects that this claim covers a deep suspicion, seldom spoken by human lips, that no such God exists and that we are alone in this vast, chaotic and frequently painful world. When tragedies occur and no divine protection is forthcoming, human hysteria forces us struggle to restore our protective, parent God to believability. That is what produced the pious words and religious cliches, which included the assurance that heaven is real and God can still be trusted.
Many people pretend that they still believe those things, but deep down they know they only believe in believing them. That statement is as true in the religious world as it is in the secular world--though not as often admitted.
We once conceived of God as external to life, supernatural in power, and able to intervene in human history to accomplish miraculous rescue. We know intellectually that such a God is but a phantom of human hope. 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. That is the lingering conclusion created by last week's events.
Is atheism, then, our only option? Must we gird our loins, and with stoical faces stare our cold, godless reality down, while we get about the task of living courageously in a meaningless world? Or can we use a moment like this current crisis to seek a new God definition that might fit a new world? This is the primary modern faith task of this moment, and though it carries with it no guarantees of success, it also admits no illusions.
In the childhood of our humanity, when believing was easy, we assumed our earth was the center of the universe. We believed God, understood theistically, directed the affairs of human history, controlling the weather, and keeping record books on us all. This God punished us and rewarded us according to our deserving. This was the primary view of God in the Bible who split the Red Sea to allow the chosen ones to escape and then closed that sea to allow their enemies to drown. But that is no longer our world. The idea that the earth is the center of the universe has disappeared.
We live today with the knowledge that the earth rotates around our sun--which is itself only one star in the galaxy called the Milky Way that contains over 100 billion other stars. Our single galaxy is so large that light, traveling at the approximate speed of 186,000 miles per second, would take more than 100,000 years to go from one end of it to the other. Beyond that, our galaxy is only one of at least 125 billion other galaxies in the visible universe. A supernatural God--who lives above the sky and is intimately involved in the affairs of human history, miraculously changing events to conform to some divine purpose--is simply no longer believable.
The Jewish people seemed to know intuitively that God and the popular definition of God could never be identical. That is why they spoke so vehemently against idolatry. They understood that no human creation could finally capture the Holy: not idols, not words, not scriptures, not creeds, not theological constructs.
Furthermore, while the popular voices of the Bible spoke of the external supernatural God who did miracles, the minority voices spoke of God in impersonal images. They saw God in the analogy of the wind, which, like God, was formless, mysterious and unbounded. One experienced the wind--one did not define it. Its purpose was to animate, vitalize, and give life. This image of God is seen in the creation story where God creates Adam out of the dust of the earth, but Adam is brought to life only when God gives him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, filling him with God's breath, thought to be the source of the wind. Life, says this biblical insight, is itself the medium through which the holy lives. In this passage God is not a being, but the dynamic, emerging source of life itself.