Religious words are designed to bring comfort, to provide understanding and to counter that dreadful specter of meaningless that haunts self-conscious creatures like ourselves. Those goals can, however, be accomplished only if these words communicate something that we regard as real. Failing this, religious words sound hollow and are heard either as pious platitudes or sentimental irrelevancies.
Undergirding most religious talk is the traditional assertion that an external supernatural God directs the affairs of history, so that no event is without purpose or meaning. Religion purports to explain the actions and workings of this deity in such a way as to convince frightened people that, no matter what befalls us, God is still in charge, directing our fate and controlling our destiny. This gives us the assurance that we are not alone, and even if we or our loved ones are victimized by tragedy this theistic God can still transform death into heavenly life and turn our pain and grief into joy and consolation. Justifying the ways of God, and thereby assuring people that life is directed by meaning and purpose, undergird most religious explanations. Increasingly, however, in our secular world, this talk appears to be unconnected with reality.
Our society may want to believe that God is in charge, but it is not totally moved when leaders, either religious or political, claim the ability to discern the mind of God and thus be able to explain why God allowed a tragedy like the terrorist attack to occur. Some of these religious voices cover this questionable activity with smooth, if somewhat convoluted words, while others employ the cruder rhetoric of what might be called "old time religion."
We have witnessed recently an abundance of this activity. It began when highly placed Catholic leaders in New York and Washington spoke to assure us that God's purposes, no matter how mysterious and clouded, could still be trusted, even if we could not now understand. These traditional words answered none of the aching questions, but seemed designed to assure us that an answer would be possible, some day. They were also employed to enable people who had lost a loved one to continue to count on God's goodness and to believe that life still has an ultimate meaning, which if true could mute their grief.
In both of these instances the traditional theistic understanding of God as a supernatural being who lives above the sky, dispensing reward and punishment, was clearly present. We know, however, that this idea no longer works. Not only is the universe vast beyond our imagining, but the earth is clearly not the center of that universe. We are also painfully aware that justice was not served in this tragedy. The victims of the terrorist attack were not the guilty, the godless or the deserving. Perhaps Falwell did not notice that conservatives, heterosexuals and anti-abortionists also died, as did God-fearing Catholics and born-again Protestants. The victims fit no logical pattern. These pre-modern explanations are sought only to blunt the terror that fills human souls when we begin to realize that chance and randomness, not a purposeful deity, might well be the ruling principle directing our lives. A deep sense of loneliness is thus part of our unspoken fears.
It is little wonder that most people listened to this God-talk politely, but finally dismissed it as not sufficient to be consoling. The possibility that the only crime the victims committed was the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time could not be suppressed. We thus allowed the haunting question of our post religious age to be raised. Could it be that there is no supernatural God above the sky, no external meaning or prevailing divine plan into which this tragedy fits? The thought of such a possibility is, for many, almost too devastating to entertain. To face it honestly is simply too expensive emotionally. It is not honesty that religion seeks to express in tragedy, it is comfort.