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.
This divine life force is found again in a story in the Book of Ezekiel. The Jewish nation has been conquered, and its people have been carried off into a Babylonian exile, ending its life. Ezekiel, in a dream, sees his now-deceased nation as a valley filled with dead dry bones. The question is asked, "Will these bones ever live again?" Then, in the dream, God blows the wind over the mountain and into that valley until it touches the dry bones. At that moment, the toe bone gets connected to the foot bone, the foot bone to the ankle bone, the ankle bone to the leg bone until all those bones stand up and come to life again. The life we possess, our vitality itself, reflects the vital life of God, this narrative says. God is the source of life.
God, as wind, is seen once more in the Book of Acts where the gathered Christian community waits in the upper room. Suddenly, that room is filled with a mighty rushing wind that calls these Christians into an inclusive vision not limited by tribal identity. This new humanity cannot be bounded. The God who is the source of life, this story says, does not stop at human security barriers. That wind, rather, creates a new God image, a life force flowing through the universe, embracing Parthians, Medes, Elamites and dwellers in Mesopotamia. When human beings live fully, this God becomes visible and real.
The Epistle of John says that God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God. Love comes to consciousness in the human experience. Love makes life possible. Love creates wholeness. When love is shared, life is enhanced, but when hatred replaces love, life is diminished. An even keener insight emerges when we reverse those biblical words. For if we can say that God is love, then surely we can say that love is God. This biblical insight proclaims that love is what God is. We thus make God visible, not by receiving an external revelation from on high, but by the human act of loving wastefully.
Once again, this minority voice is saying that God is not an external, supernatural being, ruling over human history. 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, even if it is the old images of God.
In the rubble of the World Trade Center, we see the results when lives are lived in hatred--but we also see lives willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of other people, opening to us the wonder and awe that comes when the love of God is seen in human form.
Finally, this minority voice in the Bible describes God as a cold, hard, lifeless, impersonal rock. "God is our rock," the psalmist says. "There is no rock like our God." In this image, once again, God is not a being, but the unwavering foundation under our feet. As the late Harvard theologian, Paul Tillich, would say, God is experienced as "the Ground of Being," when we "have the courage to be all that each of us can be."
This is the God I confront when the theistic images of the past crumble and fall apart amid the irrationalities of life, with its violence and pain. Neither we nor the theistic God can control our fate or make secure our fragile world. All we or the God within us can do is to grasp our moment and commit ourselves to live fully and thus reveal the Source of Life, to love wastefully and thus reveal the Source of Love, and to be all that we can be and thus reveal the Ground of Being. In that way, we enter, experience and reveal the reality of God. Here, we touch transcendence, welcome the emerging world, and by conscious act of our mature wills, we discover ourselves entering into the deepest mystery of both life and God.
The terrorist tragedy becomes an opportunity to step self-consciously beyond the God of yesterday, that promised us a protection theism has never been able to deliver. It calls us away from pious delusions. That is a frightening conclusion, but that is where we live.
The worship of this God, who is life, love and being, will never be a magic potion, which exists to keep us safe. It will, however, call us to move toward universalism, to move beyond the need to find acts of revenge that only expand the cycle of violence. It will build in us the commitment to live our lives in such a way as to create a new world in which everyone has a better chance to experience God by living fully, loving wastefully, and being all that they are capable of being in the infinite variety of the human family.
That is, in my opinion, the only way religious people can finally and appropriately respond to the madness of human life that occurred on Sept. ll.