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.
Marx called it an opiate for the people.
"The victims are so happy with God" he asserted, "that they would not return even if given the choice!" I doubt that this approach brought comfort to many grieving people. It was also interesting to note that Graham's need to offer comfort overcame, at least momentarily, his tribal understanding of God. Since Graham assigned all the victims to heaven, he must have forgotten that the death count included Jews, Muslems, atheists and non-believers, since throughout his career he has asserted that only those like him who hold the one true Christian faith would be eligible to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Not to be outdone by this questionable God-talk from religious professionals, New York's Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took notice in a press conference of the fact that St. Paul's Episcopal Chapel, located in the very shadow of the World Trade Center, had been left unscathed. Giuliani pronounced this a miracle. It was an incredible claim and assumed a strange deity. The mayor was concerned with the idea that there had to be a God out there somewhere who was not totally derelict in the divine duty. Yet his words rendered the God about whom he spoke not only unbelievable, but also immoral. This God could judge an empty church structure to be worthy of protection but not the 6500 people who died in the World Trade Center. Guiliani had unknowingly transformed God into a demon. Even the press got involved in this religious jargon. One news story reported that as the debris of the World Trade Center was being cleared away, the workmen reached two steel girders that lay across the debris in the shape of a cross. "It was a sign from God," the story asserted.
That kind of sign surely allows us the dubious pleasure of hurling our superior God defiantly into the teeth of those Muslim attackers. It appears to prove that God is really a Christian. This assertion also served to blind us Christians to the religious violence that over the centuries has flowed out of our own religious system in such activities as the Crusades, the Inquisition, the religious wars and that special Christian legacy known as anti-Semitism. One would think that a God who could miraculously place a cross atop a place of vast destruction would also have had the power to prevent that carnage in the first place.
The conclusion is unavoidable that the external supernatural deity who was thought to live above the sky was a casualty of this tragedy. This was not a sudden death, since the underpinnings of this God have been eroded over the centuries by our understanding of the vastness of the universe, and such things as the discovery of the natural laws that explain how the world operates without reference to an invasive deity. It was, however, a death that could be ignored no longer, not even in our pious pretendings.
We now recognize that all religious systems are human inventions designed to overcome the trauma of self-consciousness. These systems were designed to encourage us to remain dependent children who expect to be taken care of by the heavenly parent. But the security that these systems sought to provide depended on our ability to make this parent God believable. When that God dies, we face the need to grow into a new maturity. The terrorist attack rendered this traditional God woefully inadequate.
So facing this testing moment in history, 21st century Christians can no longer speak of God in the supernatural concepts of yesterday. Yet we have no other vocabulary at our disposal. That is the crisis of our generation. The supernatural deity is no more. The death of this God was announced by Nietsche in the 19th Century. It was proclaimed by radical theologians through the secular media in the 1960s. It finally entered our consciousness to stay with the attacks of Sept. 11.
While we are convinced that our God experience is real, our God-talk is obviously bankrupt. A radical new way to make sense of our God experience must be developed. We have to be able to demonstrate that atheism is not the only alternative to a dying theism.
Can we speak of God with meaning in a world where there is no divine protector, where human claims to possess purpose and meaning have no validity, and where chance and randomness are defining realities? If we cannot, then God will inevitably fade from our minds. To achieve this becomes the highest priority for churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious institutions. Our energy can no longer be expended in the vain effort to do a facelift on the corpse of yesterday's religious symbols.
So for God's sake, let the reformation begin.