What’s your idea of God? What do you believe about God? How has your belief changed during the course of your life so far? Was there an incident that caused a dramatic change?
There is a Talmudic story that one day in Auschwitz, a group of Jews put God on trial. They charged him with cruelty and betrayal. Like Job they found no consolation in the usual answers to the problem of evil and suffering in the midst of this current obscenity. They could find no excuse for God, no extenuating circumstances, so they found him guilty and, presumably, worthy of death. The Rabbi pronounced the verdict. Then he looked up and said that the trial was over: it was time for the evening prayer.
The story (attributed to Elie Weisel) suggests that there is a need for religion, or religious practice, in spite of a lack of belief…even in spite of doubt about God’s existence.
During these recent few weeks we’ve been looking back over the past ten years at the events of September 11, 2001 – what we call 9/11.
How are we to understand the evil of those events — the planning and preparation involved…the premeditated evil?
Those who held a traditional idea of God asked, “Where was God that day?”
The age-old question reminded me of a trip I took to Central America some years ago; I was with twenty Lutheran seminarians and three of their teachers. We started in Cuenervaca, Mexico, just outside Mexico City. On the first day we were taken on a ‘field trip’ to the Mexico City dump where 5,000 people lived in rat-infested, disease-ridden, filthy squalor. When we returned to our retreat center and gathered in a circle everyone was in stunned silence until one young man who had recently left the Marines to follow his call to ministry let out a blood-curdling scream:
“Where is God in all of this.” It was an anguished, angry cry. Silence followed, which I ventured to break by saying, “God is in your scream.” He was not receptive to that kind of humanist theology and yelled back at me, “You shut up, you’re an atheist!” A year later I received a letter of apology from him, saying, “I didn’t have the slightest idea what you were talking about that day…now I understand.”
Like his response to the trip to the dump, some had a similar response to 9/11 – they experienced a crisis of faith – a loss of belief in God – a rejection of the God they had conceived of – the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and loving God as described in the Bible. A crisis is a turning point that combines ‘danger and opportunity.’ The danger is that you’ll lose your way – the opportunity is that you’ll grow from it.
A year after the attack on the World Trade Center an excellent documentary was produced by Frontline and was shown on PBS: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero.
One of the most powerful aspects of the documentary was the variety of voices – the interviews of many who experienced it first hand, and the voices of a wide variety of clergy – Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist..
First to speak was Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield. He cut to the chase, setting a standard for candor, when he said, “Religion drove those planes into those buildings.”
Did he mean Islam, that the Muslim religion drove those planes into those buildings?
Or did he mean that the worst side of religion, any and all religion, drove those planes into those buildings?
What about the fourth plane, flight 93, that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania – was it religion that caused some passengers to fight back and to prevent the hijackers from crashing it into the White House or the Capital – the aspect of religion that causes heroism?
Like the holocaust, 9/11 created what someone called, ‘spiritual aftershocks.’
The faith of millions of religious believers was shaken to the core – many have been left haunted by feelings of loss of faith. Old beliefs have been uprooted, leaving what Jean-Paul Sartre called ‘a God-shaped hole in the human consciousness.’
That God-shaped hole was filled in with the stuff of evil, an evil with the face of religion – a fanatical belief that they were doing God’s will.
President Bush said, “Today our nation saw evil, the very worst of human nature.”
The narrator of the program asked, “Was it true evil the world witnessed that day? Is religion itself to blame? And where was God on September 11th?”
Marian Fontana, a writer, speaking about the death of her husband that day said: “I couldn’t believe that this God that I’d talked to in my own way for 35 years turned (my husband) this loving man into bones, and now I can’t bring myself to speak to him anymore because I feel so abandoned.”
Then there were random voices, speaking out of context said:
It was hell on earth.
You couldn’t dream it.
This burning horror — my mother’s in that.
How could God be in the horror of what I saw?
What kind of God is this?
How can you believe in such a God?
It’s nothing to do with God. He’s gone (now.)
I saw evil in that building….This is what evil looks like.
Being trapped in that building, was there any God with them?
There is no answer. There is only anger. A lot of anger.
Then the rabbi’s voice, again, saying, Religion drove those planes into those buildings.
Another voice says, If people can kill for God in this way, this is the best reason never to believe in God!
The narrator said: “Almost everyone has a moment when they feel lost in darkness, a loved one snatched away, disease, natural disaster, human cruelty. Almost everyone at some point asks the question, “Why me? Why her? Why, God!”
That was Job’s question and we were reminded that Job is an aspect of each of us – the part of us that asks why, or why me, or why this innocent child?
When bad things happen to good, innocent people, it’s natural to ask, “Why?!”
A man who lost his son expressed it this way: “I guess all I feel, at this point, is the profound absence of (my son) Dave. And my conversations with God that I used to have, I don’t have anymore. I just can’t bring myself to — I used to talk quietly to myself or to God and say, ‘Thank you for Dave. Thank you for Aidan. Thank you for my life. God bless everyone. God bless the children.’ You know, ‘Please heal the sick.’ You know, the usual blessings. And now I can’t bring myself to speak to him anymore because I feel so abandoned.
“But I guess deep down inside, I know he still exists and that I have to forgive and move on. But I’m not ready to do that yet.”
Brian Clark, who was on the 83rd floor and managed to escape, and helped save a man (Stanley) whom he had never met before, said: “Just like he intervenes in everybody’s life, God intervened in my life that day. I couldn’t predict what he was going to do. I didn’t feel like he was intervening at any particular second. It just unfolded, and here I am.”
He said, “Clearly, everybody had different experiences. My experience was to be able to meet Stanley in a special way and to get ourselves out of the building. Other people didn’t have that same experience. Whatever God’s plan is or was and shall be – is, was, and shall be. I can’t question it.”
Another man, Tim Lynston, said, “It was too barbaric. It was too barbaric, the way the lives were taken. That wasn’t mercy.”
He says, “So I look at (God) now as a barbarian, and I probably will. And it’s a sad situation. I think I’m a good Christian, but I have a different view and image of him now, and I can’t replace it with the old image. I can’t replace it with the old image.”
A Rabbinical Student, Josh Simon put it this way, “I cling to a very noble image of God, a majestic God. Our anthems are basically hymns to this majestic God who blesses America with everything. But September 11th killed that God for me because there was no way to have a majestic God, a God who controlled everything. There was no way to have a God who understood reward and punishment, fair or unfair, who felt that America should be blessed above other nations because we were good people.
“There was a God on September 11th who didn’t even mind that God’s own name could be used as the final prayer of a suicide hijacker as he plowed into a building. We needed, and I know I needed, to have another God to turn to at that moment, or there was going to be no God.”
This rabbinical student was staring into what Sartre called a God-shaped hole. He needed to fill it with a different kind of God – he was in a crisis of faith that challenged not only his belief in God but threatened his decision to become a rabbi.
There’s always a blank space between the gods we reject and that which we’re able to embrace.
Brad Hirschfield, an Orthodox Rabbi, summarized his experience this way: “Since September 11th, people keep asking me, “Where was God?” And they think because I’m a rabbi, I have answers. And I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. If God’s ways are mysterious, live with the mystery. It’s upsetting. It’s scary. It’s painful. It’s deep. And it’s interesting. No plan. That’s what mystery is. It’s all of those things.
“You want plan? Then tell me about plan. But if you’re going to tell me about how the plan saved you, you better also be able to explain how the plan killed them. And the test of that has nothing to do with saying it in your synagogue or your church. The test of that has to do with going and saying it to the person who just buried someone and look in their eyes and tell them God’s plan was to blow your loved one apart. Look at them and tell them that God’s plan was that their children should go to bed every night for the rest of their lives without a parent. And if you can say that, well, at least you’re honest. I don’t worship the same God, but that at least has integrity.”
He continues, “It’s just it’s too easy. That’s my problem with the answer. Not that I think they’re being inauthentic when people say it or being dishonest, it’s just too damn easy. It’s easy because it gets God off the hook. And it’s easy because it gets their religious beliefs off the hook. And right now, everything is on the hook.”
Another rabbi, Irwin Kula, said; “The real Torah, the real wisdom, the real religious tradition, the real experience behind religion, is about love and is about connection and is no more complicated than that.”
I was very moved by a Catholic Priest’s comments – Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete, who said: “From the first moment I looked into that horror on September 11th, into that fireball, into that explosion of horror, I knew it. I knew it before anything was said about those who did it or why. I recognize an old companion. I recognize religion.
“Look,” he says, “I am a priest for over 30 years. Religion is my life. It’s my vocation. It’s my existence. I’ll give my life for it. I hope to have the courage. Therefore, I know it. And I know and recognize that day that the same force, energy, sense, instinct, whatever, passion — because religion can be a passion — the same passion that motivates religious people to do great things is the same one that that day brought all that destruction.
“When they said that the people who did it did it in the name of God, I was not in the slightest bit surprised. It only confirmed what I knew. I recognize it. I recognize this thirst, this demand for the absolute, because if you don’t — if you don’t hang onto the unchanging, to the absolute, to that which cannot disappear, you might disappear. I recognize this thirst for the never-ending, the permanent, the oneness of all things, this intolerance or fear of diversity, that which is different. These are characteristics of religion.”
“And I knew that that force could take you to do great things, but I knew that there was no greater and no more destructive force on the surface of this earth than the religious passion.”
Then there was an agonized statement by a Lutheran minister, David Benke, who offered an inclusive, interfaith prayer at the memorial gathering in Yankee Stadium and was criticized by his Lutheran colleagues for participating and for his inclusive prayer. He said;
“The Yankee Stadium day was a pivotal day in my entire life. It was a day when everything that I had stood for as a human being, as well as a person of faith, was going to be on the line.”
“I asked the people to take the hand of one next to you now and join me in prayer on this field of dreams turned into God’s house of prayer.
“We were in the middle of a very emotional, highly-charged event. There was a sense of people wanting to release these profound emotions that had just been harbored in them because they didn’t know whether their husbands were going to be found, or their wives. They were still waiting for word from the rescue workers. They were still calling everybody “missing” at that time. They just came for some comfort, some- something to hang onto. Even though, you know, we all had questions about “Where was God,” my prayer was, “You have to be our tower of strength, God. You cannot desert us at this moment.” And that’s how the prayer led off.
“When I shared the podium with representatives of all the major faiths and prayed, that prayer became the center of a major controversy. The very next day, I began to get messages filled with hate. They were messages not from people outside of my tradition, but from within my tradition. And they were messages that nailed me to the floor, frankly, emotionally. They just said, “You were wrong to be there. You never should have gone to Yankee Stadium. You are a heretic. You have dishonored your faith.” One man said genuine terrorism was me. He said, “Planes crash and people die. Nothing big about that.” (He said) Genuine terrorism was me giving that prayer.
“I just want to say that I have not gotten over that and I can’t get through that because I lived through the real terrorists driving the planes into the real buildings and I’ve talked to people whose loved ones were murdered. And for me to be put in that same category is just not tolerable to me. I can’t take it. I can’t bear up under it. It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
He said, “Within two months, a number of those people put together a petition and filed charges of heresy (against me), saying that I am not part of the Christian church because of what I did on that day, and I should not be allowed to be part of my denomination anymore, should not be allowed to preach, should have my collar removed.
“The people who brought the charges against me are clergymen from my own denomination. And their belief is that the doctrine of the church does not allow a Christian to stand at the same podium with someone of another faith, or everybody’s going to get the idea that all religions are equal. And we have made absolute claims, exclusive claims about our faith.
He concludes, “If religion leads people to make these kinds of accusations at exactly the worst moment in American history, perhaps, then what’s underneath religion? Is religion really part of a lust for power and control in people’s lives? Is it a desire for absolute security so strong that people cannot see the need to reach out and help? If that’s true, then I’ve got a lot of wrestling to do with my own religion.”
The voices expressing ‘faith and doubt at ground zero’ dig deep into that part of us we call religious, that part we call our beliefs, or our faith, or our lack of it, and the need to face the God-shaped hole in our consciousness.
What kind of God can fill that hole? What is ‘the best in all the religions?’ We’ll continue to dig into those questions next week. For now we’ll lighten up with a story sent to me recently by a friend. It’s a story about a couple from Massachusetts who planned a trip to Florida to thaw out after this past winter’s snow and cold. They thought it would be nice to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 25 years earlier, to celebrate their silver anniversary.
Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel schedules. So, the husband left Massachusetts first and flew to Florida on Thursday – his wife was to arrive the following day.
The husband arrived and checked into the hotel on schedule.There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realizing it he sent it to a woman in Houston who had just returned home from the hospital where her husband, a minister of many years, had passed away after being in the hospital for several days. She had been by his bedside day every day.
When she got home from the hospital the widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted.
The widow’s son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and noticed that her computer was on. He looked at the computer screen:
The subject line read: To My Loving Wife — I’ve Arrived
His message read: I know you’re surprised to hear from me so soon. They have computers here now so you can send emails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and have been checked in.
I’ve seen that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then!!!! Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P. S. It sure is hot down here!!!!