Sept. 11 and the dilemma of faith

The events of 9/11 belong to a long string of historical catastrophes that test people’s faith in God, or offer evidence that such faith is misguided. In the beautiful summer movie, “The Tree of Life”, a boy witnesses another boy drown in the town’s swimming pool. Afterwards, he says to God in an accusing voice, “You let anything happen.” This is the central dilemma, spiritually speaking, around 9/11 and all other examples of the seeming dominance of evil, death, and destruction. To make sense of the enormous gap between God, who is supposedly good, and a world beset with suffering, the mind can follow any number of paths. They form a wild, tangled path of reasoning.

God is good, but human beings are fallen. Sin is the cause of evil.
God loves us, but he stands back to allow us to learn our own lessons.
God’s ways are unfathomable. We can’t possibly know them.
God is testing our faith.
God and Satan are at war, accounting for the conflict between good and evil.
God doesn’t exist.

When the average person confronts a horror like 9/11, these ideas come to mind, hopelessly in conflict with one another and rarely being resolved, unless the person really does hold on to absolute faith. That, too, seems unpalatable as a choice, because a God who is only pacified by absolute faith seems rigid, unapproachable, and very, very hard to love. Yet I never encountered anyone who offered a completely satisfying way out of these painful, conflicting ideas.

As it happened, I had a peculiar, eerie, and sad connection to the events of 9/11: two of the victims who died in the airplanes that crashed into the twin towers were coming to see me. These two women were best friends, and because one wanted to use air miles, they boarded two different flights, both of which were hijacked. In one case the woman perished with her four-year-old daughter. If they had made their connection in New York, they intended to fly to the West coast where my center was located. I suppose one could call this negative synchronicity, although to label any fateful coincidence involves seeing into what lies beyond death.

I felt a strong personal urge to write about catastrophes and the psychological state they throw us into, which led to a book that came out two months later, a rush schedule, entitled The Deeper Wound. The immediate wound was the grief and shock of 9/11 itself. The deeper wound was our fear of death and doubts about whether good can really prevail over evil. I wrote a good deal about fear, because the voice of fear is so powerful and convincing; it blocks our ability to reason; more crucially, it rips the fabric of faith, trust, and our connection to the soul. One of the reasons that such counsel was needed, I thought, is that religion offers consolation in return for faith. It doesn’t set a person on the path of direct knowledge, actual experience of an inner reality where fear is absent, peace is real, and the soul connection is restored.

Looking back, I feel now the way I did back then, ten years ago. Catastrophes are not a form of divine punishment, a test from God, evidence of sin, or secret messages from beyond. They are part of our divided world, and such a world reflects our divided self. The conflict between good and evil, creation and destruction, light and darkness, begins inside. We fight the war every day, and it never ends. Faith is the same as hope. Like a candle in the window, faith is a signal that we want God to notice us. But faith alone won’t suffice. There is a path to walk, an inner path, that begins with hope, uses faith as an ally, leads to experience, and finally arrives at true knowledge.

Unless you arrive at this place of true knowledge, the swirling ideas that we hold about good and evil will never be resolved. I’ve said that faith alone won’t suffice, but turning your back on the whole dilemma and renouncing faith is equally useless. I doubt that any skeptic, no matter how rock-solid his lack of faith, feels comfortable with the world’s irreconcilable opposites. 9/11 ended the illusion of American isolation, as we are often reminded. But wars are where illusions go to die. We’ve been at war for ten years, yet on the inside we’ve been at war forever, as long as recorded history. The events of 9/11 don’t promise that wars can be won once and for all. They point us toward a path that can take us out of war itself, and that promise is eternal.

Published by the Washington Post OnFaith