faith and doubt at ground zero

Helen Whitney on the Structure of Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero

In Act One, the introduction, we suggest all of the major themes of the documentary. The film opens with a montage of the smoldering ruins of Ground Zero (brilliantly photographed by the French director Etienne Sauret). Beethoven's late quartet, Opus 131, is heard softly in the background. Voice-over fragments from many of the on-camera interviews float over the ruins. Brief evocations of the landscape are interspersed with provocative questions about God and man and religion. The remaining section of the introduction briefly recapitulates the major events of the first day in order to bring us back emotionally to that time and place. The act ends with witnesses remembering their helplessness and terror as they watched people jumping from the towers, and the drama of faith begins.

In Act Two, "The Face of God," both believers and unbelievers ask not only where was God, but who is this God? In the opening of the act we hear from seven people who were intimately affected by this tragedy, each having lost someone close to them: a son, a daughter, a son-in-law, a husband, a brother, and close friends. For some of them the traditional answers about God's love and omniscience must -- and do -- suffice. For others, their losses seem to have shattered their conceptions of God; these images of God now seem inadequate and they are delivered into that "dark night of the soul" that St. John talked about so eloquently. They shake their fists at God and say, "This doesn't make sense," and the question, unanswered in the film, is whether their faith will remain intact. Midway through the act, we hear from people who had not lost loved ones but who have been profoundly affected. They too are questioning their belief and unbelief: an Anglican priest feels that the face of God for him is now "a blank slate"; a rabbi can no longer counsel the bereaved with homilies about God's mysterious "plan" that allows some to be saved and others killed; an atheist finds that his belief in humanity is threatened and his foundations shaken; an agnostic suddenly yearns for faith.

Act Three, "The Face of Evil," is a meditation on evil. We open the act with President Bush at Ground Zero talking not just about evildoers but evil itself. "Our responsibility to history is already clear; to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." Bush's rhetoric had a biblical and even a mythic resonance and it produced the predictable firestorm of criticism and approval. For some it was symbolic of the very hubris that critics claim engendered the hatred behind the attacks. Others felt that it was appropriate as long as a people and a faith were not demonized. What was singular and unprecedented was his use of evil as a noun. Historians could not recall any other U.S. president going so far in retaliatory rhetoric. Reagan had vilified the "Evil Empire," but then evil was an adjective not a noun.

Bush's use of the word touched a nerve and opened the discussion in this act about what we talk about when we talk about evil. We hear from a wide range of people -- an opera star, a novelist, a fireman's widow, a rabbi, a professor, a Jungian analyst, an Islamic scholar, an atheist, a priest. They circle the subject, trying to define the word, and some describe their own personal encounters with evil. A Holocaust survivor, in chilling detail, evokes her own experiences. Each person raises provocative questions: What is evil? What is its nature? Are there degrees of evil? Is evil an integral part of the human experience, the worst that human beings are capable of? Or is it an autonomous force, existing outside of ourselves? Or is it both? If God has created everything, good and evil, what does it say about God? We have gone through a century of unimaginable horrors but we seem to explain it away as the result of bad parenting, low self-esteem, the blows of fate. Are the psychological and sociological explanations adequate? Has something about Sept. 11 brought the mystery back? Have the terrorists introduced something new in the discussion of evil? If so, what precisely?

We hear from people disoriented by hearing our adversaries' indictment of us framed in the same metaphysical language. They question the very meaning of the words "good" and "evil," used so passionately by people willing to die for their beliefs. They ask: Are good and evil universal absolute truths immune to relativizing analysis? Or are they cultural constructs living only in the eye of the beholder?

Act Four, "The Face of Religion," was meant to be the longest and most challenging section of the film. Once again a wide variety of people wrestle with the most difficult questions about the darkness at the heart of religion. We hear from Christians, Jews, and Muslims looking deeply and critically into their own traditions.

A priest looked at the smoking ruins of the towers and said, "I instantly recognized the attack as religiously motivated terrorism. I said to myself, My God, this is religion -- and it is dangerous. I felt -- without making any obscene moral equivalence -- that this is a face I recognize. I know this face. This is a face bound to my own humanity. I asked myself, Does religion or faith have an inherent tendency to degenerate into violence? What is this thirst for the absolute that seems to provoke all the major monotheistic religions at different points in their histories to violence, to 'Kill the Infidel!'"[1]

A rabbi states unequivocally that "religion drove those planes into those buildings." Yet he confesses that he saw his own face in that of the terrorists. He remembers an earlier period in his life as a settler in Hebron when he became "drunk on God, possessed by certainty. ... I know all about the marriage of God and guns." The central question for him after Sept. 11 is, "Am I ready as a Jew to look at the shadow side of my religion? ... That means will I be willing to give up my notion of uniqueness? Is any religion willing to do this?"

A Lutheran pastor, recently threatened with suspension and possible heresy charges by his denomination for praying with members of other faiths, is stunned. He questions not only his tradition but religion itself. "If religion leads people to make these kinds of accusations at exactly the worst moment in American history, then what's underneath religion? Is religion really part of a lust for power and control in people's lives?"

A Muslim professor reflects tearfully: "If I am to hold my head high then I have to be willing to say that a remarkable amount of ugliness was committed in the name of a God and the religion that I hold dear. ... Since Sept. 11, I feel that I am fighting for the heart and soul of a great religion that is in great danger." A professor of Middle East studies states unequivocally: "Yes, religion drove those planes into those buildings, but it wasn't other religions, it wasn't Anglicans, it wasn't Episcopalians. It was us; it was Muslims."

The act ends with a story about the light not the dark face of religion. A Catholic woman who had lost her mother in the towers describes how she was surprisingly comforted by the funeral Mass and by the interventions of the priests. As a gay woman, she had been bitterly estranged from the Church. At the Mass, the priest spoke openly about her son with her lesbian partner as a "sign of hope and meaning in these dark times." She realized that part of the Church had changed and so had she. She found solace in the rituals of the Church and in their belief in the afterlife. She is now planning a baptism for her son. All of this was inconceivable before Sept. 11.

In the epilogue, people talk about the profound and ultimately mysterious effect of Sept. 11 on their spiritual lives. A Buddhist describes the experience of working at Ground Zero as "transforming." Her encounter with the goodness of the rescue workers and the volunteers was felt as a counter gesture to evil and despair. An opera singer who performed at the memorial service at Ground Zero wept as she remembered that day, and how the experience still lives with her. Her commitment to her career, she now feels, is deepened and is more about "service" and less about herself. An Episcopal priest acknowledges the changes in himself and others. Some of them are positive but not all; he worries about the increased fear and paranoia, the loss of trust which is essential to opening oneself up to faith. He is not sure whether in the end we will find reasons for hopefulness or whether we will be wounded in ways that are hard to predict. He wonders whether there has been a sea change in our interior lives -- and whether these changes are ephemeral or enduring. It remains, for him, a question.

The act ends with people, once again, reflecting on the scenes of victims jumping from the burning buildings. Unlike the anguished reactions in the introduction, which focused solely on the horror, these people try to wrest some meaning from these images -- especially that of the man and woman jumping hand in hand. The range of responses is consistent with the breadth and depth of voices throughout the film. For one woman, the image of people being herded by the fire, forced to jump, reinforces her belief that we ultimately live and die alone, that no one came for these people in their final moments. For another man, it reconfirms his passionately held belief that there is no meaning to this event, to those horrific images -- and to life in general. "If there is a God, he is a very indifferent God." We hear, however, other voices . A woman who feels that the image of two people reaching for each other, jumping hand in hand, is not only horrible but also a sign of hopefulness, of connectedness, of love -- and that is the deeper meaning. The final voice, that of a Catholic priest, suggests that perhaps the very meaning of Sept. 11 is embedded in these images, which could be interpreted despairingly or hopefully. "It is, finally, our choice."


Note: Some of the quotations here are drawn from pre-interviews and outtakes, and not all of them appear in the film.

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