faith and doubt at ground zero
a photo of ann ulanov
INTERVIEW: ann ulanov

... You were talking about the conscious and the subconscious view of God that is being sort of disoriented or reconceived [after Sept. 11]. ... Take us through that. ...

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, horrific as they were, really challenged people spiritually. ... The shock comes at the conscious and the unconscious level. At the conscious level is, "What kind of God is this? Is this the God I believe in? Can I still believe in this God?" We all know we have pictures of God, different pictures, and that those pictures aren't God -- that there's a difference between our pictures of God and whoever God is.

But there's also, at an unconscious level, images of God that we may not be aware of. They are unconscious, and those get completely rearranged by something as big as a terrorist attack of this magnitude. ... [These images are] very personal, they're idiosyncratic, they're fascinating, they're varied -- as varied as individuals are from each other. It might be money. It might be the market. It might be my drinking problem. It might be my inferiority complex or my paranoia. ... People get images of God ... from their dreams, from their religious life, from events that happen to them that are profoundly meaningful. The identifying characteristic of one's image of God operating unconsciously is everything in the psyche circles around it. ... They actually make the distant, transcendent God real to us, alive. We converse with that image.

Now, in addition to our personal images of God, we often have grouping images of God. For a lot of women in the feminist movement, the feminist movement became their new religious point of reference, the central thing around which their lives revolved, from which they drew meaning. Same with the black movement earlier in the 20th century. The same with any movement. All those images are normal, natural, and they make God real and immediate. The images come out of actual experiences people have had of being grasped by something beyond them. ...

The problem is if the gap between our personal images and our group images and the official images collapses, closes; because then ... I'm speaking not just for myself, or not even for the others in my group. I'm speaking now for the official religion. I am speaking for all of Christianity, or I am speaking for all of Islam. If I am identified with my picture of God, I am going to want you to be identified with it, too. And if you are not, then you are out. You are infidel, and you can be killed without a great deal of remorse on my part. ... I'm speaking for God. I am in identification then with God, and that is so dangerous. So dangerous. ...

Ann Ulanov is a professor of psychiatry and religion at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She is the author of several books, including Religion and the Spiritual in Carl Jung and The Healing Imagination: The Meeting of Psyche and Soul. Here, Ulanov discusses the spiritual crisis that was forced upon so many after Sept. 11, how images of God are being reconfigured, whether Osama bin Laden is the personification of evil, and, finally, whether grief can yield a new religious reality. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002.

One has to think also of the pilots. How would it be possible to fly a plane for 40 minutes, knowing I was going to kill myself, everybody on the plane, and my compatriots who were helping me? ... I think it's related to any fundamentalism that can afflict any religious position.

If we identify our personal God images with official religion, and if we fall into identification with those images so that we're now speaking for our religion and for God -- for the transcendent, unimaginable, ineffable God -- then inwardly there's no -- what was it Freud called it? The procrastinating function of thought? There's no gap between what I believe God to be and what my religion says God is and what God is.

We can say after Sept. 11, 'Oh, bin Laden. He is the personification of evil.' Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But even if you say that, evil is bigger.

So, inwardly, all that power of the unconscious just comes sweeping through the psyche. There's no hesitation, there's no meditation, there's no consultation. There's no pause, no reflection. I am in the grip of unconscious forces, which are like gale force winds. I'm in the grip of a force that I totally believe is right, it's true, and I am its messenger. Then, not only am I its victim, but it's my duty to be the spokesperson. It's my duty to kill all these people.

Religion becomes a weapon, and anyone who's not exactly identified with this position does not exist. ... There's no remorse or guilt that acts as a check. They're dust. This is my task to serve God, and I would be infidel myself if I welched on it.

So you can imagine the pilots in that zone of psychic reality -- possessed, gripped by archetypal forces, but absolutely identified with them. It's like being carried on a wave. A tsunami wave. A huge wave. It's a force. ...

We've been talking to so many people, particularly the bereaved, who felt that God should have intervened in some way. ... That image of God, all kinds of images of God, have been challenged. ... What are the images of God that have been the most vulnerable to those challenges?

Since Sept. 11, the images that are most vulnerable to being smashed, suddenly, shockingly, are God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. The test of any religion is, what do you do with the bad, and how much "otherness" can you tolerate? Sept. 11 is so horrible, and horrible for years and years to come, that it can just smash any image of God who has a providential plan for me, those I love, my group, my nation, this world.

The all-good God can be smashed and yet, even the non-God image can be smashed, because the outpouring of kindness, simple acts of kindness, challenged a lot of people who thought you can't really believe in anything. They felt caught up in something that was bigger than just their neighbor or themselves doing an act of kindness. They really glimpsed something different. So you could have your image of all-good God smashed or you could have your image of there being no God smashed. The door is flung open. Then the question is, can one go through the door?

Anybody who tried to go on with a religious life will sooner or later come to a point where all their pictures of God are smashed, because they're too tiny. They're too small. This has been written about by St. John of the Cross as "The Dark Night of the Soul." It's been written about by Terese of Avila as "The Period of Aridity." Lady Julian of the 14th century said it took 15 years for her sitting around waiting, searching, yearning to make sense of the vision she had.

It's typical for the religious life, to be plunged into not knowing. What's horrific about Sept. 11 is that just thousands of people were shoved there immediately. There was no 20-year wait. There was no building up of spiritual practice.

So people who are bereaved and have lost people -- to say nothing of the people who are dead -- are suddenly--

One of the hardest things about the Sept. 11 attacks is that people were just shoved into a place of spiritual crisis. They're suddenly at the head of the line: Do you believe in anything? Do you care about anything? Where does meaning come from? Is the abyss of love stronger than the abyss of death? Is there any resurrection? How can I bear to even imagine being trapped in that building? I cannot go down. Will I be burned up? Will I be hurled out the window? Will I jump out the window? How can the person I love -- who was incinerated, jumped out a window, thrown out a window, crashed in a plane -- how can their last minutes be redeemed? How can I bear what they've suffered? Was God with them? Was God not with them?

I think that's one of the worst aspects for the survivors -- to think of those they loved and what they suffered those last few minutes. ... These are the questions on their hearts, and these are heavy questions. And religion has an answer -- at least Christian tradition has an answer, and I'm sure the other religions do, too. It's not necessarily one I would give as an analyst; I'd wait to see where the person was. But as a professor, I would give it.

Namely, in prayer time, it's not the same as ordinary time, ego time, which has a past and a present and a future. Prayer time does not ... attain that there is a past and a present and a future. ... In prayer time, you can pray backwards. You can pray for Augustine. You can pray for Jesus on the cross. And you can pray for the man you loved or the woman you loved or the mother you loved in the office or in the plane.

You can pray that, at the moment of terror, blinding terror, that they had a sense that something was with them; that something was standing there ready to receive them; that at the same time they had terror and panic and regret and rage that their life was being stolen from them, they might also have felt a presence, something receiving them in the hour of their death, something comforting them in abysmal fear they must have suffered.

What does Job have to tell us about how to think about Sept. 11? ...

Job is our neighbor in Sept. 11, because Job asked the question that we're asking: How can a just, good, omnipotent God let this happen? In the Job story, it's a bet with Satan, and Job is really persecuted -- all his children are killed, all his cattle are killed ... he gets boils. ... He sits in the dust and scrapes them with shards. For anyone who's suffered [boils], it's hard to top that as a description.

But Job stands at the head of a line of the questions I'm asking, my students are asking. "Where do you put the bad? What about the bad? How can the bad happen? What are we to do with this? How can we believe in a caring God, when my children are orphaned?" Job points [to] it even more exquisitely, because he played by all the rules. He's the best of the human. God gave him the law and he was a just man. He fulfilled the law, and still he suffered. So Job insists, saying, "I need an answer."

People who are gripped by grief are as different from one another as people who are gripped by joy. So some people in their grief will not ask that question, and it's not a question I believe you push on your neighbor. Some people will ask that question. They will get in line behind Job and say, "How can this happen?" And you'll remember from the book of Job, the answer he gets is not an explanation. "This is how the innocent suffer. This is why I made a bet. I killed all your children, I killed all your cattle and gave you boils." Yahweh does not answer Job that way. There are different interpretations about Yahweh's answer.

The one I like is Yahweh answers by showing Job the whole picture, the picture bigger than the law. The law is like a bridge between the human and the divine, and Job crossed the bridge as much as we can, because he was the just man. He was innocent. He's the best of us. He's the best of our values, the best of our kindness, and still suffering afflicts him. Yahweh's answer doesn't give him a causal, "Yes, it still afflicts you because of X, Y, and Z." Instead he shows him the whole creation and says, "Can you call up the waves? Can you make the dawn come? Can you draw the behemoth of the Leviathan?"

In that moment, I think, Job sees the larger whole around his just ethical question. It's a question of justice and it's a question of ethics. But Job in that moment sees the law -- as wonderful as it is, as precious as it is -- is not God; God is bigger. So Job says, "I cover my mouth, I bow my head, I give up my narcissistic need for meaning as we define it from the human side. I give that up, because I love the whole."

I know it varies dramatically from person to person. But how comforting do you think that would be to someone who lost somebody in the World Trade Center? How would Job work at that point in their grief?

... Job's story at first wouldn't mean anything to anybody, in my opinion.

Grief is like a blow. It's a blow on the head. It goes down the center, from top to bottom; it cuts you in two. It's physically painful. It's more than one can bear. You're not able to even think, let alone listen about a Job or a God beyond the God you thought you believed in. ...

As your blood flows again, the pain is still, for months, years even, more than one can bear. So I think at first one is just consumed with sorrow. Maybe sometime later, you're consumed with rage; you're shaking your fist, you can feel your fangs growing and you just don't like the basic plan.

You're like Ivan in Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. If this is the God who has children thrown to the wolves to save the other people in the sled, I'm not interested in a God like that. Being in grief, you're buffeted from so many sides that getting an explanation isn't the first thing on your list; survival is. If you have children, how are you going to manage with the children? If you loved, deeply loved the person you lost, you're completely over there, on the other side with them. ... If you deeply love the person, you're in danger, because where is the love to go now? Some people get very sick physically because they haven't found a place for the love to go or they don't know that's the problem.

But finally ... they're pressed down into the grief to find another God. It's not a God who's up; it's digging down. People sometimes feel very keenly that God is with them in this maelstrom. ... But finally, like Job, you're asking, "Well, who is this God?" Well, Job got another experience of God, an immediate God, a God who talked back, a God who was different, bigger than the God of the law. ... People are looking for that. They're looking for some new experience of God in the midst of this horror of the Sept. 11 attacks. ...

After Job has this new vision of God, this new experience of God, he becomes the intercessor for the friends, for the wife, for the people. So the person whose grief work insists that they go all the way to the bottom -- rage, howling, suffering, smashing of their images of God, waiting, insisting, "I must have another picture, speak to me give me a clue, give me an answer."

Simone Weil says it's only desire that brings God down. In the grief after Sept. 11 -- which will go on for years -- some people will be the ones who will desire, who will importune, and bring God down, and they will have a new experience of God and they will become the intercessors for the rest of us.

... One thing I've discovered in having these conversations all around New York -- certainly reading Andrew Delbanco's book and interviewing him -- is that a word that people have felt very uncomfortable with, particularly in sophisticated New York society, is "evil." ... I'd like to ask you what your concept of evil is. Have you ever personally encountered it? Do you think bin Laden has introduced something new at all in the discussion of it?

... From the psychological side, there are a whole lot of theories that say destructiveness comes from privation and deprivation. It isn't something in itself; it's from bad parenting or low self-esteem. What religion, if any denomination, offers to that psychology is a recognition that evil is a force. It's not something that is caused by the blows of fate, because that implies that you could get away without having suffered it.

I think the attacks of Sept. 11 show that evil can be a horrific force, and it's opened our eyes to the force of evil in other societies. The suffering of rape camps, of gulags, of forced famines, of false imprisonments, of indiscriminate bombings, of people gripped by power-mad archetypal forces, and they're just going to wipe out whole bunches of people because they don't fit the image they have.

Evil is a mysterious force. So it's very hard to say, "Oh, that is evil." I think one of the things people have faced since 9/11 is [that] its horrific impact stirs up any conscious or unconscious images one has had before of random violence, of innocent suffering or just outright trauma. So it's trauma on top of trauma. ...

Theologically it depends on what you believe and what you don't believe, and of course that's all been pushed up people's noses since Sept. 11. Is there a goodness that's stronger than evil? Are evil and good both ontological principles of being? That's a very respectable view, and that gives you a sense of vying powers. Sometimes one wins and sometimes the other wins. But I think after the suffering of these terrorist attacks, that's not a good enough answer. It's not a good enough answer for me. I think, in this world, there's no absolute victory of one over the other. ...

Any new reflections that you've had about evil as a force inside of us and perhaps outside of us? ...

This class I was starting to teach was ... on [the concept of] aggression. So I shaped the course after Sept. 11 to focus on, can human destructiveness be transformed? As in all my teaching, I presented four or five psychoanalytic theories about human destructiveness. Then I presented some theological theories, and bullied, bullied, cajoled, wooed, and got the students to think what their point of view was. Where would they come out? They had to answer now, after Sept. 11.

Well, you can't ask that of a student if you're not doing that yourself. So I found my view of evil as the making something of nothing -- an active force of absence to vitiate, annihilate, destroy -- strengthened. How else could one fly a whole plane full of people -- these were fully staffed planes, passengers, crews -- how could you fly all those people, plus your own colleagues, your own compatriots, into a building where thousands of people were working? How could you do that? It wouldn't be enough to just be identified with your cause. You're serving the cause. You'd have to go against every instinct, and these were not adolescent young men. These were older men, some with families, some with children.

It wouldn't be enough to be painted as a hero after you were dead or that your family would be rewarded. There would have to be some experience of being in the grip of something. Now they thought they were serving a good on the receiving end. It's clear this is an evil. Why? Because it is so destructive. It's so beyond the bounds of human discourse, the discourse of war.

So I believe that evil, yes, you can get to it yourself. You can go to the place you've been hurt or threatened to be destroyed, or pieces of you have been destroyed, mangled, treated as if they are of no value. You can get to your outrage, your absolute determination to retaliate for vengeance, and you can understand how you feel that because of something done to you.

But deeper than that, it's like an undertow of the ocean. It's like an undertow current. There's something that you contact that's much bigger than what you did to me or what I'm going to do to you. And you get caught in that; you're in something that's outside yourself. The personal explanation is not enough. In the larger, psychological explanation -- archetypal pattern of energy, unconscious instincts of hate and cannibalism -- even that isn't enough. That's involved, too. It's as if one has a spell cast on one.

But you feel you're caught in what the New Testament calls principalities and powers. It's a power that catches you, and you are not enough by yourself to defeat it. It's universal. So we can say after Sept. 11, "Oh, bin Laden. He is the personification of evil." Maybe he is, maybe he isn't. But even if you say that, evil is bigger. So the question is, then what does one do in the face of evil? You respect that it's there, that it's bigger. You're not naïve enough to think that if you get the right analysis you get the right theology somehow, voila! Everything's going to be fine. It's not going to be fine.

What one has to come back to always is, what do you do with the bad, and how do you answer the question of why do the innocent suffer? Is there an answer? And then I think the only answers are religious. ...

You described a moment when ... you visited a certain kind of Islamic temple and how, literally, it was laid out in relation to how this person saw the afterlife. You said you had a whole new insight on that Islamic ... vision of the afterlife that could be, for the wrong people, quite dangerous. ...

Christianity is an incarnational religion, so this life really matters, and this life is to be enjoyed abundantly. Jesus says, "I've come that you'll have life and have it abundantly." What we read in the paper and what we hear in the news is that for the young bombers in other countries -- let alone the older pilots in this country on 9/11 -- the afterlife is emphasized. "Don't focus on this life. Do this heroic act of killing many people, as many as possible, and you will immediately find yourself in this better afterlife."

This was brought home to me in a recent experience. I was lecturing in Spain. Part of the group's life was to go to Alhambra in Grenada, which was the sultan's palace when the Moors were triumphant and reigning in Spain. It was preserved when they were driven out in 1492. Seeing these rooms, these beautiful rooms. ... At the center of it, there is a fountain and water shaped in the shape of a key. It's the key to paradise.

There's an inner courtyard with orange trees and lemon trees, and around are the rooms of the sultan, all beautifully decorated in Islamic ceramic tile. There's the room for the concubines and the apartments for the wives, and of course the main rooms for the sultan. What was amazing to me was to see architecturally in a building what is told to us as the picture of the afterlife. The hero will be sitting at a fountain. The key to paradise will be this heroic man who will be surrounded and waited upon by different groups of women.

What was striking was that the women, when they had children, neither the concubines nor the wives were allowed to raise the children. The children were taken out of this main building to another set of buildings where they were raised by nannies. The mothers could visit them occasionally, but the women were saved for the sultan. What we hear as the wooing propaganda to the person who will kill themselves for Allah, "You will be received and there will be 70 virgins waiting upon you." The unbroken connection between the past and the present was borne home to me, and that there seemed to be no change in the view -- that it was the same now as it had been then. I found that quite frightening.

Personal question: Has Sept. 11 challenged or altered or deepened your own interior spiritual life, and if so, how?

I think Sept. 11 deepens anybody's spiritual life, mine included. Whether you try to slam the door shut again or feel this wind coming in again when it's thrown open, I think you're left with, "What is this? What am I to make of this?" ... But what Sept. 11 adds [is that] it's a collective trauma, not just a personal trauma. It's not just losing someone you love to accident or illness or old age and dying. It's a trauma forced on us -- mass murder, if you like. ...

One of the ways I've been affected is to take the life I have with both hands and live it even more fully every day, as if it's the last day. I've always lived that way, but this has really sort of upped the ante. So it's more intense, more urgent, if you like, and hence in an odd sort of way, more buoyant and more joyous. On the other side, the side of the suffering, that is also more keen. So I feel, probably along with a lot of other people, that I'm digging down to a different, new experience of God.

I don't think spirit is up in the 20th century; I think it's down. So that it affects the way that I experience my body, my images of God, what I'm willing to do and what I'm willing not to do. There is a kind of fierceness now, that's been souped up, if you like; an insistence. I'm with Simone Weil desiring God to come down.

And I don't like the basic plan. I want an answer. So I'm in that mode, which is very intense, very exciting. But it means every day not knowing. ...

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