faith and doubt at ground zero

the question of god

Where was God on Sept. 11? For some, he was among the missing. For others, he was right there at Ground Zero. Even for those who did not lose loved ones, the questions were often urgent and personal. For many people of faith, the face of God was altered on Sept. 11 -- the old, comforting images no longer sufficed -- while for atheists and agnostics, it was not God but humanity that was called into question.

Here are extended excerpts from FRONTLINE's interviews with Ann Ulanov, a psychoanalyst and professor of theology; Orthodox Rabbi Brad Hirschfield; the Rev. Joseph Griesedieck, an Episcopal priest; Kanan Makiya, a professor of Middle Eastern studies; Ian McEwan, a novelist; and Conservative Rabbi Irwin Kula.

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Ann Ulanov
A professor of psychiatry and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

a photo of ulanov

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. ...

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. ... 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." ... It's typical for the religious life, to be plunged into not knowing. ...

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?

. . . .

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
An Orthodox rabbi, he is the vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.

a photo of hirschfield

I guess I constantly struggle with [the image of God], because oftentimes the God that I want is not the God I want to believe in. There's a piece of me that wants a very personal, very nurturing, very caring, very "make-it-all-OK" God -- the God to whom I can wake up in the morning when one of my kids is sick, maybe really sick, and say, "Please, please, make this better."

I know I need that God. I also know it's ridiculous at another level to believe in that God, because if that God exists, that God was dethroned a long time ago. Whether that God was dethroned at Ground Zero or in Rwanda or in Auschwitz, I don't know. But that God was dethroned a long time ago. ...

Since Sept. 11, people keep asking me, "Where was God?" And they think because I'm a rabbi, I have answers. ... There is a part of me that wants to yell back at them, "What? You're asking now? Why now? Why didn't you ask about Bosnia or Rwanda or Hiroshima or gas chambers and concentration camps, or go back through all of human history? I don't understand. Now you're asking 'Where was God?' How many people go to bed hungry every night in the richest country in the world? And now you're asking about 'Where is the God of justice?'"

I don't mean to demean their question, so I always have to kind of check myself, go back and try and understand. What they are looking for is what all of us are looking for: some way to let real life, with the pain, not blow us apart. ... We're all looking for that. I guess the most important part of that conversation is to begin to identify how all of us are looking for that, rather than use some notion of God or some doctrine or some religion to provide easy answers, when we know deep down they don't really exist. So I can make someone feel good for 10 minutes doing the stuff I don't believe. But I know, and they know, that 10 minutes later, the same questions come flooding back. ... I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. ...

If God's ways are mysterious, then don't tell me about the plan. Live with the mystery. It's upsetting, it's scary, it's painful, it's deep, it's rich, and it's interesting; but 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'd 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. If you can say that, well, at least you're honest. I don't worship the same God. But that at least has integrity. ...

It's just that 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.

It seems to me what we really need is to figure out how these different faiths we have can help us be on the hook and actually ask better questions about that God that we want to believe in, or understand how it would be OK to disbelieve in that God.

. . . .

Reverend Joseph Griesedieck
An Episcopal priest in Manhattan, he volunteered at Ground Zero in the days after Sept. 11.

a photo of griesedieck

... And then another rescue worker said to me, "Father, we need you over here." And the time was flying by. Hours seemed like minutes. And I went over to where the rescue worker called me, and he said, "We need you to bless the buckets." I didn't know what he was talking about until the first bucket was put under my nose.

And as I looked into the bucket I saw the unspeakable. I saw a forearm. And it was clear to me that the whole of humanity was represented in that one bucket, because there were parts of various individuals together. And it was much like a crude burial service. And the only thing I could do was add some semblance of dignity to a rather undignified situation, so I made the sign of the cross over the buckets as they came to me, holding my breath, numb, but all the same, trying to add some sense of dignity to a horrible situation. I asked one rescue worker, "That was a body part?" And he said, like a robot, "Yes, Father," and on he went to the next bucket. And I realized then that I was in the right place. ... I felt nauseated, sad, angry, confused, and completely lost. And yet I knew I was supposed to be there. ...

As I looked deeper into the bucket I was convinced of a truth that I had always paid lip service to but now knew was undeniable and as real as it gets: that we are all one. It doesn't matter what our race, creed, gender, or background happens to be, we're all one. We live together, ultimately we all die together. ...

The struggle for me from Sept. 11, from the very beginning of that disaster, was the sense of a disconnect between the sanitary and the triumphalistic nature of worship, and the pristine building as beautiful as that is, and the horror that was taking place blocks away. And after so many services, sanitized services, I realized that I couldn't talk about what was going on unless I was a part of it, unless I had the dirt on me. I believe that we have to preach the gospel, and if necessary use words. And I didn't want to preach about something I hadn't experienced firsthand, because I didn't believe I had any credibility to truly discuss the depth of what had happened unless I actually saw it. ...

Prior to Sept. 11, the face of God for me was one that was strong, secure, consistent. A face that, while at times seemed distant, can more or less be counted on to be there. Who kept things in order; the sun would come up, the sun would go down. Who would provide, could be counted on. And after Sept. 11, the face of God was a blank slate for me. God couldn't be counted on in the way that I thought God could be counted on. That's what I felt as I stood on Ground Zero. God seemed absent. It was frightening, because the attributes that I had depended upon in the past, when thinking about the face of God, had all been stripped away, and I was left with nothing but that thing we call faith. But faith in what? I wasn't so sure.

The face of God after Sept. 11 is much more of a mystery than it ever was, a mystery that is still unfolding. ... And in some ways, I believe that on Ground Zero I grew up, and part of that growing up is truly grasping that which can't be grasped -- the mystery of God. A face that often eludes us, and frustrates me.

. . . .

Kanan Makiya
A professor of Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University, he is the author of Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq.

a photo of Kanan Makiya

Sept. 11 was harder for an atheist like myself than for a believer because it shook my belief in the one last remaining vestige of everything, the foundation of everything -- in the human race, in the human species, and in everything that I had been about, namely, trying to make some small contribution towards improving its condition. ... That does leave you very, very isolated.

Not knowing where to turn enormously reduces the scale of expectations. ... That's a spiritual crisis. But it's not one involving God. I don't begin to doubt even my own lack of faith because of it. It's a sense of sinking into an abyss in which you can't hold on to anything in the world. ...

When you see human behavior like this, for me, it just reconfirms my atheism. It doesn't make me militant about it at all. I'm not proud of it. It's just a view of the world. It's just the way I am. I can't make meaning of the world otherwise. But I certainly couldn't make meaning of the world through some notion of God after a horror like that. ... It just affirms that hopelessness.

. . . .

Ian McEwan
The author of several novels, most recently Atonement.

a photo of Ian McEwan

My atheism certainly was not easily won. I've dabbled around the edges of all kinds of belief and wrote a novel called Black Dogs, in which the narrator -- rather like myself, in a way -- sort of slithered along this axis of belief and unbelief. But I think my cumulative experience of life suggests to me that the distribution of misfortune is completely random. Children die of cancer and bad people live a long time. Good people get crushed by a truck. ...

In other words, if there is a God, he's a very indifferent God. The idea of prayer seems to me almost infantile, this appeal to an entity who could intervene -- who clearly hasn't intervened. Or if he has intervened, he's done so malignedly. It sort of makes me rather feel sad when I heard priests talking about Sept. 11 and reminding us that God moves in mysterious ways. Well, spare me this God, I say. I prefer to regard this in human terms.

When those planes hit those buildings and thousands of innocent people died and tens, twenties, hundreds of thousands of people started to grieve, I felt, more than ever, confirmed in my unbelief. What God, what loving God, could possibly allow this to happen? I find no resource at all in the idea, and it saddened me to see, hear, listen to priests tell us that their "sky god" had some particular purpose in letting this happen, but it was not for us to know it. It just seemed to me sort of irrelevant, at least. And I could probably think of stronger words for it -- an offense to reason really. We have to understand the events of September the 11th in human terms. ... The healing process, too, is one that's in our hands. It's not in the hands of the "sky gods." It's only for us to try and work it out.

Would you read these two paragraphs from your article? ...


"A San Francisco husband slept through his wife's call from the World Trade Center. The tower was burning around her, and she was speaking on her mobile phone. She left her last message to him on the answering machine. A TV station played it to us, while it showed the husband standing there listening. Somehow, he was able to bear hearing it again. We heard her tell him through her sobbing that there was no escape for her. The building was on fire and there was no way down the stairs. She was calling to say goodbye. There was really only one thing for her to say, those three words that all the terrible art, the worst pop songs and movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen. I love you.

She said it over and again before the line went dead. And that is what they were all saying down their phones, from the hijacked planes and the burning towers. There is only love, and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set against the hatred of their murderers."

. . . .

Rabbi Irwin Kula
A Conservative Jewish rabbi, he is president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.

a photo of Rabbi Irwin Kula

Nothing really changed between 9/11 and post-9/11 regarding how I felt about God. ... Before 9/11, already for many, many years, I did not believe in the popular voyeuristic God who watches what we do from outside. That died. That image died for me a long time ago.

What I believed in is the experiences that we name "God." Those experiences were the experience of love and experience of connection and the experience of caring and the experience of feeling both small and large. The experiences of connection, fundamentally. Those experiences, I recognize, are what I call "God." ...

I've been called an atheist quite a few times in the last 10 weeks. You have to develop some pat responses to "atheist." What I say to people is, "I have an atheism, but it beams with holiness."

But atheism is the greatest cleanser. Atheism may be the most religious posture in a moment in which either most people think they have to believe in something they don't believe in, or the people that actually believe in that God are doing so much damage. So maybe atheism is the great corrective right now and is actually the most religious response.

From my tradition's perspective, God was always invisible. God, you never used words for. Whatever words you used for God never adequately described that God. So for me, that's actually, I think, a return to the truest, most genuine understanding of our tradition. We had a God you couldn't see. We had a God you couldn't name. We had a God whose name was, "Yahweh," or "Jehovah." That's just "was," "is," "will be." "Was, Is, Will be" is the name of our God. ...

For me, that there's something "out there," and that I'm here, no longer meant anything, because every time I thought there was something "out there," it turns into inevitably something opposed to me. Something I have to define myself against, whether that's God, or whether that's a Christian, or whether that's a Muslim, or whether that's a Buddhist. And that's not my experience. My genuine experience of life is that there is nothing "out there." This is all there is. And when you see the seamlessness of it all, that's what I mean by "God."

Every tradition has that. Every morning, three times a day since I'm five or six years old, I've been saying, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." Right? It's one of our few creedal statements, the Shema. Three times a day, since I'm six years old. If you ask what 9/11 really did, it made me understand the truth of that. The truth of that, "Everything is one." Not that there's some guy hanging out there who has it all together, who we call "One," but that it is all one. We all know it deep down. We've all had those experiences, whether it's looking at our child in a crib or whether it's looking at our lover or looking at a mountaintop, or looking at a sunset. Right? We've all had those experiences. And we recognize, "Whoa. I'm much more connected here." That's what those firemen had. They recognized -- they didn't have time to think about it, right? Because actually, if you think about it, you begin to create separations. They didn't think about it. All they knew is we're absolutely connected. We're absolutely connected to the 86th floor. Well, that's where God is. That's not "where God is"; God isn't anywhere. That's what we mean when we say "God." ...

Could you sing that particular Torah of the last words. ...

These are final conversations that were recorded on cell phones, recorded on voice mail. They seem to me to be incredible texts, because they were at the moment of confronting life or death. They're so pure about the expression of love between husband and wife, between mother and child. ... When I read them, I just felt they were texts as sacred as the text that we end up having recorded, that we transmit from generation to generation.

I read these every single morning now, or most mornings, because they remind me that whatever my tradition is about, it's about this. It's about being able to express love. It's about being able to understand. Taking care of our children. It's about being in real, genuine friendships.

They just seem so real to me. ... I know all these chants because my father is a cantor. He transmitted all these ancient Jewish chants to me, so they almost naturally came out in chant. I realized, "My God, the chant that we use to read one of the Scriptures that tells the story of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the burning down of that temple, those chants fit this perfectly," although that's not how I thought about it. The chant came and then I said the chant worked, which, of course, is the way a good tradition works. The chant has made them even more alive to me and then links these new texts to my traditional text, even though I don't know these people. But the fact is, we all knew these people in our own way. ...


"Honey. Something terrible is happening. I don't think I'm going to make it. I love you. Take care of the children."

"Hey, Jules. It's Brian. I'm on the plane and it's hijacked and it doesn't look good. I just wanted to let you know that I love you, and I hope to see you again. If I don't, please have fun in life, and live life the best you can. Know that I love you, and no matter what, I'll see you again."

"Mommy. The building is on fire. There's smoke coming through the walls. I can't breathe. I love you, Mommy. Good-bye."


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