I was watching a reprise of the Frontline documentary Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero the other day in honor of the five year anniversary of 9/11. In it, I found some fascinating reflections on the nature of God on the part of Jewish rabbis in New York City. One reflects on the presence of God in New York City on that day:
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.
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 chants the words from voice mail messages left by the passengers from the hijacked planes when he gets up every morning. Hearing them in this way cuts to the purity of the emotions of the moment, revealing their almost sacred character. The people on those planes were full of fear, yes… but they were also full of love for those they were going to miss.
My point in this lengthy digression is about the nature of God. So many people today seem to believe in a notion of God that is almost cartoonish — a wise old man, full of human hopes and motives, who controls everything for the betterment of all. Even worse, some people (including a lot of the wealthy political elites of the United States) seem to believe that God rewards the worthy with material wealth, and curse the unfortunate with poverty… despite the fact that Jesus said that it would be harder for a wealthy man to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. As a rich nation, perhaps the richest nation, some believe that we are uniquely chosen and shielded by God… and capable of doing almost no wrong.
An event like 9/11 reminds me that all of this is utter crap… that is more for those who wish to justify their own material comfort than anyone who really wants to cultivate a sense of the spiritual. God is a mystery… something far beyond our ordinary every day experience. How can he be human when we feel him everywhere but see him nowhere? Yes, we are created in his image, but perhaps that image is in the animus that is a free and creative will rather than any absurd part of the human form. God is more a question, than an answer… and a question that grows more profound each time it is asked.
I sometimes get in trouble with Mrs. Geek when I talk like this. She tends to think that I sound more and more and like an agnostic. I suppose that is true, but I recall a sermon on once heard in Church. In it, a man starts out praying by reciting “Lord, Lord, Lord” over and over again. Then he has a change in his understanding for God, and prays by repeating “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”. Finally, he prays just by saying the name “Dave” to himself. The priest suggested that even though this might seem sacreligious on its face, it was not; the man just discovered that “Dave” was the word that seemed to most directly connect him with God. That’s what I like to hope I am doing in my spiritual journey as well.