A pivotal cultural moment that became a pivotal spiritual moment.
In the spirit of remembrance, here’s what I remember.
9/11 was a pivotal spiritual moment. It was a pivotal intellectual moment. And that’s because it was a pivotal cultural moment.
22 years old, and I saw things as they happened. Waking slowly in the living room of my grandfather’s house situated on a golf course in South Carolina, and no doubt dreaming of the day’s round, it was hard to believe. Didn’t seem real at first which is to say it didn’t seem that important. I couldn’t figure out how to process the impact of two jets on two skyscrapers in a city I loved at barely 9 in the morning. It was, at that point, like watching a weird movie. A made-for-TV one where Matt Lauer and Katie Couric play themselves.
I finally came to, woke my dad up, and continued to watch as the rest of the fam slowly wandered out to see us there in stunned silence.
And then it all hit.
I saw a firefighter in the foreground of a camera shot, running into one of the buildings. Not a minute later, I watched that building collapse from the exact same camera shot.
He was dead.
In a single shot.
And I was there.
Somehow, because I witnessed it that close with unmistakable clarity, I suddenly felt present. Worse, I felt complicit. He laid his life down for the world, and I just watched.
This day fell right smack dab in the middle of my Calvinistic cage phase, and, perhaps because of that, it had an effect precisely opposite the one that Trevin Wax suggests. 9/11 was the beginning of the end of my devotion to gnostic determinism. I know, Calvinists. That’s not what you call it. But, in lieu of the reality, the presence, of that day, there is simply no other way to describe it.
Preachers often imply that there are only two options. The first one is to deal with tragedies great and small by appealing to free will. God is a loving God, wants people to love him back, won’t force love. So, he lets them run amok in hopes that some will freely love him.
The second option is that gnostic determinism. To intellectually recognize that an all-knowing and all-powerful God is clearly, ultimately responsible for all tragedy, and free will is clearly, ultimately a myth. So to answer the question of “Why allow it, God?” there need only be the lofty appeal to the inscrutable greatness of God wherein all that really matters is that he himself is glorified by himself - that is, for his attributes to be most clearly on display so that he receives the best possible praise. The tower fell to glorify God. They all died to glorify him. He gives and takes away, all to the praise of his glory. That some in the towers were elect, chosen and changed, bound for heaven, praises his glorious grace. That some in the towers were nonelect, hated and damned, bound for hell, praises his glorious justice.
To intellectually grab onto the premises of that second argument can be an exhilarating experience. Intoxicating, even. It certainly was for me at one point. To abandon that sense of humanity - even, of empathy - and exalt the God who glorifies himself through mass murder, is like going deep underwater and forgetting the world exists, and even yourself. It’s an amazing feeling.
Until you run out of breath.
The gasp hit me on 9/11.
I think it was during the first celebrity telethon that I finally cried. George Clooney shows up, and I break down. I was back home in VT. I went upstairs, and for the first time in a long time, faced with the presence of that day and with what I saw, what I experienced right there, I wept long and hard. And for the first time in a very long time, I asked, Why.
God, why would you let this happen. It does not make any sense. He could have run home to his family, but ran into the building instead. He laid his life down for the world, and I just watched. Why.
There’s power in that word, why. It’s that which destroys the gnostic stronghold with the cannonball of the Real. And that was the beginning of a journey.
The next five years were an unfolding of possibilities beyond the Preachers’ dichotomy. They were, in essence, a rediscovery of Incarnation. God is not the self-glorifying mastermind behind 9/11. No one has seen God at any time, but the Son has revealed him to us. The Son is all we’ve got. The embodiment of God. And through him, the world as we know it, broken and murderous, is somehow receiving life. Through him, what’s destroyed is somehow being restored.
Incarnation. Because God has always been looking for a body. That’s just the kind of God he is. Heck, even our Bible came through bodies. How much clearer can it get?
Adam and Eve - bodies. Moses - a body. Israel - a body. Jesus - a body. The Church - a body.
To get us back to the garden, before this mess began. To get us forward to the city, where all this mess will end.
Jesus laid his life down for the world, and we just watched.
But now, we get to be his body.