Richard Mouw, Barry Cytron, Patricia Hampl, et al.
Where Was God?
Cynthia Eriksson is a clinical psychologist at the Headington Program in International Trauma
Anthony Ugolnik Ukrainian Orthodox priest and professor of English literature at Franklin and Marshall College
Joan Dehzad is an Episcopal deacon and executive director of the Institute of New Americans
Richard Mouw is president of Fuller Theological Seminary and a professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics. He is the author of Uncommon Decency.
Barry Cytron is director of the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning
September 22, 2001
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is First Person, Speaking of Faith. Today on First Person, “Where Was God?” We’ll hear from religious thinkers of many kinds — theologians, rabbis, laypeople — on how they are making sense of this enormous tragedy from their own perspective.
Richard Mouw is a Christian philosopher and the president of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, a leading evangelical center of learning.
RICHARD MOUW: As I saw those ghastly images, not only the big images of buildings crumbling, but people — dazed people walking amidst the ruins covered with that kind of eerie white ash — I really cried out. I just said, “Where are you, God?” A God who reveals himself as all good and all powerful.
I’m a philosopher. I know the problem of evil. I read David Hume, and I’ve struggled with this philosophically. I’ve taught it in my classes. But it just came on me anew in a new way, in a horribly new way: “Where are you, God, in all of this? How can I, as a person who’s been called to be a spokesperson for an evangelical, Biblical perspective on things — how can I say anything about this at all?”
It was then that I thought, a Psalmist asks precisely those questions. So I read some of those Psalms about God being far off, that God’s asleep, or God is deaf, or he’s sort of turned his face from us and abandoned us. I didn’t really have a question about whether there’s a God. I had a question about where God was in all of this. And I’ve got to say that I received a lot of help in just having the Bible help me. The Bible itself helped me to articulate that sense of momentary abandonment, and then to realize that the Psalmist who says it as graphically, as angrily, as passionately as I was feeling it at that moment — that that Psalmist can turn right around and say, “The one who dwells in the secret place of the most high and abides under the shadow of the Almighty is in a safe place.”
I really sensed that, in the midst of all of this, there is only one safe place in the whole universe, and that is in the presence of God. The mountains aren’t safe; the buildings aren’t safe. Human rulers really can’t protect us. Yet in the depths of our souls, we need protection, and that can only be found in a God who isn’t subject to the finite limitations and the evil passions that we experience in people around us.
MS. TIPPETT: Actually, I’ve talked to a lot of Christians today, and everybody’s talking about the Hebrew Scriptures.
MR. MOUW: Oh, I think so. Yeah. I think that…
MS. TIPPETT: And why? Why is it the Hebrew Bible that we invoke in a time like this?
MR. MOUW: Because the Hebrew Scriptures and, indeed, our contemporary Jewish friends have a much more honest sense of talking to God than we Christians. We Christians, especially those of us on the evangelical side of things, we love Jesus, and we’re so grateful to Jesus — and rightly so, that’s so important — but it seems a bit blasphemous to ask questions of God or to say the kinds of things that the Old Testament Psalmists said. Where are you Lord? Are you deaf? Aren’t you listening to me? Why do you seem so far away? Why is it that you’re allowing the wicked to prosper and the righteous people are being oppressed and persecuted? And what’s going on if you’re the kind of God who says that you are? The Psalms are there for a very important purpose, and that is to give us the permission to say the very kinds of things that I’ve been talking about. You don’t find as much of that in the New Testament.
And I think — in an important sense — rightly so, because in the New Testament, Jesus is the one. As he hangs on the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He’s quoting a Psalm there. He expresses that same forsakenness, that same sense of abandonment that many of us feel in those deep and dark moments of our own personal lives. The way many of us have felt in recent days, since September 11.
MS. TIPPETT: What is our task? What do you feel your task is as a Christian and as a leader, as a seminary president?
MR. MOUW: Not only have I been reading the Bible, but I’ve been reading John Calvin in the last couple of days. It’s very interesting — in his great work, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion,” John Calvin talks to national leaders who, he says, need important Christian advice when they’re thinking about going to war in retaliation against something horrible that’s been done to their people. And this is what he says — I’m paraphrasing and actually using some of his exact words here. He says that when a magistrate is considering of retaliating against a wicked enemy, and it’s very important, first of all, that that leader — and I think this is true of all of us in a democracy — be very careful not to allow himself to be carried away by — by some harsh passions, such as, he says, “An implacable severity or desire for vengeance,” and he said, also, “It’s important for us to reflect on the common humanity of our enemy.”
I’m not a pacifist, and Calvin wasn’t either. But I do think that those are very important spiritual exercises. How do you get people to think about that? How do you get national leaders to think about that, especially when this is an important time to be getting our people ready for what may in fact be some very difficult military decisions? It may be a time of significant sacrifice, national sacrifice that we have to go through. But I do think it’s important to keep those sinful tendencies in mind. And that is, we put the best possible interpretation of our own motives and the worst possible interpretation of who our enemy is, and we ought to reverse that, at least as a preparatory spiritual exercise.
One of the things that I find deeply distressing in all of this is the sort of generic anti-Muslim rhetoric that has been so prominent in recent days. It’s just a fact that in the past — and, I’m sure, right now in the present — whenever we as a nation seem to be at odds with some group of Muslims in the world, little Muslim-American kids in Orange County, California get beat up on the way home from school. You don’t have to be a relativist or believe that all religions are of equal value or refuse to engage in evangelism or witness for your own faith or anything like that to be able to say what I’m now going to say. And that is: This is a horrible thing. Any Christian people who are involved in the persecution of innocent Muslim children in North America, and any people who can take the light and the bombing of innocent Muslim people in other countries — this is a sickness that we really ought to repent of and actually be healed of.
MS. TIPPETT: Richard Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary.
JOAN DEHZAD: We have two schools. At least half the children in those schools are Muslim. They are extremely frightened that Americans will blame them. More than half our staff are Muslim. And they, of course, are as horrified by this as I am and as you are.
MS. TIPPETT: Joan Dehzad is an Episcopal deacon, and she is the executive director of the Institute for New Americans and the Abraham Lincoln School in Minneapolis. She has worked for over 20 years with refugees, including many Muslims, in this country.
REV. DEHZAD: I react with anger at people’s assumptions, at the fear of our young students. Those are all natural human emotions. But we can’t react out of emotion. We must react out of reason. We must react out of knowing that Muslims, like Christians, are people who strive to be holy; that murder is unacceptable. It’s unacceptable to Christians. It’s unacceptable to Muslims.
MS. TIPPETT: May I also say that, I think, as an Anglican, your particular tradition emphasizes reason. That’s really a resource you are given to draw on.
REV. DEHZAD: This was a terrible thing that happened to our country. Our president says we are at war. I’m not sure what that means yet. So I had to stop and think about — with my family and friends — about the nature of the people who did this, and why they did it. They did it out of hatred, not out of religion. We live in what seems to be an unreasonable world that’s so full of harm and so full of anxiety that we must use our intellectual capacities to overcome that which is unreasonable. I think that’s good Anglican thinking.
The horror of this and the magnitude of it is very difficult for me to grasp. It still is. I think it’s true for most Americans. But we have to keep — look at history. We have to look at the present political situation, particularly in some countries that spawn these kind of people, and look at the roots of that hatred. There’s the question of revenge versus justice. That requires an enormous amount of reason on the part of our government and our people.
This institute was created to serve people from everywhere in the world. Our faculty and staff is Christian and Buddhist and Muslim. We came together to show, even a small, symbolic way, how people of different faith traditions and different ways of worship and different names for God, can come together to serve a common cause. This won’t harm that. This will make it stronger in many ways.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask, as you all move through that process of comforting the students and moving through this experience, what are some of the religious ideas that are given expression and religious sources that are drawn on for comfort and healing, both Muslim and non-Muslim?
REV. DEHZAD: Well, all the texts that talk about love. Without question, the greatest of the Commandments in the New Testament is to love thy neighbor. My religious tradition as an Anglican is not about punishment; it’s about love.
MS. TIPPETT: The word “love” — obviously such an important thing to you because of what we’ve done to it in our culture — can sound sort of facile in a moment like this. I wonder if you can put any more words to what it means on the ground in your life, and in your work with refugees?
REV. DEHZAD: It’s a terrible thing, but when a human being, any of us, are stripped of everything but life itself, and those people then, by their sheer courage and their belief, rebuild their lives — it’s a constant, constant reminder of the Resurrection. I have watched this for so many years. I have been astounded at their strength and their courage. I’m not sure I would have it. They become so much a part of my life and their stories. And those stories and rebuilding their lives and reaching out are always about love. After some of the things that happened to refugees, how can you ever trust again? How could you ever trust another human being? But they do. It’s a remarkable, remarkable lesson.
So I gain courage from them. I gain strength from them. I found myself in a very odd position this week by feeling the need to protect them. And that was a very different position for me to be in. Protect them, at least by my words, “No one’s going to hurt you. You will be all right,” and to the larger community to say, “These are not the people that did this.”
MS. TIPPETT: The Reverend Joan Dehzad.
MS. TIPPETT: This September 11 fell as Jews around the world prepared to celebrate the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, which is followed by Yom Kippur, their highest holy day and a time of intense self examination. In this period, the shofar is sounded, a ram’s horn with a chilling cadence, said at times to resemble human sobbing. To be acceptable, or kosher, the shofar must be bent and twisted. As I speak with the Jews at this moment, they see this as reflective of how we feel right now as a nation.
Barry Cytron is a rabbi and the director of the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Leaning at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and St. John’s University in Collegeville.
BARRY CYTRON: That which actually forced me to try to think about how to deal with it was the realization that on September the 12th, I was going to have to look at a bunch of young people sitting in classes who had just experienced what I had experienced on the television the day before, and try to think about how to respond to this. And that, in some way, I thought they might be wanting to know how a Jew, one Jew, would respond to this enormous atrocity. As it turns out, the Jewish tradition says that, at a time of grief, you can actually only read three books from the Hebrew Bible. The rest are, as it were, except for the liturgy, off limits. And the three books are Jeremiah and Lamentations and the Book of Job.
And while I’ve never actually thought much about that, accepted that as kind of the wisdom of the tradition, done that in my own private grieving and in more public settings of grieving, what seemed clear to me about the use of those three books now was all three of them were about the world being turned upside-down. And Job, obviously, is about a private world being turned upside-down — death and destruction and injustice all rolled into the personality of the unjust world falling upon Job.
So I said to myself, I ought to study these with my students. That’s what we did. We did a little piece of Lamentations. And the opening line of Lamentations is how forlorn sits the city that was once so celebrated. Our wives have been turned into widows, our children into orphans. What’s amazing sometimes about scripture, which is poetry, is its ability to span the centuries and yet speak to us. One of my colleagues up at St. John’s said to me, “You know, it almost doesn’t matter what you pick up, as long as it’s poetry. It probably will help us get through this.” And certainly Lamentations helped me — I hope helped the students.
And then we spent a fair amount of time — I think the majority of the class, actually — reading sections from the Book of Job. Even though that’s a different setting of evil, it is about how one responds to the presence of evil in the world. For the 5,000 individuals who are now memories, and for all of their families and all of those connections, I think pieces of the Book of Job — making us even question God, which is what the book of Job is most about. Because of this expression, we always think of Job as Job the patient. But this is no patient Job. The Job of 40 chapters in that book is railing against God and fate and the tragedy of his life.
And the ancient rabbis say, “There was no Job. This is every man and every woman. This is all of us as we look out at the world.” So as we explored some of the possible interpretations of those kind of the last piece of the Book of Job, God speaking out of the whirlwind and trying to, in this fabulous poetic piece — trying to make some sense of how the world doesn’t look like it makes sense, but maybe can help us have some hope for the future.
MS. TIPPETT: From the 38th chapter of Job.
READER: “Then the Lord replied to Job out of the tempest and said, Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundations? Speak, if you have understanding. Do you know who fixed its dimensions or who measured it with a line? Onto what were its bases sunk? Who set its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the devine beings shouted for joy? Have you ever commanded the day to break, assigned the dawn its place, so that it seizes the corners of the Earth and shakes the wicked out of it? It changes like clay under the seal, till its hues are fixed like those of a garment, their light is withheld from the wicked, and the upraised arm is broken.”
MS. TIPPETT: As you were reading Job this week, I wonder if you could tell me if there were particular passages that spoke to you or struck you?
RABBI CYTRON: Along with Job’s insistence on the need to confront the injustice which has happened to him — this is maybe chapter 29, the chapter in which he defends himself against all of these charges — his conviction that no matter what he has done wrong, he doesn’t deserve what has happened to him. Which I think is probably a pretty important thing to keep thinking about, after some religious personalities in the last couple days have said that America deserves this happening to them for what they have allowed to happen. And Job says, you know, the world doesn’t operate quite according to that slick kind of system, which is only the — “You do well and you get rewarded and you do bad and you get punished.” Job doesn’t quite take it that way.
In chapter 29, he speaks about retaining his own integrity, come what may. Then, I think, in the words, if I’m citing it correctly, he speaks about what he has tried to do and would continue to do to be “eyes to the blind and feet to the lame, to wear righteousness as a turban.” And that is actually part of what I think we’re going to all have to do in the future. We’re going to need to be — for those who have been bereft and for those who have become orphaned, we’re going to have to be eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.
MS. TIPPETT: Can you talk about those amazing parts of Job where God speaks back — what that says about how God might answer the questions and the doubts and the anguish we have right now?
RABBI CYTRON: Obviously there are many different interpretations of these mighty chapters, 38 and 39 and 40, in which God kind of takes Job on a tour of the world and says to him, “Listen, Job, were you there when I was there, when I created the world?” — and in this wonderful, poetic imagery, talked about hanging the world by a plumb line and kind of setting the oceans against the shore and the clouds against the heavens and the dark against the light. It’s an amazing set of poetic lines.
One way of thinking about what God is saying here is, “Listen, Job, if you had been there at the beginning, as I was at the beginning, then you would actually know what I know — that the world can be random and crazy and filled with evil. And that’s what creation is, and we go forward.”
The last line of the book — almost the last line — Job says, “I repent” in Hebrew. The standard translation is, “I repent now, knowing I am but dust and ashes.” I repent, namely, I take back my accusation against you, God, now that you have said this to me about the world. The word in Hebrew that we normally translate as “repent” is better translated from the classical Hebrew. Not “I repent that I am dust and ashes,” but “I am reconciled that I am dust and ashes.” Namely, I now realize how vulnerable life is, and I accept that fate as a human being.
I think one of the things which we’ve clearly come to grips with is our vulnerability, this enduring lesson that religion is so good at — and I mean that with all due respect — at teaching us about the importance of accepting our frailty and our finality. That’s what Job is saying: I now realize that’s who I am.
MS. TIPPETT: Rabbi Barry Cytron. As we move beyond September 11, religious reflection on the question, “Where was God?” I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us.
This is First Person, Speaking of Faith, from Psalm 88.
READER: “Oh, Lord, my God, my Savior. By day and night I cry to you. Let my prayer enter into your presence. Incline your ear to my lamentation, for I am full of trouble. My life is at the brink of the grave. I am counted among those who go down to the pit. I’ve become like one who has no strength, lost among the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave, whom you remember no more for they are cut off from your hand. Do you work wonders for the dead? Will those who have died stand up and give you thanks? Will your loving kindness be declared in the grave, your faithfulness in the land of destruction? Will your wonders be known in the dark or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?”
PATRICIA HAMPL: We’re in a very delicate, but also interestingly empowered place in terms of language because we can still talk about possibilities. It won’t last long, so we need to root it as best we can right now.
MS. TIPPETT: Patricia Hampl is a poet and an esteemed religious memoirist, a Catholic woman who explores faith through words. She found herself reacting against much of the harsh and vengeful language after September 11. And then she, like other Christians, turned to the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible and found that very language sanctified. She reflects on the difficulties and the sacred possibilities of language at this moment in time.
MS. HAMPL: As a writer, I have to think about language. That’s where I put my stake; that’s where I put my faith. And, frankly, that’s where religion puts its faith, too. There is no religion that isn’t literary. All these contending religions, whether it’s Islam or Judaism or Christianity in its various forms, has the Book and goes to the Book. And there is that sense that, in language, there is the meeting of the body and the spirit. That that’s that pivot point between what we are as acting human beings, and what we are as contemplative human beings, and we may have to face up to the fact that some of our prayer is going to be pretty desperate. It isn’t going to look like piety at all.
MS. TIPPETT: Where does that thought take you in terms of moving forward and beyond these raw and perhaps divinely-embraced emotions?
MS. HAMPL: I have grown up my whole life after the Second World War, as a writer with Theodor Adorno’s great dictum in my mind. It’s been in the mind of all writers since the end of the Second World War. After Auschwitz, to write poetry is barbaric. But to think that poetry or the writing of literature or even expression itself, forget literature, is meaningless or, even worse, is barbaric, blasphemous, does no good at all — that’s a very scary thing. Because it seems to me this is the moment when we need it more than ever.
I feel the need not simply to speak as a writer, but to listen to other people. And by that I mean, I need to listen to people who have suffered enough, to come from a people that — that hate us. I want to be brave enough to listen to other people tell me why I am so hated because I don’t think I can figure it out all on my own, or even out of my own tradition.
In some ways, as other people have said, we Americans are now joining the world in some ways. This is not the first act of terrorism. This is our first and deepest act and most symbolic act of terrorism. Underneath all the fury, I felt a real quiet and a pacing — a slower pacing — entering a lot of people’s lives. That we want to be able to think this through — feel this through, think it through, listen it through — and I think that’s why so many people turn to poetry at this time. Not because poetry is beautiful. What it is, is teaching people to pass between reality and their souls. That can be a very harrowing business.
READER: “Your first word of all was light,
and time began. Then for long you were silent.
Your second word was man, and fear began,
which grips us still.
Are you about to speak again?
I don’t want your third word.
Sometimes I pray: Please don’t talk.
Let all your doing be by gesture only.
Go on writing in faces and stone
what your silence means.
You be our refuge from the wrath
that drove us out of paradise.
Be our shepherd, but never call us —
We can’t bear to know what’s ahead.”
Rainer Maria Rilke.
LINDA LOVING: We, like churches all over the country, had folding chairs in all the aisles. You get into the pulpit, and people look up at you, and they are starved for what you have to say. They’re starved to hear God’s word read straight from Scripture, too. It’s an amazing time. On a typical Sunday, people are writing their grocery lists and dealing with squirming children. It was a riveting time to be on the pulpit and to feel their hunger for meaning.
MS. TIPPETT: Linda Loving is Pastor of House of Hope Presbyterian Church in St. Paul.
REV. LOVING: It’s been very inspiring to me to see people flock to churches, because I think what happens in a time like this is there’s no question of our utter dependency on God. We live our lives with such illusions of being in control and having God on our side. It’s just not the high priority in our lives to focus on our creator. And at a time like this, it’s just so clear that we are dependent, utterly dependent, on God’s grace. That it is ultimately God’s world. They talk about a loss of innocence, you know? I preached yesterday about hopefully a loss of ignorance and how we’ve been living with such illusions and fairly inattentive to those who live with terrorism day and night, year-in, year-out. So such a challenging and difficult week, but I feel so grounded. That is a gift from God right now. My prayer is that people who are turning to the church right now will be open to really finding something.
MS. TIPPETT: Can you put some more words to what it is people are starving for, and what it is they are finding?
REV. LOVING: You just get down to the core questions: Who am I? Whose am I? Why does this matter? How can there be enough goodness to overcome this evil? It will never eradicate the evil. We have to be realistic about that. Evil and sin is a thread through God’s creation since the beginning of time. So we want to watch for an arrogant thought that we could eradicate evil. But we want to overwhelm it with good. And I think that God is stirring people to dig deep for their goodness and the love for which they were created. Now, that can sound fairly mushy on an average day, but right now I don’t think that’s mushy. I think that’s people going, yes. I think people hunger all their lives to know God. I think that’s why we were created. And they’re smack up against it now.
MS. TIPPETT: There’s an image of a Franciscan friar in this tragedy. His name is Mychal Judge. He’s in his Franciscan habit linking arms with the New York City Firefighters, to whom he was a chaplain, and with whom, on September 11, he lost his life. There is a portrait of him in the September 24 edition of Newsweek. Father Dan Grigassy is an associate professor of liturgy at the Washington Theological Union in Washington, D.C. He is a fellow Franciscan and was a close friend of Mychal Judge.
DAN GRIGASSY: He was a guy who would cut through all the garbage of religion and transcend all of that and cut to the core of faith and cut to the core of the gospel and cut to the core of the kinds of things that motivated and mobilized his life. If you were going to find yourself — if you’re going to find your true self, you got to give yourself away. And he gave himself away, as so many did. What a better way to die than to be praying to your God and helping another person right at the very time that you die? That’s the gospel. What a wonderful thing it is for a person to give his life for a friend, for a neighbor. That’s what Mychal was doing when whatever hit him, hit him.
Mychal used to say, “Do you think people have any idea how good they are? Do you think people have any idea how beautiful they are?” The core of Mychal’s faith and what he demonstrated here is that you see the goodness that’s in people. You see the goodness that’s in people. We’re made in God’s image and likeness, so all three Semitic religions teach us — Muslim, Judaism, Christianity. We might not be totally in God’s image yet, but we certainly are a lot like God. And when we see people doing these wonderful things for each other and coming outside themselves and forgetting their individualism and moving to a community, I think that’s when we get signals of God in our midst.
God isn’t out in the ether in the sky somewhere, swooping down on us. No, God’s revealed in the best of our humanity. And we’re witnessing some of the best our humanity. We’re also witnessing some of the worst of our humanity. But the best of our humanity is coming forth, and that’s God’s presence here. It doesn’t swoop down on us from some outside, some elsewhere. It’s right here in front of us. We just don’t see it. It takes something like this for us to see it.
MS. TIPPETT: Father Dan Grigassy.
READER: The prayer of St. Francis.
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
Not so much to be understood as to understand;
Not so much to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we awake to eternal life.”
MS. TIPPETT: Cynthia Eriksson is a clinical psychologist at the Headington Program in International Trauma at Fuller Seminary. She counsels humanitarian aid workers who have responded to wars and natural disasters across the world.
CYNTHIA ERIKSSON: I think there’s always that undercurrent of needing to struggle with the theodicy question: the question of innocent suffering. Ultimately, there isn’t an answer, and I think that’s probably the theology that I work with the most, is staying in the gray, staying in the uncertainty, and letting people grieve, and letting people rage, and letting people question as much as they need to — to find God in the midst of that. Allowing ourselves to tolerate that grayness and to tolerate that uncertainty with him, I think, is one of the ways that he provides comfort.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s a pretty hard paradox, you know what I mean? It doesn’t make any sense, what you just said, except that it does make sense, because it’s the way life is.
MS. ERIKSSON: Yeah. I think it really does. And I think you’re right that we’re all experiencing what happened in New York and D.C. in varying degrees. We’ve all lost something. And yet, I think, what does it mean to keep going in the midst of that? Where do we turn to? That could be why so many people have returned to church or returned to places of faith and wanting to hold onto something that’s bigger. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s probably ways that we could psychologize it and say that it’s a coping strategy and that we create this thing to feel better. But then there’s the side of things that says, what is the supernatural? Is there something beyond this here and now that we can hold onto?
MS. TIPPETT: I’m interested in what you know, because you’ve been through horrible experiences, or you walked with people who’ve been through horrible experiences. One can be cynical and say, right now, everybody’s flocking to church, and they’re looking for comfort. Will they continue to go to church to look for something deeper and richer? Will other coping mechanisms follow this one? What do you know about what — what can happen if this turns into something that lasts?
MS. ERIKSSON: From the psychological perspective, there is that time, in response to disaster, that becomes disillusionment — where the recovery period has been going for a while, and now things aren’t so much on the headlines, or the aid workers aren’t right there on the front lines, but people’s lives are still shattered. There is the potential of becoming disillusioned and angry and hurt with people, with God, with the government. There’s all sorts of possibilities there. But I think that we have a choice. It’s a hard choice, but I think that the grace that we can experience and grace through other people that we can experience — I think that’s ultimately a critical issue.
I know that I went through a personal tragedy and remember being with friends in the midst of a devotional time. A friend was reading a scripture in Psalms that talked about God not letting our foot slip or not letting anything bad happen. And I remember thinking, “Well, that’s a bunch of baloney.” Because I know that bad things happen. They just happened. And how can I trust that? How can I trust God if he’s saying this kind of stuff in his scripture? What the heck does that mean? But I realized that the person who was reading the scripture and who believed, at the time, was someone I trusted. It almost ended up being a situation where I trusted this person to trust God for me for that time.
MS. TIPPETT: That gives me a new kind of image. We often talk about finding God in other people — other people bearing the image of God or being God’s hands. But what I just saw when you were talking is someone who is up-close to God at the moment, linking hands with you and building a bridge, forming a connection.
MS. ERIKSSON: I think that’s one of the ways that I would say how God — how we’ve seen some of how God works in the psychological realm — that one of the key ways that we can mitigate the effects of a trauma is through social support. God’s presence and just our humanness together and caring for each other and trusting God for each other — how incredible that can be as a healing factor.
MS. TIPPETT: Psychologist Cynthia Eriksson.
Father Anthony Ugolnik is a professor of English literature at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. And he is also a Ukrainian Orthodox Priest. The Eastern Orthodox Church is divided along lines of ethnicity and language. For Orthodox Christians, as for many people around the world, religion and politics cannot be separated. When the Kosovo crisis pitted Muslim Albanians against Serbian Orthodox Christians, Anthony Ugolnik was involved in the American Orthodox response. During that time, he says, other Americans often asked him why people in that part of the world could not put history aside and forgive and forget.
ANTHONY UGOLNIK: When people have said — as if it’s an easy thing to forgive — that we should forgive, I’ve always wanted to convey to them how very difficult a thing it is when it affects you — your own people, your own heritage. I think, in that sense, now all Americans understand what it feels like. What it feels like to be aggrieved, you know? What it feels like to see your own monuments and that which represents what you think is the best of us suddenly dashed and destroyed. I think Americans now know what it feels like and know how very difficult it is to live with that degree of offense and to know what it is to try to get in touch with your own capacity to forgive.
MS. TIPPETT: And I suppose we are most familiar, most recently, with that kind of Orthodox Christian tragedy in Serbia.
FR. UGOLNIK: Yeah, sure, in the Balkans in general. Right.
MS. TIPPETT: Which also pits, to some degree, Muslims and Christians against each other.
FR. UGOLNIK: Right. Exactly.
MS. TIPPETT: How does your experience with that and your compassion for that — how is that forming how you’re processing what’s going on now in our country? Or what might happen next?
FR. UGOLNIK: I’d say that I had to research, and I had to search with great care in my own tradition for the voice that I was seeking. I found it in a guy called Joseph Bryennios. He was an Orthodox Divine, kind of a theologian, as early as the 14th century. He wrote at a time when the scales had already shifted from the Christian side to the Islamic side in the game of power. So the Islamic side had already gained tremendous earthly power at that point, and there were many Christians under Islamic rule. Joseph Bryennios was in the position, unlike those who had preceded him, of having known, personally, and having come to dialog with and to respect people of an Islamic background.
He was one of the first truly ecumenical Christians, in the sense that he recognized God’s power and God’s presence in the voice of justice, the voice of service — that he heard in a population which, after all, was oppressing him. And Joseph Bryennios recognized in them — the spirit he recognized in them, the reflection of God’s glory, the reflection of God’s power — and it was a magnificent kind of realization in him. It was a wonderful discovery to find it in him and in his work.
MS. TIPPETT: Do you hold out hope for that kind of appreciation between Christians and Muslims at this moment, in our country?
FR. UGOLNIK: I do. As a matter of fact, I truly believe — I grew up in Detroit, which is a city in which you’re as apt to see a mosque as a Baptist church. And I really think that the consciousness of Islam among Americans will grow because of this tragedy.
And not only that. I think that you’ve had the visit of the president to the Islamic Center in Washington. You never would have seen that before. You’re going to hear the voices of many people who are, for all sympathies and appearances, fully American, but who speak from a Muslim and Islamic heritage. You’re going to hear those in the media. And those voices are going to be heard more clearly now. I really think that the consciousness of Islam and what is good and just and true in Islam is going to grow, rather than be dimmed by this tragedy.
MS. TIPPETT: I want to come back to your Orthodox Christian tradition and your understanding of God, which differs from the Catholic or Protestant Christian way of thinking about the nature of God and celebrating that. I want to ask you the question that’s been on many people’s lips: Where was God?
FR. UGOLNIK: In this tragedy, in particular?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, when those airplanes crashed into those buildings and killed so many people.
FR. UGOLNIK: Well, on the one level, that seems to me an almost impertinent question to ask. Impertinent in the sense that, yes, it was a tremendous tragedy. And yes, so many people died. And yes, I feel it, as well as any American does. But at the same time, that same question can be asked at the bedside of any person. And I’ve heard that voice at the bedside of people who are themselves dying. And dying, sometimes, well past their three-score years and ten. They feel pain. They feel that this thing, life, which is so good and so dear to them is being torn away. And they, too, can ask the same question.
When we lose a child, or when we lose someone young and full of hope, and life that’s close to us, any one of us can ask that question. Where is God? Where is God right now? And certainly some of the massive massacres and tragedies that have occurred in human existence demand the same question.
So this terrible thing that happened to us was but a participation in the human condition. Then we can ask, where is God in this? Where is God. I would say that God is suffering with us. God is with us in this tragedy. God has, in God’s own self and God’s own being, subjected God’s self to all of our vulnerabilities, all of our humanity, our body, our blood. And that’s where God is, with us, right now, at the same place that we are. If we imagine God to dwell in a place of remoteness, prosperity, immunity from everything that we endure and from everything that we experience, we’ve made God at the same time into something alien, something other than us. God’s with us.
MS. TIPPETT: All of the music in today’s program was by J. S. Bach, performed by Hilary Hahn, Yo-Yo Ma and Janet See. When you visit us on the web, you can add your reflections and comments on the ideas presented here. Just go to Minnesota.publicradio.org and click on First Person. We’d like to hear from you. On the website, you can also listen to this show and to our previous programs. You can also call Minnesota Public Radio at 1-800-228-7123. Support for this program was provided by a grant from the George Family Foundation, funding innovative ideas in integrated medicine, education and spirituality in everyday life. I’m Krista Tippett, and this program is a production of Minnesota Public Radio.