American myths reconsidered

The World Trade Center site, seen from the  World Financial Center on March 28, 2006.

Five years after 9/11, Americans still live in the wreckage of old ideas. Religious liberals have a chance to build a new theology adequate to our complex times. Will we rise to the challenge?

Image: The World Trade Center site, seen from the World Financial Center on March 28, 2006. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer


It was a perfect September morning, with clear blue skies and cheering westerly breezes. I remarked on it as I met my neighbor at the door of my apartment house around 8:30. She was leaving for work, and I was arriving back from the gym.

I propped open a window in my little home office with an old book so I could enjoy the fresh air. New York City does not always have fresh air, and along the Brooklyn promontory that faces Lower Manhattan there was always enough noise to warrant closing the windows. But this morning the fresh air was worth the din of traffic and impatient horns, the murmur of people seven flights below going to and from the Promenade along the East River facing Manhattan, the rumble of roads and constant construction.

I heard a loud noise, like a crane dropping something on a work site. I hoped some worker had not been injured. Then I heard loud voices outside on the Promenade, feet hurrying, some were shouting now, and I went to my living room window to see what was up. Smoke was pouring from the World Trade Center.

Today we would call them improvised explosive devices, but that morning five years ago they were just airplanes that plowed into two huge buildings and rendered them rubble. We are still trying to figure out the meaning of that day.

What authority do I have to speak about 9/11? Well, I buried some of the dead and marched in a memorial column for our dead firefighters. I gathered a thousand people on that Promenade, with clergy of all faiths, and ministered to those close and far through email that became a public journal. And equally important, I now minister to a Midwestern church. In 2005 I left the midsize First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, the Unitarian Universalist congregation closest to Ground Zero, to become the senior minister of the Fountain Street Church, a large independent liberal church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. My new congregation’s sense of that day and its impact is also part of my thoughts.

Five years ago, on the Sunday after the attacks, like every other preacher I had a sermon to deliver. It was the reaction shot, as filmmakers would call it, the first response to an event no one saw coming:

I know something I did not before, namely the experience of being assaulted by fear. That’s what terrorism is, after all. I know that now, but I do not understand what it means. Indeed, one of the products of terrorism is to rip away a person’s sense of understanding, to pulverize one’s most basic assumptions, namely: that I and my home will be here at the end of the day.

Five years later I see the country still struggling with feelings like mine. The event impresses itself on every aspect of our lives, though it has long passed. Five years later we have wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the USA Patriot Act, an immigration crisis, an energy crisis—a nation making choice after choice based on fear. More time has passed than from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, yet the country is still in reaction mode. Our society has a massive case of posttraumatic stress syndrome that has yet to be diagnosed and treated.

On hearing that I was in New York City on 9/11, people in Grand Rapids almost to a person say, “That must have been so hard.” What I hear is their own fear and that curious thing called survivor’s guilt. I often reply to their sympathy by saying, “It was hard, yes, but I think you had it far worse. Our loss was palpable. Yours was all subjective, the stuff of dreams. You saw the tapes play over and over but did not see the kids in the playgrounds the next day or that we went back to work the day after that. You heard the dire predictions and gloomy analyses, but did not see that life pressed on. The Pile, as the workers called it, was not the whole city.”

I saw the contrast between the sunny weather, singing birds, and playing children, and the smoking rubble. Which was the foreground and which the background? Is the world a perilous place occasionally redeemed by shafts of sunlight and hope? Or is it a noble and beautiful place sometimes bruised by the consequences of chance?

A few days after the attacks, a woman came into my Brooklyn office struggling with her feelings. She had worked in the World Trade Center before taking a new job not long before 9/11. She mentioned that on her way into her new office she noticed that the security guard in the lobby was asleep. “How could he be asleep?” she asked angrily. She also found her coworkers acting as if nothing had changed. They, too, were asleep.

The 9/11 catastrophe “changed us forever,” the media were quick to say. Yet most Americans returned to their customary ways—to normality—as quickly as they could. My middle-class life continues, largely undisturbed. My cable and email work, the bills still arrive, and I have hot water every day. But the attack rattled our minds and souls because it reminded us of something we have been able to ignore for generations: Existence is precarious. Our survival is never secure.

My visitor understood this and was outraged that those around her appeared not to. She was looking for a spiritual response to this uncertainty, something better than denial or avoidance or revenge. Like her, at some point we must wake up and face the terror in our hearts.

In the midst of the Great Depression, a similar insight came to theologian H. Richard Niebuhr. He wrote of the “intense awareness of the precariousness of life’s poise, of the utter insecurity of men and mankind which are at every moment as ready to plunge into the abyss of disintegration, barbarism, and war of all against all, as to advance toward harmony and integration.”

Facing that “utter insecurity,” which is what 9/11 demanded, is the new religious challenge for Americans. No faith is worth having that cannot face the yawning “abyss of disintegration, barbarism, and war of all against all.” I believe Americans have not faced it, and neither have religious liberals. We have reacted to 9/11, and quarreled about the reactions, but we have remained entranced by established worldviews, conservative and liberal, religious and secular. It is time to see what we can build—poised on that edge near the rubble of our comforting illusions—that can shelter and strengthen us all. The good news is that religious liberals now have an opportunity to face the abyss and lead the way to a post–9/11 religious vision.

The worldviews dominant in American culture prior to 9/11 haven’t served us well in the past five years. Liberals have been tempted to downplay the threats 9/11 exposed, while conservatives have been tempted by an aggressive combativeness, making enemies among the very people the United States is trying to “free.” As I’ve watched Americans respond to 9/11, I’ve come to believe that we as a culture have two souls—the communalist and the individualist—and we must come to terms with the weaknesses in each.

The communalist is evident in the paintings of Edward Hicks, an early-nineteenth-century Pennsylvania Quaker who painted sixty iterations of Isaiah’s great vision of a Peaceable Kingdom: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf, and the young lion, and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” Every version depicts this vision in an unmistakably American landscape. Some even show William Penn in the background. Hicks did not create this American idyll so much as express an idea that had been developing since Governor John Winthrop delivered his sermon “A Modell of Christian Charitie” to his fellow Puritans as they crossed the Atlantic to Massachusetts. For many European immigrants to America, especially those with strong religious reasons for immigrating, the intent was to erect a holy commonwealth, a “city upon a hill,” as Winthrop put it, a place where pure religion could thrive in an unspoiled land.

As the nation grew, this communal soul found expression in utopian societies from Oneida to Amana to Haight-Ashbury. Its noblest texts include the Preamble to the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, Emma Lazarus’s poem inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. We know its debased form, too: singing “Kum Ba Yah,” a kindhearted but ineffectual wish that everyone would just get along. Sometimes our Unitarian Universalist “Beloved Community” tends this way—swaying and singing with a sense that somehow we’ll build a land where the Ivins lies down with the Limbaugh in a bucolic, organic, hypoallergenic, cruelty-free garden of earthly delights.

Evil is always shocking to the communalist. Confronted by evil, the communal soul cannot imagine how something could go so wrong. At its worst, this soul rejects evil as illusory, as a product of bad thinking, bad rearing, oppression, suppression, and repression.

Just as old as the communalist is the individualist soul. The individualist is visible in Winslow Homer’s painting The Pioneer, in which a solitary man shouldering an ax beholds the bit of wilderness that he alone is preparing for use. This is Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, the cowboy, the adventurer determined to be free of custom or tradition. The individualists came before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth. They ventured into the wilderness before anyone else. They were Ralph Waldo Emerson’s nonconformists before he named them, and they marched, as Henry David Thoreau would say, to that different drummer. This soul is Huck Finn and Mammy Yoakum, Nelly Bly and P. T. Barnum, John Muir, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass.

The individualist, too, has its shadow form: the huckster and the con man, Dirty Harry, the Hell’s Angels, Don’t Tread On Me, Confederate flags, it’s a dog-eat-dog world and the devil take the hindmost. Evil is real to this soul—in the sense that the world is a dangerous place where both humans and wild animals are predators. But evil is manageable, like the thief or the bear or the tax collector, all of which can be dispatched through skill and shrewdness.

Both the communalist and the individualist are genuinely American. Both are present in American liberal religion. In Unitarian Universalism, the communalist elements may seem most prominent, but our rejection of creedalism and our defense of individuality in issues such as reproductive choice and the right to die clearly draw on the individualist mythos.

Both souls are clearly part of the American psyche. Over time we as a people have swung back and forth, emphasizing one or the other, much as walking requires moving from one leg to the other. But when knocked to the ground, as we were by 9/11, Americans—and Unitarian Universalists—do not question these mythic images. Instead, we react from within these worldviews.

Neither is adequate. Not for liberal religion, nor for the nation. We are at a point very similar to the moment just before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, when he said to Congress: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise—with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

We need a new vision, but we cannot have it until we see the past that is now lying about us as psychic rubble. Hence this extended psychoanalysis of the American soul—or souls—of which liberal religion is distinctly a part.

In the spring of 2001 I was traveling in Europe on a sabbatical visiting places that had figured in my studies: Rome, Vienna, Prague, Paris, and London. In these and other cities I noticed something that history books had not made evident to me: Each of these places has been several cities. Wars, riots, and natural catastrophes have nearly leveled several of them, and more than once. Rome especially struck me not as the Eternal City, but the eternal place of cities. The present city sits on the wreckage of the medieval city, which perches on the rubble of the ancient city, which sits on the piers of a prehistoric village. Europe and other “old world” societies have built on and in their own devastation for generations, beyond written or conscious memory.

Symbolically, this is what America and our faith communities need to learn to do. After 9/11 the structures we have occupied, intellectually and spiritually, have crumbled. Much that we believed about our country, about ourselves, and about the world around us has proved untrue, but we have not acknowledged it. We act as though the structures remain intact, “enthralled” by them still. We must disenthrall ourselves if we are to build something suitable from the wreckage.

This is a new idea for Americans. I suspect it is an especially uncomfortable idea for religious liberals. Culturally, we are inclined to abandon what is broken and move on, a trait born of the land itself, a place once so large and open that one could escape, start over, simply keep moving. Many middle-class American icons—owning a home with a yard and a garage to hold the automobile—are premised on America’s boundlessness. The communalists, our history teaches us, came to create the Peaceable Kingdom and to escape confining and corrupted cultures. The individualists came to find room enough to live free from the confinements of society and class. And even though the frontier has now been pushed across the continent and the land is no longer raw, we continue to see America, the world, and ourselves as free and unconstrained.

This myth—the underlying idea common to both communalists and individualists—was demolished by 9/11. But have we even begun to build something new in its place?

Our nation’s boundlessness has been the premise of its optimism. We could always escape. But no longer. Separated from the “old world” by oceans, Americans are accustomed to feeling secure from turmoil overseas. From the nineteenth century until 9/11, no foreign forces had attacked our mainland. The world is now increasingly interconnected, the distances grow ever smaller. The challenge of 9/11 is not so much in facing the reality of global terrorism, the evil that brought this truth home to us, but in facing the question of goodness: What can give us genuine cause for hope?

Compared with the recent ascendancy of the religious right, religious liberalism is a marginal force in United States. But only liberal religion can provide a vision adequate to the future we face. Orthodoxy cannot adapt forward. Liberalism can. If religious liberals fail to emerge from the margins now, it will be a failure of will and nerve and faith. We have the capacity to succeed, but we may choose not to.

As ancient peoples picked up old toppled stones to build new Romes atop the old ones, we American religious liberals now have the opportunity to take ideas that have been dislodged from their former structures and place them in new forms appropriate to our times. Will we build something new? If the shock of 9/11 isn’t enough to move us to succeed, what ever could?

We can find building materials for a new foundation in the rubble. I see three ideas—three strong stones—we might reshape and use.

The first stone is the idea of freedom. Freedom is the foundational motif of America and liberal religion. It grew from the idea of an open land, a place where all could live as they wished. This hope has drawn people from around the world for more than three centuries. (It is also what inspired genocide against the native peoples and drove the country to civil war when the difference between ideal and real became inescapable.) Both the communalist and individualist ideas of America are premised on freedom.

The 9/11 attacks destroyed the definition of freedom rooted in the vastness of the land itself. For three centuries the country’s spaciousness allowed people to distance themselves from others and to believe that any place or nation or person could be utterly separate from every other place, nation, or person. Now our challenge is to define freedom spiritually, in categories not limited to physical forms but within the complex relationships between people and institutions and ideas.

Which leads to the second stone we can recover from the rubble: community. Communalists hold it dear, and their vision of a community of mutual dependency stands in tension with the individualists’ vision. And yet, if freedom is essential, then can there be true community unless its members freely choose it? In the United States we have seen democracy as the form of community that preserves freedom. We must now ask what democracy means beyond the political and the pragmatic. Does it have a transcendent value?

The Peaceable Kingdom motif, for all its tenderness, still presumes a king, a God who brings subjects into harmonious relationship. But how can people be free and be subjects? Is freedom a provisional state to be superseded when the judgment day arrives? Such would be the conclusion of many religious groups today, not all of them Christian. So the question is whether there can be spiritual and religious legitimacy to both community and freedom.

The third stone to be recovered is individuality. It has centrifugal power to disperse community, just as a strong community can constrain freedom. But individuality can also stand in the way of freedom, as when proponents of slavery equated abolition with a threat to personal property.

None of these three toppled stones is sufficient to support the future alone. Each can be used for destructive as well as constructive purposes. Therein lies the larger challenge.

To seize this opportunity, religious liberals need a spiritual, theological vision to serve as the mortar that will fasten freedom, community, and individuality into a relationship that empowers each—a trinity of virtues that together expresses the ideal of a world in which each person is free to live the best life possible because the community cherishes each individual as a gift to that person and everyone else.

A religious liberal responding to 9/11 is faced with finding ways to articulate this ideal in religious terms, that is, with claims to authority that exert moral force on society itself. We need something like an Einsteinian revolution in theology. Albert Einstein transformed physics by questioning the idea of universal time and reerecting it on the speed of light. The liberal religious analogy is to start with the premise that the universe itself is ultimately free, not controlled or determined. Freedom is not just a political or social or even human concept; freedom is the nature of reality itself.

If we start with the ultimate freedom of the universe, the problem of evil changes entirely.

In a universe in which freedom is the nature of reality, evil is always possible. Freedom must include the possibility of evil, or it is not freedom. Asking how evil happens is no more a religious question than asking how breathing happens. Yet moral responsibility exists because our actions have real consequences. Without a controlling God to mitigate, good and evil nevertheless make a difference: The challenge of making sound choices is very real, and the consequences are as serious as for any Calvinist. They are not about wrath and judgment in the next life, however, but about misery and pain in this life.

A liberal religious vision for our times will be profoundly about moral choices, but evil will be only one part of it. Goodness will be equally important. Our task will be to show what goodness is and how to make it prevail, and thus offer reason for hope. That is where community and individuality matter—as the matrix where actions take place and their consequences prevail. But like freedom, both community and individuality must have a transcendental, that is, a theological basis.

On a cold autumn morning in 1998, my son Aaron and I went into Lower Manhattan so he could take the entrance exam for New York public high schools. The exam took place at a school at the corner of Chambers Street and the West Side Highway, two blocks north of the World Trade Center. At the foot of a stairway I bid my son farewell as he entered the building. I went to find someplace to wait and read the book I’d brought, The Divine Relativity, a short, difficult volume by the process philosopher Charles Hartshorne, which he had inscribed for me when I was his pastor at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Austin, Texas. I found the Winter Garden, a vaulted glassed–in courtyard with palms planted in wide rectangular precision, which was part of the World Trade Center complex. I found a small table and bought some overpriced coffee and a pastry. Nursing them, I proceeded to the last pages:

[T]he decay of civilization is not merely a technological affair, but has religious and philosophical elements of great importance. Man cannot live without ideal aims which elevate his endeavor and his suffering and his joy to something more lasting and more unitary that the sum of individual human achievements. . . . [W]ithout such an aim, he falls into cynicism or despair.

Though more than a half–century old, these are words for today. Sitting in the Winter Garden, I paused, struck by the fact that as I read his words I was aware of the man who wrote them, whom I knew personally but had not seen in years, and now suddenly he seemed quite present. And in that moment I realized what Hartshorne’s answer means. In his philosophical universe—free down to the wobble of electrons—all is united and made whole by a God whose nature is that of the universal mind. We and all parts of that universe are connected by that mind, which collects and recollects with supreme completeness every actual occasion and weaves it into a larger whole.

I tasted a bit of that as I connected the book to the man, distant at that moment in miles, his words distant in years, words gone from his mind and pen but now running through my head. I thought of a passage from Luke: “Were not our hearts warmed,” said two disciples on the road to Emmaus as they thought of Jesus. Suits went ruffling and high heels clicking through the Winter Garden, and everything of that moment snapped into clarity the way a great moment takes a picture for the mind’s scrapbook. That is what God does every moment. It is what unites reality.

Three years later, the same streets now covered with dust from the demolished towers, I thought of that moment again. Photos showed the ruins of the Winter Garden, the dust lying in great heaps through the broken glass and covering the denuded trees in grim Kabuki whiteness. The place where I had been was no more, and the man who wrote the words that had struck me had himself died, peacefully, at age 103. Both were gone, perished. In the sadness came hopelessness, the awful sense that everything is ephemeral, that nothing lasts and therefore nothing means anything.

But then I remembered another page in that book, where Hartshorne cited his own mentor, Alfred North Whitehead, who declared that in this world all things “perish, yet live on imperishably” in the divine mind. Was I not in remembering—literally re-membering—someplace and someone? The Winter Garden and my friend had perished, but they lived on in my experience. I felt a bit of hope amid the ruins. In a free universe, everything counts. Though it perishes in fact, its effects echo down through time. And we redeem the good by our memory and by living that memory.

What would it mean if we could live by this new hope? Perhaps we would cherish more the freedom we have because what we do makes a difference. Maybe we would think longer and harder before making frivolous or self-centered choices, knowing that they will have effects and outcomes long after we have forgotten them. Who knows but that we will find hope in the idea that all things really do matter, even if we cannot see exactly how.

From the ruins of 9/11 can come a new liberal religion, one that embraces freedom in its true power, one that grasps community and individuality as deep longings of the human heart. It will see that the boundlessness of America is not in the land but in the spirit. It will show that the transcendent vision of America is not about America at all, but about creation itself.