On the morning of September 11th, 2001, as the unimaginably horrific sight of bodies raining down from the upper floors of the World Trade Center was being beamed out across the country and around the world, my grandmother sat on the couch in my parents' living room taking it all in. She was an elderly woman and a devout old-school Catholic, so with her eyes fixed on the televised images of the agonizing carnage unfolding in New York City, she reacted the only way she knew how. She swallowed back a despairing gasp, brought her hand up to nearly cover her mouth, and said, "God love 'em."
I remember my reaction like it was yesterday.
I spun on her and, barely masking my fury, spat, "Oh yeah. There's no doubt he loves them. Look at that -- look how much he loves them."
In hindsight, it was probably unfair to take my anger over what I was witnessing out on my poor grandmother, and I did actually apologize to her. But something about what she'd said -- the pointless but entirely customary religious platitude offered during a time of unspeakable anguish, the equivalent of a band-aid on a gunshot wound -- it brought to the surface a rage that I couldn't suppress. I knew what I was seeing at that moment. People were dying by the hundreds and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. We were helpless in the face of absolute chaos, devastation, and evil -- and crying out to a supposedly omnipotent god struck me not only as a futile gesture but as a suddenly offensive one. Not only was God's supposed grace and mercy nowhere to be found for many on that morning in Lower Manhattan, but there to make things worse was the knowledge that the people who had unleashed insanity and death upon our innocents did so in the name of their own god. They killed because they had perfect faith that what they were doing was just. We begged our god to save us; they exalted their god as they murdered us.
Either way, belief seemed a worthless thing.
Yesterday, as most of us were still trying to shake off the shock of a terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon that killed three people and left dozens more injured, there was a familiar refrain echoing across social media, one intended to offer comfort but which I instead found somewhat insulting: God's love is there for us in our time of need and will give us strength. Again, there was the image of innocent people fleeing in terror through bloodstained city streets, word of an eight-year-old boy being among the dead -- bringing back fresh memories of 20 children shot down in Newtown, Connecticut -- and a country left to mourn in the face of tragedy. And again, there was the insistence by some that it was all part of God's plan, a plan we're not meant to understand but which we can be assured is benevolent. All we have to do is believe in it to bask in its soothing warmth.
For a very long time now that's what I've believed is the true mystery of faith -- not that God gives you comfort in your time of need, but that belief in God gives you comfort. There's little doubt that if you believe unwaveringly in the grace of God and that through him everything will turn out alright in the end, no matter how desperate things may seem, nothing can touch you. Have faith that even the most arduous of trials and heaviest of burdens are simply the darkness before the dawn that God has guaranteed you and they're no longer trials and burdens. But that's the thing: That analgesic faith is by no means God -- it's simply faith. Empty faith. The question then becomes a common one: Is there any harm in firmly holding onto a belief if that and that alone has the ability to get you through the tough times? Is the delusion, if it is one, an inherent good simply because of the good it can do?
This isn't the time to try to score points for anyone's pet issue, not on the backs of the very recently deceased and while millions of people are still trying to come to grips with a tragedy that's shaken us to our core; to do so would be undeniably ghoulish and unforgivably cynical. I actually do believe that if you're in pain right now, no one, least of all me, should be arrogant enough to tell you to forfeit that which helps alleviate your suffering. I also understand that maybe I'm answering my own questions by conceding that point. I can only express, though, what I personally feel: the sadness, heartbreak, and, yes, rage that claws at the inside of my heart and head like a trapped animal. As with 9/11 -- and Virginia Tech, and Aurora, and, especially, Sandy Hook -- I just can't abide trite nostrums declaring that everything's going to be alright as long as I have faith in God, that he's got a plan that I'm simply beneath knowing and a dead eight-year-old child and a few lost limbs are merely the price of bringing that plan to fruition, praise be unto him.
I can't accept that. I won't accept that.
I can't have faith that what happened in Boston was just the unfinished work of a compassionate God or that the lives taken on that street are now at peace in paradise precisely because that would make everything okay. That would allow me to believe that the act that killed those three people and shattered so many others wasn't madness -- sheer, evil madness for which there is no excuse -- but something greater. And I won't accept that either.
As with 9/11 all those years ago, I can't find reassurance in faith. I only find more madness.