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September 19th, 2001

  Into the Realm of Chaos


Twice the usual congregation at church this Sunday. If I were more of a churchgoer myself, I would be smug about this. As it is, I confess to a teeny bit of smugness. Though not an active member of my church, never having faced up to the hundreds of hours of time and thousands of dollars of money per annum that would involve if entered into whole-heartedly (and why bother to enter into it any other way?) I attend Sunday communion about once a month, which at least elevates me very slightly above the ranks of what the clergy call "P.A.C.E. Christians" — folk who show up only at Palm Sunday, Ash Wednesday, Christmas and Easter. You'd be surprised at the things the clergy say behind our backs … unless you've read the novels and stories of J.F. Powers, in which case you wouldn't be surprised at all.

Our minister welcomed the unexpected half of his congregation in the spirit of the Prodigal Son parable, and everyone was made to feel at home. That's what a church is for. We prayed for the country, for the rescue workers, for the bereaved, for the dead. We sang H.F. Lyte's wonderful hymn "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven" to the tune it should be sung to, Lauda Anima, and for once I tried hard not to mind that the beautiful lines in the fourth verse that I sang as a child:

Saints triumphant, bow before him,
Gathered in from every race,

have been replaced, in the 1982 Episcopalian hymnal, by a weird combination of pagan sky-worship and the General Theory of Relativity:

Sun and moon, bow down before Him,
Dwellers all in time and space …

Poor benighted old Henry Francis could hardly be expected to know that saints are disgracefully elitist, that to feel triumphant about victory over the differently-religioned betrays a lack of sensitivity, and that "race" is merely a social construct.

There is, of course, nothing to be ashamed of in seeking solace at church in such dark days, even if it was your first attendance since Easter. It's human nature. Universal human nature: "When times are calm you don't burn joss; when times are rough you hug Buddha's foot," goes the Chinese saying. At least it gives you the opportunity to think about how God factors into it all. It is of course a much-cherished cliché of the irreligious that in a war, everyone claims to have God on his side. Bob Dylan wrote a scathing song about that, back in the days before he himself saw the light. Is God on our side?

From Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell comes the answer: "Sort of." Pat and Jerry think that the events of last week are a judgment on us for our sinful ways, a call to repentance. But let me not put words in their mouths. Jerry: "God Almighty is lifting his protection from us … We have imagined ourselves invulnerable and have been consumed by the pursuit of … health, wealth, material pleasures and sexuality … God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve."  Pat: "We have insulted God at the highest level of our government. Then, we say, 'Why does this happen?'"

Theologically speaking, the position Pat and Jerry are promoting has a long and respectable pedigree. They are, in fact, saying pretty much what the Old Testament prophets said to the children of Israel. Here is the fiercest of those prophets, Jeremiah:

Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore shall they fall among them that fall …

And fall Jerusalem did, to the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, on March 16th of 597 B.C. Her people were dragged off into captivity. Are we in a similar case?

I can't say I think so. The God I pray to is not like that. He is, in the words of that hymn: "Slow to chide and swift to bless." I wouldn't dismiss the idea quite as sneeringly as some have, though. For anyone who believes in a managerial God — a God who takes an interest in human beings and their affairs, and takes a hand in directing them — the great problem to be faced is always the problem of theodicy, of divine justice. If God cares about us, why does he inflict unbearable suffering on us, or permit others to inflict it? Why does he let evil exist? My own church will give you an answer they have spent four hundred years working out, a set of elegant but complicated theological arguments. Most ordinary believers can't be bothered with deep theology and just fall back on a sort of submissive fatalism: "Thy will, not ours, be done."  Pat and Jerry's alternative answer is not much to the taste of the times we live in, nor to my taste either, but I have to admit it's a bit more muscular than the one we Episcopalians offer, and perfectly logical.

It depends, of course, on a certain amount of group profiling. Who, exactly, is being punished? Why, the whole nation. This talk of God "punishing" us must surely be unacceptable, if not downright insulting, to the grieving widow who says: "Why my husband? He was a good man, a kind man. If God wants to punish the ungodly, why didn't the damn hijackers crash their planes into Plato's Retreat, Madonna's apartment on Fifth, an abortion clinic, or the headquarters of GLAAD?" To which Pat and Jerry's answer (assuming they follow Jeremiah's lead) is: "Their turn is coming."  Here they lose me. I have not the slightest doubt that thousands of those who died were much better people than I am. So presumably my turn is coming, too. Are we all to be dragged off into captivity in Babylon? Which would be to say, in present-day Iraq? I should prefer to think — and as far as one can be objective about it, it looks at this point to be statistically much more likely — that the unfortunate, long-suffering people of Iraq are going to get some visitations of their own quite soon, courtesy of the United States armed forces.

My own belief, for what it is worth, is that God is indeed on our side, notwithstanding the fact that Osama bin Laden thinks the same thing on his own behalf, and with far more passion that my lackluster observances show. If God has any interest in human affairs at all, and I believe He does, how can He not be on the side of liberty, justice and equality? His whole creation is there to be understood, and human reason — which He also created — has shown itself capable, by tremendous efforts and with many false leads, of understanding more and more of it. But that only happens where free enquiry is possible, and free enquiry is possible only in a nation that permits it, a nation with liberty under the rule of law. What does a fundamentalist "Islamic republic" exist for? For the endless repetition of truth revealed once and for ever, and the obscurantist proscription of all further enquiry into the nature of the world and humanity? Is that what God wants? I can't believe it. I don't want humanity to stay stuck in the seventh century, I don't believe God wants that, and I don't believe any but a very small number of Muslims wants it either.

Still, you never know. There have been quite long stretches of history, like the Captivity of the Jews, when it must have seemed, to our feeble understandings, as if God had deserted the human race altogether. For all anyone can tell we might be heading into one of those stretches. Of all the hundreds of pieces of commentary I have read this past few days, the one that made the deepest impression was by the Dublin writer Kevin Myers, whom I have admired for years as one of the sanest and most thoughtful commentators on the Northern Ireland problem. Writing in the London Daily Telegraph this Sunday, Myers argues that America cannot do nothing, which of course is true; and that America cannot do anything merely small or ineffectual, which is also true. However, he says, it is impossible to think of anything big America can do that will not be massively destabilizing to the world order. Which, it seems to me, is also true.

"Last Tuesday, the entire world crossed a terrible threshold. We departed from the realm of ordered events into the realm of chaos … Revenge on any meaningful scale will inevitably be portrayed as the diabolical technology of the Great Satan falling upon innocent soukh and shoeless felaheen … The trap is baited for the US … We are back to that place of chaos, twice visited in the last century, where consequence runs free of human control, where wisdom seems to be of no avail, and evil seems master of all."

I fear Myers is right, and that the only thing we can say with any certainty is that the world will look very different a year or two from now, probably in some way we cannot even imagine. The events of August 1914 did not seem very important to most people. "It'll be all over by Christmas," they said. Four years later, twenty million had died. Four mighty empires (Ottoman, Russian, Austrian, Prussian) had been toppled, and another, the British, had been holed below the water line. I fear that, as Myers says, we may be sailing off the edge of the world, into the realm of chaos. Jeremiah again:

The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.