Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr
So what do we do? What does a country do when it has bombed everyone it can bomb? Osama bin Laden is dead. We’ve killed the number two in every militant group twice over. What do we do when there is no nation state with an army to fight? Will the special forces of any given nation be able to complete what thousands of regular soldiers were unable to do in 15 years? What do we do when all we know how to do is mourn and mourn defiantly? What do we do when everything we’re doing seems to be playing out like a well-worn script entitled, “What to do in the first week and arguments to have in the first days following a major terrorist attack.” What do we do?
I think platitudes are unhelpful. I believe vague requests to pray for cities and countries have little impact; unless they are followed with specific ideas about which to pray. Prayer is confusing for Christians on a good day. In the wake of the attacks on Saturday morning, I needed to write down tangible people and places to remember in prayer. I might pray to go on vacation in “Paris”. I may remember visiting the Louvre. When I first saw these “hashtags” and memes, something didn’t quite connect. These prayers were about more than clichéd landmarks and ideas of Paris in my memory and mind. They didn’t seem to be about the reality of the event unfolding on the streets.
In truth, Praying for Paris means praying for people I’ve never met, will never meet, and who died in places I’ve never been. It also means praying for the Russians who died over the Sinai and the Lebanese who died 24 hours before the attack in Paris. Praying for Paris must mean praying for victims of violence everywhere. We have to pray in a contextual way that makes sense of our beliefs, remembers the dead, and doesn’t turn the symbols of grief into idols being worshiped.
Flags, towers, short video clips, and monuments all have the potential to become idols. The first commandment Moses gave the Israelites as they left Egypt addressed a prohibition against worshiping images and ideas he believed might be greater than the God who had delivered them from slavery. The first commandment hasn’t been far from my mind since Friday as I’ve watched the French tricolor pop up everywhere. Here’s my question: Are we worshiping symbols (yes, a polite way to say “idols”) or remembering the dead? Are we becoming slaves to the coverage of the carnage, worshiping the fear, riding the “How dare they attack city of lights again bandwagon?” rather than genuinely remembering the lives of those who died? I fear we are.
We pray and we mourn. What else do we do? How do we find meaning in the midst of the meaningless? I’ve done a great deal of reading this weekend both in and out of scripture. I want to read the words of people who went through traumatic, anxious times and lived to tell the tale. On a cold Saturday night, after officiating at a candlelit wedding, I went to see Paul Tillich.
In his 1957 book, Dynamics of Faith, Tillich describes a “crisis of faith” in western civilization. The old German was right then, when France was fighting a colonial war in Algeria which set the stage for much of the immigration to France from Morocco and Algeria in the late 20th century. Paul Tillich is also correct today. We have a crisis of faith. There are people who take their faith too seriously; seriously enough kill others and there are those who remain completely befuddled by anyone still attending church in Western Europe.
Tillich goes on to say:
“There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions and questionable definitions than the word “faith.” It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men. Today the term “faith” is more productive of disease than of health. It confuses, misleads, creates alternately skepticism and fanaticism, intellectual resistance and emotional surrender, rejection of genuine religion and subjection to substitutes. Indeed, one is tempted to suggest that the word “faith” should be dropped completely; but desirable as that may be it is hardly possible. A powerful tradition protects it. And there is as yet no substitute expressing the reality to which the term “faith” points. So, for the time being, the only way of dealing with the problem is to try to reinterpret the word and remove the confusing and dis¬torting connotations, some of which are the heritage of centuries.”
Yes, we have faith in all the wrong things. There is a faith which says suicide vests will change our status in eternity. There is faith which believes that signs of solidarity, displays of lights, and singing “Imagine” will send messages of cultural strength to terrorists who could care less about how others grieve. There is a faith which believes our governments will do the right things when it comes to welcoming refugees. There is a faith in humanity’s goodness always deteriorating into name calling on Facebook. There is faith in the deity I call God and others call Allah, a God who felt absent on Friday night in Paris and was nowhere to be seen among the Russian wreckage in the Egyptian desert.
Yes, it is time to find a new word; a new way to remove the distorting connotations hanging over our heads at this moment. What next? What is the new word? I don’t know. In the last sentence of “The Courage to Be” there is an indication of what one might do in times like this:
“The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
That is a good place to start.