I was going to let 9/11 pass without commentary but then I read one too many Pagan responses to the anniversary and the bad theology on display prompted me to speak up. One of the biggest questions that people are asking is, “How can we believe in gods who would let such atrocities take place?” This line of thinking is problematic for a number of reasons, but I’ll limit myself to the most obvious.
First off, I do not recall the gods ever promising us that life would be easy, simple or without pain and struggle. This is part of the human condition and has been since the beginning of time. There has never been an age without war and poverty and disease – hell, we’ve actually got it pretty good in comparison. It’s only relatively recently that the average life expectancy rose beyond 40. You don’t have to worry about four out of five of your children dying in birth or before they’ve reached their first year. You don’t pass a stack of stinking corpses, contagious victims of the plague, on your way into work each morning. You don’t have to worry about marauders sweeping in and burning your home to the ground, salting your fields and carrying off most of your neighbors as slaves. I’m guessing most of you have got a roof over your head and enough food in your belly and that if you get a scratch or the sniffles it won’t be an automatic death sentence. So, really, where do you get off questioning the benevolence of the gods because a handful of maniacs flew a couple planes into some buildings?
Secondly, and even more importantly, when exactly did the gods promise special protection to the United States of America? All of the documents prepared by the Founding Fathers make it pretty clear that this is a secular nation that draws a firm distinction between church and state. Beyond that the culture of this country has been predominantly Christian for most of its history. This is in marked contrast with what we find in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome. There it was the duty of the king to cement the bond between the gods and the land, a bond that was periodically renewed through the repetition of important ceremonies during his reign. Even when these nations became more democratic and rejected monarchic institutions they retained the figure of the king, limiting his role strictly to the performance of these rites because it was understood that they were absolutely essential for the well-being of the nation and the assurance of the gods’ protection, fertility and other blessings. (I have collected a variety of sources on sacred kingship here, here and here for those who would like to see how this concept was understood in Hellenic and Greco-Egyptian society.) In fact, the Romans took it a step further through the rite of evocatio which was basically a business transaction they conducted with the gods of foreign populations. Before they met those people in battle they had the priests offer their gods the opportunity to defect to Rome’s side, promising them abundant worship and new temples if they abandoned their original devotees and helped the Romans defeat them. Clearly, judging by the unrivaled success they experienced, this was an effective policy on their part. As far as I’m aware the United States of America has never made such a binding agreement with any divinity – not Yahweh and certainly not the gods of Pagan Europe either. So, what right do you have to accuse the gods of not holding up their end of a bargain when no such bargain was officially in place? (And indeed, since America has no kingly authority nor state church we have no one on our side who is qualified to bring such a deal before the gods.)
Even so, I think it premature to suggest that the gods “turned their backs on us.” We suffered a single massive coordinated terrorist strike. It was a horrifying event, no doubt about it, and the loss of life on that day is truly to be lamented. But America was not brought to her knees by this one atrocity. We did not suffer invasion and occupation by a foreign army, this was not the beginning of a prolonged and constant state of siege with terrorists blowing up synagogues, schools and discos every other week, half our population wasn’t wiped out and forced into slavery or concentration camps. We got our nose bloodied a little bit and after we picked up the pieces we went on with our lives pretty much like before. (Discounting the erosion of our civil liberties, waging unprovoked and staggeringly expensive wars on multiple fronts, selling our country out to big business, the increasing polarization and lack of civility in our public discourse, etc.) Other countries have had to deal with far worse on a far more regular basis and yet don’t whine about it nearly as much as we Americans do.
The gods were there with us on 9/11 just as they were with the English during the subway attacks, with the Indians during Mumbai, with the Haitians during the earthquake and the Japanese when we bombed Hiroshima. The presence of the gods will not shelter us from bad things happening, because it can’t: bad things are just a part of physical existence. Because they were mortals even Sarpedon, Aeneas, Melampos and Antony had to taste of death, despite being well-loved by the gods. What the presence of the gods does is help us heal and grow stronger, help us pick up the broken pieces and form them into something beautiful and meaningful. Bad things are trials that make us wiser, stronger, more compassionate and creative. They are the fuel of evolution that helps us to reach our full potential as human beings. It gives value to our experiences. I look at the face of my beloved and I know there’s a chance she won’t be here tomorrow. But now, in this moment, she is here with me and so I will show her how much she means to me, never letting an opportunity to express that love go by unanswered. That is the heart of Pagan theology – recognizing the fragile and ephemeral nature of existence and celebrating it as much as you can, while you can. All the rest is just empty talk, especially when you are trying to hold the gods to a standard they never agreed to in the first place.
In closing I would like to leave you with a sober thought: all of you who read this will be dead one day. In fact it’s a pretty safe bet that everyone who is currently walking the earth will be gone within a hundred and fifty years, hardly a blip on the vast scale of geological time. The question we should be pondering isn’t why but rather what. Specifically “What the hell am I going to do with these few precious moments that have been allotted to me?” That is how you create a life worth living, a life worthy of the notice of the gods.