God and man at PBS
I hadn’t been tempted to watch the PBS special last night on the religious implications of 9/11. My only exposure to it had been a lead-in I heard on the radio with a woman complaining “where was that nice loving man [God] I had been talking to all those years … after that I couldn’t believe any more …” A friend who was watching called, though, so I went to the TV and watched a series of snippets from interviews, for example a Jewish Conservative rabbi who talked about how for him “One God” now means pantheism and human love, and who chanted some extracts from phone messages to their loved ones from those who were about to die.
The message of the show seemed rather consistent: 9/11 made it impossible for many people to believe in a personal, loving, provident God, but left them with a residual faith in some sort of all-embracing this-worldly unity and in the importance of human love. “We are the world” substitutes for “Hear O Israel the Lord our God is One God.” The shocks of life reveal what our religion—our most basic understanding of things—really is. People used to say there are no atheists in the foxhole. The point of the show seemed to be that there are no believers in an authoritative personal deity after 9/11.
I was surprised by the response, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been. Where had those people been all these years? Hadn’t they noticed that everyone dies and utterly horrible things happen? For that matter, what had they been getting out of the religion they professed? God tortured to death is at the center of Christianity. Hadn’t they ever wondered why? And why did they think people read the psalms and prophets in times of trouble? For assurances that nothing bad ever happens? I would have thought that the point of religion is dealing with overwhelming realities. Not any more, it seems.
So one thing the show demonstrated is that for many people today religious life is purely decorative. It’s there to make things nice and can’t stand up to recognition of genuine evil. People can’t bear the notion that there are basic problems that can’t be fixed. That’s why, on a more everyday level, comfortable middle-class Americans refuse to believe there is anything basically wrong with our country, for example with what their children are taught in school. If they saw anything wrong there’d be something wrong with how they are carrying out a fundamental responsibility, looking after their children, and that would be intolerable.
Another aspect of the show is that it demonstrates how TV gives rise to its own religion. X, Y and Z say A, B
and C, and TV presents them all right next to each other, each on a par with the others. The real truth
therefore becomes the mutual presence of inconsistent particular statements of the truth. The particular
statements become relativized and what remains is human striving for truth tempered by consciousness that one
truth is as good as another so all truths are just personal assertions. The ultimate truth therefore becomes
recognition that we all make assertions that we must limit by recognition of their purely personal nature and
acceptance of the assertions of others. Abstractly speaking, of course, that “ultimate truth” is just another
assertion. However, it can’t be seen as such because the TV camera can’t show itself as the proponent of a
particular truth. From the point of view of TV, the camera is the eye of God. The media overall therefore
become God. The medium, it turns out, is indeed The Message.