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Sept. 11: Accepting mortality

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent   |   Sept. 6, 2002 at 5:14 PM   |   Comments

(Part of UPI's Special Report on Sept. 11)

WASHINGTON (UPI) -- The terrorist attacks last Sept. 11 have opened a generation gap in America. At issue is death -- or rather, how young people have come to embrace their own mortality -- and how many of the older ones prefer not to think about it.

Interviews with priests, rabbis and ministers around the country have produced what seems to be a general pattern. On the one hand, teenagers and young professionals show "a hunger for God's word," as Gregory P. Fryer, senior pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in New York, put it. "They literally cling to the preacher's lips."

The Rev. Robert P. Imbelli, a professor of theology at Boston College, made the same observation while substituting for a parish priest in The Bronx:

"While I cannot say I noticed an increase in attendance, those who did come paid intense attention to my sermons on texts in Paul's Epistle to the Romans, which is filled with a sense of fragility of all things human and our need of dependence upon God."

Again this seems especially true for the young. "They are tired of the pursuit of instant gratification. They yearn for truth. I know this from my own congregation and from friends teaching in public schools," said the Bishop George McKinney, who leads the San Diego jurisdiction of the Church of God in Christ, a large African-American denomination.

On the other hand, a dialogue like this with a New York friend in his late 50s was not at all atypical:

Question: "How has Sept. 11 changed your view of your own mortality?"

Answer: "Well, the other day a plane flew over Manhattan in an unusual pattern, and I broke out in cold sweat."

Q: "But that's anxiety: I was asking you about mortality -- the fact that we must all die."

A: "I tell you what -- the next time there's an attack on New York I am outta here and take my mortality with me."

It was a hopeless dialogue, confirming McKinney's observation: "It's appalling how many people are spiritually comatose."

Hence Imbelli decries "the SUV mentality -- a way to defend ourselves against mortality (by riding in big, supposedly invulnerable vehicles)."

Almost angrily, Richard Cizik, vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, commented on this phenomenon: "It hurts me that a year later there is so little spiritual angst in our vocabulary."

There is, and there isn't.

New York's Rev. Fryer talked full of admiration of his congregation's "Under the Hill Gang" -- young professionals who gave themselves this name in distinction of their older, "over the hill" colleagues.

"The eagerness and intensity with which they study the Bible is amazing," reported Fryer. But that is only one sign of a radical shift since Sept. 11. Other signs are: more and more requests for reprints of his sermons and generally "an increased devotion to God and gratitude for the Gospel."

The Rev. David Whitford, who teaches at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., made an even more startling observation among his students.

"In contrast to a year ago, they are no longer willing to entertain the thought of a multiplicity of truths." In other words, Sept. 11 has abruptly ended postmodern relativism.

In a United Press International commentary a year ago, Whitford had quoted this typical student statement about evil:

"What the Nazis did to the Jews would be wrong if they did it here; but I really can't say that it was wrong for them to do it there. They have their own culture they were trying to protect."

"Now," he related, "you don't hear many kids talk like that anymore."

According to Whitford, a Methodist, this goes hand and glove with this generation's loss of innocence. "In the past, kids thought they were immortal. Today they know they aren't. Oh, they still do stupid and reckless things. But they know about AIDS. They went through the trauma of Columbine -- and now terrorism.

"They have an immediate sense of the connection between life and death. That's why they are much more interested in being a good person. They know that life can come to an abrupt end. And they know that cash is not life's only arbiter anymore."

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, which is close to Ground Zero in New York, shares this observation. "The postmodern denial of evil has vanished," he told this writer.

When the question of one's own mortality comes up, though, Murray's congregation is particularly fascinating because it includes members with two diametrically opposed perspectives.

There are French-speaking Africans, whose own experience has taught them a lot about the intimate connection between life and death.

Thus they have a lot to say to what Murray called "the modern U.S. culture that denies death, just as it denies hell." This culture indulging in the "American dream of staying healthy until the age of 85 and then dying in one's sleep," has received a rude awakening on Sept. 11.

This shock has produced a deepening interest in God and the afterlife across religious barriers. "This becomes clear from the questions our members ask me, and from books they read," reported Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B'nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md.

This topic is particularly perplexing in Judaism, which does not define what happens to the human soul in the afterlife. "Judaism believes in the afterlife and in the concept of the eternal soul," Weinblatt said, "but it does not say what the afterlife is like and what happens to the soul."

There is a danger that the keen interest in mortality and spirituality, which the events on Sept. 11 have generated, will wear off.

Something comparable has happened in 1989 after another history-shaking event -- the sudden disappearance of the Berlin Wall. When this was shown on television, teachers predicted cheerfully that it would finally stimulate the American students' interest in history and geography.

But their hopes were in vain. A few weeks later they realized that many students were unclear whether they had seen fact or fiction.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Now Europeans are no longer sure if the pictures from America they had seen on Sept. 11 were for real or just show.

"The fact that we are living in a virtual world has dulled the general comprehension that we have witnessed a catastrophe," explained the Rev. Johannes Richter, former regional bishop of Leipzig. "We have lost our sense of reality."

This may not apply to young Americans pondering their mortality, though. "It may come as a shock to adults," mused Mark Yaconelli, who directs a Youth Ministry Project in San Francisco, "but the young meditate on death all the time. It's a reality for them."

You might find this depressing. If so, Bishop McKinney has a comforting anecdote for you from the Civil War:

When things seemed to go badly for the Union forces, a woman asked the African-American visionary Frederick Douglass: "Is God dead?"

Douglass replied, "It is never as dark as it appears to be because God is alive."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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