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Note: This is an advance copy of a chapter in The Impact of 9/11 on Religion and Philosophy: The Day that Changed Everything? ed. Matthew Morgan (Palgrave Macmillan, September, 2009; available here. The essay as printed here may differ slightly from the chapter in the book.


Truth, “Faith,” and 9/11

John B. Cobb, Jr.


I.  Christian and Nationalist “Faith”

With rare exceptions, a person who grows up in a homogeneous society will assimilate and presuppose the vision of reality, the way of viewing the world and all the events that make it up, that shapes that society’s thought and life.  The control over that persons experience and thought of what is thus internalized does not exclude critical reflection on a range of topics, particularly those on which members of the society disagree.  But the deeper context of those debates will not itself be brought into discussion.  A society left to itself will change at this level only very gradually unless it faces crises of a quite serious sort.

Some of the deeper assumptions may become problematic when members of one society engage members of a quite different society at a more than casual level.  However, change is rarely the first reaction.  Usually the different beliefs encountered in such engagement appear strange and unacceptable. Since they do not fit with the general underlying assumptions that still remain unconscious, they do not “make sense.” Nevertheless, by introducing into consciousness ideas that do not fit into the established vision, encounters of this kind can be stimuli to change.

We may call the largely unconscious underlying and overarching view of the world as well as the more conscious beliefs in which it is expressed “a faith.” For a thousand years prior to the Renaissance the “faith” of the great majority of Europeans was Christian.  This “faith” gave great power to the church and its hierarchy.  Political rulers also typically gained their legitimacy from this faith, usually through the church’s involvement in their coronation.

The Renaissance began the process of problematizing particular Christian beliefs, and the Enlightenment introduced a new form of faith, the Cartesian view of nature. However, in cultural historical terms the “faith” even of the critics and skeptics and the opponents of ecclesiastical power remained largely Christian for centuries.  Most of those who assimilated the Cartesian view and for whom this was experienced as less questionable than Christian belief, still integrated the two.  They saw the Cartesian world as self-evidently created by a God whose special concern was moral goodness. 

By the end of the eighteenth century, however, belief in a moral creator could no longer be taken for granted.  Hume’s writings show that a basically Christian worldview was no longer simply given.  Its assumptions could be objectified and placed alongside alternatives.  Of course, most people rejected and even ridiculed Hume, but others recognized the need at least to argue with him.  Much of what had been “faith” increasingly became optional belief.

The response to Hume is interesting.  What proved unacceptable to the cultural elite was not his undermining of Christian “faith” but his undermining of scientific “faith.”  By his time the Cartesian view of nature had been so deeply internalized that its problematization by Hume was not tolerable.  The Cartesian view of nature had become the scientific view of nature, and belief that science provides truth was beyond question.  For scientists in general this “faith” was so fully established that they found philosophical questioning pointless. Indeed, the sharp separation of scientific and philosophical thought began at that point.

For those who continued to care about philosophy, Kant changed it more drastically than it had ever been changed before in order to justify scientific “faith.”  As a result, the Cartesian understanding of nature continued to constitute part of the “faith” of the Western world for another century, and despite its tension with advanced physics, it continues to rule the university and its academic disciplines.

Christian “faith” did not disappear.  Changes in elite thought do not immediately affect the majority of a population.  The Cartesian view of nature was itself derivative from Christian “faith” and as long as it continued, the Deist move from creation to Creator seemed natural and sensible to many.  Christian ethics and values still functioned as self-evidently good.  The figure of Jesus remained powerfully attractive to many.  Kant had justified belief in God and in a morality that could be assimilated to Christianity as emphatically as he had justified the Cartesian view of nature.  Nevertheless, for more and more people, whereas the Cartesian view of nature was now part of their “faith,” being Christian was much more a matter of choice.

Other dimensions of the new “faith” that superseded Christian “faith” in Europe were racism and nationalism.  In the great age of discovery and exploration Europeans encountered other people in Africa, Asia, and in the Western hemisphere whom they regarded as inferior.  The contrast was at first more likely to be in terms of Christians and heathen, but it gradually became a racial ones. National identity began emerging as a part of “faith” in the late Middle Ages and grew in importance in the Renaissance as literature was written in the vernacular. 

Political power officially superseded church power in the middle of the seventeenth century when the Treaty of Westphalia gave to princes the right to determine the religion of their people.  Increasingly, therefore, one’s loyalty and one’s identity were defined by geography rather than religion.  Wars over religion gave way to national conflicts.  It became self-evident that one should be ready to fight and die for one’s country.  This was accepted by everyone in a given nation, so that each child was socialized to accept it as self-evident.  Virtue was redefined as patriotism.  The ultimate villain is the traitor.  Saints were replaced by national heroes.  The stories of one’s nation took over from the Christian story in education and in public functions.  For a Frenchman, an Englishman, or an American, being a Christian became optional.  Public debates pro and con Christianity are fully acceptable. But being a Frenchman, an Englishman, or an American is not optional.  There is no public debate about national loyalty.  In short the dominant “faith” of most people in the modern world has been nationalist.

The dominance of Christian “faith” for a thousand years did not mean that no one criticized the church and its teachings. Quite the contrary.  But the criticism was about the failure of the church to live by its teaching or the gap between its teachings and the Bible.  The criticism itself was expressive of Christian “faith.”

The dominance of nationalist “faith” today does not mean that there can be no criticism of what a government does.  But the criticism is that the nation’s actions are not in its true interests or do not accord with its true character.  They are expressions of nationalist “faith.”

II. Faith, Truth and Falsity

No way of thinking has ever achieved the status of “faith” primarily out of careful systematic thought and analysis.  The story of how a hunting and gathering tribe arrived at its “faith” would include its repeated experiences and probably some unique ones as well. If the “faith” did not have enough correspondence to reality to lead to appropriate behavior in most circumstances, either the tribe would not survive or the “faith” would change.  But in general the stories through which the “faith” is transmitted do not measure up to our standards of “truth.”

This applies to Christian “faith” as well. It has guided many individuals and societies in successful ways.  But a straightforward comparison of its sacred stories with what we now regard as facts shows many discrepancies.  This problem was recognized from an early date, and because Christian “faith” led to the aim at “truth,” the result was the development of Christian theology.  This usually employed the best current philosophy in order to achieve greater congruence with what at the time was understood to be reliable “truth.”  The unacceptable stories in the sacred writings were dealt with as allegories.   In recent times, historical scholarship, presupposing the Cartesian view of nature, has been applied to the reconstruction of what “really” happened in order to bring church teaching in line with the “truth.”  Also Christians now tell their story in far more inclusive ways than was earlier the case.  Protestants no longer ignore or disparage Catholics and vice versa. The stories are told more truthfully than was once the case.

Even so, most secular scholars hold that Christian theology is committed to positions that are “untrue,” such as the reality of God and the effectiveness of divine grace in the world.  And many Christians affirm much else that differs from the Cartesian worldview, often rejecting the influence of philosophy and of the critical scholarship of professional theologians. Accordingly, Christian theology is excluded from the university.

Scientific “faith” continues to fare much better. It dominates the universities and is the reason for the exclusion of Christian teaching from them. In the sciences its success in guiding investigations in fruitful channels has been immense.  But today we know that its claims are exaggerated.  There are scientific facts it cannot accommodate.  We know also that the victory of the Cartesian view over its competitors in the seventeenth century was due less to its greater usefulness for scientists than to theological, political, and social considerations.  The stories told about its origins and history, like other such stories supporting and reflecting other “faiths,” are a mixture of fact and fiction.

What can we say about nationalist “faith?”  It is expressed in national histories and in the sacred documents to which these have given rise.  In the United States these include the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The “faith” is that the United States is a fundamentally virtuous nation that is also basically invincible.  All who reside here have benefited from its political and economic accomplishments and owe what is good in their lives to this nation.  Americans enjoy a unique freedom that is worthy of defense at any cost.  This understanding is expressed and supported by the textbooks used to teach our children.

If we examine these textbooks, we will find that they also fall far short of the truth as formulated by critical scholars.  Efforts to introduce the results of critical scholarship into these texts are resisted more consistently than the critical teaching of Bible and church history is resisted in our churches.  A few students encounter these critical histories in university courses, but they are not encouraged to share the implications of the understanding outside of very limited circles.  Even in the university a price may be paid for drawing conclusions from these critical accounts.

Until recently the American nationalist “faith” was emphatically racist, giving rise to various forms of racism in American culture at all levels.  The civil rights struggle led by Martin Luther King has changed this.  Today, avowed racism is not acceptable.  Obviously racism has not disappeared, but we celebrate our nation as a multi-ethnic society and try to socialize our children into its acceptance.  This has required changing the way we tell our story.  This is surely a move in the direction of greater truthfulness, although truth remains subordinated to the dictates of the new national self-understanding.

III. Nationalist “Faith” and the Islamic Enemy

The American nationalist “faith” long tended to be isolationist.  Of course, American policy was always in fact imperialist, but the empire was the American West on the one hand and Latin America on the other.  The former was land that was perceived as manifestly ours for the taking, the latter was to be part of that sphere that was isolated from Europe.  One was to be occupied with its inhabitants largely annihilated.  The other was to be controlled and exploited.  The war with Spain was part of isolating the New World from the Old, but in fact it led to extending our empire to the Philippines, which became a colony in the typical European sense.  We were drawn into World War I on the continent of Europe, but afterwards our isolationism reasserted itself.

The American economic elite did not want to draw back from world domination in a similar way after World War II.  They persuaded the United States to pay a high price to function as leader of the “Free World.”  This justified huge military expenditures and in many respects the militarization of society.  When the Cold War ended, the economic elite feared a move way from the military state.  They invented the ideology of being ready to fight two wars at once, but this did not capture the imagination of the American people.  We needed a villainous enemy.  For this our rulers invented “Islamofascism,” although this name for it came later.  The Islamic “freedom fighters” we had funded to fight Communists now became “radical, fundamentalist Muslims,” a profound threat to our democratic values.  More broadly the Muslim world became for the United States the threatening “Other,” which must be secularized and nationalized as well as turned into capitalistic democracies.  Conveniently, in much of the Muslim world secularization can only be accomplished through highly authoritarian means, whereas popular rule gives religion a large role.  Hence almost any Islamic country can be charged as guilty either of religious fundamentalism or lack of democracy.

One reason that the Muslim world can represent the Other that threatens us is that Islam, rather than nationalism, largely constitutes the operative “faith” of most of its people.  Many national boundaries were drawn by Europeans in the break up of the Turkish Empire. States created in that way cannot quickly take over the function of evoking supreme loyalty.  But this primacy of a traditional religious “faith” is deeply threatening to those who understand secular nationalism as the norm.  It means that these people have not been re-formed by the enlightenment.  Instead Islamic faith unites people across national boundaries and judges the behavior of states by transcendent standards that are determined more by ancient scripture than modern rationalism.  It even challenges the hegemony of capitalism.

The main difficulty of justifying the continued militarization of society on the basis of this new enemy -- made up of our recent allies and employees – was their military weakness. The little nation of Israel had more military might than the Muslim world as a whole, and in any case, many of the Muslim countries were still closely allied to us.  Israel had some reason to fear its Arab neighbors, since it had done much to anger them.  How could Americans be made to think that they were threatened by these new villains?  Since there was no possibility of national armies threatening us, we invented a new type of danger that had played little role in the Cold War.  This consisted of terrorist strikes.  Accordingly, terrorist acts were directed against us in the Near East. These were blamed on al Qaeda.

But this was still not enough to justify large military expenditures and the further militarization of society.  It might persuade us that the CIA’s former employee, Osama bin Laden, had turned what we taught him against us but hardly that we needed to weaponize space.  Something more was required, a massive attack directly on the civilian population of the United States that could be blamed on our new enemies.  This attack was orchestrated on September 11, 2001.  We were told immediately that it was the work of our arch enemy, al Qaeda. 

This attack accomplished its purposes.  This new enemy had now proved itself extremely dangerous.  Whatever our leaders told us to do to counter its moves must be done.  We were at war again.  But the new enemy could not be al Qaeda alone.  It is “terrorism.” Terrorism is defined as attacks by groups other than national governments.  By definition, thus, the terrible and terrifying actions of the United States and Israel cannot be acts of terrorism.  This preserves our innocence.  Since all the steps we take to fight terrorists generate more new terrorists than we kill, and since there is no one who can surrender and thus end the war, we have the ideal basis for a permanent state of war.  This justifies permanent militarization of American society together with the surrender of traditional liberties and the reinstitution of torture.

IV. The Astounding Story that So Many Believe

The story that was told us at the time, and that has been revised and amplified ever since, is, on the surface, both humiliating and implausible.  The world’s most powerful air force was not able to offer any defense against supposedly hijacked civilian planes.  The world’s finest radar system was not able to track one plane coming toward the Pentagon, and the world’s best defended building was unable to offer any resistance at all.  Our vast intelligence network provided no warning, as a small band of Saudis, with modest skills at best, planned, prepared for, and executed a truly amazing attack on an apparently helpless or totally incompetent United States.

It seems remarkable that the American public dutifully vented its rage entirely on the supposed Muslim attackers and has not even demanded a serious investigation of those to whom we give hundreds of billions of dollars every year to plan and execute our defense, but offered none at all.  If I believed the official account, I would be reluctant to leave in charge of the defense of the United States persons who failed so dismally on that day.  But they have received no criticism.

Apparently, we as a people have accepted the idea that all blame for the failure of our defenses goes to the bungling stupidity of the usually highly efficient Federal Aviation Administration.  Yet despite the official account of gross dereliction of duty, no one in the FAA has even been demoted, much less fired.  And, of course, no one has been tried.  A trial, heaven forbid, would open the door to factual investigation.  In the whole affair, the only people who have been punished have been whistle blowers.

Also remarkable is that the public has accepted the extraordinary story that two planes caused fires that totally destroyed three buildings.  Although fires had never previously caused the total collapse of a building of this sort, they brought down three on that day, all in just the way controlled demolition would have collapsed them.   The many reports of explosions of the sort that accompany such demolitions were confiscated and concealed until their disclosure was demanded by the New York Times.  The steel whose examination could easily have settled the question of what caused the collapse was quickly shipped away and melted down.

So far as I know, none of the above statements are particularly doubtful. Yet when these and other facts are recited the response of most Americans shows how powerful is the hold upon them of their nationalistic “faith.”  They do not want to hear that members of their government may have deceived them on a matter of such importance.  They do not want to examine the evidence.  They “know” in advance that the questioner is out of line. They “know” this because the alternative does not fit with their “faith.”

They find reassurance in the findings of a bipartisan Commission, appointed by President Bush and Congressional leaders, that has reportedly investigated what happened and come up with a revised official story that deals with some of the more glaring failures of the earlier accounts.  They feel that report should end the discussion.  In this they are reflecting what the media and the government tell them. They have not examined, and do not want to examine, the extensive evidence that silencing criticism rather than investigating what happened was the task assigned the commission.

They have heard that Popular Mechanics published an article defending the official theory, and that is enough to discredit the critic.  They may know at some level that the CIA plants many deceptive stories to advance its programs, but they do not draw any connection.  The point is to end the conversation and close the door on future questioning.

I have wondered why this assurance that the official story must be true continues to have such a hold on the American public even after it is widely acknowledged that we were lied into the Iraq War and have been deceived in many other ways by the Bush administration.  The answer may be that deception about matters of who has what weapons can be tolerated.  We can understand that the real motives for fighting a war are often different from the announced reason.  But to believe that high officials in an American administration of whatever party or ideology would organize a massive attack killing thousands of American citizens would deeply wound the American sense of the basic goodness of the nation, a conviction which belongs to the depths of our national faith.

Another part of our nationalist “faith” had to be threatened in order to move the American people further into the acceptance of ever increasing militarization. That is the sense of invulnerability.  We were told in the official story of 9/11 that a small group of Muslims on the opposite side of the globe, previously funded and trained by our CIA, lacking any army, navy, or air force, were able to attack us at will and that we were unable defend ourselves against them.  Whenever we go to airport we are reminded of our vulnerability. From time to time we here of plots, mostly thwarted, but having the potential to wound us.

On the other hand, we were reassured as to our invincibility.  We can and will punish them.  And by militarizing our whole society we can and will reduce their ability to harm us – although we will never end it. It will always remain as justification for reducing our liberties and diverting our resources from social needs to “security.”

The sense of invulnerability can easily lead Americans to isolationism.  Hence it was important to those who seek American global hegemony to teach us our vulnerability to distant enemies.  By relating them in our imagination to particular nations, we are then justified in conquering these.  At the same time, by distinguishing these threatening enemies from all national governments we make sure that the threat can never be ended short of total control of the planet.  Thus we have just the right enemy to justify our permanent militarism and our imperialism.  In this way the spin on 9/11 carries further the general spin on “radical, fundamentalist Islam. ”It involves major modifications of American nationalist “faith,” but it intensifies the conviction of American exceptionalism and the tendency to demonize all who question our virtue.

V. “Faith” and “Truth”

How well do the beliefs involved in the changing version of the American national “faith” measure up by normal standards of “truth?” 

Like central Christian beliefs in the ages when Christianity provided the basic “faith” of most of Europe, these beliefs are generally protected from such inquiry.   Although there could be heated debates about the relation of Jesus’ divinity to Jesus’ humanity, that Jesus was divine was rarely doubted.  Those who did doubt generally kept their doubts to themselves. To speak them openly would have serious consequences. 

Christians knew that Jews did deny Jesus’ divinity.  But this did not make the topic one for open discussion.  Jews were made to suffer for what was regarded as their stubbornness.  They were largely isolated from the dominant society.  Their existence as disbelievers was a source of frustration and anger that required special explanations.  These explanations prevented their disbelief from making the belief of Christians problematic. It did not lead to critical study of history or of the biblical texts until the Renaissance.

It would be too much to say that the official story about 9/11 has a status in relation to the American national faith comparable to the divinity of Jesus in relation to Christendom in its heyday.  Nevertheless, there are similarities.  Although many national actions, social policies, and foreign adventures are based on this story, its accuracy, or even the possibility of its falsehood, is not a topic that can be publicly discussed.  Of course, there can be public debates about particular anomalies, but these occur only in the context of the shared assumption that Osama bin Laden was the one who made it all happen.  As the FBI has acknowledged, there is no hard evidence of his involvement, just as there was never any hard evidence for Jesus’ divinity, but as long as raising the question itself places one outside the bounds of acceptable discussion, such facts count for little.

Those of us who doubt the official story function much as Jews did in the age of Christendom.  Most people know we exist, but our ideas are not allowed to enter the discussion.  Instead, all that is needed is a special explanation of such people that will make it clear that we are not part of the national conversation. 

It was remarkable in the earlier period that the label “Jew” functioned so successfully.  After all, everyone knew that Jesus and all the apostles whom they so revered were Jews.  Surely being a Jew had to be recognized as not automatically disqualifying one from being taken seriously.  Yet the church and the Christian society successfully ignored this anomaly.

In a somewhat analogous way, the label “conspiracy theorists” has been remarkably effective in achieving the exclusion from public discussion of those on whom this label is pinned.  The success of this labeling is remarkable, since people know that most important historical changes come about as a result of some group of people planning and working together and that much of this is, at least at some stages, secret.  That such conspiring is an extremely important part of history can hardly be doubted.  The official theory is itself a conspiracy theory.  Obviously, “conspiracy theory” no longer means theories of conspiracy in general.  It now refers in public discourse only to theories that include members of the intelligence community or the administration as among the conspirators.

In excluding the Jews from participation in the Medieval discussion, Christians required an understanding of how the Jews had gone wrong and rejected their Messiah.  Once they understood this, they “knew” that any arguments provided by Jews were mere “rationalizations.”  There was no need to examine their credentials as scholars or the quality of their reasoning.

In excluding 9/11 truth seekers from the contemporary discussion, the nature of “conspiracy theorists” must be similarly explained.  We are nuts and cranks who refuse to recognize and accept the obvious truth, and who are psychologically impelled to develop complex and convoluted accounts, based on hatred and on fevered imagination, to replace it.  Since no one has infinite time available for investigating everything, one should not waste time and effort on the “rationalizations” of “conspiracy theorists.  It is enough to label and dismiss us.

In both cases, the “obvious truth,” the truth that trumps evidence and scholarly authority, is the theory that fits best with the established “faith.”   Alternative theories that fit with the established “faith” are readily examined on their merits.  But a theory that upsets that “faith” is felt to be a violation, in religious terms, a “sacrilege.”

The exclusion of 9/11 “conspiracy theorists” from public discussion is not complete or absolute.  A nationalist “faith” today cannot control the discussion in other countries, and Americans can learn more easily about conversations elsewhere than Europeans in the age of Christendom could learn about ideas of those who were not Christian.  Nevertheless, the global power of the United States has limited serious discussion elsewhere as well.

Nothing like the internet existed in the days of Christendom.  Today this is the greatest bastion of unregulated communication.  Further, although mainstream publishing is closed to “conspiracy theorists,” there are marginal publishers who are not.  In general, their publications are not reviewed in mainstream organs, but occasionally there is a crack in the wall of silence of the major media.   There may be a newspaper report on a 9/11 truth meeting, a radio interview with a 9/ll writer, a review of a 9/11 book, or even a television program.

VI. The Prophetic Tradition

In general in the United States, the nationalistic “faith” has a deeper hold, even among members of religious institutions, than the traditional “faith” to which those institutions officially subscribe.  In many Christian congregations, going against the nationalist “faith” antagonizes more members than critiquing inherited forms of the Christian “faith.” 

The Jewish situation is somewhat different in that the traditional Jewish “faith” has become largely centered on the creation, flourishing, and preserving of the Jewish state.  As long as there is no tension between devotion to Israel and American nationalist “faith,” there is no problem. This is one reason the Jewish community works so hard to prevent the rise of any tension between American policy and Israeli policy. 

The Muslim community is more divided, with traditional Islam continuing to play the primary role for many, while most are working hard to take part in the American national “faith.”  Whereas Jews flex their muscles forcefully and visibly, exercising a remarkably effective censorship over what can and cannot be discussed in the media and in Congress, Muslims still seek to avoid this kind of action or visibility.  However, doubts about the official story are far more prevalent among Muslims than among Christians and Jews.

There is, however, in the Abrahamic communities what we call the “prophetic tradition.”  This is represented in the Jewish scriptures in the books of the “prophetic books.”  In general the prophets engaged in sharp criticism of the Jewish society of their day.  They did not reject the inherited “faith,” but they criticized the dominant form it had taken.  This form typically justified the elite in their exploitation of the weak and gave a sense of virtue and security to the nation because of its worship of the one true God.  The prophets lifted up the connection between the one true God and the demand of social justice, warning the nation not to assume God’s protection. 

During their lifetimes, these prophets were largely rejected and vilified and sometimes killed.  But in retrospect, especially after history vindicated their warnings against complacency, their teachings were canonized.  At least partly because of the presence of the prophetic writings in the Jewish scriptures, Judaism has continued to produce “prophets” throughout history. 

In Israel, those in the “prophetic tradition” seek a just peace with Palestinians and criticize much of Israel’s policy. Although this tradition may not be as strong in the United States as in Israel, it continues impressively in rabbis such as Michael Lerner.  He receives frequent death threats for his courage.  Contemporary prophets are hardly more acceptable in the dominant Jewish community today than they were in ancient times.

Many Christians believe that Jesus is best understood as a continuation or renewal of the prophetic tradition.  He was, of course, completely Jewish.  But like the earlier prophets, he was critical of the Jewish establishment of his day, one that had made peace with Rome and participated in exploitation of the poor.  Rooted in the prophetic side of the Jewish tradition, he proclaimed an alternative to acceptance of Roman imperialism, not as a violent revolution, but as constituting a community that lived by a reversal of imperial values.  Instead of the Roman Empire (basileia) he proclaimed the divine commonwealth (basileia).  Rome executed him as a political trouble-maker.

Like the prophetic side of Judaism in Israel, the prophetic side of Christianity has never been the primary version of Christian “faith.”  But also, as in Judaism, it has retained a role.  In moderate forms it has influenced church policy and actions.  In more thoroughgoing forms it has been a protest against the church’s participation in the oppression of the weak and the exploitation of the poor as well as in all manner of hypocrisy and deceit.  In the United States it inspired the anti-slavery movement and the later struggle for civil rights as well as much of the New Deal.  In south Georgia in the years after World War II, the prophetic spirit expressed itself in the establishment by some Southern Baptists of Koinonia Farm, an interracial, pacifist, community in which all property was shared.  The community survived the sometimes violent hatred of its Christian neighbors, spawned Habitat for Humanity, and still continues, now in a much less threatening context. Jimmy Carter, a near neighbor, also belongs to the prophetic wing of the Southern Baptists   I hope to stand in the prophetic tradition, although I have done far less to justify any such claim.

VII. The Prophetic Tradition and the Quest for Truth about 9/11

Those in the prophetic tradition believe that power corrupts.  It is rare that one attains much power in either state or church without compromises, and the exercise of power tends further to corrupt. This need not be the case to the extent that authority in an organization is distributed, and when there is real accountability for its use.  It is the power that escapes this accountability, or is accountable only to the rich and powerful, that corrupts so seriously.  The founding fathers of this nation understood all this well.

We are strongly opposed to what we call “idolatry,” that is, to giving primary loyalty to anything less than God or the inclusive Whole.  Final devotion either to the church or to the nation is immensely dangerous.  Insofar as either the Christian “faith” or the nationalist “faith” encourages ultimate loyalty to church or nation, they are to be opposed.  This opposition has roots in the Christian “faith” in a way it does not in most forms of the nationalist “faith;” so those in the prophetic tradition are particularly critical of nationalism.

The experience of 9/11 truth seekers can be set against this background.  They have been vilified alike by the political right and the political left and given no hearing by either.  In general the churches have been no more accepting.  However, the prophetic tradition gives the truth seekers more foothold in the Abrahamic tradition than elsewhere.

The single most important writer in this movement is David Griffin, a Protestant theologian in the prophetic tradition.  As such, he does not consider the unpopularity of an idea any argument against pursuing it.  For example, in academia, including theological seminaries, parapsychology is virtually excluded from the accepted range of discourse.  This is because scientific “faith” excludes it from the realm of the possible.  Griffin approached the topic with some skepticism, but when he realized that the evidence supports the reality of a range of parapsychological phenomena, he wrote a highly scholarly book on the subject, indifferent to the negative effect this book might have on his scholarly reputation. It remains the most careful and thorough study of the field.  He has continued to build on his findings in his theological writings.

As a participant in the prophetic tradition, he knows the power of “faith” to block critical study and he understands the importance of engaging in just the criticism this “faith” discourages.  He is keenly aware of the role of systematic deception in the history of religions and of politics.  As a theologian he knows that beliefs matter and takes seriously the ideology of the neoconservatives, largely derived from their most important teacher, Leo Strauss.  In over simple terms, Strauss encouraged a Machiavellian approach to achieving critically important political ends.  Accordingly, Griffin was open to the possibility that when the neoconservatives came to power they did employ Machiavellian means to achieve their basic, and publicly announced, goals.

With respect to 9/11, Griffin saw that the official story did not fit the known facts.  He saw that the academic community in general boycotted the topic. He saw that the media have been overwhelmingly subservient to the government or to the same powers that the government serves. He saw that American domestic policy and foreign policy alike have been constructed on false beliefs. He decided to give priority for some time to finding and stating the truth about this event so far as it is available from existing documents.

In general, the religious press has excluded the work of 9/11 truth seekers as thoroughly as the secular press.  However, there are exceptions.  A New England Methodist publication, Zion’s Herald, published an article by Griffin.1  This has now transformed itself into an organ for “progressive Christianity” generally.  (Many who call themselves “progressives” would prefer the label “prophetic,” but we are deterred from public use of this term because the religious right has led the public to understand prophecy as prediction of the events of the end-time rather than as critique of falsehood and oppression.)  More recently Rabbi Lerner’s magazine, Tikkun, published Griffin’s work.2

This is not to say that either the editor of Zion’s Herald or Rabbi Lerner agrees with Griffin’s view.  My point is that adherence to the prophetic tradition pushes one to consider unpopular and threatening ideas as well as those that are acceptable to the culture and its academies.  Open discussion of a theory is needed for its evaluation.

More important and daring was the publication by Westminster John Knox, the official publisher of the Presbyterian Church (USA), of Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11.3 Griffin wrote this book as “a call to reflection and action,” hoping, unrealistically I fear, that churches would recognize the importance of learning the truth and would act to do so.  Unfortunately, more realistic expectations were fulfilled.  The leading magazine of ecumenical Protestantism, The Christian Century, published a violent attack on Griffin and on the press for publishing the book.  This was written, not as a normal book review by an outsider but as the position of the magazine by the executive editor.4 Since the attack contained no significant arguments, Griffin could ignore it and go about his business.  However, pressure from parts of the Presbyterian community prompted the WJK Board of Directors to issue a moderate apology for publishing the book.  Two WJK editors, who were also officers of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, are no longer employees of the press.  Those in the prophetic tradition cannot expect institutional support.

It is not my intention to say all seekers of truth that threatens established “faith” are in synagogues and churches or are directly influenced by either.  The influence of the Hebrew prophets has passed through many channels.  Many have received the prophetic impulse to social criticism through the influence of the Hebrew prophets on Karl Marx, who may have led them thereafter to cut all direct connections with the Bible.  Although the Hebrew prophets are the main source of such criticism in Europe and, through Mohammed, in the Islamic world, they are not the only source.

It is my intention to say that where the deep influence of the prophetic spirit is lacking, “faith” typically reasserts its control on the boundaries of inquiry. This may be Jewish or Christian “faith.”  It may be secular, Enlightenment “faith” of the sort encouraged in the university.  Most often today it is nationalist “faith.”

VIII. “Faith” and Faith

I have put “faith” in quotes throughout this essay as I name the complex of unexamined assumptions and habits of mind into which children in all cultures are socialized.  That is one valid and legitimate use of the word.  Secularly inclined people are likely to see and criticize quite lucidly the way this operates among those who still live in traditional religious communities. They are less likely to see how something very similar shapes their own way of being in the world.  As the real “faith” of Western people is more and more shaped by the Enlightenment and by nationalisms, this failure to recognize that these faiths are just as limiting as are those they criticize is troubling.  I have tried to illustrate this with respect to 9/11. 

However, we in the prophetic tradition use the word “faith” in a different way. We call for faithfulness to a God who transcends every culture, tradition, and nation, who cares equally for all people and judges all impartially.  God is Truth, and our commitment to that God is our faith. Our faith is then the basis for our critical relationship to everything finite and our efforts to overcome excessive trust in religious and political institutions and beliefs and in human leaders. 

We respect every aspect of the “faith” in which we are nurtured and the many “faiths” in which others are nurtured, but we also support critical evaluation of all.  These “faiths” include all the nationalist ones.  When our own American nationalist “faith” is viewed in this context, it appears, as all such “faiths” do, in its uniqueness.  No two are the same.  But Americans no longer appear as uniquely innocent or virtuous.  Our crimes in the past and in the present are generally proportionate to our power, just as has been the case of other nations.  Most of the stories we tell ourselves about our past are mixtures of fact and fiction selected to strengthen our identity as Americans – not to give us accurate information about those who have gone before us.

In some stories, fact predominates, in others, fiction.  The more closely we study the official story about 9/11 as well as the lengths to which the administration has gone to prevent serious examination of the evidence, the stronger is the impression of the primacy of fiction.  In order to determine the facts, the desire to depict Americans as innocent victims would have to be set aside along with all the prejudices that flow forth from the American nationalist “faith.” Skilled journalists and trained historians would have to seek the truth as, thus far, they have declined to do. Subpoena power held by those who seek the truth would greatly increase the likelihood of coming closer to that elusive ideal.  For one who stands in the prophetic tradition this remains a hope.  But faith in God gives no assurance that the various idols who contest for our devotion will not win out.

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John B. Cobb, Jr., is emeritus Ingraham Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology, Founding Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies, and the author of numerous books, including God and the World and Christ in a Pluralistic Age, and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good.