Eleven years we have mourned the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. Historians have just begun to ask, “So what does it mean?” We should notice that we can imagine many interpretations, many (inadequate) answers, and yet also remain quite passionate about the issue. This tells us that 9/11 is truly momentous—it is an instance that marks a point of transition, a crystallization and birthplace of various ideas. Indeed, for the young people who witnessed the attacks, something broke with the “brand new skyline”—some lingering assumption or way of understanding life. At least that’s what I have experienced—I wasn’t even a teenager at the time.
I am reminded of Phyllis Tickle at the Wild Goose Festival this past summer. The grandmotherly sage of emerging Christianity observed a fascinating pattern in post-Christian history (or rather the annis Domini). After every five hundred years or so of relative stability, there is a wave of upheaval that drastically changes how church and society interact with each other. The transition periods last for about a hundred years, generally divided by some significant event. For example, about five hundred years after Christ, the Western Roman Empire falls to the barbarian hordes This gave rise to the medieval era, in which the institution of the Church became the state for Western Europe. After the next five hundred years, the Church suffered a cataclysmic split between East and West via mutual excommunications. Another half-century and we see the nailing of the 95 Theses on a Wittenberg church’s door, sparking the Protestant Reformation, nationalism, and perhaps the Enlightenment. These turning points are not purely ecclesiastical in their nature, nor are the necessarily the cause of such massive shifts. Instead, they are symbolic culmination of many trends within society—a fruition of many elements that finally come together in one memorable act.
Tickle posits that 9/11 marks just such a point in the historical narrative. The decade following the terrorist attack witnessed the crumbling of “Christian America.” Indeed, Tickle pointed out to her audience the desperate radicalization of religious rhetoric in federal elections. “What we’re hearing are the death cries of Christendom,” she said of the 2012 election (noticeable for its lack of traditional Protestants), “For the first time in 1700 years it is not an advantage to be a Christian…We are no longer privileged, thank God!” Now, the emergent ideal of “faith on the margins of society” can be a reality. The corrupting centers of power will no longer waste our time and energy.
My disagreements with Phyllis Tickle run quite deeply, but I appreciate her attempt to order the narrative in a helpful form. As I mentioned before, 9/11 does mark a shift. Americans saw a fuller manifestation of globalism and its effects. It also seems that liberal secularism received a devastating blow as radical Islam proved its mettle. Not all faiths can play nice in the social sandbox; just following the neat categories of propriety faces a great threat by religious extremism. What people believe in their faith–something secularists deemed an individual phenomenon relegated to the privacy of the home–really matters for the public square. The New Atheists, on the other hand, seemed to gain a boost by labeling all pious citizens as potentially dangerous fanatics. Optimism faded for a short while (notice the darker colors and military surplus style in fashion or the pre-2008 cynicism in both political parties). Scholars of liberal and conservative persuasions struggled with the meanings of patriotism versus nationalism and triumphalism.
Or is this just lack of perspective? Just because we witness a catastrophe does not mean it will have the same weight as a Great Schism or Reformation. Thus begins the business of history: thinkers trying to weigh the importance and significance of various events and dates, setting and resetting chronological demarcations. What about the Battle of Tours? The exodus of Greek translators to the West? The publication of Machiavelli, Descartes, and Bacon? Even for the 20th century, historians have marked off the World Wars as a death of optimism and birth of pessimism. Man applied his supposedly glorious technology into new and more devastating ways to kill. He even invented weaponry that could destroy the world several times over (while having the foresight to propagate ideologies that were willing to do just that). In addition, the bourgeois accomplishment of privacy (which reached its height during the Victorian era) began to shrink away with the dawn of widespread technology. The inflation of currency undermined money (for the post-Reformation Age was an age of money) while the inflation of ideas destabilized the post-Enlightenment “scientific” university system. And what about the upheaval of 1968, where all the “postmodern” developments began to crash in on people across the globe? The year was filled with riots, fears, and assassinations of key public figures. Tickle also neglects to meteoric rise of Christianity across the globe, the fruits of the Holy Spirit and those that heeded His call. Christianity may even be established in new and different ways (or perhaps in very old ones) throughout the Global South—perhaps against the hopes and expectations of emerging Christians in the West. Time—one of God’s strangest messengers—will tell.
So, what do you think? How significant is 9/11 in the course of world history? What are its ramifications? More specifically, how have Christians changed (in America and across the globe) in their various perceptions of faith and society? Please share your thoughts below as we converse on this important issue.