Reckoning with Reality: Does 9/11 still matter?

Events shape our world. Moreover, our lives conform to the contours of circumstances both planned and unexpected. You are who you are largely because you have lived through what you have lived through. Replace the time and you alter reality, exchange the events, and you will fundamentally change how you live. Like any great sculpture, the image of reality that we are familiar with has been chiseled by force. Before the Pieta, there was the pain, and before the statue there was the pounding of the chisel.

Seventeen years ago to this day, the hammer of history fell hard on America. As the dust has settled, we have been left trying to reconcile the world we knew with the reality that now lies before us. Since 8:46 am that fateful morning when American Airlines flight 11 pierced the North Tower, hours have become days, and days have become years. If that morning was the opening curtain, we are well within the second act of the play. Our lives are now engrossed by new iterations of old debates. New venues abound that enable us to find fault with the present, and we feed on news that is anything but refreshing. As the calendar once again strikes September, we would do well to pause and ask whether this day, 9/11, still matters.

The Appreciation for History

To be a Christian is to be a student of history. For all the modern era’s obsession with the personal aspects of faith—the “I and Thou,” “Your Best Life Now”—Christianity and a Christian understanding of the world is reliant on tradition. Christianity offers the world not just a truth, but a truth based in a historical narrative. The world has a beginning, a present, and an end. We have a beginning, a present, and will have an end. This necessitates an understanding of and appreciation for history, for our history.

It matters that God created the world. It matters that man fell within that created world. It matters that God redeemed what man ruined and did so at great cost. It matters that Jesus was born during the Roman era and that he was hung upon a cross. And it matters that three days later his tomb was empty. These were the events that shaped the world in which we live, and it matters that they occurred as they were recorded.

This appreciation is woven into the very fabric of Christian liturgy, in that Christian worship is meant to reflect the events that have given it meaning. We sing of what God has done. We preach not what we write but what was written. We eat what was broken and we drink what was shed. We are able to celebrate the present because of what God has done in the past.

What should make Christian realism attractive is that the reality it confronts is informed by an appreciation for history. To be realistic about the present, we need to be rooted in the past. Not every ideology and not every worldview is so keen to elevate the knowledge of former events.

There has always been an attractive movement within the arena of thought to view the past as irrelevant. Both sides of the ideological spectrum have fallen victim to this temptation. The right often would like us to forget the presence of injustice in our history; the left would like us to forget that said injustice often was remedied by force. But to subscribe to Christian realism is to appreciate history and let its lessons, whether flattering or not, inform our actions. In order to appreciate, though, we have to remember.

The Need for Memorial

Gore Vidal, the late illiberal defender of liberalism and no stranger to history or criticism, once lamented about Americans that “we are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing.” While few within the pages of Providence would affirm Mr. Vidal’s ethics, we can easily enjoin his assessment. One of the reasons Providence exists is to bring to mind tradition and help our readers appreciate current events in light of historical realities.

Why does 9/11 still matter? Why should it be memorialized? Memorial is necessary because humans are forgetful. There is an inherent value to memorials beyond paying homage to persons and events. We have memorials to Lincoln and Jefferson, Washington and King, not just because these men were extraordinary, but because their lives evoke certain ideals. Ideals which outlived their advocates but not their usefulness.

We have memorials to Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz, Oklahoma City and Shanksville, PA, not merely because we want to remember those we lost, but because we do not want to forget the lessons we learned about ourselves in those moments. Each tragedy speaks to the depth of our collective depravity and the glory of God’s image in every victim and hero.

So, take a moment this evening and this week. Turn off the television, put down the phone. Unplug from your news feed and recount the story of that day to your children. Recall your experiences with your friends and neighbors. Partake in this opportunity to remember our shared history and reflect on its importance. For we should remind ourselves, lest history be compelled to remind us that peace is rare, and its enjoyment is a precious gift.

Drew Griffin is managing editor of Providence.

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