Welcome to The Nonlinear Life. In case you missed it, read my introductory post.
Every Friday on The Nonlinear Life we talk about life as we live it today. We explore the urgent and emotional issues at the nexus of family, health, work, and meaning. We call it This Life.
The call came from my brother at 8 am, “Look outside your window.” My first impression: It was the most beautiful day I could remember. My second: The world is about to change.
A reporter by nature, I grabbed my camera and started walking down Seventh Avenue from my home in Chelsea. I was snapping pictures of the smoke coming out of the Twin Towers when I had a thought: If one of those towers starts to topple, it will hit the other.
I quickly caught myself. That’s the most absurd idea you’ve ever had.
Two hours later, I watched the towers fall from my home. Within minutes the sirens began. They didn’t stop for the next two weeks as many of the emergency vehicles that poured in from across the country used my street as an access point.
Four days later, at a Rosh Hashanah brunch hosted by my friend Jessica, everyone was asking the same questions. Who are they? Why do they hate us? Can we get along?
For years we had been told that the big question the world would face in the new century was a clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the Judeo-Christian one. Was this that moment?
I made the point that the struggle among Jews, Christians, and Muslims was the largest family feud in history. One person stood at the nexus of all three religions that suddenly seemed to be at war. One person seemed to hold the key to the past – and maybe the key to the future – in his life story.
The great patriarch of the Hebrew Bible is also the spiritual father of the New Testament and the grand architect of the Koran. Abraham is the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is the father – in many cases, the biological father – of twelve million Jews, two billion Christians, and one billion Muslims worldwide. That is half the humans alive today. And yet, he is virtually unknown.
Everyone was nodding along until I said this: “Trust me. Abraham will be on the cover of TIME magazine a year from now.”
As my now-wife, Linda, who was at that brunch, likes to say: “Suddenly everyone thought you were crazy.”
This was the cover of TIME exactly one year later:
It was an excerpt of the book I started researching that afternoon. Within days, I went back to the Middle East, I went back to the text, I went deep inside myself, and I tried to answer the question that countless generations have tried to answer before: Can Abraham save the world?
What I learned was two seemingly contradictory things: First, the long, complex story, spread out over 3,000 years, in which in each of three religions that claimed Abraham as their shared ancestor slowly, systematically pushed the others aside and claimed Abraham as their own. Abraham, who should have been a source of unity, instead became a symbol of division.
Second, the equally complex story, spread out over the last 150 years, in which each of the three religions that claimed Abraham as their shared ancestor—or at least members of that religion—slowly but deliberately began to push those divisions aside and inch closer to one another. Abraham, who had long been a source of division, became a symbol of unity once more.
In the 20 years since 9/11, I have participated in thousands of interfaith exchanges. My book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths spent six months on the New York Times bestseller list. An interfaith salon package I created was downloaded tens of thousands of times. (Also, as you can see below, in a career highlight, I appeared on C-Span's Booknotes with Brian Lamb.)
On the occasion of this anniversary, here are four ways that horrible day changed the course of inter-religious dialogue.
1.The Abrahamic Religions
By far the most important legacy of 9/11 is that it changed the language around interfaith dialogue. In its early years, the United States was largely known as—as largely was—a Christian country. That language began to change in the 1950s as leaders from President Dwight Eisenhower on down began to refer to the United States as a Judeo-Christian country and embrace the contributions of Judaism to Western culture. It took the tragedy of the Holocaust for Americans to embrace that new language.
The events of September 11th were another tragedy that changed the language forever. The interfaith conversation, at least among the monotheistic religions, would from now on be called Abrahamic. Muslims could and would no longer be excluded.
The best way to understand religion in America in the twentieth century was as a skyline, with each particular religion represented by a building – Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and son on. Spurred by 9/11, religion in the twenty-first century looks quite different. The buildings have crumbled.
Instead, moderates in all religions now have more in common with one another than they do with fundamentalists in their own religions. The first person to point this out to me was a moderate Baptist preacher in my hometown of Savannah. “I now have more in common with the rabbi of the Reform synagogue than I do with the fundamentalist preacher in my own faith," he told me. I've never looked at religion the same way since.
3.Fundamentalists in Retreat
As hard as it may be to believe this in the wake of continued polarization in American political life, in Israeli political life, and the political life of many majority Muslim countries (including Afghanistan), a rich vein of evidence suggests that fundamentalism is far weaker today than it was twenty years ago.
In the United States, religiosity has declined precipitously, while issues once blocked by conservative religious leaders have all soared. These include the the role of women in public life, the acceptance of same-sex marriage, the popularity of interfaith marriage, even the decline of marriage in general.
The same is true in the Muslim world, where secularism is rising and fundamentalism is in retreat. After an extensive survey of the Middle East, The Economistconcluded in 2019: “Across the Arab world people are turning against religious political parties and the clerics who helped bring them to power. Many appear to be giving up on Islam, too.”
4.The Future Belongs to Us
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learned about interfaith relations from the last twenty years has been reinforced by the recent, inglorious end to America’s longest war: Tensions among religions cannot be resolved by armies, politicians, bombs, or even bombastic conferences. They must happen in every community, every neighborhood, and every home. Over and over again we are reminded: We can’t sit back and wait for others to address this problem; we have to do so ourselves.
Today, two decades after a defining moment in the history of religious coexistence, the question remains the same: Why not now?
And why not you?
Thanks for reading The Nonlinear Life. Please help us grow the community by subscribing, sharing, and commenting below. Also, you can learn more about me, read my introductory post, or scroll through my other posts.
By subscribing, you agree to share your email address with Bruce Feiler to receive their original content, including promotions. Unsubscribe at any time. Facebook will also use your information subject to the Bulletin Terms and Policies
Reading this post, reminds me it may be time for a re-read of your book Abraham. I was only 3 months old when 9/11 happened, and as I have grown up, I learned the impact this tragic day had on our nation in so many ways. This such a reminder of the con…
Thanks so much Bruce-btw Like Nina I need to re-read my copy of your great book on Abraham. I'm a 9/11 survivor raised in a multi-faith home (Mom was Jewish, Dad Lutheran). As a woman of faith who witnessed the horrors in downtown Manhattan my pressing…