The community of Virginia Tech University is coping with the deadliest mass shooting in American history. Parents of the murdered wail with grief and outrage and the United States watches aghast. The “safety, sanctuary and learning” that President Bush observed ought to reign in our nation’s schools shattered amid blood and bullets—leaving 33 dead, the gunman, deranged senior, Cho Seung-Hui, amid the morbid count.
Fresh out of college myself I felt sick to my stomach when I looked up from my computer screen and cup of coffee to the TV set in my office Monday morning. I can feel the college routine in my bones…a lazy hit to the snooze button and a bleary walk to class on a quiet morning—concerned with whether the answers to last night’s problem set are right—not with the prospect of being slaughtered.
The surreal horror of the scene reminds me of the morning of Sept 11, 2001, my freshman year of college—across the country from home and family for the first time. The planes crashing into the twin towers turned the world inside out. On 9/11/01 my childish illusions of this world’s safety and goodness vanished, and I woke up to the chilling fact that there is no security blanket from suffering.
As media, administrators and law enforcement spring into necessary action at Virginia Tech—analyzing the evidence, and mobilizing practical care, the full force of anguish and perplexity are just sinking in. The actions the school takes may be helpful and earnest—but when it comes to making meaning of mortality and evil at their bloodiest, the secular University is flat-footed.
The secularist authorities are in a predicament. On campuses across the country some cynical professors relish the opportunity to ridicule students who believe in the “hocus pocus” of souls and the “fairytale” of God. Recently Harvard Professor Steven Pinker protested loudly at the suggestion that a “reason and faith” component be included as part of the curriculum standards: “Universities are about reason, pure and simple,” he trumpeted. “Faith—believing something without good reasons to do so—has no place in anything but a religious institution, and our society has no shortage of these. Imagine if we had a requirement for ‘Astronomy and Astrology’ or ‘Psychology and Parapsychology.'” To give such significance to religion “is to give it far too much prominence.” After all, religious belief “is an American anachronism. I think, in an era in which the rest of the West is moving beyond it.”
What does the secular materialist have say about suffering when faced with the real deal? Perhaps Pinker would hand a Virginia Tech student a passage about how her loves and beliefs are just meaningless collisions of atoms. Likely she would prefer a simple, “My prayers are with you.” The smug materialists would do well to stop scoffing, and face the fact that their worldview fails to give adequate answers to those such as the students and families at Virginia Tech facing horrific loss. The same faith that is mocked in philosophy, English and science classes too often in secular classrooms is exactly what everybody turns to when faced with the problem of evil.
When I was at Tufts University one day the chapel kiosk read: “Atheist Service 7:00.” While this sort of dig at the sacred may be par for the course in academia today, I can’t help but think that it sounds like a tasteless joke in the face of the Virginia Tech devastation. What would this service have to offer real people suffering real loss? To whom would they make petition for comfort, and what hymns would they sing?
While I will never know the songs of the Tufts atheist congregation, I do know what they sang at the convocation service at Virginia Tech Tuesday. Amazing Grace.
During the ceremony University officials turned to leaders of the diverse religious communities on campus and thousands of students stood to recite the Lord’s prayer in unison. The question, “What is the meaning of this suffering?” seeks an ultimate answer—an answer from God. As it always does, the secular yielded to the sacred to make sense of suffering and evil.
There were no belittling giggles or rolled eyes in the crowd of thousands of students and teachers—no clever objections to the reality of the soul at the candlelight vigils held around campus. On everybody’s lips was “the victims and their families are in my prayers,” and “I thank God that I was saved.” Students, families and our national community have come together before God this week—praying in solidarity for comfort from a benevolent maker.
After September 11 the churches of America were filled to the brim for a reason. Following the massacre at Virginia Tech people again turn to God for answers. There is a chink in the armor of the University’s stubborn secularism that falls painfully short. Perhaps real necessity will dictate a turn. We welcome the University’s uncharacteristic openness to the sacred. Please join us as we lift up the victims, families and community of Virginia Tech in our prayers.