For the religiously inclined in particular, the suffering of recent weeks has given new urgency to some basic questions about mankind's place in the world. Is there a higher power guiding events? Why would God allow the evil to slaughter the innocent? What forgiveness or punishment do the wicked deserve?
On Monday, representatives of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity (with its major denominations) convened in Washington, D.C., in an attempt to place the terrorist attacks within a broader moral context and discuss how the faithful ought to respond.
Each of the presentations at the conference, "Faith in the Face of Terror," filmed at a television studio and broadcast live across the World Wide Web, wove personal narrative together with an explanation of how each speaker's theology informed his or her response to the attacks.
Dr. Arthur Caliandro, senior minister of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, said that a period of mourning was needed before the events could be addressed in theological terms. "I cried and I cried and I cried," he said in the riveting cadence of a seasoned preacher. "I also had to get in touch with my anger, because the devastation of the terrorism was anger gone wild."
The speakers agreed on the distinction between anger and hatred, calling the latter a trap that merely perpetuates the cycle of violence.
"God has set limits for us, has set limits [on steps] that we can take even to oppose clear oppression," said Dr. Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America. The God of Islam sides with the suffering, she said, citing the story of Cain and Abel. It's a principle she said she hoped would not be lost on Arabs made resentful by years of colonial rule or on Americans who would lash out at an entire religion to avenge the acts of a few.
All three religious traditions put their faith in an all-powerful, benevolent God, yet acknowledged that sometimes the wicked seem to have their run of the world.
"Why the disaster?" Dr. Caliandro asked. "Because God gives us freedom... [the terrorists] took advantage of the freedom they had and moved towards the dark sides of themselves."
Why didn't God stop them at the last minute? Sister Kathleen Feeley, a literature professor at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore, suggested that evil can bring about good, by deepening awareness of the spiritual world.
The webcast "Faith in the Face of Terror" can be viewed at www.faithandvalues.com.