Story highlights

Troubled by questions about fate and God, CNN's religion editor turned to religious, nonreligious experts

All the spiritual experts agreed on one thing: He was asking the wrong questions.

CNN  — 

“i think the Amtrak i just got off just crashed in philly.”

I texted that note to my wife on the night of May 12. Less than an hour earlier, I had been riding Amtrak Train 188. I got off, as usual, in Wilmington, Delaware, one stop before Philadelphia.

The train left late from Washington, and the air conditioner was wonky, but the trip had been otherwise ordinary. I walked home from the station and glanced at Twitter, where I saw this:

My friends and family know I commute via Amtrak, so I posted short messages on social media to let people know I was OK. I was a bit rattled because I’d been sitting in the front of the train. It looked, from the few images I could find, like the first two cars had caught the brunt of the damage.

But my life hadn’t been in danger and I hadn’t witnessed any harrowing scenes. I don’t believe in fate, I wrote half-seriously on Twitter, but maybe I should.

Soon, notes like this starting rolling in.

Others suggested that God had spared me or angels had saved me, and I should be grateful. Which I am. But to whom? And for what?

As a religion reporter, I’m usually on the other end of those questions. Just this month, I wrote a story about how Buddhists and Hindus view natural disasters like Nepal’s devastating earthquake. Now my questions had boomeranged back.

As the Amtrak crash casualties became more clear – eight dead; many more badly injured – I didn’t feel lucky or saved. I felt sick.

The morning after the wreck, a friend asked how I’d slept.

“With a bottle of bourbon and two Tylenol PMs,” I joked.

The truth is, I hadn’t slept at all.

By Thursday, the trains were running again between Wilmington and Washington, and I walked back to the station. Passing a newsstand, I saw the faces of the victims displayed on front pages. An unsettling wave of sadness, empathy and guilt washed through me, flushing my face and welling in my eyes.

I read about Rachel Jacobs, who was 39 (just like me) and had once traveled to Kyrgyzstan to build local businesses. Jim Gaines, who worked for an international media company (just like me) and was remembered for his kindness. Derrick Griffith, a New York native (just like me) and single father who had started a prep school to help poor students get into college.

Laura Finamore, Jim Gaines, Abid Gilani, Bob Gildersleeve, Derrick Griffith, Rachel Jacobs, Giuseppe Piras and Justin Zemser. With each obituary, my sadness deepened, as did my questions. They were all relatively young. Some had been sitting in the very car I’d left a little while before the crash. Why had their lives been so cruelly cut short? Why hadn’t mine? Was it providence, fate or dumb luck? And what should I do now?

One of the advantages of being a religion reporter is that you meet people who have thought deeply about those kinds of questions. I decided to call six: a Catholic priest, a Buddhist writer, an atheist philosopher, an imam, an evangelical author and a rabbi. I explained my situation, told them what was troubling me and asked for advice.

Though they come from very different traditions, each agreed on one thing: If I want answers about life and death, I should start by asking the right questions.

A God who suffers

The Rev. James Martin is a Jesuit priest and prolific author. Always quick with a pithy quote and deeply knowledgeable about the inner workings of the Catholic Church, Martin is a trusted source to my tribe of religion reporters.

The questions I asked during this interview, though, were different from any other.

I told him that I was bothered by the idea of providence – the suggestion that God had spared me and not eight others. Martin agreed, and said that while he believes God is in control, it’s foolish to assume we know the master plan.

“But just because we don’t understand God, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t believe in God.”

At times like these, Martin continued, he counsels Christians not to think of God as an all-powerful puppeteer directing worldly events, but to focus on Jesus, who took on human form, along with all its joys and sorrows.

The Jesuit, who recently wrote a book about Jesus, cited two examples of Scripture.

In the first, from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was told about Galileans who had been murdered by Pontius Pilate while worshiping. Jesus turns their implicit question – how could God let this happen? – back on the questioners.

“Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!”

Likewise, Jesus said, the 18 people who died when the Tower of Siloam tumbled down were no more guilty than any other Jerusalemites.

In other words, crashes and catastrophes happen, and they don’t reflect on either the valor or sinfulness of the victims. Nor do they reflect on those who escaped intact, like me.

Still, Jesus is saddened by death and mourning, Martin continued, citing the Gospel of John. After learning that Lazarus, his follower, had died, Jesus wept. (Jesus later raised Lazarus from the dead, the Bible says.)

“We don’t have a God who is far off,” Martin said. “We have a God who suffers with us, and through us.”

Before we ended our conversation, the priest encouraged me not to ignore the connection I feel to Train 188’s victims. Maybe, he suggested, I’m being called to do something on their behalf.

The Buddha’s mustard seed

My next call was to a Buddhist writer I’ve often turned to with questions about applying the Buddha’s teachings to modern American life.

Daniel Clarkson Fisher said some Buddhists draw a straight line between karma and fate, the idea that we reap in the future what we’ve sown in the past. Others might call my experience on Train 188 an “auspicious coincidence.” A lucky break, basically.

But the Buddha dissuaded followers from musing on metaphysics, Fisher said. By way of example, he cited the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, in which a stricken man asks so many questions about the source of his suffering that he neglects to treat it.

“But in my case, aren’t the questions themselves the wounds?” I asked.

“Sure,” Fisher answered. “And I’d actually be concerned if you weren’t thinking about them.”

As a young man, he continued, he’d been panicked by death, haunted by fear. After seeing “Kundun,” Martin Scorsese’s movie about the Dalai Lama, he began to study Buddhism.

Reading through Buddhist scriptures, Fisher wrote in an essay, he came across the story of Kisa Gotami, a mother mourning the death of her child.

She asks the Buddha to revive her son, and he agrees, provided Gotami can bring him a mustard seed from a home that has never experienced loss. Making the rounds, she realizes that no household is free from suffering.

As Fisher writes, the parable is about perspective. “The moment you think only of yourself, the focus of your whole reality narrows. The moment you think of others with a sense of caring, however, your view widens.”

In other words, it’s fine to ponder the fragility of life – in fact, Fisher encouraged it. But I shouldn’t become so consumed with questions that I ignore the suffering of others.

Scoundrel logic

After talking to two believers, I decided it was time to call an atheist.

Rebecca Goldstein is a philosopher and writer whom I’d interviewed several years ago about her novel, “36 Arguments for the Existence of God.” It was the kind of conversation you remember for years afterward; she was so engaging and insightful.

Raised in an Orthodox Jewish household, Goldstein now considers herself a secular humanist. (She’s also a genius, according to the MacArthur Foundation.)

Goldstein said she understands and even sympathizes with the impulse to imbue traumatic events with spiritual meaning.

“It is horrible to think that the universe just doesn’t give a damn about us. I think all of religion comes from that.” But “metaphysical maturity” requires the recognition that the world is indifferent to our desires, Goldstein said.

The philosopher said she’s been obsessed with ethics and morality since she was a young child hearing stories about ancestors who escaped from Hungary after the 1956 uprising. I asked her: Is the idea that I was somehow saved from the crash unethical?

“Yes!” she said quickly.

William James, the psychologist who studied the varieties of religious experience, called the idea that God or fate favors us “scoundrel logic,” Goldstein said. It may seem harmless, but it feeds humanity’s worst impulses, from Nazism to modern religious violence.

“The essence of ethics is that, to the extent that any one of us matters, every single person matters in exactly the same way,” Goldstein said. “Those lives (the crash victims) mattered just as much as yours does.”

“Is it still OK to feel grateful?” I asked.

Of course, Goldstein said. When we look closely at life’s obstacles, from sperm meeting egg to avoiding deadly diseases, we realize how improbable, how tenuous our tiny lives are.

“You just had a dramatic experience of that,” she continued. “Don’t squander it!”

God willing

By the Monday after the crash, I was sleeping a little better, but I still had questions about God and fate, so I decided to call Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali, a Muslim scholar who I met few years ago.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Ali now lives in California and is a professor of Islamic law and theology at Zaytuna College, the country’s first fully accredited Muslim college.

I told Ali how disturbed I was about the death of Derrick Griffith, the train passenger who had helped countless students in his classroom in the Bronx. So many credited “Mr. G” with opening educational doors to better lives. Why would a good God rip Griffith’s life away?

Ali challenged the premise of my question.

Why assume that death is the end? he asked. Does anyone except God know for sure?

“There’s a working assumption that God is supposed to do whatever we want,” Ali continued. “We may be displeased with something that originates from God, but what can we do about it? I can’t go get my big brother and beat God up.”

To illustrate his point about human ignorance, Ali cited a story from the Quran about Moses, whom Muslims consider a prophet and learned man. One day, Moses sought out Al-Khidr, an even more learned man.

Don’t follow me, Al-Khidr warned Moses, you won’t understand my actions.

Sure enough, in their brief time together, Al-Khidr sank a ship, killed a boy and fixed the wall of a town that refused them food.

Moses, perplexed, called Khidr evil.

You don’t get it, Khidr answered.

The ship was about to be plundered by a wicked king. The boy was an infidel and would have oppressed his parents. (Islam teaches that children who die before adolescence go straight to paradise.) And the wall Khidr fixed protected the secret stash of two orphans.

God knew what was going to happen on the night of May 12, Ali said. But God didn’t build the train or make it derail. So instead of trying to figure out God’s motivations, Ali suggested, maybe I should try to emulate Griffith’s.

Three questions

I didn’t know Philip Yancey personally, but I knew the evangelical author was somewhat of a specialist on questions surrounding justice and suffering. He’s written two books on the topic and counseled the victims of Japan’s tsunami and the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, among other sites of devastation.

I was surprised, though, at how personal the theological questions were for Yancey.

When he was an infant, Yancey told me this week, his father contracted polio while preparing for missionary work in Africa. The family’s faith community tried to heal Yancey’s father through prayer rather than modern medicine. Against doctor’s advice, they removed him from the hospital. Within weeks, Yancey’s father died.

“My mother believed he would be healed. She counted on God, and the worst thing happened,” Yancey told me. “The impact of that error in theology, in thinking, impacted my life from the very beginning.”

The evangelical said he spent years studying Scripture for hints, only to find that the mystery of human suffering remains just that, a mystery. In the Book of Job, for example, God flings Job’s questions back at him. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?” God asks, shutting down Job’s queries.

After a near-fatal car accident several years ago, Yancey said he learned to ask more valuable questions. Strapped to a body board and told by doctors that he might die at any moment, Yancey said three thoughts popped into his head: Who do I love? What do I want to leave? And am I ready for what’s next?

“When something tragic happens, we tend to look backward, and ask why it happened,” Yancey told me. “And of course that’s important for people involved in the investigation.

“But as you look forward, you have to ask yourself a different question: How will you respond?”


With that question ringing in my ears, I called Rabbi Esther Lederman of Temple Micah in Washington.

“You were lucky,” Lederman told me at the beginning of our chat. “And there’s no good reason for that.”

There’s an axiom about the Holocaust, Lederman continued. Whatever we say about it, we must imagine that our audience includes the children murdered during the horrific genocide.

It was a dramatic warning against easy sentimentality and heedless celebration.

Rachel Jacobs had a 2-year-old. Derrick Griffith had a teenage son. Other Amtrak victims had children, spouses, mothers and friends as well. Whatever I write, I should imagine them reading.

I asked Lederman what a proper response might be, and she mentioned Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning. Memory – of God’s covenants, of the Holocaust, of ancestors – runs like a rushing current through Jewish life, the rabbi said. Kaddish channels that current.

By tradition, Jews who have lost a sibling, spouse or child gather with a minyan of 10 adults to recite the mourning prayer for 30 days. For deceased parents, children traditionally “say Kaddish” for 11 months. Thereafter, observant Jews will light a candle on the anniversary of their loved one’s death and give to a charity in their name.

“That’s how you keep them alive,” Lederman said, “by bringing a little bit of their life into yours.”

At such times, Lederman said, Jews commonly recall the phrase “May their memory be a blessing,” which is an an echo of Proverbs 10:7.

What now?

After my conversation with Lederman, I took a few days to think about what I’d learned from the Catholic priest, the Buddhist writer, the atheist philosopher, the Muslim scholar, the evangelical author and the rabbi.

Though they came from different traditions, it seemed like each shared common recommendations: Stop looking back. Start looking forward. The most important questions don’t start with the word “why.” They start with “what.”

The advice reminded me of Viktor Frankl’s famous line in “Man’s Search for Meaning.”

“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life,” he said of his time in a Nazi concentration camp, “and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.”

What was life asking me? To be honest, I don’t know yet.

Do I still feel guilty about getting off Train 188? Yes.

I am grateful, too? Yes.

I also feel like I’m being pulled toward something new, something hazy that I can’t quite see yet. Maybe it’s a new way of looking at life, a new career, or a new commitment to serve others. I have a feeling the answer won’t arrive on my timetable.

In the meantime, I want to honor the victims of Amtrak Train 188. In the spirit of Kaddish, on May 12 each year I’ll donate to the Dr. Derrick E. Griffith Memorial Scholarship at Medgar Evers College in the names of each victim.

It’s not much, I know. And it’s not nearly enough to assuage the sorrow their deaths are due. But at least it will keep their memory alive in mine.

Laura Finamore, Jim Gaines, Abid Gilani, Bob Gildersleeve, Derrick Griffith, Rachel Jacobs, Giuseppe Piras and Justin Zemser.

May their memory be a blessing.