Ask Dr. Cobb

October 2009 Question

Does David Griffin’s work on 9/11 have anything to do with process theology?

Dr. Cobb's Response

Obviously, there is no one-to-one relationship between Griffin’s being a process theologian and his being the leading scholar in “the 9/11 truth” movement. Many process theologians have shown no interest in this movement and some, if asked, may dismiss Griffin’s work as “conspiracy theory.” The Center for Process Studies, of which Griffin is a co-director, has maintained its distance from his work in this field.

Griffin himself does not make any explicit connections to process thought or even to theology in general. He did write one book addressed to a specifically Christian audience in which theology plays a role. But readers of his other books on 9/11 encounter no explicit references to Christianity. They are impressed by the objectivity with which he presents the facts, and the lucidity with which he reasons from them.

Nevertheless, it is not mere chance that the only theologian who has given extensive attention to these matters is a process theologian. For most theologians, what is happening in the world today is of theological interest only at a very general level. They may comment on the role of 9/11 in generating the climate of fear that is played on by political leaders, or the danger of blaming Muslims in general for the actions of a few individuals. But undertaking to find out what really happened on 9/11 does not seem to most theologians to be a theological task.

From the perspective of process theologians, on the other hand, whatever is historically important is important to God and therefore should be important to Christian thinkers. The events of 9/11 were intrinsically important. The official account of these events has played, and under Obama is continuing to play, a role in shaping American policy, both foreign and domestic. The administration that put forth this account was notoriously careless with the truth, and there are prima facie reasons to be skeptical. If the official story is false, then policies based on it either need other justification or should change.

Most theologians consider theology as an academic discipline, and they observe the norms of the disciplines as these are understood in academia. They do not transgress their proper boundaries. Process theologians believe their task is to deal with important questions from the perspective of their faith without regard to disciplinary boundaries.

For these and other reasons, process thinkers generally, and process theologians in particular, are outsiders. Our work does not fit into university structures and is generally rejected in the university context. Outsiders often see things that insiders miss. Historically, the Jews have been the outsiders in Christendom, and we owe their extraordinarily rich contributions to European and American culture partly to this fact. Recently gays have employed their outsider status to illumine features of our behavior and culture we do not otherwise notice.

The outsider status of process theologians is far less drastic. Our difficulties in fitting into approved university structures do not stand comparison with the persecutions suffered by Jews or the contempt experienced by gays. Nevertheless, they make us skeptical of what is standard, generally approved, and supposedly normative.

For example, the approved mode of operation in the university requires that those in the humanities accept the authority of scientists in their fields. Process thinkers, however, often support just those scientists who are excluded in the mainstream. We criticize mainstream science for its continuing acceptance of seventeenth-century materialism and propose different theoretical formulations. David Griffin has taken leadership in proposing that both science and theology need to change so as to be brought into a common vision.

Another example is parapsychology. Because parapsychology takes seriously what mainstream science says is impossible, it is almost completely excluded from universities. To express credence or even interest in this subject matter is a violation of political correctness in academia. David Griffin as a process theologian studied the evidence thoroughly and wrote a substantial book on the subject. He teaches that the church should pay attention to this field of thought and experience. So far as I know, no theologian outside the process community has entered into this field in recent decades.

Griffin’s experience in studying thoroughly and open-mindedly topics that most theologians avoid does not by itself explain why he took on 9/11. There are chance elements in this choice. But it does help to explain why, once he came across evidence that the official story was false, he was not intimidated by the political or cultural climate from asking questions. The existence of that climate only aroused more suspicion that much was at stake. If this was an important topic that others avoided, Griffin’s experience as a process theologian encouraged him to investigate. The more he investigated the surer he became that the truth differed greatly from the official account.

I myself cannot understand how anyone who reads Griffin’s books could continue to believe that the official account is true. The factual evidence points strongly, for example, to the conclusion that the three towers in the World Trade Center collapsed from explosives and not from fire. Since buildings of this kind have never before or since collapsed because of fire, the official account is implausible from the start. A dubious plausibility requires attributing a greater role to the airplane crashes that careful analysis allows, but at least this differentiates these buildings from others that have withstood much more destructive fires. For seven years, the government’s claim that the third building, not struck by a plane, also collapsed because of fire was left unsupported. Finally, before the end of the Bush administration, the National Institute of Science and Technology produced its explanation of how the official story could be true. Griffin has just published his rebuttal, taking NIST’s account apart, point by point.

We have been trained to suppose that a theologian’s analysis of scientific matters cannot be taken seriously against a report by an institute of science and technology. If we had a report of an independent research institution, this point would carry weight. But the government has never encouraged any investigation it did not control. NIST is a part of the administration. It was never given the assignment to determine what happened. It was assigned only the task of showing how the official story could be true. It failed, since, in fact, the official story cannot be true.

The majority of Americans supposes that unless analyses such as those of Griffin are published in the New York Times and discussed appreciatively on major television stations, they are not to be taken seriously. Process thinkers have long known that just as academia creates its own climate of what is acceptable, the “powers that be” do so for the country as a whole. Who are the “powers that be?” We have recently been shown vividly that “Wall Street” is one, and perhaps the major one. Now that financial institutions are a much larger part of our national economy than productive ones, Wall Street may be sufficient. Of course, Wall Street’s hegemony is played out through government and through corporations, including TV and newspapers. We know that the government plants articles in the major new organs, often through the CIA. Years ago it planted one in Popular Mechanics that silenced much of the criticism of the official story for some time.

Despite the fact that Griffin’s books are published by a fringe publisher, they sell well. We may ask why a mainstream publisher does not publish them? The answer, of course, is found in part in the owners of the publishing houses. But once a climate is established in which doubting the official story is “conspiracy theory,” and “conspiracy theory” is “crazy,” publishers do not want to tarnish their reputation. Editors also do not want to lose their jobs.

In that connection, I will close with the sad story of what happened to the two courageous editors who published one of Griffin’s books at Westminster John Knox. The press as a whole was pilloried for having done so. One editor quickly found another job. The other was fired. The likelihood that other mainstream editors will publish any of “the 9/11 truth” books is small. Process thinkers will continue looking to the fringes for wisdom and truth.

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.