Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Fear of God

"Happy are those who fear the Lord."

I was attending a wedding last Saturday afternoon when the above responsorial psalm took me aback. It's not an altogether nice combination of words; I mean, when was the last time you saw both "happy" and "fear" in the same sentence?

I don't have a good relationship with organized religion. I think it's because I keep asking questions that never receive any solid answers. Almost every religious discussion in which I've been involved has turned out unsatisfying for all parties: I end up unsatisfied because I don't get any responses that justify the common aspects of modern faith, and my fellow conversationalists end up unsatisfied because they can't seem to supplement my understanding. Or, failing that, they usually seem to get angry at me, which I find to be a very un-Christian way of dealing with things.

With that background out of the way, you can probably see why I felt that the above phrase was more than a little disconcerting. Doesn't the emotion of fear imply feelings of apprehension, dread, and anxiousness? If so, how is it possible for a man to be happy at a point where he still fears an certain entity? And if we proceed along this line of thought, is it therefore appropriate that Christians feel terror at the presence of God?

Yes, this most definitely does not sound right.

I'm aware of a lot of literal definitions of the "fear" of God, and none of the connotations are good. Conversion by the sword, for example, was common in the Middle Ages: You either converted to the Christian faith, or you were killed. The Spanish Inquisition instilled a fear of torture in the free-thinking masses, under the guise of rooting out the heretic and the seditious. Even now, there are more than a few modern Christians who threaten that you will go to hell if you go against the local religious or moral practices. There are all too many incidences where "the fear of God" often translates into "the fear of pain", or "the fear of rebuke".

This feels wrong somehow. I don't want to be afraid of God, after all; It implies that he's looking to harm me in some way.

Let me consider, then: I am aware of God. I am aware of God's presence. I believe in his kindness and benevolence, and I believe that he sent his son to die for our sins (unconditionally the heaviest of all sacrifices). I believe that God is just and forgiving, that he sees what lies in each and every one of our hearts, and that on a great and final day, he will return for the last of the people worthy enough to enter his kingdom of heaven. I believe that the Bible houses the word of God, and that its writings were created by the divine source through human authors. And as a Roman Catholic: I stand by the institution of the church, I hold faith in the sacraments, and I trust in the infallibility of the Pope.

If anything, I hold respect for God. I'm refuse to be afraid of him as the pagan communities once were before sword-wielding crusaders, as philosophers and theologians were before the knives of Torquemada, or as little children before a well-meaning but misunderstanding parent. That would imply that I believe in God out of a mere desire to save my own skin. I don't.

So why, then, do we have such a concept as "God-fearing"?

Webster defines fear as "an unpleasant often strong emotion caused by anticipation or awareness of danger", and I'm not surprised there. I mean, it conveniently covers what we've discussed so far.

Interestingly enough, however, Webster also defines fear as "profound reverence and awe especially toward God", a definition that is echoed in a number of Catholic dictionaries as well. So there is a way to interpret the "God-fearing" concept without bringing to mind images of terror and subjugation, it seems.

The second definition also makes sense: God may not necessarily inspire feelings of terror in us, but I figure that God most definitely inspires feelings of reverence in his corresponding believers. We don't fear God in the sense that he frightens the heck out of us; We fear God in the sense that he is an omnipotent, omniscient entity. In this way, I think, the act of fearing God implies an acknowledgement of his incredible self, which is a far cry from seeing him as a spiritual bully.

The whole discussion, however, still makes me wonder why so many people continue to utilize God as a threat. Preachers still throw fire and brimstone from their pulpits. Fundamentalists attack other religions in the name of faith. We even get snatches of it in the common vernacular: "Go to Hell!" and "May God strike me down!" are two of the more familiar phrases.

Does the prospect of going to hell scare us? Perhaps. It doesn't take a genius to see what's scary about the possibility of drowning in a lake of fire for the rest of eternity. (And that's only one of the many different interpretations of hell, to boot.)

But does the threat of going to hell justify placing one's faith in God? I kind of doubt that. If the man-on-the-street tells me that God is going to send me to hell because I don't go to church on Sundays, then I'll be more likely to strike back at him than listen. Actions like that hurt faith in a lot of ways.

Happy are those who fear the Lord? I don't think so. Any man who is instilled with the terror of God gives me the impression of a cornered animal, ready to lash out at anybody and everybody.

I think that the responsorial was supposed to be "Happy are those who fear in the Lord", which drives home the point of reverence and awe that the phrase is supposed to express. Any believer who holds the fact that God is all-encompassing, that God is at his side for every hour of every day, is obviously happy. We bask in the glory of God; we don't cower at his iron-fisted might.

What a difference a word makes, eh?


Anonymous said...

"Happy are those who fear the Lord"
--> Come to think of it, that do sound like an oxymoron.

"Almost every religious discussion in which I've been involved has turned out unsatisfying for all parties:"

--> Yep, it reminded me of my theology subjects. There was this time when a prof reacted violently against a term paper I wrote about reproductive health. Luckily, he didn't take it personally. I still passed his subject. :)

"And if we proceed along this line of thought, is it therefore appropriate that Christians feel terror at the presence of God?

Yes, this most definitely does not sound right."

-->Amen to that, Bub.

Anonymous said...

Just asking, have you finished reading the story I sent you? Or have you sent a critique lately? My email just went nuts. I'm just checking. If not, it's okay. Thanks!

Sean said...

Reiji: I've got too much work for the moment, actually. While I've been able to find the time to write, I haven't found the time to read anything over the last week. (Ironic, yes.)

I've downloaded your work already, though, and I've marked it for reading and review. Don't worry... I'll get to it. :)

eClair said...

Interestingly enough, however, Webster also defines fear as "profound reverence and awe especially toward God"

- Yes, Sean, I do believe it's more like this one rather than the thought of terror.

Sometimes I do wonder about the way the Gospel is being preached. If it's the Good News indeed, why do people seem to take the bad news of going to hell more than the Good News that there is redemption to be found in God?

I do believe in God and I do have faith in God but sometimes I also wonder how certain people have justified their actions (mine included) as something sanctioned by God? This may border on something political, so I think I would stop here...

Anyhow, I do believe that a God who is the Creator of the Universe would like His creation to give Him much respect and reverence.

Sean said...

Clair: Yes, I think that "fear" refers to "reverence and awe" in this context. What I find strange is that sometimes the religious see it as otherwise.

Jonas Diego said...

Personally, I think the church teaches people to "fear" the Lord because it's harder to teach them to love him much less have faith in Him.

Sean said...

Jonas: Considering the history of the church, it does make a weird sort of sense, doesn't it?

Personally, though, I don't think that the church does it deliberately, much as the original responsorial psalm wasn't meant to be an oxymoron. I figure that some people decided to take the meaning of "fear" literally, and found that their followers were much more malleable as a result. With that said, I don't associate Christianity with such manipulation either.

But then again, what do we know? It could be that this is actually the case, no matter how unlikely it sounds. (Not that I'm tending towards this line of thought, but it's a possibility where humans are involved. Just another thought that'll fool with everyone's heads, really.)

Online Wong PoKér Hu said...

It's a good thing you pointed the happy-fear oxymoron. I'm also not a fan of organized religion. They have rules or policies that I don't agree with.

Sean said...

Online Wong Pokér Hu: Ironically, Catholicism has a lot of rules or policies that I don't agree with, and yet I'm still a Catholic. Heck, writing has a lot of rules and policies that I don't agree with, and yet I'm still a writer.

And by the way - do you run an Online Poker site or something like that? You seem to be linking to one.

Anonymous said...

there is no religion. and there is no fear. there is only power, control, and influence over other people.

machiavelli's artist formerly known as re: leadership style:

from this arises the question whether it is better to be loved more than feared, or feared more than loved. the reply is, that one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, if one of the two has to be wanting. for it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger, and covetous of gain; as long as you benefit them, they are entirely yours; they offer you their blood, their goods, their life, and their children, as i have before said, when the necessity is remote; but when it approaches, they revolt. and the prince who has relied solely on their words, without making other preparations, is ruined; for the friendship which is gained by purchase and not through grandeur and nobility of spirit is bought but not secured, and at a pinch is not to be expended in your service. and men have less scruple in offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared; for love is held by a chain of obligation which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose; but fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.

Sean said...

Anonymous: Ah, yes... Machiavelli. By coincidence, I'm rereading him for bedside literature at the moment.

His relation to the topic feels kind of murky, however. Machiavelli, I think, assumes a human mode of governance - he considers a constant worst-case scenario based on the fact that the public cannot be trusted to place faith in a leadership that is just as human and fallible as they are. Machiavelli, for that matter, shunts God off to the side; he doesn't seem to consider God as important in the grand scheme of things, much less in the policies of rule.

Now, if we're assuming that the church is run more by human hands (as opposed to the divine presence), then Machiavelli's statements might apply: "The church keeps us in line by promoting a 'fear of God'". The catch, however, is that a lot of Christians don't see the church as being run by human hands - they see God as being the driving force behind their faith.

Unfortunately, we can't yet conclude whether the religious tend towards taking their orders from God, or unconsciously place their belief in the people behind the church. It's another question altogether, I think, something that Machiavelli may not have the capacity for answering.

3sha said...

*peeks in*

HAPPY are those who FEAR the lord?

Hahahahahahahahahahahaha ^_^

Priests! Religion undeniably has a pretty screwed up way of staring at itself. It's a lot like parents, in some way of another, they push fear into their children i.e. don't do this else the green eyed monster will get you, etc. Utterly sadistic, but it works FOR CHILDREN. Very much the same way how Religion never fails to instill fear on its believers. To some extent, we are known as CHILDREN of GOD, but we aren't children anymore. I think it's the AGE of religion. It's old and the way it speaks nowadays is so outdated, and this might be a reason for HAPPY FEAR.

Religion always seems to contradict itself, with phrases like: God is forgiving and God is a jealous god. It's just funny how they do it.

Or, Religion might just need a new writer. hehe.

Sean said...

3sha: No, I actually don't think that Religion needs a new writer. I must point out the following:

1. Despite the fact that the ideas and tenets of most religions are over two thousand years old, these various religions still have large numbers of devout believers in the modern age.

2. Despite the fact that Religion seems to contradict itself at times, it can explain itself to a point that is satisfactory to its adherents. Either that, or its adherents hold faith strong enough to reject the notion that Religion contradicts itself.

3. Despite the fact that we each have our own beliefs and mindsets, we still feel that the primary religious texts still make for compelling philosophical and historical reading.

The "writer" consciousness in Religion may have his flaws, but I think he looks like he's doing a good enough job as it stands.

3sha said...

"Despite the fact that we each have our own beliefs and mindsets, we still feel that the primary religious texts still make for compelling philosophical and historical reading."

To add, it also makes for good moral groundwork for everyone. That is until they grow up and realize that religion has its own loopholes and is imperfect. ^_^

Sean said...

3sha: Seconded. :)