Thursday, January 26, 2012

God Fearin'

In an interesting piece of  bloggery, Carol Howard-Merritt finds herself wrassling with the concept of "fearing God."  It is, or so our sacred tradition speaks it, the root of all wisdom.  Her struggling with that concept mirrors my own struggling with that concept, which generally takes two tacks.

Tack number one is theological.  If God is love, as we Jesus folk consistently and relentlessly insist, then why would we fear God?   It seems illogical and emotionally inconsistent.

Tack number two is sociopolitical and anthropological.   Within human institutions and cultures, fear of punishment is used to enforce conformity within autocratic cultures and family systems.  Do what I say, because you fear that if you do not, I will verbally abuse you and/or hang you, cut out your intestines in front of you, and then pull you apart with horses.   Generally, the former is family systems and the latter is...um...hopefully not, although I will grant that some families are worse than others.   If that is the character of the fear we are meant to have of God, then God would be little better than an abusive parent or medieval despot.

So is this a salvageable theological concept?

I tend to think so, with some notable caveats from the Apostle Paul.  Here, I'm talking about Paul, the author of the seven letters, not deutero-Paul, the follower of Paul who wrote in his name.  In his letter to the churches in both Rome and Galatia, Paul makes it clear that the purpose of Christian faith is not fear.   We are not meant to be slaves, living in fear, he tells the Romans.  If the Spirit of God lives and moves in us, then our connection to the gracious nature of our Maker frees us from the fear of coercion.  Christian faith is antithetical to "power over," both in our relationship to others and in our relationship with our Creator.  It is not a vassal/liege arrangement and not a social contract, with all the punishment/protection dynamics that such things entail.  That's the heart of the joyous anarchy of grace Paul proclaimed.

Fear of God, then, needs to be decoupled from the idea of social obedience and legalistic interpretations of Christianity.

But when it comes to our encounter with God...those transforming moments that take our faith out of the realm of ritual and abstraction and into the realm of the existential and experiential...fear takes on a different character.

Fear of God arises from the knowledge of God.

First, there is the fear that comes with unbidden theophany.  This does not happen often.  Being in the presence of the Numinous Other is the sort of thing that causes hair to stand on end, buckles knees, and leaves you unable to speak.  I've heard it described as a feeling of vertiginous awe, like looking out over a vast precipice.   That's close, but in my experience it's a bit more like that feeling when the railing you're leaning against gives way.  You are not observing the vastness from a distance.  It is grasping you, utterly present to you.

Fear?  Yes. When there is nothing between your face and God's face, yes.

Second, those moments when we feel most frequently connected to our Maker, at least in my experience, are moments of immense grace and calm.   We get there through prayer and meditation, through contemplation and self-stilling.  Emptied of self, we feel no terror, because we are consumed and suffused with God's Spirit.  "Feeling," in the sense of emotional affect, almost disappears in that great radiant wash of peace.   As a still fledgling and semi-competent mystic, I cherish those moments.  They are the existential anchor points for my faith, just as I'm sure they were for dear brother Paul.

That said, I don't live every moment that way.  I get angry.  I get confused.  I become lustful, and bitter, and impatient.   I get lost.

And in those all-too-frequent moments, I recall that depth of connectedness.  The light of that grace is a fearful thing when you are in the thrall of something...else.  Seeing how deeply the brokenness in yourself impedes your ability to live into the grace you have come to know is frightening.  Loss of that connection, of that grace, of the hope and strength it entails...that is a terrifying thing, because God as Other is a terrifying thing.  Not just because you're lost.  But because you know how deeply your lostness is incompatible with the grace you have known.

That fear is the root of right action, even in the separation.  Feeling the loss, and in the throes of the dark night of the soul, you nonetheless conform yourself to the grace you cannot feel.

And as wisdom is right action, that form of fear is, as I see it, the root of wisdom.


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