11 July 2009

Professor Fear

14 Week OT (Sat): Gen 49.29-32, 50.15-26; Matt 10.24-33
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Sisters of St Mary of Namur

Joseph tells his brothers not to fear his wrath. “Can I take the place of God?” he asks. Jesus too urges his disciples not to be afraid of those who will persecute them. Only the One who can kill both body and soul deserves our fear. We might ask: what is fear? Our brother, Thomas Aquinas, tells us that sorrow is the passion we experience in the presence of evil; fear is the passion we feel in anticipation of future evil (ST.I-II.41.1). Moral theologian, Joseph Delaney, defines fear as “the unsettlement of soul consequent upon the apprehension of some present or future danger.” Friedrich Nietzsche infamously proclaimed, “Fear is the mother of all morality” (BGE). We could say that fear is a teacher. Fear rises in the human heart when evil threatens, when danger looms. But don't we usually think of fear as a kind of darkness itself, a trap that holds us fast in pain and anxiety? Aren't we supposed to suppress fear with faith? To overcome it by trusting in the providence of God? Joseph says not to fear. Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” And at the same time, we are told “that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” So, are we being foolish or wise when we indulge the passion of fear?

In our clinical culture—where there are no sins only crimes and diseases—fear is understood as an emotional malady rather than the morally neutral passion that it is. This is why we so often hear that “fear of the Lord” is really meant to be understood as “awe of the Lord.” Why would we fear the God of mercy and love? Why be afraid of the One Who made us? We are not wrong to say that the proper human response to the presence of God is awe. But awe alone is simply an expression of wonder and amazement. We might feel awe in the presence of the Grand Canyon, our favorite athlete, or even a particularly powerful piece of literature. We are awed but not afraid. Fear is anxious anticipation. It's that sort of waiting that grips our souls at the mere thought of evil or danger. It warns us away; it cautions deliberation and demands rational attention. Like any of the principal passions, fear is best experienced as a wild animal tightly bound with the twin-leashes of intellect and will. The choices we make in fear can only be judged good or bad after they have been vetted by reason and deliberately acted upon. We are being neither foolish nor wise when we experience fear. Only acts—intentionally chosen—can lead us to folly or wisdom.

Joseph soothes his brothers' fear of his wrath by telling them that he is not God. Joseph's most terrible punishment is nothing when compared to the wrath of God. Likewise, while telling his disciples three times not to fear, Jesus tells them that there is one time when fear is the smart response. He tells them not to fear persecutors, those who can only kill the body. They are not to fear b/c they are held in the hands of a loving God. However, they are to fear this loving God b/c only He can kill body and soul. If there is any danger to anticipate, it comes from failing to honor the will of the One Who made you, the One Who can unmake you. So what Joseph and Jesus teaching us here? They are teaching us that it is indeed deadly foolish—when faced with the choice of betraying Him by accepting the spiritual rule of this world's princes—it is folly to choose against God. Why? Because it is God alone who loves us eternally. We are unmade by our own choosing when we choose the fleeting love of princes over the eternal love of the One Who gifted us with life.

Fear is a teacher. And the lesson is simple: the choice you are about to make is a dangerous one—think carefully, choose wisely. When you are faced with a dangerous or evil choice, always choose the option that best acknowledges God's abiding care for His creatures, the option that pulls you closer to your perfection in Christ. We can call this the morally good choice. At its root, this is the choice that plants and nourishes wisdom. It is the choice that offers true worship to the One Who is wisdom Himself.

1 comment:

  1. Being a convert from conservative protestantism in a very liberal diocese, I've been wondering if it is really wrong to speak of fearing God's wrath towards unrepentant sinners. It sounds like pre-VII Catholics had a sense of fear towards God, but I'm pretty sure that's a mortal sin in our diocese now. :o) I'm just not sure if there's been--not a theological change, exactly-- a change in emphasis, or if my diocese is just dripping SOVII all over the place in this area, too.