Saturday, 12 December 2015
The Fear of God
Occasionally I go to a Philosopher's Cafe at SFU Harbour Centre after teaching my Friday morning class. The most recent topic was on the Fear of God - the beginning of wisdom. Dr. Michael Picard was the moderator, and was very good at bringing out the best in a discussion with diverse perspectives.
At first the discussion was hung up on a view of fear as in fear of punishment or fear of hell, and how potentially manipulative that was and unhealthy for human flourishing. Then came the reductionist arguments about how religion and the concept of God are often used socially and politically by those who wish to dominate and control others. In this view the fear of God is not the beginning of wisdom, but its death; rather, skepticism and doubt lead to study and investigation, and investigation is the beginning of wisdom (Clarence Darrow). This can be the case when one's view of God is restricted to a single category of status versus non-status, as in an absolute monarch's rule over his subjects. However, if one views God from the perspective of providing a governing context in which people can discover the facts, principles and laws of universal truth, then a very different kind of fear emerges. It is a mature and healthy fear of knowing that one is responsible for how one chooses to live life and transform into the person they desire to become, and graduate, as it were, from the school of life with the collected treasures of his or her soul. Akin to this concept is the recognition of a universal moral law including existential encounters and realizations of truth, goodness, love, pain, grief, suffering and the ultimate inevitability of having to face fear and death. These universal categories consciously or unconsciously combine to form one's metaphysical position from which one's system of right and wrong emerges. For example, the fundamental attitude of karma towards victims of injustice is far from compassionate, since victims are viewed as getting what they deserve from a life of bad karma before being reincarnated into this one.
Dallas Willard, a leading author in spiritual and character transformation, states in Renovation of the Heart that significant humanist and spiritual leaders of all perspectives see the necessity for personal transformation. Where they differ is in what aspects this transformation ought to take place, and how this effectively takes place. Willard suggests that it is a systematic process of relational honesty and growth - with one's self, with God and with others. This presupposes that God is personal and knowable (see James Houston's The Transforming Friendship), particularly in the aspect of His will for human life, which is based on His laws and character. The fundamental shift needed at the core of a human being is to agree with, delight in and obey God's will out of an understanding based on love. Without this, no lasting transformation is possible, because it opens up the mind to further understanding and participation in the divine nature (II Peter 1:4). Indeed, this is the restoration of the image of God in people, rather than people making God in their image.
The discussion at the Philosopher's Cafe barely touched on this presupposition, because I did not clearly state the analogical comparison I was making between how abstract thought in science leads to concrete application in technology, just as a theology of God guides spiritual experience and transformation. Someone commented that spirituality goes beyond science, and that is true. However, there are some who have begun to make the topic of the subjective spiritual realm more rigorous by unveiling how objective and subjective thought work in both science and religion by examining how the mind works within a theory of mental wholeness. Lorin Friesen's synopsis of John McDermott's Seeing God, a revivification of Jonathan Edwards' Religious Affections, is one such example, where he examines the Fear of God.
"I suggest the most fearful thing in human existence is free will, because God seems to respect it. Personal decisions seem to make a difference. I am not talking about being scared about choosing the wrong kind of toothpaste. Rather, I am talking about being scared about becoming the wrong kind of person, because it appears that I have to continue living with myself and that I will be condemned (or privileged) to interact with others who are like me."
This sense of fear is similar to that of C.S. Lewis who wrote in The Weight of Glory that we don't simply meet and interact with mere people. This awareness heightened for me when I saw some of the same faces around the table as at other Cafes. One elderly gentleman, rather ragged in appearance and with quaint and incisive intelligence, struck me as needing a friend and hope, even though he carried himself with a sure and dauntless independence. My heart cried that often the most insightful of human beings get discarded and marginalized in a culture that no longer has the will to see or to seek the cure for its inadequacies.
"There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. this does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption."