Review by Mac Stewart
The grammatically ambiguous title of this volume gives a good indication of its goals. On the one hand, “fear of God,” a thematic touchstone of Christian spirituality in its biblical and historical sources, has in recent generations not often been in the central current of mainstream Christian preaching and writing. The authors of these essays thus seek to “save” fear from being lost to modern Christian piety. On the other hand, the reason such fear is worth preserving is precisely because it is “saving.” The “fear of the Lord” is not only the beginning of wisdom; it also accompanies and assists our salvation all the way to heaven.
On the first point, part of the reason fear needs “saving” is not just because it has been ignored in modern theology, but also because it has often been presented in a warped form. True, the quintessentially modern theology of Schleiermacher found no place for the “fear of God,” as Julia A. Lamm’s essay shows, other than as a general sense of awe at God’s infinitude and the utter dependence of all reality on God.
But a spirituality of fear takes center stage, according to Maj-Britt Frenze, in the popular eschatology represented by the best-selling Left Behind series. In the latter case, though, what we have is not so much the traditional “fear of the Lord” of historical Christian spirituality as a hyperventilating angst to avoid the Great Tribulation by being raptured. It is understandable that, as Todd Walatka observes, liberation theologians like Jon Sobrino tend to avoid the language of fear, with its connotations of anxious withdrawal, in their attempts to direct God’s call in Christ toward an active and concrete sharing in the suffering of the poor in their distress.
But Walatka also shows that a more integrated approach is both possible and preferable, citing homilies of Oscar Romero that seek to rouse the consciences of people trampling on human dignity precisely by invoking the terrible power of the just and holy God who will call all people to account.
Brenna Moore, meanwhile, observes that some versions of fear-spirituality in modernity have substantial “intellectual and literary heft,” and treats Léon Bloy’s work as an example of a “fear-based faith” that sought to deploy traditional Christian fear against a pleasant, self-satisfied, bourgeois piety that neglects the suffering of the poor. Bloy’s effectiveness as a modern, Moore argues, comes from his “demythologization” of fear: hell is absolutely of this world and not the next, and anyone who denies or ignores this is not being honest about the reality and depth of injustice that most people experience here below.
If such voices complicate a simplistic account of the maturation of modern Christian spirituality beyond a medieval piety of fear, the main theme that unites the essays in this volume has to do with what makes fear “saving.” It is true, of course, that in a certain sense “perfect love casts out fear.” But it is also true that fear, properly understood, amplifies and enriches love.
Rudolf Otto looms large here: God is mysterium tremendum et fascinans, who both repels by his might and attracts by his majesty, and this dialectic of repulsion and attraction, linked in Scripture (as Pieter G.R. de Villiers’s essay shows) not just to a vague sense of pious awe but to all the raw physical and visceral effects that we might associate with encountering a wild animal (hair on end, knees quaking, etc.), is what “fear of God” properly means.
And while the traditional Augustinian sequence is right — servile fear of punishment gives way, under love’s influence, to the chaste fear of displeasing one’s divine lover — John Sehorn argues convincingly that fear of punishment may yet, in Augustine’s thought, have a place in mature Christian spirituality as the “needle” that opens up the spiritual space which charity (the “thread”) is to occupy. Fear of God, in this sense, can be an instrument that not only leads to love, but also gives to that love a richer quality than it would otherwise have, inasmuch as it continues to impress upon God’s chaste lover an image of God’s infinitude as above all an infinitude of mercy.
For those who pray to have a “perpetual fear and love” of God’s holy name, this volume is a salutary reminder that, in our relationship with the Lord, these two dispositions belong together.
The Rev. Mac Stewart is priest associate at All Saints’, Chevy Chase, Maryland.