To Fear or Not to Fear


“In his explanation of the commandments, Luther begins every one with these words, ‘We should fear and love God…It is perhaps well known that there are some Christians today who maintain that Luther made a mistake in this. They strike out the ‘fear’ and say that we should love God, nothing more…But when people of our superficial generation have read the the Bible as thoroughly as Luther did, they will see that Luther was right also in this…He has seen that love to God does not exclude fear, but that they mutually strengthen each other…The greater the good in life, the more dangerous it becomes to us, if we misuse it. And since the grace of God is life’s most precious good, grace is more dangerous than anything else int he world, if we misuse it.”-Ole Hallesby, Under His Wings

How does one make sense of a passage like this in light of the most preponderant commandment in Scripture: “Be not afraid”? What about John’s insistence that “perfect love drives out fear”. (1 Jn 4:18)?

There is certainly a sort of fear that is inappropriate for the baptized. Such fear is more likely the product of an unsanctified imagination than a pious heart. Perhaps it’s the sort of fear rooted in the suspicion that when confronted with God, we will meet someone or something much like ourselves. One who reckons, forgives, judges much the same way we do. This is indeed a fearful prospect, but in the end it probably tells us more about ourselves than about God (which as Calvin reminds us isn’t a bad thing, as true knowledge of self will ultimately, by God’s grace, lead us into knowledge of God).

The fear Luther finds appropriate, which the Scriptures tell us is the beginning of wisdom, must be rooted in something much more like the Psalmist speaks of in Psalm 147:

“He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and and his judgments to Israel.
“He has not done so to any other nation; to them he has not revealed his judgments.

It is only when one comes into the embrace of grace that one even glimpses the nature of divine judgment and justice. Von Balthasar gets at something like this in Love Alone Is Credible:

“…the moment we see our sins objectified before us on the Cross, it becomes all the more impossible to leave the One who died for us to his fate; so loveless a thought reveals our whole evil heart to us, love awakens fear in us, and the terrifying reality of being left behind by God (which is timeless as far as the one abandoned is concerned) shows us vividly that hell is no pedagogical threat, it is no mere ‘possibility’. Instead, it is the reality that the God-forsaken one experienced in an eminent way because no one can even approximately experience the abandonment by God as horribly as the Son, who shares the same essence with the Father for all eternity…We are therefore not required to bring a systematically conceived hell into harmony with the love of God and make it credible, or indeed justify it conceptually as love (and not perhaps merely as the revelation of self-glorifying divine justice), because no such system could be constructed out of a possible ‘knowledge’ apart from or beyond love and at the same time related to it. We are required only not to let go of love, the love that believes and hopes through both is suspended in the air so that its Christian wings may grow. Soaring in the air, I also necessarily experience the abyss below, which is only part of my own flight. Similarly, I can speak of hell only in relation to myself, precisely because I can never imagine the possible damnation of another as more likely than my own.”

There is perhaps no more painful fear than that of wounding or betraying one’s beloved. And yet this fear is not possible without first pledging, with one’s whole self, one’s love. Before that, it is abstract, a possibility, one that cannot produce the sort of fear that is rooted in love. Perhaps perfect love drives out imperfect fear, replacing it with a fear that flows from faith, rather than inhibiting it.

Why Love Fails…

urlI’ve recently been re-reading Von Balthasar’s Love Alone Is Credible. In it Von Balthasar points out the undeniable presence of true love in the created order, over against those who would offer skeptical protests, holding any such examples to be reducible to will to power or a subtle self-interest. Eros, he insists, is found throughout nature and in ways that go beyond mere utility. The animal’s devotion to it’s young, the individual’s self-sacrificial act committed on behalf of the whole, these are just a couple examples. Even more striking is the ability of an ultimately fleeting erotic desire to pass into a lifelong relationship characterized by fidelity that long outlasts the conditions that created the eroticism in the first place. Looks, charm, successes and achievements that act as aphrodisiacs, these may be the occasion for beginning a relationship that will give way to marital commitment, but they will never be sufficient to sustain it.

But as finite creatures love is not the only thing that contends for our passions:

…the fight for one’s place under the sun; the terrible stifling of the individual by the surrounding relations, the clan, and even by the family; the struggle of natural selection, for which nature itself provides the strength and the arms; the laws of time’s decay: friendships, once thought to be forever, grow cold, people grow apart, views and perspectives and thus hearts too become estranged. Geographic distances create and additional burden, and love must be strong and single-minded in order to withstand it; pledges of love, meant to be eternal, get broken, because the rising wave of eros gave way and another newer love came in between; the beloved’s faults and limitations become unbearable, and perhaps even worstened because the finitude of love seemed to be a contradiction: Why love just one woman when there are thousands that could be loved? (p. 62)

Love for one’s beloved, family, clan or people can motivate cultural activity. Love can inspire one to farm or hunt, to engage in statecraft, diplomacy, even war. It can offer impetus to tend to domestic chores, business deals or artistic endeavors, but “it cannot form the activities from top to bottom and domesticate them.” Other forces and powers that are perennially present in human existence contend against love. Human being is characterized at best by a sort of tense coexistence between love and self-interest. And that’s on a good day.

But even on our best day where love seems to be conquer all, or at least most, or just some of of its rivals, we find ourselves in an insoluble contradiction. The sort of love that the lover pledges to the beloved has a kind of eternal quality existentially. Pledging eternal love that will only exists for a moment or series of moments in history seem like an oxymoron. But nothing in the economy of nature indicates that we will exist eternally. But love seems to require something like the continuation of our embodied selves and that of our beloved (non corporal souls won’t do, for it would be like “loving” in virtual reality). The human heart, gripped by love, exists in contradiction. Eternity dwells in hearts that will all one day stop beating.

Such contradictions stand out glaringly before we even consider our own proclivity to sin. At a deep level we are all aware of our “heart’s paralysis, falleness, and frigidity”, and our general incapacity to fulfill any true law of love.

The finite nature of our existence, marked as it is by the tragedy of our fallen state, seems “immediately to justify the finitude of love, and since life in the world as a whole cannot be interpreted as love, it withdraws into islands of reciprocal sympathy: the island of eros, of friendship, of love of country, and ultimately the island of a certain universal love based on the single human nature that all people share, and even based on the single physis…that belongs to all of the beings in the universe.”

Our existential predicament makes the revelation of divine love illuminating and scandalous. Because of the real, albeit contradictory, experiences of love that we all have in our mortal lives, our ears “prick up” at the sound of the message of an absolute, unconditional and determined divine love. And yet the scandal comes when one realizes that the uniqueness of divine love not only reveals something about God, but about us. It shows our inchoate creaturely love for what it really is: nonlove. It’s only when we embrace the sordid and ambiguous nature of what seem to us to be our truest loves that we come to know what divine love is, and it’s only with the gift of divine love that the truly ambiguous nature of such loves is truly known.

I suppose C.S. Lewis was getting at a similar notion in The Four Loves:

William Morris wrote a poem called “Love is Enough” and someone is said to have reviewed it briefly in the words “It isn’t.” Such has been the burden of this book. The natural loves aren’t self-sufficient. [He goes on]…To say this is not to belittle the natural loves but to indicate where their glory lies. It is no disparagement to a garden to say that it will not fence itself and weed itself, nor prune its own fruit trees, nor roll and cut its own lawns. A garden is a good thing but that is not the sort of goodness it has…Its real glory is of quite a different kind.

So perhaps a true profession of love involves confessing, quite literally, that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

What you need to know to understand the Bible…

martin-luther1“No one can understand Virgil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has been a shepherd or a farmer for fifty years. No one can understand Cicero in his letters unless he has been involved for twenty years in the life of a state. Let no one think that he has tasted Holy Scripture unless he has for a century ecclesias gubernarit and has been responsible for the Church.”-Martin Luther

I Want My Body!

Robert Harrison is the host of Entitled Opinions, which is for my money the best podcast on the web. He had this to say in a recent episode entitled “Epilogue: The Earthly Paradise”:

…for human beings happiness outside of the body is very difficult to imagine, and impossible to desire. We can desire deliverance from the body, and desire it very ardently, but that’s another matter. The best proof of this in my mind is the fact that the beatified souls, the saints in Dante’s Paradise, anticipate with a surplus of joy the resurrection of their flesh at the end of time. One could say that their bliss in heaven is incomplete in fact until they recover in time what time has robbed them of: namely their personal identities which were bound up with their flesh. So, as I tell my students sometimes when I teach Dante, all of us on earth insofar as we are in our bodies, are more blessed than the saints in Dante’s heaven.

We can’t desire happiness outside our embodied existence. We can try to imagine it, but it’s probably an exercise in futility. We can, as Harrison points out, ardently desire deliverance from our bodies and all the limits, risks, joys, and uncertainties we are confronted with on a daily basis as a result of indwelling them. Buddhism, Hinduism and Platonism all offer this hope, and with good reason, as do all the those who deny any afterlife. Those that would advocate the afterlife’s denial are clearly a minority in our human history. But their case, when compared with pictures of eternity sans our bodies, whether they come in Eastern or Western forms, seems far more down to earth. So we are left with a decision. We either hope for a future life where all the happiness and goodness we have know is left behind and we go on existing without our fleshly mortal coils. Or we can deny any future eternity after death, fixing our hopes, dreams, and yes our happiness on what we can do in the limited span of years we are given to function.

Then there’s the Christian and Jewish hope: resurrection. Resurrection is neither the denial of the future life, nor does it have much in common with the stories about our eternal destiny that want us to be uncomfortable “in our own skin”. The biblical promise of redemption doesn’t merely involve  the resurrection of our bodies and with it the assurance that there remains a future for our old friend our body. It involves the promise that embodied existence will continue, but in a way better than we could hope or dream. What would it mean to meet our bodies again for the first time?