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Fear and the American Church
Barbara Brown Taylor
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Marissa Myers and Jiyhun Oh
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Mark Douglas

Further Thoughts on a Fear Born of Gratitude: A Reply to Brown, Taylor, and Ufford-Chase

Scott Bader-Saye
University of Scranton 


I deeply appreciate the ways the responders have taken up, extended, and supplemented the line of reflection I began in my essay. The insights and practical suggestions in these pieces are exactly the kind of exchange of gifts we need today to help us negotiate the culture of fear.

First, Rick Ufford-Chase invites us "to imagine a world that confronts fear the way that Jesus asks us to."  This strikes me as a significant act of faith and courage.  To imagine alternative responses to perceived threats is to proclaim that things can be otherwise. Part of the power of the "myth of redemptive violence," of which Taylor speaks, is its claim to inevitability. We might just as well call it the "myth of inevitable violence."  Its rhetorical strategy includes disclaimers and assertions such as "they forced our hand," "we have no choice," "it would be irresponsible not to," "we'll do what has to be done," and this classic from Dick Cheney, "we have to work the dark side."[1]  Imagining ways to confront fear with faith allows us to break free from a set of supposedly inevitable responses and become creative witnesses, living parables of the kingdom-living Christ has made possible. And, lest we sentimentalize such hopeful imaginings, we must remember that we seek to embody these alternatives in the often compromised world of actual church communities.

Thus it is all the more helpful that the respondents have given us some practical guidance; for instance, look at how our financial decisions can reflect expansion toward the neighbor rather than contraction into ourselves; consider whether we are spending more time in church or in the world we are called to serve; send a "nonviolent army" to violent hot-spots around the globe; work for basic health care, education, and local economic development around the world as a way to enhance the security of everyone.

 Second, William Brown helpfully raises the issue of "fear of God," as a kind of mediating moment between excessive fear of danger and a confident hope in God.  As he rightly notes, scripture often urges us to fear the world less by fearing God more ("Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell," Matt 10:28). Yet, as he also notes, this creates its own kind of conceptual problems.  What does the text mean by fearing God?  Is this the same kind of fear we have of worldly evils that threaten our loves, only more powerful and more frightening?  To imagine God this way raises questions about the character of God. Does God want to motivate us through threat? Is God a cosmic police officer or our heavenly father? How do we reconcile the "fear of God" with Ufford-Chase's reminder that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4)?

As Taylor has pointed out, there are plenty of examples in the church of fear-of-God gone bad. When we imagine that fearing God is just a bigger, badder version of fearing worldly things, we all too quickly implement our own spiritual version of fear-mongering. We use threats of God's wrath as a means to manipulate people into believing certain things or acting a certain way.  From "hell houses" to country church billboards the message goes out—give God what he wants or he will exact revenge.  Whatever "fear of God" means in the Bible it certainly isn't this kind of spiritual extortion.

Thomas Aquinas suggests that fear of God in the Bible takes two forms.  One is what he calls "servile fear."  This kind of fear is the fear of a servant for a master; it is the fear of punishment that is rooted not in love but in threat.  The second kind of fear is "filial fear," the fear of a child before a parent—which has less to do with punishment than with love. The child does not fear that the parent (or God) will harm or destroy something that is rightly beloved to the child (thus God is not equated with an evil object that threatens the goods of life and happiness); rather, the child fears that the relationship with the parent will be harmed through the child's own actions. Aquinas argues that for the Christian the proper fear of God is this kind of filial fear. Those who know and love God as father do the will of God not out of fear of punishment but out of fear of hurting or disappointing the beloved. This fear is, in Barth's words, "born of gratitude."  In short, God is not an evil object that threatens our loves, rather God is the object of love whom we fear losing. This fear, as Brown puts it, "relativizes all other fears" precisely because we would rather lose anything, even life itself, than lose God.

 Finally, Taylor rightly invites us to think of  "kenosis as the opposite of fear," noting Jesus' "trembling but real willingness to empty himself of everything but love for love's sake."  He empties himself of family of origin, home, possessions, and more.  By relinquishing his grasp on many things, Jesus fears the loss of fewer things.  By orienting his love toward only that which is most important, he no longer fears losing that which he rightly recognizes as a disordered love of status or stuff.  But here is where we have to be careful, for to love is always to love something in particular and, if Augustine and Aquinas are right, as soon as we love a particular we fear the loss of what we love.  While a proper detachment from unnecessary things can free us from certain fears, we must not imagine that kenosis means a thorough emptying of attachment—for this could only mean a refusal to love. Surely part of what Jesus feared in Gethsemane was the loss of certain goods that he had come to love as a fully human being—the friendships he had formed, the beauty of creation, the warmth of a summer day, the pleasure of a joyful celebration, the satisfaction of good day's work, the joy of life itself. Yes, he loved God more than these things (hence, his obedience—"not my will but yours be done"), but he loved these things as well and rightly feared losing them. 

Jesus models for us the right kind of fear—fear that is neither excessive nor disordered but rather is put in the service of love.

 



[1] Dick Cheney, Meet the Press, September 16, 2001.

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