Monday, December 19, 2005

The beginning of wisdom

Wisdom and "philosophy"
The love of wisdom is supposed to be "philosophy", if you believe the advertisement implied in the origins of that word. But "philosophy" as a formal study has not had much interest in whether people in general conduct their lives with wisdom. It has become an eclectic discipline aimed at elevating the knowledge of its students, not a benevolent one aimed at elevating the lives of the lowly. So we find ourselves (commonplace complaint) in an "advanced" age where many of us can truly say our parents and grandparents lived more fulfilling lives.

Christian philosophers have had a lot to say on traditional topics of philosophy such as truth or the nature of reality. But for the ultimate Christian philosophy, the most important wisdom is knowing God. I'd like to start with a quote that most philosophers would run from as fast as they could manage:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10)
Fear and Reverence
Have you ever played a game of dueling definitions over that verse? One person says "fear" means "fear" then the other person says "fear" means "awe and reverence." Then a drive-by atheist says "See, your religion is just about fear and intimidation and oppression, and have I mentioned lately that everything wrong with the world is your fault?"

But one of my themes in this blog is that we Christians have too long self-censored to appease the atheists. I hope to encourage other Christians to ignore petty sniping based on misunderstandings of our Scriptures (some of them wilfull), and to get on with living Christian lives. To which end I'm not planning in backing off in the least.

So back to "fear" and "reverence." In my years in the workforce, which is a good many by now, I've had only one boss years back that I would say that I "feared." (This does not count the few that I thought were borderline insane.) And the thing was, he was an undisputably fair man and it never crossed my mind that he would treat me unfairly. Neither is fear a very natural emotion for me when it comes to a boss; cooperation yes, boredom occasionally; but this was a bit of a new experience for me. He was at the top of his game, someone that I picked up tips from whenever I could. As for work ethics and integrity, I was impressed with him and took him as a role model. Only once did I ever see him become angry with someone, and it was well-deserved. A few times I saw him show people the door and terminate their jobs, and again it happened only when plainly deserved. He wasn't a harsh person either, but when it was called for he had no qualms about doing what was necessary.

Why exactly was I afraid of him? It wasn't because he was unfair; I never heard a soul charge him with that. It wasn't because I was slacking; I never heard a soul charge me with that either. It was because I never heard him make a criticism which wasn't fully justified. Some people you can blow off their criticisms; "consider the source." But not this one. Again, "consider the source." If he'd had something to say against my work, it would have bothered me because I would have had no doubt that he was right. My respect for him -- and the fact that it was thoroughly earned -- oddly enough was the only basis on which I actually feared him. That was the tie between respect and fear, even in a boss who was just an outstanding though doubtless fallible professional.

Likewise, the idea of God as the final judge of history gives people a "fear of God." Again, the problem is that we know his criticism will be justified, the judgment will be true. That makes it more frightening, not less. If it weren't for mercy, forgiveness, and redemption, everyone would have to despair.

To the Christian, knowing God begins with knowing that he is God and we're not; that he is holy and we are not; that he is above reproach and, as much as we hate to acknowledge it, we are not. As "fear of condemnation", the fear of God is based in our faults heightened by the contrast with his holiness. But our reverence is based on his holiness and excellence alone, without the shame of our faults. In this sense, fear of God is a thing of this fallen world, but reverence will endure into eternity.

Thinking more clearly about fear
A quick word is in place about fear: determining when it is rational, when it is healthy, and when it is legitimate (for even a rational and healthy fear can be abused). Most people seem fairly clear on the difference between a rational fear and an irrational fear, based on whether the object of the fear is actually dangerous. But even a perfectly rational fear can still be received in ways that are healthy or unhealthy. Received in an unhealthy way, fear can paralyze and render helpless, or it can lead to a panic in which the actions taken do more harm than good. A healthy reaction to fear drives us to take action about the danger. This action requires thought but still moves in a timely way, knowing that real dangers will not wait until we're ready for them. Some people imagine that the only irrationality with fear is by being too afraid, but this is not the case. When there is a real danger, then inaction is the irrational course; then inaction is an evidence of disdain for life and well-being, not an evidence of wisdom or courage. When fear is mastered and brought to brave action it is called courage; when rational fear is ignored and tamed to inaction it is foolishness. One of the habitual mistakes of our times is to mistake lazy or irrational inaction for courage and open-mindedness.

Even such a quick-sketch survey of rationality and fear would be lacking without mention of the exploitation of fear. Unfortunately, the abuse of fear is not unusual, and fear is among the tools of first choice of the unscrupulous. Fear is at times abused to produce the paralysis of the small hunted animal; this is manipulative and oppressive. There is also a manipulative use where people incite fear in order to drive people to an action that then appears wise and brave. This abuse can happen even with rational fears. When fear -- or the answering action -- does not suggest itself to our own minds but is instead recommended to us by a third party, a review of the reality of the danger and the fittingness of the action is in order, in the same way as when fear and action present themselves to our own minds.

In continuing the discussion of "fear," it is to be understood that I am discussing fear in the sense of a rational and healthy fear, the kind that leads to a rational and healthy action in response to a real danger.

The beginning of wisdom
Both fear of God and reverence for God belong to the "beginning of wisdom" in this world. They both teach us humility. They both teach us respect for God. They both tend to open the mind towards learning and instruction just as their opposites, false security and irreverence, tend to close the mind. Of these two, fear tends more towards action, while reverence tends more towards a peaceable gladness. This is not to say that fear or reverence is better, but it is to say that each has a legitimate place. Separating fear and reverence from each other would lead us wrong quickly, as we will see.

Can fear of God be a good thing, or bring about wisdom? (One of the ancients would laugh to hear that question; it was an obvious thing to them that the fear of God was a good thing.) Those who fear God tend to be wiser about sexual responsibility, wiser about drugs and alcohol. Many of the widespread and serious social problems of today are directly rooted in drugs, alcohol, and sexual irresponsibility. A parent's problems with drugs, alcohol, and sexual irresponsibility often have direct consequences for their children by way of poverty and educational problems. Or as the Psalmist said thousands of years ago, "The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple." (Psalm 19:7)

As for fear of God, if we paint God as a cosmic bully we have done more than just defame his character unjustly, we have also lessened the true fear of God. The true fear of God is not based on accusing God of capricious peevishness, but is based on the rightness of his judgments and the goodness of his character, being unwilling to have shamed ourselves or to be in the wrong before him. The difference is whether the real problem is in God's character or in ours. Our response is also different. If the problem is wrongly located in God's character then the choices are to knuckle under to a tyrant (or, in the case of many atheists, to rebel but see yourself as a freedom fighter against oppression). If the problem is correctly located in our own character, then action is to seek a purity and holiness like his, and to seek his mercy.

Apart from fear, does reverence teach us anything? Its wisdom is to appreciate what is good. If our faults are the basis of our fear, then God's goodness is the basis for our hope. In that, our reverence for God strengthens our hope. It follows that a false teaching of the fear of God, one that denies God's goodness, completely destroys hope.

Reverence also gives us strength. As they say, "The joy of the LORD is our strength." Those who have no reverence for God's goodness are not likely to be celebrating it. Those who have nothing to celebrate are defeated already.


D. P. said...

This is a really nice post. You have inspired me to collect some thoughts about the "fear of the Lord" for posting sometime after Christmas.

I have left you a Christmas present here. I hope you enjoy it!

Susan said...

It is difficult for me to understand a rational fear of God if fear is an emotion or feeling toward someone. However, if fear-of-God is a stance, and attitude, an a priori approach to God: "You are GOD, I am not" this is not only rational, but it is the beginning of wisdom. Nothing is understood properly in any other context, and life is never lived well when it is lived with self, not God, at the center.

Read your comments over at Doug Groothuis' blog in his two most recent posts: I think you and I must be fishing from the same boat.
Blessings to you this Christmas-we can get through this, as we allow the hands of our Savior King to grip us tightly this season.


Weekend Fisher said...

Susan, you wouldn't be the mystery poster, would you? Er ... you can forget I asked if I shouldn't have asked. It's good to see you over here. I enjoy your blog.

Take care & God bless

the bloke said...

Hello Anne,

Thanks very much for your comment. You have written a very thoughtful post! I have posted a short reply to your comment and also worked on a longer response that is in the form of a new post. The post will be published on Monday. Be on the watch out for it, and I appreciate if you care to respond to that as well.

Best regards,
the Bloke