Fear and Trembling

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 3:12-19
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

– Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole”

I once heard former stand-up comedian turned Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, speak at a Christian literary festival, where I found her precisely as billed: entertaining, insightful, and provocative. In the Q&A portion of the hour, a particularly earnest-sounding audience member asked what practices she engaged to “bring her closer to God.”

At this, the tattooed Reverend scrunched her face and said, “Why would I want to do that? Every time I find myself close to Jesus, I’m asked to love someone I hate or forgive someone I don’t want to.” Her response was met with scattered laughter, the nervous sort that suggests both recognition and chagrin. Over the top as Bolz-Weber’s answer was, she clearly hit home with some of us, me included.

The risen Christ, like many of the angels appearing in both Testaments, often says “Do not be afraid,” before getting to the business at hand. “It is,” as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)

This recurring counsel against fear reminds us that, “The fear of the Lord (“yirat YHWH)” is the beginning of wisdom,” (Psalms 111:10a and Proverbs 9:10a) should not be read as encouraging a “servile” fear, but an amalgam of trembling, reverence, and awe. I’m getting out of my philological comfort zone here, but I’m told Rabbinic tradition identifies three meanings of the Hebrew word “yirah”: fear of undesired consequences or punishment (yirat ha-onesh), fear over violating Torah (yirat ha-malkhut), and an “Awe of the Exalted” (yirat rommemnut) that comes from rightly seeing God. As Abraham Joshua Heschel points out in God in Search of Man, this fear/awe of the Lord is not the goal of wisdom, but its means.

In this Sunday’s reading from Luke’s gospel, Jesus calms his disciples’ fears by calling attention to his resurrection body, solid enough to touch but wondrously transformed, at once radiant and torn. He shows them his wounds – physical evidence of our denial and rejection – not to chastise but to reassure. He asks for and eats some broiled fish, not only to show he’s not a ghost but also to share the food of his companions. He interprets the scriptures for them, naming the disciples witnesses to the embodied good news of repentance and forgiveness.

While pondering this gospel text in preparation for this reflection, I had in mind the jarring conjunction of two recent, personal events: celebrating Easter with community of monks in the high desert of New Mexico, and the news that a lifelong friend had taken his own life on the Tuesday of Holy Week. For me, both of these remain unfathomable mysteries: the resurrection of Christ and the suicide of a man remembered by all who truly knew him as kind, generous, faithful, and loving.

When it comes to the destiny of creatures after death, I take seriously the warning that, “Those who speak do not know and those who know do not speak.” I believe in the creeds we share at liturgy, including “… the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” (Nicene Creed) or, as the Apostles’ Creed renders it, “… the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting,” but I have no experience of what that actually means. But when I learned of family concerns regarding the fate of my friend’s soul, I felt a line had been crossed. My late friend was no stranger to the disabling illness of major depression, and there is nothing I am more certain of about the God revealed in Christ than the boundlessness of Divine mercy.

What I do know from experience is that many self-identified Christians see things differently. On the stretch of Interstate 71 South from Columbus, Ohio to Cincinnati, there’s a series of billboards reminding drivers that “Hell is Real,” inviting them to consider where they will spend eternity if they died today, and concluding with the Ten Commandments. Even my theologically ultraconservative second cousin – who has no doubt hell is real – observed, “That doesn’t seem very inviting now, does it?”

When a close relative, in the midst of a major life crisis, joined a decidedly fundamentalist church, his first attempt to evangelize my mother included screaming at her from the driveway, “If you die a Catholic, you’re damned to hell forever.” Another family member, who now identifies as a Messianic Jew, sent me a cartoon shortly after Stephen Hawking’s death last month. It depicted the late theoretical physicist cursing from his wheelchair at the bottom of a very long stairway to the clouds and, presumably, to heaven. I know Hawking considered himself an authority on the God he didn’t believe in, a self-assessment that betrayed an astonishing ignorance of the theology he never bothered to read, confirming once again how pervasive the Dunning-Kruger Effect* is among the so-called New Atheists. Nevertheless, it’s scandalous for Christians to engage in eschatological Schadenfreude, as if one of the joys of salvation will be relishing the eternal suffering of “those people.” No matter how precious in God’s sight is the death of his faithful (Psalm 116:15), there is no rejoicing at the loss of even one of God’s creatures.

Among humans, however, shame, fear, and resentment are highly effective tools for building political movements, nation-states, and – we must admit – religious groups. They are, however, poor foundations for a lasting community of faith. The eleven remaining apostles had more compelling reasons to fear the resurrected Jesus than the possibility he was a ghost. All four gospels tell of a crucified Jesus abandoned by his male followers, betrayed by Judas, openly denied by Peter, and buried by women and peripheral disciples. Only John’s account places one of the twelve at the crucifixion or gives Peter a chance to redeem himself.

In the apparently total failure of Jesus’ ministry, they had little to commend themselves and much to regret. The apostles, still in hiding, must have wondered when this risen Jesus was going to take them to task for their cowardice and infidelity. What they received instead was welcome, reassurance, and understanding. Later, after receiving the gifts of the Spirit, they embraced the spreading of the gospel, a mission that for most of them would result in untimely death. At this encounter with the risen Lord, however, they had every reason to tremble, but no cause to condemn or gloat.

In this Sunday’s reading from Acts, Peter accuses the “Israelites” in Jerusalem of killing the author of life, but he surely hasn’t forgotten his part in the passion story. Similarly, in the text from the First Letter of John, “we are God’s children now,” suggesting that this was not always the case. Who we are in relation to God is always a matter of mercy. Everything we receive from God is an act of mercy. Our mere existence is an act of mercy. It’s all mercy, all the way down.

The God proclaimed in this Sunday’s readings bears little resemblance to the inexplicably popular God of wrath who forever threatens his children with eternal torment. That image of God is an idol, a flimsy substitute, a human construct that crumbles under scrutiny. In a poem entitled “The Spiteful Jesus,” Scott Cairns shows how:

He is angry. He is just. And while
he may have died for us,
it was not gladly. The way
his prophets talk, you’d think
the whole affair had left him
queerly out of sorts, unspeakably
indignant, more than a little
needy, and quick to dish out
just deserts. I saw him when,
as a boy in church, I first
met souls in hell. I made him
for a corrupt, corrupting fiction when
my own father (mortal that he was)
forgave me everything, unasked.

I don’t mean to suggest that the God revealed in Christ is nothing but a warm fuzzy, a cornucopia of undemanding sentimentalities. Annie Dillard, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews are right about the dangers inherent in any encounter with the living God. As Mr. Beaver tells Susan about Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

No doubt we’ll need further reminders of this apparent paradox. Letting go of our idols, like letting go of our illusions of control and autonomy, is never easy. The Living God has never been safe. Closeness to God is costly. But a gracious God gives us time and neighbors to call us back into communion. Let us approach, no matter how much we tremble, while we can.

Photo Credit:Brad A. Hoffman

* The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a form of cognitive bias in which those ignorant of the skills and knowledge necessary for a particular practice or discipline overestimate their competence in that practice or discipline. See Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, 77 (6): 1121–1134. There are, of course, contemporary public atheists sufficiently acquainted with theology to escape the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Among these far more interesting atheists, I would include Giorgio Agamben, Jurgen Habermas, Julia Kristeva, Thomas Nagel, and Slavoj Zizek. Conversely, there have long been outspoken Christians whose crabbed reading of scripture and ignorance of philosophy and the sciences makes the faith look silly to those not in or of the church. For an early and incisive critique of Christians speaking outside their competence, see St. Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis, written c. 415.

One Response to “Fear and Trembling”

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  1. Frederick says:

    Everything that everyone does is a reaction to the fact that death rules to here. To be identified with a mortal body is to be hell-deep saturated with mortal fear-and-trembling.

    The real man or woman learns to live by becoming willing and able to die.
    Such a one is able to confront the difficult barriers and frustrations of this death saturated world and, yet, remain capable of ecstasy in every moment.

    Therefore, the primary initiation that leads to human maturity is the confrontation with mortal fear.
    Only when the ultimate frustration that is death has been fully considered and felt (whole-bodily) as a process can the individual live without self-protective and self-destructive fears.
    Only in intuitive freedom from the threat and fear of death is the individual capable of constant love of the Living Divine Being, and also capable of transcending the self-binding effects of daily experience.
    Only in freedom from mortal recoil from the World Process is the individual capable of ecstasy under all conditions.

    Therefore, be radiantly alive – but learn right life by first dealing with your death.
    Become fully aware that you do not live, but that you are lived by the Divine Person.
    Become willing to die in any moment, and maintain no inward armor against it.
    Die in every moment by not holding on to the illusion of your independent life.

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