We hear those words repeatedly in church. The beginning of wisdom, says scripture, is the fear of the Lord. Unfortunately, we use the word fear in this instance with the unwarranted assumption that everyone knows and agrees upon its meaning. While the word fear usually means something akin to dread, it’s usage in this case counsels us to be in awe of God.
Still, fear in the sense of dread has played a big role in Christianity.
In a recent conversation a parishioner mentioned how fearful she was that comments of Church leaders portended a return to a religion that tried to coerce adherence to its judgments by threats of divine retribution. “I accepted that as a child and it was extremely painful. No matter who tries to reinstate it, I’ll never go back to that thinking.” I have heard similar sentiments from many lately.
While I understand and agree with a refusal to return to religious authority that bases itself on fear, there’s a concern.
While younger Catholics who grew up without knowing fear-based religious authority will simply ignore such threats, those of us raised in obedience rooted in fear can find ourselves anxious about confronting it once again. Our intelligence demands freedom of conscience while our emotions still make taking full responsibility for our decisions more difficult than we anticipate. We may experience gnawing anger as well as disquietude.
In addition, religious authority that tries to back up its judgments with spoken or implied threats makes it difficult for those who would normally value their teaching to take it seriously. To the extent that this occurs, it’s a costly loss for everyone.
The awesome, loving Creator, the God of the universe, the God of Jesus is not a source of fear. To paint him as such portrays a false God. That’s very dangerous.