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By Victor Lee Austin

February 4, 2021

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Keep fear in its place


By Victor Lee Austin

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The Virus has made it clear: Fear rules our lives inordinately. A friend related how, after months of isolation, she ventured out to a special-occasion lunch party with a half-dozen friends. She described two things, the precautions that were taken and the fun it was for everyone. “Great!” I said, “and now that you see it’s possible, maybe you could do it again.” A tone of shock entered her voice; aghast, she protested that this was a rare occasion and she wouldn’t be going out again. “If by staying home I can save just one life, it will be worth it.”

Her words express a feeling that is widespread, a sense of heroic self-denial for the sake of others’ safety. Nonetheless, one should note the illogic of the feeling. To make safety our first consideration is to paralyze all action. Think of driving a car. I cannot get behind the wheel without taking on some (small) chance that I will cause an accident in which someone dies. Should we stop driving cars? (Thought experiment: Imagine the top headlines every day were the number of car accidents, resulting hospitalizations, and deaths, for the preceding day and also year-to-date. If day after day this were the top news, what do we think would be the result?)

The illogic goes further. By “doing nothing” we actually harm ourselves. If out of fear of injury I avoid exercise, my body will atrophy. And if I don’t see people and talk with them, my mental health will decline. Avoidance for the sake of safety turns out to be itself an unsafe plan of (in)action!

What’s really going on with fear? What place should fear have in our life?

First, let’s frame it philosophically. We might think fear is the opposite of courage, that to be courageous is to be without fear. Famously, Aristotle disagrees. Aristotle puts courage in the middle between cowardice and recklessness. What this means is that fear is a given; it’s always there. Life is never a danger-free zone. What we should do in the presence of fear and danger is to act neither cowardly nor recklessly. 

Recklessness happens when people don’t bother to learn the dangers that are present, or they know the dangers but fail to adjust their behavior. Reckless people rush in heedlessly. Cowardice is the opposite: it is to be immobilized by fear. 

Courage may look like recklessness because both involve acting despite the dangers, but their difference is that courage partakes of wisdom. Courageous soldiers who know there are explosive mines hidden in a field that they must cross, will not run onto the field heedlessly, but will bring to bear all they know from training and experience. They will act with the skill and smarts of courage.

Human life is danger-beset from beginning to end. Children make bad decisions, and parents fail to rear them wisely. Our bodies are vulnerable. Our brains, each of which has ten times more neurons than there are people on the planet Earth, can get sticky and thwart our personalities. And so on.

Wise living takes cognizance of the risks, makes prudent (i.e., wise) provisions for them, and then gets on with the important things of life. “Safety first” is a lie, for always there are trade-offs. We risk going to a dinner, we risk having a child, we risk hiking a mountain. My leg may get broken, I may break someone else’s heart, I might transmit harmful germs. I need to avoid reckless behavior, but I must also avoid cowardice.

In such wise can philosophy put fear in its place.

Theology also can help. In the Hebrew scriptures, we find the notion of a fear that is a very good thing, a thing that needs to be put in first place. Indeed, it is sometimes called “the beginning of wisdom.” I refer, of course, to “the fear of the Lord.”

The scriptures connect this fear with law, ritual, and ethics. What God requires, Moses says at Deuteronomy 10:12, is nothing “but to fear the Lord thy God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul.” What is this fear that entails studying and keeping God’s law and statutes throughout one’s life (Dt. 17:19), a hearing that leads to learning that leads to fearing that leads to observing (Dt. 31:12)?

It is clearly not a fear of danger. God of course is dangerous—as Job famously got more than a taste of—but fear of God is not fear of the harm God might do. It is rather something like awe. One fears the third rail of the subway not because the third rail has malevolent intentions, but because its electric power would mean, if we touched it, instant death. God’s almighty power far exceeds even that, but we do not fear him for the harm he might do us.

The awe, the respect—the fear—that one has for God, is our recognition of his gift of human purpose and human greatness, hinted at and roughly outlined by the laws and statutes that he has given. To read God’s words, to hear them, to learn them, is to take on oneself this gift he has given, a way of life that becomes the most important thing about oneself. 

Fear of the Lord leads to freedom. In the canonical order of the Bible, fear of God is first commanded in Leviticus 19, the same chapter that commands the love of neighbor as oneself. In Deuteronomy 10:12, quoted above, the fear of God is linked to the love of God. Thus the Scriptures claim that to fear God is to live according to his laws, and that is to walk in a way characterized by, among other things, love. And love is the most authentic expression of human freedom.This is how theology puts fear in its place. The fear of God is above all else. It is the beginning of the wisdom of practical human living, a way of life that does not fear danger inordinately, but instead is liberating and marked by love.

The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin is Theologian-in-residence of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, Texas