And now Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, and to worship the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your being, to keep the Lord’s commandments and His statutes that I charge you today for your own good? Look, the Lord your God’s are the heavens and the heavens beyond the heavens, the earth and all that is in it.
Deuteronomy 10: 12-4
Some decades ago, our theological and especially our catechetical understanding underwent a significant change in emphasis. For those of us old enough to remember, prior to that time we tended to be formed in a sense of relationship to God that was characterized by distance, reverence, and awe. The disposition, and gift of the Holy Spirit, of “fear of the Lord” was quite central in our spiritual development. Unfortunately, at times our teachers confused fear of the Lord with abject terror. Our view of God became that of a stern and severe judge, waiting for us to slip up in our moral lives and ready to punish us for eternity. At times malformed and neurotic clergy would communicate such a sense of God in the confessional and in their preaching. Given this history there is little question of why a change in perspective became inevitable. A growing understanding of human anthropology and psychology began to shift our theological perspective towards a greater emphasis on immanence and incarnation. Instead of distance and transcendence, God became for us much more of a loving presence with and within us. God was no longer a distant judge to be feared, but rather one who so loves us as to live among us. Rather than primarily a summons to transcend our human condition in hopes of attaining fullness of life after death, faith became a call to live our human lives fully in this life. Often quoted was St. Irenaeus: “The glory of God is the human being fully alive. . . .” Most often the quotation was not completed however: “. . . and the life of the human person is the vision of God.”
One of the first things we learn in theology is that understanding comes from the perspective of “both-and” rather than “either-or.” For a very long time, the sense of the love of God for us was lost in what had become something of a servile fear of God’s judgment. With a loss of the true sense of fear of the Lord, however, there is also a loss, a loss of perspective of our own limits and contingency. In today’s reading from Deuteronomy we hear how it is by fear of the Lord our God that we are enabled to walk in God’s ways, to worship with all our hearts and being, and to keep the Lord’s commandments. Perhaps some of our problems with “fear of the Lord” begin to dissipate when we understand that its meaning is living in awe of the Mystery that pervades life. It is awe of the Divine that shows us our place in the world and that keeps us in proper relationship to it.
According to Adrian van Kaam awe is the primordial human disposition. It is our greatest capacity and the very heart of our distinctive humanity. Human beings will always be in awe of something. Our awe will be realistically and properly ordered toward God, or else it will be inverted toward ourselves and our own limited capacities and potential. When our awe is disordered, we cease to live in reality. Rather we live in and act out of the imaginary. We build our worlds on the sands of our own fragile and limited perspectives. To fear the Lord, in the scriptural sense, is to know our responsibility to live our lives in accord with the truth of things. It is to realize our responsibility to God, and thus to the world for what we do, for how we choose to spend the days and years of our lives.
In the September 2017 issue of The Atlantic, Kurt Andersen has written a provocative essay entitled: “How America Lost Its Mind.” He begins the piece with a 1961 quote from the late Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin: “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them” (“The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America”). There is nothing new about our tendency as human beings to prefer our illusions to the truth. Since Adam and Eve we have been pursuing our design to “be as gods.” Boorstin’s warning, however, is that it is possible to totally lose ourselves in our illusions. We experience in our time that the effects of such total alienation and estrangement may be a threat to the very existence of our planet.
It is our realization that we are not ultimate, that we have responsibility to One to whom “the heavens and the heavens beyond the heavens” belong, that grounds us in reality. We are not the measure of all things. God may love us as a brother and sister and even, as Jesus says, a friend, but God is not our possession. God cannot be reduced to what we would make of God. Our own understanding, our own opinion, our own perspective is not ultimate — it is always very partial.
In his essay, Andersen writes:
Why are we like this?
The short answer is because we’re Americans—because being American means we can believe anything we want; that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.
This past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, deadly violence broke out between white supremacist groups and those who had gathered to counter them and their ideology. Meanwhile in Kenya, and in so many places throughout the world, deadly violence between contending factions tears at any attempts to maintain a shared social fabric within which people can seek their own and their families human flourishing. One of the striking aspects of the views of many regarding the violence in Charlottesville was that they framed it as a “clash” of political and social opinions and perspectives, as that of “right” versus “left.” It was as if xenophobia, racism, and genocide are but political stances among others. For some, the illusions have grown “so vivid, so pervasive, and so ‘realistic'” that they have begun to live in them. Once this has happened, chaos is inevitable.
Human freedom, in its deepest sense, is not arbitrariness. It is only possible to be truly free in light of the truth of our human condition, by living in the truth of who we are. As Psalm 103:15-18 teaches:
The life of mortals is like grass,
they flourish like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
But from everlasting to everlasting
the Lord’s love is with those who fear him,
and his righteousness with their children’s children—
with those who keep his covenant
and remember to obey his precepts.
If we truly look out on the earth and the heavens, how is it that we can suffer the illusion that we are the center of the universe? We are no more than a blade of grass, that flourishes in its season and then is gone. Our life is but a moment, but the world, and the Lord’s love, last forever. So, what is our place in that world? Does dominating and manipulating others change the truth of our own smallness? Although we are mortal and small, however, we are not insignificant. Yet that significance comes from knowing the truth of the call of God and being responsible for that call.
The great obstacle to that awareness and responsibility is our solipsism. We are not our thoughts and opinions. We can believe anything we want, but if what we believe is illusion and we base our lives on that, then we shall never really live. We may dominate others for a time; we may experience power and wealth; but we shall not even flourish as the blade of grass. If we are responsible to no one but ourselves, then we shall live and die in the despair of our own separation and loneliness. In the awe of God, we begin to see the world as it is and ourselves and our small but significant role of service in it. We live “life to the full” when we live it in accordance with the truth. Fear of the Lord is the appropriate fear that we might spend our years and never live truthfully. Our life is a unique call and a distinctive task of service to reality and to the world. We come and we go, and we have no power or control over that. It is in light of this truth of our own mortality that we long to be a servant of that love that is everlasting. The more we live in awareness of that love, the more that our very life becomes an awe-filled response to the truth of God’s world and of our place in it.
If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si, 11