The Fear of God

C.S. Lewis on the Numinous:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread. With the Uncanny one has reached the fringes of the Numinous. Now suppose that you were told simply “There is a mighty spirit in the room,” and believed it. Your feelings would then be even less like the mere fear of danger: but the disturbance would be profound. You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking—a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it—an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous.

~The Problem of Pain, p. 17

I haven’t found a passage of writing that captures this well the nuances of the fear of God in Scripture. The concept is often easily misunderstood, especially when divorced from passages like 1 John 4:18, and Romans 8:1.

Calvin argued that this sense of reverence is essential for prayer. The Psalmist tells us that God’s grace is accompanied by this kind of fear:

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,

O Lord, who could stand?

But with you is forgiveness, that you may be feared.

~Psalm 130:3-4

The Pulpit

Nor was the pulpit itself without a trace of the same sea-taste that had achieved the ladder and the picture. Its panelled front was in the likeness of a ship’s bluff bows, and the Holy Bible rested on a projecting piece of scroll work, fashioned after a ship’s fiddle-headed beak.

What could be more full of meaning?- for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.

 

~ Melville, Moby Dick

A Contrast

It’s the great mystery of human life that old grief passes gradually into quiet, tender joy. The mild serenity of age takes the place of the riotous blood of youth. I bless the rising sun each day, and, as before, my heart sings to meet it, but now I love even more its setting, its long slanting rays and the soft, tender, gentle memories that come with them, the dear images from the whole of my long, happy life-and over all the Divine Truth, softening, reconciling, forgiving! My life is ending, I know that well, but every day that is left me I feel how earthly life is in touch with a new infinite, unknown, but approaching life, the nearness of which sets my soul quivering with rapture, my mind glowing and my heart weeping with joy.

~ Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Book IV “The Russian Monk,” Chapter 1 “Father Zossima and His Visitors”

This paragraph is reminiscent of what the poet William Wordsworth would have called “sensations sweet, felt in the blood”. The blend of memory, grace, and glory rolled into the metaphor of life as a rising and setting sun captures both the poignancy and the “deep power of joy” Wordsworth wrote of in Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey… 

Seeing Into the Life of Things

Like Dostoevsky’s Father Zossima, Wordsworth wrote of the glory of nature, its power to subdue the heart, to summon memory- the sublime and blessed memories that lead us with their aching joys and dizzy raptures.

Wordsworth and Dostoevsky also give hope of an old age to come, accompanied by sober pleasures, elevated thoughts- an autumn characterized by a mature love of quietness and beauty. No longer swimming in the throes of thoughtless youth, we will celebrate “our cheerful faith: that life is full of blessings.” Serenely, we accept our setting sun, seeing the joy and peace of our souls sustaining our beloved through their portion of “solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief.”

But another influence clamors for attention. There are more ways to look at time, aging, and death. It rages and warns in a whisper. Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

A sobering contrast only the hubris of youth could ignore.

Literary Hedonism

One evening a month or so ago, my three oldest children were reading on the couch, each one in their own way. Maria, my second oldest, seven, was silently reading one of the Little House books to herself. In the middle of the couch sat Abraham, my oldest at nine years old. He was reading aloud one of the Hardy Boys books to Judah, five. Reading- aloud, silently, and by listening have been the trinity of my kid’s reading lives.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-11-10,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

I have been trying for most of my life to figure out reading. Before Rachel and I had children, we had aspirations for the kinds of educational goals that we thought would suit our children. These goals were as easy to discuss as ‘what would you do if you won the lottery,’ considering that we had no raw material to work from, no obstacles to weigh our dreams against. When we finally did have our firstborn son, we decided that above all else, we wanted our children to love and glorify God, and to love reading. We considered that a love of reading and learning would be conducive for properly shaping and equipping a young mind for the wide world and God’s purposes.

I obviously don’t know yet how many large directional mistakes we’ve made, but there are some things that have gone well. God has blessed our simple efforts to raise readers. Rachel and I wanted to expose their eyes and ears to the riches of literature, and we continued to raise our expectations just a bit higher than we thought them likely to attain.

Today, library trips are a regularly scheduled occasion. The children remind me of starving inmates awaiting daily rations. Entire series are greedily gobbled down before another trip can be arranged. Their enjoyment was something we could share together. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy to Abraham and Maria while they were three and four respectively. Since then, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed countless hours of shared literary experience. I can’t tell you how many Harry Potter jokes we’ve recounted to one another. Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, David Copperfield, and Narnia have provided worlds of imagination and shared culture to appreciate. Lewis, Kipling, Tolkien, Homer- our list of patrons goes ever on and on. We wanted to read with serendipity, a word that Alan Jacobs bequeathed to us that forever changed our reading habits.

So, we read for pleasure, for pure joy. Let us call it literary hedonism. If we find that we can enjoy a text that we had to work hard to appreciate, we are overjoyed for the pleasure of the thing. Lest concerns of pride arise, we pay homage to the author to receive and engage what he or she has to offer. We have nothing that we did not receive. It is all so exhilarating. I look over the lists of texts we’ve read with wonder- how many more will we share? We’ll enjoy the tales of arms and of men, of rings of power, and of the best and worst of times.