The last of the sanctifying gifts given in the sacrament of confirmation is the fear of the Lord. It’s a gift that, these days, often tends to inspire, well, fear. And not the good kind.
“There’s a good kind of fear?” asks the average postmodern.
Yep — and there’s a bad kind, too. And the odds are pretty good that when it comes to fear and God, most people, including an awful lot of believers, are imagining God wants us to live in the bad kind of fear.
The bad kind of fear is what the Catholic Tradition calls “servile fear.” It is the fear a dog has of its master or, more precisely, that a slave has of his master. It is also the fear that the average atheist critic of Christianity posits of God.
So, for instance, Christopher Hitchens famously described God as being something like a cosmic psychopathic dictator who is ludicrously desperate for humans to worship him and who capriciously punishes those who fail to stroke his ego.
This picture of the fear of the Lord comes up again and again in atheist writings: the God who angrily demands us to cower in terror before his inscrutable power. In this reckoning of things, he is something like a Marvel Comic hero with a bad temper and serious relationship issues who needs us to love him and whose only response when we fail to do so is to hurl lightning bolts.
He is also, in such a reckoning of things, always in competition with us for all the psychological and emotional oxygen in the room. And flourishing on our part means diminution on his part. Like a needy narcissistic parent who feels threatened by his teenager’s growing independence, such a God can only shout at us to shut up and not challenge or question him.
At the end of the day, it’s him or us — and atheists rather understandably choose “us” over such a sick vision of God.
Interestingly, Pope John Paul II diagnosed the issue this way: “Original sin attempts ... to abolish fatherhood ... leaving man only with a sense of the master/slave relationship.”
In other words, the paradox of the atheist who denounces God as a slave master is that this entire vision of God does not really rely on a cool and rational assessment that there is insufficient evidence for his existence, but on a hot and angry resentment that he is not Father. In such a universe, we have only two choices — kill or be killed, and the atheist chooses to kill God rather than be his slave. In a word, he resents servile fear.
The tragic thing is that many an atheist begins as a Christian in a family or a community where God is presented as a God of servile fear. There can be various reasons for this, such as scrupulosity or a notion of God as primarily caring about rules and regulations or a vision of God that sees him as principally waiting for us to slip so he can punish us — or any number of other psychological or theological reasons.
But what it all comes down to is a picture of God not as a loving Father who is with us, but as a cold or even vindictive enemy who is against us. And, indeed, such a picture can even come to be clung to as the high and hard “truth” of the Gospel in such a way that any suggestion that God is anything recognizably like “love” in our human experience is sneered at as “kumbaya Catholicism.”
But the reality is that this is not what the Church means by the fear of the Lord. And the proof is simple: It is not how Jesus saw his Father. Of which, more next time.
Mark Shea is a Register blogger and columnist.
The series consists of the Introduction;