A Michigan farmer, some years ago, climbed to the roof of
his silo, and there he painted, in great red letters that
the Deity could see, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning
of wisdom. . . .”
Without knowledge of fear, we cannot know order in personality
or society. Fear forms an ineluctable part of the human condition.
Fear lacking, hope and aspiration fail. To demand for mankind “freedom
from fear,” as politically attainable, was a silly
piece of demagogic sophistry. If, per impossible, fear
were wiped altogether out of our lives, we would be desperately
bored, yearning for old or new terrors; vegetating, we would
cease to be human beings. A child’s fearful joy in
stories of goblins, witches, and ghosts is a natural yearning
after the challenge of the dreadful: raw head and bloody
bones, in one form or another, the imagination demands. .
And there are things which rightfully we ought to fear,
if we are to enjoy and dignity as men. When, in an age of
smugness and softness, fear has been pushed temporarily into
the dark corners of personality and society, then soon the
gods of the copybook headings with fire and slaughter return.
To fear to commit evil, and to hate what is abominable, is
the mark of manliness. “They will never love where
they ought to love,” Burke says, “who do not
hate where they ought to hate.” It may be added that
they will never dare when they ought to dare, who do not
fear when they ought to fear.
Time was when there lay too heavy upon manthat fear of
the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. Soul-searching
can sink into morbidity, and truly conscience can make cowards
of us all. Scotland in the seventeenth century, for instance,
tormented itself into a kind of spiritual hypochondria by
an incessant melancholy fawning up upon the Lord’s
favor. But no such age is ours.
Forgetting that there exists such a state as salutary dread,
modern man has become spiritually foolhardy. His bravado,
I suspect, will stand the test no better than ancient Pistol’s.
He who admits no fear of God is really a post-Christian man;
for at the heart of Judaism and Christianity lies a holy
dread. And a good many people, outwardly and perhaps inwardly
religious . . . today deny the reality of reverential fear,
and thus are post-Christian without confessing it.
Christianity always was a scandal; and I rather think I
began to fear God because I discovered that terror to be
so unconventional, impractical, and off-color in our era.
. . . Before I began to think much on the spiritual diseases
of our century, I revolted against the disgusting smugness
of modern America—particularly the complacency of professors
and clergymen, the flabby clerisy of a sensate time. Once
I found myself in a circle of scholars who were discussing
solemnly the conditions necessary for arriving at scientific
truth. Chiefly from a perverse impulse to shock the Academy
of Lagado, perhaps, I muttered, “We have to begin with
the dogma that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”
I succeeded in scandalizing. Some gentlemen and scholars
took this for indecent levity; others, unable to convince
themselves that anyone could mean this literally, groped
for thepresumptive allegorical or symbolical meaning behind
my words. But two or three churchgoers in the gathering were
not displeased. These were given to passing the collection
plate and to looking upon the church as a means to social
reform; incense, vestments, and the liturgy have their aesthetic
charms, even among doctors of philosophy. Faintly pleased,
yes, these latter professors, to hear the echo of fife and
drum ecclesiastic; but also embarrassed at such radicalism. “Oh
no, “ they murmured, “not the fear of
God. You mean the love of God, don’t you?”
For them the word of Scriptures was no warrant, their Anglo-Catholicism
notwithstanding. With Henry Ward Beecher, they were eager
to declare that God is Love—though hardly a love which
passes all understanding. Theirs was a thoroughly permissive
God the Father, properly instructed by Freud. Looking upon
their mild and diffident faces, I wondered how much trust
I might put in such love as they knew. Their meekness was
not that of Moses. Meek before Jehovah, Moses had no fear
of Pharaoh; but these doctors of the schools, much at ease
in Zion, were timid in the presence of a traffic policeman.
Although convinced that God is too indulgent to punish much
of anything, they were given to trembling before Caesar.
Christian love is the willingness to sacrifice oneself; yet
I would not have counted upon these gentlemen to adventure
anything of consequence for my sake, nor even for those with
greater claims upon them. I doubted whether the Lord would
adventure much on their behalf. . . .
The great grim Love which makes Hell a part of the nature
of things, my colleagues could not apprehend. And, lacking
knowledge of that Love, at once compassionate and retributive,
their sort may bring us presently to a terrestrial hell,
which is the absence of God from the affairs of men. . .
Every age portrays God in the image of its poetry and politics.
In one century, God is an absolute monarch, exacting his
due; in another century still an absolute sovereign, but
a benevolent despot; again, perhaps a grand gentleman among
aristocrats; at a different time, a democratic president,
with an eye to the ballot box. It has been said that to many
of our generation, God is a Republican and works in a bank;
but this image is giving way, I think, to God as Chum—at
worst, God as a playground supervisor. So much for the images.
But in reality God does not alter. . . .
What raises up heroes and martyrs is the fear of God. Beside
the terror of God’s judgment, the atrocities of the
totalist tyrant are pinpricks. A God-intoxicated man, knowing
that divine love and divine wrath are but different aspects
of a unity, is sustained against the worst this world can
do to him; while the goodnatured unambitious man, lacking
religion, fearing no ultimate judgment, denying that he is
made for eternity, has in him no iron to maintain order and
justice and freedom.
Mere enlightened self-interest will submit to any strong
evil. In one aspect or another, fear insists upon forcing
itself into our lives. If the fear of God is obscured, then
obsessive fear of suffering, poverty, and sickness will come
to the front; or if a well-cushioned state keeps most of
these worries at bay, then the tormenting neuroses of modern
man, under the labels of “insecurity” and “anxiety” and “constitutional
inferiority,” will be the dominant mode of fear. And
these latter forms of fear are the more dismaying, for there
are disciplines by which one may diminish one’s fear
of God. But to remedy the casuses of fear from the troubles
of our time is beyond the power of the ordinary individual;
and to put the neuroses to sleep, supposing any belief in
a transcendent order to be absent, there is only the chilly
comfort of the analyst’s couch of the tranquillizing
By fashionable philodoxies of our modern era, by our dominant
system of education, by the tone of the serious and the popular
press, by the assumptions of the politicians, by most of
the sermons to the churchgoers, post-Christian man has been
persuaded to do what man always has longed to do—that
is, to forget the fear of the Lord. And with that fear have
also departed his wisdom and his courage. Only a ferocious
drunken farmer is unenlightened enough to affirm a primary
tenet of religion in great red letters, and he does not know
its meaning. Freedom from fear, if I read St. John aright,
is one of the planks in the platform of the Antichrist. But
that freedom is delusory and evanescent, and is purchased
only at the cost of spiritual and political enslavement.
In ends at Armageddon. So in our time, as Yeats saw,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed,
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction,
while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Lacking conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning
of wisdom, the captains and the kings yield to the fierce
ideologues, the merciless adventurers, the charlatans and
the metaphysically mad. And then, truly, when the stern and
righteous God of fear and love has been denied, the Savage
God lays down his new commandments.
Sincere God-fearing men, I believe, are now a scattered
remnant. Yet as it was with Isaiah, so it may yet be with
us, that disaster brings consciousness of that stubborn remnant
and brings, too, a renewed knowledge of the source of wisdom.
Truth and hardihood may find a lodging in some modern hearts
when the new schoolmen and the parsons, or some of them,
are brought to confess that it is a terrible thing to be
delivered into the hands of the living God. . . .