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Sunday, January 25, 2009

more on faith and fear

John Meunier has some thoughts related to my recent post faith and fear.

He tackles the issue of fear from a different angle:

I saw Frank Langella, the actor, interviewed by Charlie Rose the other day. One of the great realizations of his late life, he said, was coming to understand that his fear was and is the major drive of our lives. Fear is what causes us to not try new things. Fear is what chases us into all kinds of choices and talks us out of others. It is only when we cease to be driven by fear, that we learn to love, he said.

Langella was not talking at all about faith. His savior was psychological analysis. But his diagnosis seems spot on to me.

The hitch is that we often do not properly locate the source of our fear. We experience it as a vague and amorphous presence that seems to rise up from many places. But we never quite put our finger on it. We often try to “get over it” by just pressing forward or acting as if it were not there. If we pretend it is not there, maybe it will go away.

One Christian response to this condition is to name that fear. John Wesley called it fear of “the wrath to come.”

Yes, there is that kind of fear, the fear that we must confront and overcome if we are to grow. I know a lot of people who have been driven to God because of that intrinsic fear. For other people, the catalyst has been something else. (In my own case, it was a crushing sense of loneliness.) But I won't deny that fear motivates some people to seek God.

But there is another kind of fear, the kind that is not intrinsic but imposed. The kind that leads evangelists to say, "If you died tonight, do you know where you would spend eternity?" and takes any hint of uncertainty as an opportunity to press the issue and make the sale.

John makes the point that John Wesley used fear as a conversation starter:

Awaking people to their true state was his first goal.

Now I want to preface my next remarks by saying I could very well be wrong about this, and I don't mind anyone using the comments to try to change my mind.

In Wesley's day perhaps fear of the wrath of God might have been a productive way to begin a conversation. Today, not so much. Not when we are bombarded by advertising designed to convince us that something is missing in our lives, and that the product being advertised is the solution. In this atmosphere, salvation can easily become just another product for sale to cynical consumers. If Christianity is nothing more than eternal fire insurance, it's doomed. That's not a product people want to buy. (I don't have anything beyond anecdotal evidence to support this, but it seems to me that's a common view, especially among younger people today. Or else the people I know are naturally more cynical than most.)

But a vibrant Christian faith is more than just fire insurance. It is a transformative process, a journey of a lifetime and beyond. And as Christ transforms us and leads us into lives of service, we become equipped to help prepare the kingdom of God on earth. (Yes, the kingdom of God on earth. Don't we pray for this every week in the Lord's Prayer?) Questions beginning with, "If you died tonight..." shortchange the process, leaving us focused on ourselves and some heavenly reward. I don't think that can be the foundation of a mature faith.

What do you think?

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At 1/26/2009 11:24 AM, Blogger truevyne said...

Fear based evangelism has always gotten my hackles up. It's one thing if someone brings that question to the table, and quite another to introduce God as a tyrant who demands a statement along the lines of, "I'm a sinner and letting Jesus into my heart."
Grrr. So much for the need for the Holy Spirit. For me, that type of evangelism is tantamount to making babies out of wedlock...

At 1/27/2009 8:02 AM, OpenID johnmeunier said...

Bruce, thanks for finding my thoughts worth your own further reflection.

A couple of points. I don't really disagree with your basic move here.

I don't think Wesley would argue that he was selling eternal fire insurance. He is more or less the prototype for someone interested in moving people on a journey of faith and spiritual development.

I actually think Wesley would agree with your observation about modern society. I think he would say it applied in his day as well. The world is organized - and has been for a long time - around distracting us with ourselves. If we turn all the world into a bazaar to satisfy ourselves and our questions, then there is no room for God.

Wesley thought people had to be shaken out of that. He did not really preach "hellfire and damnation," but he wanted people to know that God cared deeply about what they did.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure you don't want to "preach fear." But I don't think we want to rule it out as something we discuss. If fear is at the bottom of the process that keeps people from God, then we should name it and bring it out into the open and affirm that, yes, there is a good reason to fear - if not hell, then at least a life lived in shadow and darkness instead of in the light of God's love.


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