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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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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

faith and fear

A couple of interesting posts on faith and fear, from two different perspectives:

James McGrath at Exploring our Matrix says:

Fundamentalists increasingly take measures to try to insulate themselves, and in particular their children, from other viewpoints, and in particular discussions of topics related to science or the academic study of the Bible.
Honest investigation, on the other hand, involves faith. Faith that it is worth getting to know the Bible better, even if it turns out to be a far more human and far less perfect collection of writings than we had hoped.

You can read the whole post here.

Meanwhile, Ebonmuse at Daylight Atheism says:

I think there's ample reason to believe that many forms of religious belief are motivated by fear - not necessarily metaphysical fears about death or meaning, but more tangible phobias. Consider the evidence I cited, in posts like "Groundhog Day", that many who call themselves Christian consider legalized gay marriage the worst disaster that could possibly strike a society, worse than Hurricane Katrina, worse than 9/11.
I think atheists do offer an antidote to the irrational fears described above. Our solution is the simplest imaginable: the recognition that there are no gods, no demons, no hells, that there are no divine overseers standing over your shoulder with whips at the ready, that society will not be punished if we recognize the equal rights of gays, and that you will not be boiled in oil for eternity if you vote Democrat, have premarital sex, or learn about evolution in school.

You can read the whole post here.

To be honest, I think the ugliest thing about Christianity is the pervasiveness of preachers and apologists who try to scare people into the faith, and who seek to reduce their flocks' exposure to other viewpoints. But serious questioning, now that can lead in either of two directions: It can produce a deeper faith, or it can lead to the end of faith. I can understand why some people might retreat from the tough questions; nonetheless, that retreat is motivated by fear. It does no one any good to believe on those terms.

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