Surely it is time to get beyond extolling a god who, above all else, has to be feared. But coming to terms with this kind of deity has a long history, and letting go is not easy.
In ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome, religion rarely rose above a sense of apprehensiveness toward the sacred powers believed to control human destiny. In a word, the Holy was something to be appeased more than loved.
Israel’s efforts to offer an alternative frequently faltered. The God she worshipped was too often that jealous god who condemns to the third and fourth generation the children of all who disrespect him (Exodus 20:5). This was the Lord toward whom fear, wrongly understood, was thought to be the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9:10).
And much of the history of both Christianity and Islam is the history of badly handling the terror of being found wanting in the eyes of such a god. Both religions all too easily displace it onto people declared to be hated by God even more than he hates their oppressors. Today’s ISIS tirades, along with their Western anti-Muslim counterparts, are only the latest chapters in sordid stories of spiritual derangement.
Fearing God is most typically associated with awareness of wrongdoing and anticipation of punishment. What makes it rise to the level of terror is the degree of the guilt feelings which accompany acknowledging the wrongdoing. When the guilt and/or the fear reach intolerable levels, the result is usually some form of spiritual flagellation, either of oneself or of others upon whom one’s own defects are projected.
But the Wisdom figure of the Book of Proverbs spoke of the fear of God in very different terms than these. The words cited above are only half of the text. The second half was this: … and knowledge of the Most Holy One is understanding. Understanding. Not terror, not guilt, not hate, but rather compassion, hope, and a sense of universal fellowship — religion at its best and not its worst.
Among people of wisdom, the fear of God is a profound acknowledgment of and respect for the fundamental difference between God and human beings — all human beings — in the order of Being and Value. It is a sense of profound awe in God’s presence. And of relief that the world’s future does not depend on only the likes of us.