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Of Fear In Religion

THE point is often discussed whether the comparative absence from the modern pulpit of those appeals to fear characteristic of the earlier evangelism has not militated against its power. The question here opened is one that has to be faced afresh by this generation. Under the reaction caused by the crudities and falsities connected with earlier presentations of judgment and punishment there has been a disposition to give the whole subject a wide berth. But this can never be a permanent attitude. The Church, as trustee of the human spiritual interests, cannot afford to be in two minds on the question, still less to have no mind at all. And there is no reason for such a position The Christian consciousness, in its fuller development, has attained to a view of God, the soul and the world sufficiently precise to enable it to pronounce here with perfect clearness

The preacher of to-day, awake to the spiritual revelation that is going on around him, should have no difficulty and no hesitancy about the place he assigns to fear as one of the religious working forces.

In endeavouring to ascertain what that place is, it may be well to begin with a glance backward. Man's earliest impressions of religion carried with them undoubtedly a large element of terror. Timor fecit Deos, "fear made the Gods," says Statius, and the statement has its truth. The sense that he was in the hands of vast unknown powers, which might at any time become fatally hostile to him, was the impression on the savage which first drove him to prayer and sacrifice. The gleam of the lightning, the roar of the thunder, were to him certain indications of supernal wrath. In religion terror came first and love last. Every-where in the early world, as in the primitive races which represent it to-day, the feeling seems to have been that man's fate was in the hands of hostile rather than benevolent powers, and that his pressing business was to placate them, or protect himself from them. The Dyaks of today, after an illness, change their names so that the demon who sent it may not recognise them and continue his persecutions. Modern anthropology is full of similar illustrations. The latter Pagan philosophy both of Greece and Rome reached what it conceived to be its highest achievement in ridding the mind of these fears. Lucian turns them into a jest ; while perhaps the best quoted line in all Roman literature describes "the happy man" as " he who could put all fears and inexorable fate under his feet."

But the element of fear which classic philosophy sought to eliminate came back into the world through Christianity. The New Testament does not hesitate to strike this note. What it had in view in so doing we will discuss later. Nowhere, however, did the primitive Church conception suffer more from that "secondary Christianity," to use Harnack's expressive phrase, which eventually flooded Christendom with the old Paganism under a new name, than in the later ecclesiastical use of terror. For long centuries the prevailing conception of the spiritual powers was demonic. God was demonic as well as Satan. He was taught as capable of inflicting endless physical tortures on little children, on beings powerless to resist, and of using the Devil and his angels as willing henchmen in the business. It is a symptom of the essential healthiness of the normal mind that at heart the people never believed in these horrors. Anyone who reads the old mystery-plays of the Middle Ages, in which the traditional hell, with its devils, was made the subject of the coarsest burlesque, must feel that there was no sense of reality here either to terrify or restrain. And this revolt steadily grew. Rabelais, who represented one large note of the Renaissance, treats hell quite in the manner of Lucian. The lesson of history here should surely suffice. It shows that appeals to fear of this type, whether under a pagan or a Christian name, lead only to cynicism and unbelief.

Apart from history the Christian consciousness, where it is allowed full play, makes it for ever impossible to use the medieval conception of hell as an appeal to fear. What forbids it is the New Testament conception of God. The supreme Gospel offered there to man is that God is Love. But if God is Love anywhere He is Love everywhere, as much in the place called hell as in the place called heaven ; as much the moment after a man's death as the moment before it. To imagine it possible that because the breath is out of a man's body the Providence which hitherto has cherished him should suddenly become his torturer, with mocking fiends for executioners, is as reasonable as to suppose that a mother, because her child has fallen asleep, should straightway cease to be a mother and change into a murderess. The heart, which Schleiermacher says is the true theologian, will not permit such conclusions as these.

But what of the New Testament appeal to fear ? Is not the book full of warnings ; is not hell in its list of contents ; and have not those preachers and those Churches been most successful who have most insisted on this side of its teaching P If we answer these questions in the affirmative, as we find ourselves compelled to do, where is the reconciliation between such a position and those others we have just been urging ? It is well that such demands are made on us, for they render it impossible that we should remain indifferent or negative. They compel us to a solution.

And the solution is not, after all, far to seek. The Christian appeal to fear finds its explanation, not in the vindictive character of God, but in the stupendous possibilities, up or down, of the human soul. What science is at length tardily recognising has lain revealed, all these centuries, upon the pages of the New Testament that man essentially is spirit; that he belongs to an unseen order, and that he plays a part there in which infinite issues are involved. The insistant warning note of the Gospel is that man is making or marring himself ; that it is an immense and wondrous self he is making or marring ; and that the process is going on now. Heaven and hell are truly in this business, for, as said the old Persian poet :

Behold, myself am heaven and hell.

The one is the zenith of our possible spiritual fortunes, as the other is the nadir. To-day we are weaving the structure we are henceforth to inhabit. The profound speculations of Ulrici in his Leib und Seele, where he conceives the thoughts, volitions and actions proceeding from our daily inner life as constructing the spiritual body of the future, are entirely in a line with the genius 'both of modern Science and of primitive Christianity. Surely there is ground here for the most urgent and compelling appeal that one man can make to another ; ground for utmost awe and fear lest our folly should baulk these possibilities; lest our course should be towards blindness instead of to the heavenly vision ; down deathwards instead of up to the ever fuller life !

Mingled with this element of the Christian fear is the dread of offending God. We have, it is hoped, outgrown that precious piece of theological casuistry which argued that man's sin, because against an infinite Being, was therefore infinite, and demanded an infinite punishment. It was forgotten, surely, in this syllogism that an infinite God would have an infinite capacity of forgiveness. The theologians here had got hold of infinity by the wrong end. What holds the enlightened conscience of to-day is not a consideration of that kind, but the thought of the Love which it sins against, and the intimacy with the Holiest against which sin is the bar. We cannot bear the thought of that Heart being smitten with our ingratitude, of that Face turned away in grief from our shortcoming. Jean Ingelow has put with unsurpassable force this side of the Christian fear :

Come, lest this heart should, cold and cast away,
Die ere the Guest adored she entertain ;
Lest eyes that never saw Thine earthly day
Should miss Thy heavenly reign.

Such fear will also react on our whole conduct towards others. Everywhere around us we see spiritual destinies in the making, souls on the upward or the downward way. It will be impossible, holding such convictions, for us to be indifferent towards them. Rather will the Christian fear in us work as a Divine solicitude for their inner welfare, impelling us to such courses of life as shall be for their help and not their hindrance. And thus fear, which, as we have seen, entered as first and lowest element into the religious concept, comes out, transmuted by love, as its last and highest.

( Originally Published 1903 )

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