Sunday, 18 September 2011

Why do we fear fear itself?

I heard at mass this morning in the city a sermon from a senior Australian priest that finally motivated me sufficiently to resume blogging at least temporarily (yep shouldn't have put the blog back up online even so as just to allow people to access older posts, I just can't resist the urge to rant!).

It was one of those sermons that probably aren't outright erroneous, but do their best to give that impression by omission, and thus have the potential to seriously mislead the congregation.  Or at least to feed those delusional reassurances we all tend to use to persuade ourselves not to worry about sin.

And it was especially disappointing because the Mass itself was very reverently said (unlike many masses in my parish), the congregation gave rather less of a tower of babel imitation in relation to the new missal texts than I've experienced at other churches/mass times in my geographical parish, and I have a lot of respect for how the priest concerned does his day job.

God's free love does not mean we are all saved!

The sermon concerned was about this week's Gospel in the Ordinary Form, the parable of the workers paid the same whether they worked all day or or even up to the last hour (Mt 20:1-16).  

The theme of the sermon was the gratuity of God's love.

The problem was the omission of any reference to the need to actually actually repent, confess and do penance in order to earn that one denarius of pay, whether earned for little or much work.  Instead, there was lots of emphasis on how God loves us all, regardless of our sins, regardless of our good works.

Well yes, but.

Confusing God's love with the free extra gift of salvation?

God, it is true, loves us all.  He wants us all to enjoy heaven. 

But we do actually need to repent from the sins Father listed in his sermon such as treating marriage as optional and living in sin instead, failing to attend mass, and so forth. 

If people guilty of those sins do repent and get to heaven, then of course, as the parable suggests, we should rejoice at God's generosity, not be aggrieved.

Yet while we may all earn that reward of salvation whether for little or much work, we can't just rely, as so many do today, on the idea that God is totally indifferent to what we actually do here and now.

God's love grants us the gift of life now.  It grants us the possibility - but not certainty - of eternal life.

But the fact that God loves us doesn't mean we can't incur temporal or eternal punishment, doesn't mean that God is not also justice: such a view is practical atheism.

And a sermon that omits to make this point strikes me at least as deeply problematic, as I pointed out to the priest concerned!

There is nothing wrong with holy fear

The sermon treated us to a little dissertation to the effect that liberals and conservatives alike blame Vatican II for the current state of the Church, but perhaps we should look elsewhere.

I agree.  To a large extent, 'Vatican II' is just a code word for a much bigger issue that has deeper and more roots that has little connection to the actual texts of the Council.  One of the most significant elements of this problem is the fundamental subversion of the faith by subtle redefinitions of key concepts that occurred over the course of the twentieth century in particular.

Like fear of God.

In the sermon we were told that fear of hell - and all those stories nuns used to tell children to terrify them into going to mass and so forth - is bad.  It is not the right motivation for doing the right thing, that rather we should act out of love of God.

To act from love alone is certainly an ideal we should strive for.  But there are surely some basic realities of human psychology that come into play here, psychological realities that have long been used by God and his Church to good effect, and the pertinent one here is the acceptance that while ideally we should act out of love, in reality we have to start somewhere, and fear is a perfectly acceptable, albeit imperfect motivator.

Long held, stock standard spiritual wisdom of the Church is that love of God, like any kind of love, is usually something that grows gradually, as we get to know the object of our affection.  We can only really get to know him when we start trying to do his will, and follow his commandments.  And we only start doing that, in most cases, because we fear the consequences if we don't!

St Benedict, for example, in his Rule, sets out a series of steps in humility through which we must progress.  Only then, he says, will we be able to act out of that perfect love that casts out fear:

"Having climbed all these steps of humility, therefore, the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out fear. And all those precepts which formerly he had not observed without fear, he will now begin to keep by reason of that love, without any effort, as though naturally and by habit. No longer will his motive be the fear of hell, but rather the love of Christ, good habit and delight in the virtues which the Lord will deign to show forth by the Holy Spirit in His servant now cleansed from vice and sin." (RB 7)

It is this understanding of human psychology that explains, for example, why the Government is putting ever more gory pictures on cigarette packages - because yes, ideally people shouldn't smoke because they love being in good health, because they don't want their secondhand smoke to hurt their children, and because they can make a rational decision to sacrifice some pleasure in the interests of the good.  But in practice, as has well and truly been demonstrated, many people need to be scared into action.  And that is just as true when it comes to sins in general as it is for the particular vice of smoking.

Holy fear in the Catholic tradition

When I raised with the priest concerned all of those Scriptural references to 'fear of the Lord', I was told that fear in Scripture means not fear of the consequences but awe.

But that is not how the Church has understood 'fear' down the ages.  Fear, it is true, can certainly include awe.  But consider for example St Benedict's discussion of humility in his Holy Rule:

"The first degree of humility, then, is that a person keep the fear of God before his eyes and beware of ever forgetting it. Let him be ever mindful of all that God has commanded; let his thoughts constantly recur to the hell-fire which will burn for their sins those who despise God, and to the life everlasting which is prepared for those who fear Him. Let him keep himself at every moment from sins and vices, whether of the mind, the tongue, the hands, the feet, or the self-will, and check also the desires of the flesh."

I could provide a long list of similar citations from the Fathers, Theologians and the Magisterium to support my case, but I won't bother.  Because I know that many priests today, including, I imagine, this morning's preacher, don't think we should bother relying on the tradition of the Church when we can instead look to the creative reinterpretations of modern theologians popularized and taken further by those such as Fr Ron Rolheiser, quoted at length this morning.  Because newer is of course always better...

So why do we fear fear itself?

When I raised these issues with the priest concerned, and pointed to the Church's teaching, affirmed by the Council of Trent, that attrition, or repentance out of fear of the consequences is sufficient, he responded that it was imperfect.

That is technically true of course, but surely imperfect is better than not at all!  The reality is that most of us are still imperfect, and will be all our lives.

It is true, as he suggested, that we can't know who is saved and who isn't.

But we do know that the way is narrow and hard.

We do know that unrepented mortal sin bars us from heaven.

The underlying problem, I would suggest is about priorities.

The traditional view of the Church is that its purpose, above all, is to get people to heaven.  That salvation comes through the Church, and being (officially) part of it is the safest means of reaching heaven.

If you believe this and truly love others, you will be concerned about their spiritual welfare first and foremost, want them to get to heaven.  And you will be prepared to use any and all any proper means that helps achieve that.

If that is your priority then you will act as swiftly and sympathetically as possible to assist in the reconciliation of those in schism (de facto or otherwise) - such as Archbishop Hepworth and the Traditional Anglican Communion, such as the SSPX - to be reconciled to the Church and move to full communion.

If, however, you think the Church is primarily about something else - such as achieving social justice or building a particular concept of community of people here and now (things that in my view should be regarded as the means to an end, not the end itself) - then holy fear seems a quaint, old-fashioned and inappropriate concept.

If you don't really believe in heaven or hell, don't want to believe that actions have supernatural consequences, best to avoid thinking of the reality of hell.  Because if you don't think about it, then you won't fear it...

Holy fear is perhaps something we all need to recover.  Surely better that than realizing too late that one has neither love nor fear.

We need to keep in mind the Scriptural injunction that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  It is not, it is true, the end of wisdom.  But personally, I think most of us, myself included, could do worse than listen to the advice of St Benedict and his 'little Rule for beginners'...


Sean said...

Please continue blogging Kate. Your site is full of information the media won't print. The post on the Hepworth saga explained the main issues quite clearly. I still think Xenophon should have kept his mouth shut, but I've got to the stage where I feel every allegation against the church is suspect, so I'm biased.
I have to admit I like the links as well.

Joshua said...

Kate, firstly, you write exceptionally well, but this piece has made me think more seriously about my own relationship with our Lord and the tendency for me to be very casual and not fearful enough of God, and as a result, not thinking seriously about my own eternal destiny. I personally needed you to write this piece so that I could read it and now act on it. Thanks you for taking the time and effort to write this.

Kate said...

I was writing to think it thrpugh and persuade myself as much as anything, Joshjua. I think it is very hard for even the most committed of us constantly exposed to the don't worry/just indulge mentality....

Nicodemus said...

Kate. I am pleased that you have [at least temporarily] resumed bloggng. I am clearly not the only one who has been enlightened and strengthened by your words. You may be doing more good than you know! Please keep it up [although that is me asking you to take up a burden that I am not--because I don't have your talents!]