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Volume 44, Number 3 (Summer 2006)

The Rarity of the God-fearing Man

Russell Kirk

A Michigan farmer, some years ago, climbed to the roof of his silo, and there he painted, in great red letters that the Deity could see, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. . . .”

Without knowledge of fear, we cannot know order in personality or society. Fear forms an ineluctable part of the human condition. Fear lacking, hope and aspiration fail. To demand for mankind “freedom from fear,” as politically attainable, was a silly piece of demagogic sophistry. If, per impossible, fear were wiped altogether out of our lives, we would be desperately bored, yearning for old or new terrors; vegetating, we would cease to be human beings. A child’s fearful joy in stories of goblins, witches, and ghosts is a natural yearning after the challenge of the dreadful: raw head and bloody bones, in one form or another, the imagination demands. . . .

And there are things which rightfully we ought to fear, if we are to enjoy and dignity as men. When, in an age of smugness and softness, fear has been pushed temporarily into the dark corners of personality and society, then soon the gods of the copybook headings with fire and slaughter return. To fear to commit evil, and to hate what is abominable, is the mark of manliness. “They will never love where they ought to love,” Burke says, “who do not hate where they ought to hate.” It may be added that they will never dare when they ought to dare, who do not fear when they ought to fear.

Time was when there lay too heavy upon man that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. Soul-searching can sink into morbidity, and truly conscience can make cowards of us all. Scotland in the seventeenth century, for instance, tormented itself into a kind of spiritual hypochondria by an incessant melancholy fawning up upon the Lord’s favor. But no such age is ours.

Forgetting that there exists such a state as salutary dread, modern man has become spiritually foolhardy. His bravado, I suspect, will stand the test no better than ancient Pistol’s. He who admits no fear of God is really a post-Christian man; for at the heart of Judaism and Christianity lies a holy dread. And a good many people, outwardly and perhaps inwardly religious . . . today deny the reality of reverential fear, and thus are post-Christian without confessing it.

Christianity always was a scandal; and I rather think I began to fear God because I discovered that terror to be so unconventional, impractical, and off-color in our era. . . . Before I began to think much on the spiritual diseases of our century, I revolted against the disgusting smugness of modern America—particularly the complacency of professors and clergymen, the flabby clerisy of a sensate time. Once I found myself in a circle of scholars who were discussing solemnly the conditions necessary for arriving at scientific truth. Chiefly from a perverse impulse to shock the Academy of Lagado, perhaps, I muttered, “We have to begin with the dogma that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”

I succeeded in scandalizing. Some gentlemen and scholars took this for indecent levity; others, unable to convince themselves that anyone could mean this literally, groped for the presumptive allegorical or symbolical meaning behind my words. But two or three churchgoers in the gathering were not displeased. These were given to passing the collection plate and to looking upon the church as a means to social reform; incense, vestments, and the liturgy have their aesthetic charms, even among doctors of philosophy. Faintly pleased, yes, these latter professors, to hear the echo of fife and drum ecclesiastic; but also embarrassed at such radicalism. “Oh no, “ they murmured, “not the fear of God. You mean the love of God, don’t you?”

For them the word of Scriptures was no warrant, their Anglo-Catholicism notwithstanding. With Henry Ward Beecher, they were eager to declare that God is Love—though hardly a love which passes all understanding. Theirs was a thoroughly permissive God the Father, properly instructed by Freud. Looking upon their mild and diffident faces, I wondered how much trust I might put in such love as they knew. Their meekness was not that of Moses. Meek before Jehovah, Moses had no fear of Pharaoh; but these doctors of the schools, much at ease in Zion, were timid in the presence of a traffic policeman. Although convinced that God is too indulgent to punish much of anything, they were given to trembling before Caesar. Christian love is the willingness to sacrifice oneself; yet I would not have counted upon these gentlemen to adventure anything of consequence for my sake, nor even for those with greater claims upon them. I doubted whether the Lord would adventure much on their behalf. . . .

The great grim Love which makes Hell a part of the nature of things, my colleagues could not apprehend. And, lacking knowledge of that Love, at once compassionate and retributive, their sort may bring us presently to a terrestrial hell, which is the absence of God from the affairs of men. . . .

Every age portrays God in the image of its poetry and politics. In one century, God is an absolute monarch, exacting his due; in another century still an absolute sovereign, but a benevolent despot; again, perhaps a grand gentleman among aristocrats; at a different time, a democratic president, with an eye to the ballot box. It has been said that to many of our generation, God is a Republican and works in a bank; but this image is giving way, I think, to God as Chum—at worst, God as a playground supervisor. So much for the images. But in reality God does not alter. . . .

What raises up heroes and martyrs is the fear of God. Beside the terror of God’s judgment, the atrocities of the totalist tyrant are pinpricks. A God-intoxicated man, knowing that divine love and divine wrath are but different aspects of a unity, is sustained against the worst this world can do to him; while the goodnatured unambitious man, lacking religion, fearing no ultimate judgment, denying that he is made for eternity, has in him no iron to maintain order and justice and freedom.

Mere enlightened self-interest will submit to any strong evil. In one aspect or another, fear insists upon forcing itself into our lives. If the fear of God is obscured, then obsessive fear of suffering, poverty, and sickness will come to the front; or if a well-cushioned state keeps most of these worries at bay, then the tormenting neuroses of modern man, under the labels of “insecurity” and “anxiety” and “constitutional inferiority,” will be the dominant mode of fear. And these latter forms of fear are the more dismaying, for there are disciplines by which one may diminish one’s fear of God. But to remedy the casuses of fear from the troubles of our time is beyond the power of the ordinary individual; and to put the neuroses to sleep, supposing any belief in a transcendent order to be absent, there is only the chilly comfort of the analyst’s couch of the tranquillizing drug.

By fashionable philodoxies of our modern era, by our dominant system of education, by the tone of the serious and the popular press, by the assumptions of the politicians, by most of the sermons to the churchgoers, post-Christian man has been persuaded to do what man always has longed to do—that is, to forget the fear of the Lord. And with that fear have also departed his wisdom and his courage. Only a ferocious drunken farmer is unenlightened enough to affirm a primary tenet of religion in great red letters, and he does not know its meaning. Freedom from fear, if I read St. John aright, is one of the planks in the platform of the Antichrist. But that freedom is delusory and evanescent, and is purchased only at the cost of spiritual and political enslavement. In ends at Armageddon. So in our time, as Yeats saw,

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Lacking conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the captains and the kings yield to the fierce ideologues, the merciless adventurers, the charlatans and the metaphysically mad. And then, truly, when the stern and righteous God of fear and love has been denied, the Savage God lays down his new commandments.

Sincere God-fearing men, I believe, are now a scattered remnant. Yet as it was with Isaiah, so it may yet be with us, that disaster brings consciousness of that stubborn remnant and brings, too, a renewed knowledge of the source of wisdom. Truth and hardihood may find a lodging in some modern hearts when the new schoolmen and the parsons, or some of them, are brought to confess that it is a terrible thing to be delivered into the hands of the living God. . . .

Posted: March 20, 2007 in From Russell Kirk.

By 'the Permanent Things' [T. S. Eliot] meant those elements in the human condition that give us our nature, without which we are as the beasts that perish. They work upon us all in the sense that both they and we are bound up in that continuity of belief and institution called the great mysterious incorporation of the human race.

Russell Kirk

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