I have spent most of my Christian life in Protestant evangelical churches, and one thing that I can recall coming up over and over was the concept of the fear of God. Most people spoke of fearing God as a kind of reverence or respect for God’s position as God. Some simply settled for saying that God should be feared because God can throw you into hell. Neither of those seemed to answer all the questions I had about what it means to fear God. The Proverbs say that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom for example. Did that just mean that being afraid of God will help keep you from doing dumb things that might get you thrown into hell? Did it mean that a recognition of and submission to God’s authority will somehow make me into a sage?
It seemed to me that those answers to the question of fearing God just brought up more questions. If I’m afraid God will throw me into hell, then how can I ever approach God? That kind of fear would make me want to keep my distance, not get closer. A Protestant reply to that would be that I’m forgiven for my sins because of Jesus, so I can get near to God. But that just makes fearing God seem irrelevant. If my sins are forgiven, then why should I fear God, and if I shouldn’t fear God, then why do we still talk about it? And if fearing God is just about a reverent submission to God’s authority, that doesn’t really tell me anything about what I should do. How do I know I’ve understood what God wants? How do I submit if there seems to be no clear answer on what exactly that even means? There’s so many different interpretations. Which one do I submit to? How do I know the one I submit to is the same as submitting to God and not just some particular groups idea of what God wants us to do?
Maybe it’s just me, but those answers didn’t seem helpful at all, but the fear of God was definitely important to biblical authors. Then I ran into the works of David Bentley Hart. Hart often speaks of this moment of awakening to the complete strangeness of existence. A moment, that is usually very brief, where everything seems completely unnecessary; where the entirety of what is, or maybe just the shape of a flower, seems to have no answer to the question of “Why?” Things just simply are. Hart describes that moment (along with Plato) as the beginning of philosophy.
I think this moment might be a way to describe the fear of God. It is a moment of complete humility, a moment where one fully acknowledges their lack of understanding, where they must acknowledge that they have no answer. That, I think, is the fear of God. It is to look at all that is and realize, not just how little one knows, but that one actually knows nothing at all, and it verges on blasphemy to think one does know. To look at the infinite diversity of everything there is, and think on the Source, the why and the where of it all, and realize that one can go no further, except to contemplate on the beauty of existence, the shear grace, the pure gift of being, and relate this back to the source of existence, realizing that we can go no further than simple analogies.
God is like the Sun that gives light and warmth. God is like the rain that quenches a thirsty earth. God is like the thunder, and God is like still water. God is like the love between a husband and wife. God is like a person who gives of themselves to help others. Yet we have to say that these are mere glimpses of God. They are not fully descriptive of the infinite reality of God’s life giving, thirst quenching, world shaking, peaceful, loving and generous nature. To fear God is to know that God does not fit in any of our boxes. No single analogy says it all, and every analogy falls infinitely short.
Someone might jump in at this point to say that Jesus was the full revelation of God, and so we can definitely say we know what God is like. That would be a misunderstanding of what I mean. Yes, I believe that Jesus was the perfect revelation of God. I also believe that I can never comprehend Jesus. I can be his disciple, but I can never fix him to any simplistic definitions. I could, for example, try to define love based on the life and teaching of Jesus, and I may arrive at a definition that Jesus himself could approve of. That doesn’t however mean that I’ve now completely comprehended the love of God. I have glimpsed it, and I have learned something of it, and come to correct conclusions about it. Can I then say that I’ve exhausted the meaning of the love of God? That I completely comprehend it, and that I can tell you what God himself would consider to be most loving in any given situation? Like I said earlier, this line of thinking verges on the brink of blasphemy, if it hasn’t jumped off the cliff into absolute heresy. To say I have, or even could completely comprehend the love of God is to say that I could completely comprehend God himself, and that would diminish God to something small enough to fit in my finite and quite average brain.
It could be that the beginning of wisdom is what Plato recognized as the beginning of philosophy. It is that moment where we realize how much we don’t know, how much it doesn’t all make perfect sense, and so how infinitely far we are from understanding who God is, and yet how infinitely near God is to us in all we see and experience. To know and fear God is to pursue a life of unknowing; of experiencing God in the beauty of existence, in the infinite outpouring of the divine life into our finite world in a way that transcends empirical knowledge. It is a kind of knowing for which there are no words since it exceeds the capabilities of spoken languages. This is in a sense to live in the humility of ignorance. It is the bliss of participation in the life of God without ever thinking you have pinned him down. It is a falling into the infinite depths of God, which Dionysius describes as a darkness clearer than light. It is a knowing that exceeds all thought and expressible knowledge, yet it illuminates all of existence to make it clearer than ever before. It could be that the fear of prideful boasting in what one thinks one knows about God is the beginning of wisdom. The Psalms say that a fool says there is no God. Perhaps it could also be said that another kind of fool thinks they’ve figured God out. That kind of fool should learn to fear.