RonRolheiser,OMI

Fear of God as Wisdom

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Why don’t we preach hellfire anymore? That’s a question asked frequently today by a lot of sincere religious people who worry that too many churches and too many priests and ministers have gone soft on sin and are over-generous in speaking about God’s mercy. The belief here is that more people would come to church and more people would obey the commandments, particularly the sixth one, if we preached the raw truth about mortal sin, God’s wrath, and the danger of going to hell when we die. The truth will set you free, these folks assert, and the truth is that there is real sin and that there are real and eternal consequences for sin. The gate to heaven is narrow and the road to hell is wide. So why aren’t we preaching more about the dangers of hellfire?

What’s valid in this kind of reasoning is that preaching about mortal sin and hellfire can be effective. Threats work. I grew up subjected to this kind of preaching and readily admit that it had a real effect on my behavior. But that effect was ambivalent: On the positive side it left me scared enough before God and life itself to never stray very far morally or religiously. On the negative side, it also left me religiously and emotionally crippled in some deep ways. Simply stated, it’s hard to be intimate friends with a God who frightens you and it’s not good religiously or otherwise to be overly timid and afraid before life’s great energies. Fear of divine punishment and fear of hellfire, admittedly, can be effective as a motivator.

So why not preach fear? Because it’s wrong, pure and simple. Brainwashing and physical intimidation are also effective, but fear is not the proper fuel for love. You don’t enter a love relationship because you feel afraid or threatened. You enter a love relationship because you feel drawn there by love.

More importantly, preaching divine threat dishonors the God in whom we believe. The God whom Jesus incarnates and reveals is not a God who puts sincere, good-hearted people into hell against their will, on the basis of some human or moral lapse which in our moral or religious categories we deem to be a mortal sin. For example, I still hear this threat being preached sometimes in our churches: If you miss going to church on Sunday it’s a mortal sin and should you do that and die without confessing it you will go to hell.

What kind of God would underwrite this kind of a belief? What kind of God would not give sincere people a second-chance, a third one, and seventy-seven times seven more chances if they remain sincere?  What kind of God would say to a person in hell: “Sorry, but you knew the rules! You’re repentant now, but it’s too late. You had your chance!

A healthy theology of God demands that we stop teaching that hell can be a nasty surprise waiting for an essentially good person. The God we believe in as Christians is infinite understanding, infinite compassion, and infinite forgiveness. God’s love surpasses our own and if we, in our better moments, can see the goodness of a human heart despite its lapses and weaknesses, how much more so will God do this. We’ve nothing to fear from God.

Or, have we? Doesn’t scripture tell us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom? How does that square with not being afraid of God?

There are different kinds of fear, some healthy and others not. When scripture tells us that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, the kind fear it is talking about is not contingent upon feeling threatened or feeling anxious about being punished. That’s the kind of fear we feel before tyrants and bullies.  There is however a healthy fear that’s innate within the dynamics of love itself. This kind of fear is essentially proper reverence, that is, when we genuinely love someone we will fear being selfish, boorish, and disrespectful in that relationship. We will fear violating the sacred space within which intimacy occurs. Metaphorically we will sense we’re standing on holy ground and that we’d best have our shoes off before that sacred fire.

Scripture also tells us that when God appears in our lives, generally the first words we will hear are: “Don’t be afraid!” That’s because God is not a judgmental tyrant but a loving, creative, joy-filled energy and person. As Leon Bloy reminds us, joy is the most infallible indication of God’s presence.

The famous psychiatrist, Fritz Perls, was once asked by a young fundamentalist: “Have you been saved?’ His answer: “Saved? Hell no! I’m still trying to figure out how to be spent!” We honor God not by living in fear lest we offend him, but in spending the wonderful energy that God gives us to help life flourish. God is not a law to be obeyed, but a joyous energy within which to generatively spend ourselves.

The Real Tragedy of Sin 

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The real tragedy of sin is that often the one who is sinned against eventually becomes a sinner, inflicting on others what was first inflected upon him or her. There’s something perverse within us whereby when we are sinned against we tend to take in the sin, complete with the sickness from which it emanated, and then struggle not to act out in that same sick way. The ultimate triumph of sin is that first being sinned against, we often become sinners.

We see this, in an elementary form, in the effects that certain sadistic hazing rituals have on those who undergo them. From high school football teams to college sororities to certain schools of military training, we see sadistic hazing rituals used as forms of initiation. The interesting thing is that those who undergo them generally can’t wait for their turn to inflict them upon someone else. Having undergone some sadism something sadistic arises within them.

There’s an axiom within certain schools of psychology which submits that every abuser was first abused. Mostly that’s true. The bully was himself first bullied, the sadist was himself first victimized, and the bitter alienated outsider (whom in arrogance we label “a loser”) was himself first unfairly excluded. What produces an outsider? What produces a sadistic person? Indeed, what produces a mass killer? What must have happened to the heart of a man for him to put on military fatigues, take up an assault rifle, and begin to shoot helpless school children?

Mental illness, no doubt, is often the factor, but there are other factors too, most of which we don’t have the courage to honestly face. Our spontaneous judgment on the perpetrator of a mass shooting or terrorist bombing most naturally expresses itself this way: “I hope he fries in hell!” What’s wrong with that reaction is its failure to understand that this person was already frying in some private hell and this terrible acting-out is an attempt to get out of hell or at least to take as many people as he can to hell with him.  What perpetrators of violence mostly want to do is to ruin heaven for others since they themselves feel unfairly deprived of it. This isn’t everywhere true of course since mental illness and the mystery of human freedom also play in, but it’s true enough to challenge us towards a better understanding of why some people have bitter, sadistic hearts while others have gracious, loving ones. What shapes a heart? What makes someone bitter or gracious?

Sin and blessing shape a heart, the former deforming it and the latter healing it.  Sin, our own not less than anyone else’s, wounds others and shields us from having to own what’s sick inside us because we have now inflicted our sickness onto someone else where it works at making that person ill. Blessing does opposite. It relieves others of the sickness that was unfairly inflicted on them, helps turn their bitterness into graciousness, and soothes the very root of their wounds.

And so we need to stop classifying people as “winners” and “losers”, as if they alone were responsible for their success or failure. They aren’t. Not many Mother Teresas, I suspect, were traumatically abused as children.  Not many Saint Francises suffered debilitating ridicule as young children, were bullied on Facebook, or shamed for their appearance.  Cruelty and grace, as Leonard Cohen submits, both come upon us undeserved.  And then they imprint themselves into our psyches and even our bodies. How we carry ourselves, our bodily posture, how we radiate spiritually, our self-confidence, our shame, our big-heartedness, our pettiness, our ability to express love, our resistance of love, how much we bless and how much we curse, is very much contingent on how much we ourselves have been undeservedly blessed or cursed, that is, the various undeserved graces and cruelties we have undergone.

Admittedly, this is still colored by the mystery of human freedom. Some Mother Teresas do come from abusive backgrounds and some St. Francises did suffer cruelty and bullying as a child and yet became one-in-million wounded healers, turning the very sin against them into a powerful healing grace. Unfortunately, they’re the exception, not the rule, and their greatness, more than anything else, lies in that exact achievement.

There are many challenges for us in this: First, we must not let our emotions sway us into making the kind of judgements where we would like to see someone “fry in hell”. Second, we should be much less smug and arrogant about those whom we label as “losers”.  Next, we need to learn that perhaps the ultimate human and spiritual challenge is to not let what we suffer from the sins and failings of others turn us bitter so that we in turn begin to inflict that same sin onto others. Finally, and not least, understanding more deeply what’s undeserved in our lives should lead us to a deeper gratitude towards God and towards all who have so, undeservedly, loved and gifted us.

Reticence and Secrecy as Virtue

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In all healthy people there’s a natural reticence about revealing too much of themselves and a concomitant need to keep certain things secret. Too often we judge this as an unhealthy shyness or, worse, as hiding something bad. But reticence and secrecy can be as much virtue as fault because, as James Hillman puts it, when we’re healthy we will normally “show the piety of shame before the mystery of life.”

When are secrets healthy and when are they not? When is it healthy to “cast our pearl” before others and when is it not? This is often answered too simplistically on both sides.

No doubt secrets can be dangerous. From scripture, from spirituality in every tradition, from what’s best in psychology, and, not least, from the various “12-Step Programs” that today help so many people back to health, we learn that keeping secrets can be dangerous, that what’s dark, obsessive, and hidden within us has to be brought to light, confessed, shared with someone, and owned in openness or we can never be healthy.  Scripture tells us that the truth will set us free, that we will be healthy only if we confess our sins, and that our dark secrets will fester in us and ultimately corrupt us if we keep them hidden. Alcoholics Anonymous submits that we are as sick as our sickest secret. Psychology tells us that our psychic health depends upon our capacity to share our thoughts, feelings, and failings openly with others and that it’s dangerous to keep things bottled up inside ourselves. That’s right. That’s wise.

There are secrets that are wrongly kept, like the dark secrets we keep when we betray or the secrets a young child clutches to as an exercise in power. Such secrets fester in the soul and keep us wrongly apart. What’s hidden must be brought into the light. We should be wary of secrets.

But, as is the case with most everything else, there’s another side to this, a delicate balance that needs to be struck. Just as it can be bad to keep secrets, we can also be too loose in sharing ourselves. We can lack proper reticence. We can trivialize what’s precious inside us.  We can open ourselves in ways that takes away our mystery and makes us inept subjects for romance. We can lose our depth in ways that makes it difficult for us to be creative or to pray. We can lack “the piety of shame before the mystery of life.” We all need to keep some secrets.

Etymologically to keep a secret means to keep something apart from others. And we need to do that in healthy ways because a certain amount of honest privacy is necessary for us to nurture our individuality, for us to come to know our own souls. All of us need to keep some secrets, healthy secrets. What this does, apart from helping us know more deeply our individuality, is that secrets protect our mystery and depth by shielding them under a certain mystique, from which we can more richly offer our individuality to others.

We derive both the words mystery and mystic from the Greek word myein which is a word that’s used to describe what we are left looking at when a flower closes its petals or a person closes his or her eyelids. Something’s hidden then, something of beauty, of intelligence, of wit, of love. Its depths are partially closed off and so that individual flower or person takes on a certain mystique which triggers a desire within us to want to uncover those depths. Romance has its origins here, as does creativity, prayer, and contemplation. It’s no accident that when artists paint persons at prayer normally they are depicted with their eyelids closed. Our souls need to be protected from over-exposure. Just as our eyes need to be closed at times for sleep, so too our souls. They need time away from the maddening crowd, time alone with themselves, time to healthily deepen their individuality so as to make them richer for romance.

Some years ago in an American television sitcom, a mother issued this warning to her teenage daughter just as this young person was leaving for a party with friends: “Now remember your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit – not a public amusement park!”  Inside that wit, there’s wisdom. The mother’s warning is about properly guarding one’s body, but the body is connected to the soul and, like the body, the soul too shouldn’t be trivialized and become fodder for recreation.

Jesus warns us to not give to the dogs what’s sacred or throw pearls to swine. That’s strong talk, but what he’s warning us about merits strong language. Soul is a precious commodity that needs to be properly cherished and guarded. Soul is also a sacred commodity that needs to be accorded its proper reverence.  We protect that preciousness and sacredness when we confess openly are sick secrets and then properly guard our healthy ones.