THE SIN OF FEAR
And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. . . . And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not. And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was. Exod. 20. 18, 20, 21.
THERE is a tale told of a missionary in a dark comer of Africa where the men had a habit of filing their teeth to sharp points. He was hard at work trying to convert a native chief. Now the chief was very old, and the missionary was very Old Testament-his version of Christianity leaned heavily on thou-shalt-nots. The savage listened patiently.
"I do not understand," he said at last. "You tell me that I must not take my neighbour's wife."
"That's right," said the missionary.
"Or his ivory, or his oxen."
"And I must not dance the war dance and then ambush him on the trail and kill him."
"Absolutely right !"
"But I cannot do any of these things ! " said the savage regretfully. "I am too old. To be old and to be a Christian, they are the same thing ! "
Not a very funny story, perhaps; there is too bitter a point in the laugh. For, if all the truth were told, how many of us, in our hearts, share the cannibal's confusion?
How many thousands picture Christianity as something old, sapless, joyless, mumbling in the chimney corner and casting sour looks at the young people's fun? How many think of religion as the enemy of life and the flesh and the pleasures of the flesh; a foe to all love and all delight? How many unconsciously conceive of God as rather like the famous lady who said, "Find out what the baby's doing and make him stop"?
That is, how many of us both inside the Church and out have reduced the good news out of Nazareth to a list of thou-shaltnots?
Quite a few, doubtless, or we should not always be worrying and teasing at the Decalogue and making reinterpretations like this one. Nor should we have so many materialist writers who talk sneeringly of "religionists" and their out-dated superstitions which interfere so unscientifically with man's fine, free gratification of his natural instincts (a term which in this context usually means only one instinct). True enough, we are having a religious revival at the moment. We are crying out to be rescued from the deadly terrors of the world we have made. Peace of mind, peace of soul, peace of heart-our spiritual leaders promise them all, and we, for whom there is no peace, snatch at them in our bewilderment and despair. God, for many of us, is a life preserver flung to a drowning man.
And so he is, if you happen to be drowning. But you can't drown all the time. Sooner or later you have to start merely living again; you reach shore, splutter the water out of your lungs-and then what? Throw away the life preserver? If your interest in God is based upon fear rather than love, very likely. In such a case, you will be willing to pay very high for that life preserver as you go down for the third time; you will offer for it all your worldly treasures, your lusts and greeds and vanities and hates. But once safely on shore, you may be minded to throw it away and snatch your treasures back.
We are in danger of forgetting that God is not only a comfort but a joy. He is the source of all pleasures; he is fun and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him. Otherwise our Christianity is no better than the cannibal's. We shall try to be negatively good, and make a virtue of misery; plume ourselves on the rejection of delights for which we are too weak, measure our piety by the number of pleasures we prohibit. And others will react against us by rejecting religion altogether, probably announcing with pride that they are choosing "life" instead. Saint Augustine phrased the Christian law as: "Have charity and do what you like." The modem materialist often makes it simply "Do what you like," and then rushes off to ask his psychoanalyst why he no longer seems to like anything. Whereas the Pharisee, alas, tends to invert Augustine into : "Neither do what you like nor have charity."
Either way, this is not the good news but a counsel of despair and defeat, at best of escape. This is not the law of Moses but a meaningless law of fear. "Thou shalt not enjoy life" was never Christ's teaching; it is we who have brought our terror and impotence into religion, and then accused religion of bringing it to us. For we live in an age of fear, and we have infected our very faith with our paralysis, as certain previous ages infected it with their cruelty. No wonder the Decalogue makes us uncomfortable. We have turned it from a thrilling affirmation into a dull denial.
Yet there was the sound of trumpets in it once.
When Sinai flamed and thundered, the Children of Israel were indeed briefly afraid. Apparently nothing short of a volcano, however could intimidate them long enough to make them re-examine the code by which they lived. They were lusty and lustful men; they heartily enjoyed their hewings and smitings and woman stealings; and if they got killed on their forays-well, if you sat in the tent and worried about that you were as good as dead already. A safe life was unthinkable to them-nobody had ever told them that they were entitled to social security. Even the love.of God which was entering their hearts was no gentle thing, but the fierce love of a strong man for a stronger master.
The discovery that he was a God of justice must have given them a profound spiritual shock; it seemed, then, that there were things a man shouldn't enjoy!
Shock; and also exultation, for the Decalogue raised them above the trivial level of enjoyment, gave life a shape, a purpose, a plan. Though previous Eastern cultures had struggled upward temporarily to some knowledge that justice pleased the gods, it is on the thunderstone of the Tablets that Western civilization has built its house. If the house is tottering today, we can scarcely steady it by pulling the foundation out from under.
When civilization caught up with the fierce Israelites, it happened that they got the worst of it; for their settled life, crushed between greater nations, was less fortunate than their savage life had been. A conquering and rejoicing people declined into a conquered and wailing one. The sins of the animal -blind enjoyment of the present moment-were replaced by the sins of the devil: bitterness and pride, with a rejection of the present and a desperate attempt to play God by getting control of the future, in short, the sin of fear.
All this while the scribes and Pharisees were busy multiplying interpretations of the law. To keep the Sabbath holy, ultimately, meant obeying 1,521 different laws-for example, you had to remove your false teeth. To keep the name of God holy, you had to give up using it altogether; eventually its very syllables were forgotten. The frightened men of Christ's day, groaning under the intolerable social security of the Roman Peace, turned to their law and found only a tangle of prohibitions. Like us, they could obey it blindly or reject it blindly; but they could not possibly make sense of it. Something new had to be added for that. And, again like us, they did not want negative commandments at all. They wanted a positive law, to put some heart back into them. They could not get it from the scribes and Pharisees; nor, for that matter, from their neighbours the sceptical Greek philosophers and scientists; nor from the Roman theorists of law and government. Nor can we.
Negative, feeble, old-according to our critics, our Western culture is all this and worse. And indeed in a materialist society people are born old. Flesh-and-blood grandfathers and grandmothers are not our problem. True, we have more of them than we used to, so many that they are becoming a special medical study and a new political power. Yet, if all were well, that should be our gain. In a healthy nation Grandmother's smiling wisdom ought to balance Granddaughter's reckless and restless energy; Grandfather's serene detachment should offset the youthful passion of Grandson. But what if there is no deep youthful passion? What if Grandson, in the Army at twenty, complains over the loss of Mum's cooking and the tame desk job? What if Granddaughter, married a year or so, finds beating up cake batter too great a task for her slack muscles and fretful mind? What if the highest ambition of youth is to be safe?
Ecclesiastes has summed it up for us:
" . . the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them . . . Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way . . . and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail; because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets."
Fears shall be in the way, and desire shall fail. To the spiritually old, however young and strong their bodies, death seems lurking around every comer, and fear sits by their bedside and grins at them. Any minute now, the atom bomb will drop or the bacterial warfare begin, and we shall go to our long home; and since most of us are at least half materialists, we suspect that it will be a very long and dark home indeed. The frightened man cannot use his strength or his youth; he is in the position of the old African chief. What's the good of saying to him, "Thou shalt not"? He can't, anyway. What's the good of warning him against excessive enjoyment of this world? He would give everything he possesses for the power to enjoy this world genuinely, lightheartedly, fearlessly, for five minutes. And he can't.
Fear is so much our disease that we have forgotten it is a disease; we take it for granted as the normal basis of all human actions. The American UN delegate, with no sense of anything shameful in the confession, declares that fear is the root of Western foreign policy. The Army assumes that vast numbers of its casualties will be fear cases: there will be too many atheists in foxholes. Our advertising men base half their art of moneymaking upon fear. Our psychiatrists found an entire theory of our misbehaviour on it, telling us that the holdup killer shoots, not out of a desire for money, but out of fear of the slum; that the wayward girl picks up men, not out of sexual desire, but because she's afraid of her father; that the spoiled child throws tantrums, not because he can't have the toy he wants, but because he's terrified that Mother doesn't love him. Whether or not such interpretations are true, they reveal the mental state of the age that accepts them-an age when, for many, fears are in the way and desire has failed.
Not the whole picture, of course ! Perhaps the great majority of men go on as they always have-stumbling, cursing, but on the whole enjoying themselves. There are still healthy sinners among us, people who get so much out of this life that they are in danger of forgetting the next. There are still lovers who enjoy sexuality, soldiers who enjoy the adventure of fighting, and even, perhaps, rich men who enjoy money. Many are still protected by a fortunate illiteracy from the bombardment of fear propaganda which our books and magazines and newspapers are hurling at us. And there are always the saints, the men and women so close to God that no temporal disaster can shake their eternal joy.
But the articulate, the leaders of opinion, the policy makers, all those who set the tone of our society, seem for the most part to be frightened men. And how do frightened men deal with life?
They don't; they run away from it. The simplest among us flee openly, rushing from woman to woman, from drink to drink, from one empty amusement to another, wondering why we get so little contentment out of the eighty-miles-an-hour joy ride from unloved Here to unrewarding There. Some of us are prouder: we conceal our fear under hate, and bully subordinates or persecute political heretics or nag our children. Some of us are subtler-we deny fear altogether, pretend that terror is an illusion and safety through "science" is just around the comer. This last escape is often the way of the intellectuals, the world thinkers, the worriers among us. Often the worrier tries to persuade himself that his own death won't matter, as long as the nation or Western civilization, or the human race survives-only to become, mysteriously, ten times as worried as before; with each new headline he dies a thousand deaths.
The real trouble with the Ten Commandments today seems to be that we frequently manage to obey most of them without much difficulty, not from virtue but from lack of the animal energy to break them. To the African who was too old, to the workman who is too worried, the Ten Commandments seem at first glance irrelevant. We clamour like Christ's contemporaries for a new, a modern restatement, a positive interpretation in the terms of our own time : and we fail to see that we already have it. We have had it for two thousand years. The positive form of the Decalogue is in the Sermon on the Mount. And at the very core of it are the words: "Take . . . no thought for the morrow." That is, better translated : "Don't worry about the future "
The words of Jesus are timeless. What worked for other frightened men will work for us. But our society refuses to listen; this injunction about tomorrow is precisely the one thing we will not accept. Our whole economic system, our civilization, our way of life, is built on worrying about the future! Our life is based on fear; if we should ever grow brave, what on earth would become of us?
Even in church, we worry about world problems we cannot understand or master, and we waste our time and substance on committees whose announced purpose is to save the world and whose real purpose turns out to be getting some politician elected. Even in church, we are so shaky in our faith in the next world that we often talk as if the teachings and promises of our Lord were a mere convenience for putting this world to rights. And some of our preachers, with the best intentions, keep announcing plans for "bringing Jesus up to date."
Well, but mustn't the churches adapt Christianity to suit the ideas of our time? No, they must not. Our ideas are killing us spiritually. When your child swallows poison, you don't sit around thinking of ways to adapt his constitution to a poisonous diet. You give him an emetic.
Therefore the answer is still the old answer: "Perfect love casteth out far." We do not need a world in which there is nothing to be afraid of-in which obeying the law would be easy. Nor can we have such a world, for all our strivings; no matter how pleasant and safe we make the journey, the end of it is death. What we do need is to remember that we have been redeemed from death and the fear of death, and at rather a high price too. Our generation has never seen a man crucified except in sugary religious art; but it was not a sweet sight, and few of us would dare to have a real picture of a crucifixion on our bedroom walls. A crucified slave beside the Roman road screamed until his voice died and then hung, a filthy, festering clot of flies, sometimes for days-a living man whose hands and feet were swollen masses of gangrenous meat. That is what our Lord took upon himself. "That through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them, who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."
"Thou shalt not" is the beginning of wisdom. But the end of wisdom, the new law, is "Thou shalt." To be Christian is to be old? Not a bit of it. To be Christian is to be reborn, and free, and unafraid, and immortally young.
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