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Mortal Fear? 6 March 2017

Posted by Dr Moose in Faith, Lent, Life, Ponderings, Theology.
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screamAs you may have noticed by now in my ramble through Lent, I set great store on looking at what appears first in my mind when confronted by the given word for the day. If it seems like an excuse to avoid crafting a long essay then that may well be true, of course. Take today’s word, four simple letters with a power far beyond their length, fear.

My first thought?

Not the most recent Marillion album, which, to my shame I have still yet to buy or hear.

Not thoughts about what I might fear, or the popularity of fear (and more specifically horror) within entertainment.

Not even a faith-based response, whether related to the concept of the the awe-inspiring vision of God and the quality of the “fear of the Lord”, or a Christian approach where “perfect love drives out all fear” or even Jesus encouragement to those around him to not be afraid.

Instead, what popped into my head was something that goes back further than my faith, the words of the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

dune-coverInteresting how things stick in the mind, isn’t it? I read Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) while still at school. I think in what we now call year 7, but it might have been a year or two later. I remember another boy at school was reading it and I was drawn in by the cover. It’s probably the earliest truly adult sci-fi that I read, after Ben Bova’s The Duelling Machine and some early Robert Heinlein (such as Space Cadet, Between Planets, Revolt in 2100)

The ‘litany’ is one of those things that I know other members of my gaming friends know well enough to quote, at least in part; a mark of identification, of membership. It is, however, a secular response to the problem and challenge of fear, albeit a good one. It is a rational statement, a self-command to be steadfast, ‘I must not fear’. It’s interesting to contrast this fictional approach to dealing with fear with the Christian one that sprang to my mind, from chapter 4 of the First Letter of John, in the New Testament. The most salient part runs thus:

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

John is dealing with a specific facet of fear, rather than fear in general, yet it’s interesting to be reminded about the context, the fear of judgement, of what happens after death in the encounter with God as judge. (It’s also reminded me about how much things are quoted out of context, even in Church of England liturgy, but that’s for another time!). Herbert’s fiction encourages a steeling of the will, the personal responsibility and call to rational behaviour. John instead calls the Christian not to will, but to the recognition of divine empowerment by the Holy Spirit. It’s a result of sanctification, growth in faith towards holiness, after the pattern of God, rather than an action.

Lent, among other things, serves to remind us of our mortality as part of the preparation for the Passion of Christ, his death so that the sting of ours is drawn, curtailed. In the Resurrection we are encouraged to see that ultimate reality, our mortality, transformed, unmasked. Rationally I know that fear is a pointless response to my mortality. There is nothing that I can do about it (and yet the sci-fi fan and gamer in me thinks of all the ways fiction, entertainment, even science, posits to avoid it). I have no memory of any experience before this earthly existence, so why should I worry about after? If my faith speaks true, I have nothing to worry about. And if not, well, I will take comfort knowing that I live ab life that makes a positive difference for others, and I won’t know anything else after. But for all that I try not to think too much about it. It is deeply disturbing, this known unknown that lies ahead. Faith claims and promises an existence that continues beyond the flesh (backed up by the fact of the Resurrection). The secular and rational does not. Here is the classic ‘already-not yet’ of Christian faith and eschatology versus what we see. Scripture and Tradition, if you like, face off against Reason and Experience. None have returned to tell the tale, says the secular, therefore there is nothing beyond. Yes they have, says faith. But we know that’s impossible, comes the retort… and so on and so on.

But at this point I fear that I’m running out of steam! Perhaps the best question to leave with is not so much what I, we, fear, but how we respond to it? With faith? With determination? Or in the paralysis that solves nothing, and sees no way forward?

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