Faith in Action

Do we really want a ‘Be-Happy’ theology instead of the old-time ‘Fear-of-God’ theology?

Brad Bloom
Brad Bloom

It pains me when the thunder and lightning from a storm strike as I watch my cherished dog shake, shiver and pant to the core of her being.

Lots of dogs are also thoroughly frightened in the same situation. I try all kinds of tactics to calm her down but to no avail. I look into her eyes and see the fear overtake her entirely. It looks like she is facing the final judgment as if God was about to take her life.

Dogs have a good sense about fear. Humans also get that fear-of-God sensation too, especially at times when our lives are threatened. Serving in combat or being placed on an operating table, for example.

Humans understand, just like dogs and other animals, that life is dangerous. Others may try to comfort us, but if that fear-of-God mindset has overtaken us, there is not much we can do in those moments to lessen the anxiety.

Is it true that religion itself these days has shied away from the fear-of-God theology in favor of a way of thinking that says religion is about a “Be-happy theology”? Some say that the old-time religion of looking at the fear of God is what turns people off to religion. New Age ideas and styles of worship focus exclusively on joy and feel-good experiences.

Yet, is that what life is all about? Is it simply the feel-good moment that religion should only offer us today?

For Jewish people, this coming week inaugurates the 10-day period beginning with the New Year, which we call Rosh Hashanah. Ten days later, we conclude this period of reflection and introspection with the Day of Atonement, in which God judges us for the sins we committed against each other and to God.

The idea that God judges us as to whether or not we will be rewarded or punished gets back to the traditional notion of the fear of God. We even call these 10 days the Days of Awe, but the literal translation is Days of Fear.

At the end of the Day of Atonement we believe that if we have made amends with our neighbor and God and, when appropriate, forgiven our neighbors, then God will renew us spiritually for the upcoming year.

The problem is when the unthinkable happens, like when you discover that your husband or wife is dying, or suddenly and unexpectedly does, in fact, pass away? Spouses learn quickly enough the meaning of the fear of God. They face the unthinkable, and that fear invades every limb and bone of their body. The thunder and lightning has struck and there is no way to reduce the unbridled fear that overtakes them.

I am not suggesting that we should believe in the idea that God actually sits on a throne on high and judges us. So many people these days reject this kind of God and prefer to focus on the comfort, healing and compassion sides of God. Yet, isn’t life more complicated than that?

There is that old adage, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Most of the major religions have a theology where God judges us and sends us to heaven for good actions and to the bad places for the sins we commit. Is that paradigm out of step with the way we live in the modern world?

If we are beyond that old-time religion idea of the fear of God, then are we out of step with the Bible too?

Look at how many Bible verses there are about the fear of God. If we take a second look, then, we see that the fear of God is not about only the physical sensation of fear, as if our life was at risk. Verses from the Bible abound in reminding us that this idea helps a person find wisdom and reject hate.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7.)

Job said, “And he said to man, ‘Behold the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.’ ” (Job 28:28.)

Humankind struggles with the idea of mortality. Our beloved dogs’ intuitions remind us about how fragile life is in the world. Is it possible that fear is just as much about the message that God wants us to take a good look at ourselves and at our moral compass?

I wish the entire Jewish community in the Lowcountry a Shana Tova, or a Happy New Year!