Wednesday, May 05, 2010

On Fearing God

My thinking has been so deeply influenced by the phenomenological hermeneutic of Paul Ricoeur that whenever I disagree with him, I do so with trepidation.

Nevertheless, I have always been uncomfortable with Ricoeur's interpretation of "the fear of God" as described in his book The Symbolism of Evil. The biblical text at issue is Jeremiah 32:40:
I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. (NIV)
Ricoeur's hermeneutic attempts to "re-feel" the full emotive force expressed by the word "fear." He does not reduce its literal evocation by reducing its affectivity to "awe" or "reverence" as many interpreters do. For him, fear has a positive function and exists in a dialectical relation with desire. Since fear cannot be completely cast out until the eschaton, in the world of time and history, it can only be transmuted. For Christians, the fear that God inspires is transformed from "fear of vengeance to love of order." Ricoeur goes on to explain that, "a whole part of human existence, the public part, cannot raise itself above the fear of punishment and . . . this fear is the indispensable means by which man advances toward a different order."

Ricoeur's interpretation betrays a predilection for giving weight to the corporate and communal perspective when viewing divine-human relations. Being a Baptist, I prefer to give weight to a more direct, intimate and personal perspective.

I would not treat this passage in isolation from previous verses (Jeremiah 31:28-33) where the "everlasting covenant" is described as a "new covenant" that is inscribed on individually transformed "hearts" and "minds." From this perspective, the "fear" associated with the everlasting covenant is not transmuted into a "love of order," but redirected toward the "law of love" that Jesus summarized by the command to love God with "all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" and to "love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 22:37-39 NIV)

When the covenant is understood as the "law of love," the fear that God inspires takes on a different character. It becomes the "fear of not loving enough" that Ricoeur himself recognizes as "the purest and worst of fears."

1 comment:

John King said...

Dr Prescott,

Thanks for this post. I always enjoy your "news" related posts; however, posts such as this that express a more personal perspective is more meaningful to me.