On Fear and Sacred Terror

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Since a few weeks ago we have been regularly posting a liturgical calendar (with Episcopal readings, collects and information about major church festivals) on the website of the Polish Episcopal Network. Our friend from Edinburgh who prepares it, Krystyna Retecka, noticed that it is asked in one of the collects for the upcoming week that we “may live in your fear.” In her opinion (which we share, as can be seen), the term “fear of God” can give rise to so many misunderstandings that it is worthwhile to have a closer look at it. We would like to use to this aim a fragment of The Destiny of Man by Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), the Russian thinker whom we often quote on our blog.

Fear experienced by the creature is a consequence of original sin and of separation from God. Fear has frequently been a determining factor in religious beliefs, philosophical theories, social customs and institutions. Fear is the basis of our sinful life and penetrates into the loftiest spiritual regions, poisoning the moral and the religious life. It is essential to dis­tinguish between fear and terror or anguish. Roughly speaking this corresponds to the distinction which Kierkegaard draws between Furcht and Angst and partly to Heidegger’s distinction between Sorge and Angst. Fear is the state of the shuddering, trembling, fallen creature on the low plane of existence, threatened with dangers on all sides. Fear is the ex­pectation of helpless suffering, illness, poverty, blows, privations, attacks of enemies who may take away all that a man has and his very life. The experience of fear has no reference to the heights of being which man longs to attain and in separation from which he suffers. In the state of fear man generally forgets all about the heights and is quite ready to live on the low-lying plain so long as he is safe from dangers, privations and suffer­ings. Fear is opportunistic, and in a state of acute fear a person will agree to anything. Fear humiliates man instead of exalting him. Primitive humanity was possessed by fear, terror anticus – the fear of chaos and of the unknown forces of nature that rendered man helpless, the fear of spirits and demons and gods and magicians and kings who had magic power. Ancient man fought against fear by means of magic and totemic beliefs; he sought protectors and magic formulae which give power over the gods themselves. Fear is the most ancient of man’s affective states; it accom­panies his very birth and is always present in the subconscious layer of human nature. Magic is a means of acquiring power and combating dangers and fears, but at the same time it is itself a source of them. Man is afraid of magic powers and seeks protection from them first in religion and then in science. The first emotion that Adam felt after the Fall must have been fear. Absence of fear is a feature of the life of Paradise. And the coming of the Kingdom of God is the final victory over fear—the fear both of life and of death. Religion means struggle against this terror anticus and liberation from it. But fear penetrates into religious beliefs and distorts them. Religion is the relation of sinful humanity to God, and since sinful humanity is dominated by fear, religious beliefs are per­meated with the fear of God or of the gods. Man is afraid not only of chaos but of God also. Religion creates innumerable taboos, and man stands in fear and trembling of their possible violation. Superstitions are shadows of beliefs and are a sign of fear. A superstitious man is full of terrors. Religion creates the distinction between the sacred and the pro­fane and calls forth fear of the sacred. Religion creates the distinction between the clean and the unclean and evokes a special kind of fear of one and of the other. A religion of the law creates fear of the law and makes man tremble at the idea of violating the law which determines the whole of his life. Religious beliefs both liberate man from fear and create endless new fears, for they are dominated by a sense of sin. The Gospel alone liberates us from fear, and that is the effect of the grace of Christ.1 The significance of fear for ethics is enormous.

A different meaning attaches to what I should call anguish and terror. In contradistinction to fear, anguish implies yearning, striving upwards and pain from being down below. Anguish and mystic terror have nothing to do with the dangers that threaten us in this sinful world, but are rooted in the mystery of existence from which man is severed. The experience of mystic terror and anguish is very different from that of trembling at the expectation of danger or pain and may indeed be in­compatible with it. Mystic terror is anguish at the highest pitch of in­tensity. Anguish passes into terror before the mystery of existence. It is not due to the dangers and privations of everyday life and comes about for no reason; its cause is to be found in another world, on a different plane of being; the yearning has no object. Kierkegaard understood this but he brought into anguish and mystic terror an element of fear. His Angst is a misture of terror anticus and the biblical fear of God. Anguish and terror not merely testify, as fear does, that man is a low and fallen creature but prove that he has a lofty, godlike nature and is destined for a higher life. Anguished yearning can only be felt for a higher world than the one we are living in; terror can only be inspired by the mystery of existence or the dark chaos, and not by the dangers of everyday life. The Care (Sorge) from which Heidegger tries to deduce the temporal existence in the fallen world is a weak, incipient form of fear. When anxious care reaches a certain pitch of intensity it becomes fear. But yearning is not con­nected with fear, and awe does not involve anxiety. One may experience fear and anxiety if someone we love is dangerously ill, but when the moment of death comes there is no longer any anxiety or ordinary fear but mystic terror before the mystery of death and a yearning for the world in which death is no more. To fear God is impossible and wrong; the expression” fear of God “is inaccurate and must be re-interpreted. What we feel towards God may be mystic terror—terror at the fathomless mystery—and we may feel a yearning for God. To introduce fear into our attitude to God is to introduce a category of ordinary natural life into a higher realm to which it is not applicable. There may be fear of wild beasts or of infectious disease, but not of God. One may be afraid of the powers of this world, of tsars, commissars or gendarmes, but not of God. Our attitude to Him may be one of terror or of yearning, but not of fear. This is an important and far-reaching distinction.

The herd-morality born of sin tries to convert the category of fear into one of the fundamental categories of moral and religious life. The dis­tinction between good and evil, as that between the sacred and the pro­fane, gives rise to fear. A man must stand in fear and trembling of the ” good ” and also of evil, though in a different sense. Man is permanently intimidated by sin and by morality, he is in a state of panic fear and is ready to do anything to escape that fear. Intimidation with eternal torments in hell had that effect. Man’s moral and spiritual life was de­termined by the fear of God and of the good and not by holy terror before the mystery of God, not by yearning for the divine righteousness, not by love for God and for the divine good. Fear makes man agree to any­thing, and he can be terrorized by the prospect of torments in this life and in eternity. He becomes a trembling, fearful, shuddering creature, begging for respite and comparative peace. Even if fear assumes a moral and religious character it is never an ascent towards God, but bondage to the low plane of everyday existence. Moral distinctions, valuations and actions which are entirely inspired by fear can have no moral significance or be an expression of man’s spirituality. Torture never leads to the dis­covery of truth. Fear perverts all moral valuations and actions. Fear is opportunistic. The morality of fear has no spiritual source but is rooted in the herd-life. Fear paralyzes the freedom of conscience and soils its purity. In order to make moral valuations and act morally one must be free of fear. A man who is completely terrorized loses the faculty of performing purely moral actions. Actions and valuations inspired by the fear of temporal or eternal torments are not purely moral.  And yet the herd-mind, which makes itself felt even in the domain of religion, seeks to rule the individual morally through the emotion of fear, though in a softened and modified form. This results in a tragic conflict. A socially determined ethics is always an ethics of fear, though it may take a very liberal guise. All utilitarian morality is based upon fear; spiritual ethics is the only one that is not. Do not be determined in your moral judgments and actions by the emotion of fear, rise superior to it in your spirit, be inspired by the pure striving for the lofty, for the divine, for pure love— this is an absolute moral imperative. A hedonistic ethics, whether its hedonism be earthly or heavenly, rests in the last resort upon fear, since man is bound to fear for his happiness and the happiness of others; happiness is threatened with dangers on all sides and is bought at the cost of opportunism in actions and judgments. If I make happiness my aim, I am doomed to fear all the time.

The attraction of the divine heights alone liberates us from fear, but it gives rise to anguished yearning and sacred terror.

Source: Berdyaev N., The Destiny of Man, transl. Natalie Duddington, Geofrey Bles 1948, p. 174-177.

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One Response to On Fear and Sacred Terror

  1. Matt Gunter says:

    Thanks for this. I appreciate the distinction between ‘fear’ and ‘terror’. It does seem to me that if we do not experience something like terror in the presence of God we are more likely in the presence of an idol.

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