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Keeping Faith in a Fearful World

Scott Bader-Saye
Professor of Theology
University of Scranton 
Scranton, Pennsylvania


In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry confronts a boggart in Professor Lupin’s “Defense Against the Dark Arts” class.  A boggart is a creature that takes the form of that which you fear the most.  Professor Lupin assumes that when Harry sees the boggart it will take the form of Lord Voldemort, the dark wizard who is trying to kill Harry, but in fact it takes the form of a dementor, one of the terrifying guards of Azkaban prison.  Upon discovering this about Harry, Professor Lupin responds, “Well, well . . . I’m impressed. That suggests that what you fear most of all is – fear. Very wise, Harry.”[i]  Dementors and boggarts work in similar ways—rather than posing an actual external threat, they torment a person by bringing to mind that person’s own fear as well as fearful memories.  While a boggart does this by taking the form of the feared object, the dementor does it by sucking out one’s hope.  What Lupin understands is that in fearing the dementor Harry actually fears fear itself.

But is Lupin right to say that it is wise to fear fear?  Thomas Aquinas asks in his Summa Theologica whether fear itself can be the object of fear, and he answers that it can.  He reasons that since fear “is a passion resulting from the imagination of an imminent evil,” then, “it is possible for fear to be the object of fear, i.e. a man may fear lest he should be threatened by the necessity of fearing, through being assailed by some great evil.”[ii]  For Aquinas it would seem that the fear of fear has to do ultimately with fearing the evil object—so we are afraid of having to be afraid because that would mean we faced an imminent threat.

I suspect that we might also fear fear because we know what fear can do to us.  There is something soul-crushing about fear, especially when it is unchecked and disordered.  And in today’s culture there are many forces at work to make sure our fears are unchecked and disordered.  The wisdom of fearing fear comes from recognizing that excessive fear can turn you into the very thing you wish to avoid.  As Bono of U2 sings, “you become a monster, so the monster will not break you.”[iii]

Just days ago, five Amish schoolgirls were shot and killed.  A sixth is in critical condition.  This was the third school shooting in a week.  Among the many things that scare us, school shootings are near the top of the list.  Perhaps it is because of the vulnerability of the victims, the horror of the crime, or the (often) young age of the perpetrators.  In response to the recent rash of school shootings a state lawmaker in Wisconsin actually suggested that the solution was to arm all teachers and principles. ” Israel and Thailand have well-trained teachers carrying weapons and keeping their children safe from harm. It can work in Wisconsin,” he said.[iv]  And yet, in a perverse way, this proposal suggests that we embrace the very thing we wish to avoid—guns in schools.

In a post-9/11 world, fear is nothing new.  In the United States we have lived for the past five years knowing that another terrorist attack was possible, and, we assumed, likely.  But it was not terrorism alone that created our culture of fear.  Our fearfulness is, to some extent, self-inflicted.  Long before 2001 the construction and manipulation of fear was a staple of marketers, politicians, activists, and religious leaders.  It’s no secret that fear motivates people.  Every time an advertiser urges us to buy a product or risk being ______ (fill in the blank: uncool, unsafe, unwanted), our fears are being aggravated and manipulated.  Every time a politician tells us that the other party is “recklessly unilateral” or “weak on terror,” we are tempted to vote from a place of fear.  Every time religious leaders use threats of hell to make others believe or obey, they are using fear to manipulate their listeners.  Unfortunately, the news media has been at the forefront of fear-mongering—overemphasizing shocking and frightening stories to gain an audience and boost ratings.[v]

Fear and Fearlessness

In the face of fear we are tempted to contract or attack.  We may contract by withdrawing into ourselves, by huddling together in enclaves of church and family, by limiting contact with the stranger and the strange.  We may attack by targeting certain types of people as suspicious, by arming ourselves and our family members, by detaining or destroying all those whom we imagine could hurt us (and calling it “preemption”).

For Christians the responses of contracting or attacking are precluded by the Gospel.  As Paul exhorts the Christians in Rome (who lived under the perilous gaze of empire), “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.  Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Rom. 12:12-14).  Christians are called to extend themselves to the other, even the evil other, as a sign of God’s reconciliation of all things in Christ. Christians are called to risk money, power, even life itself, trusting that in Christ all that is good will be preserved and returned.  And while many of us may acknowledge the need to extend and to risk, the question remains—how do we do it?  How do we become people shaped by a story that does not provoke fear?  What virtues will be needed and how might we cultivate them?

We must note first that the goal should not be to avoid fear altogether, for, as Aquinas rightly discerned, fearlessness is not a virtue but a vice.[vi]  Fear is a proper emotion for people who love in a transient and vulnerable world.  The only way to avoid fear entirely would be to cease to love or to deny our vulnerability as creatures.  Fear, when properly ordered, creates a appropriate urgency about our lives and our loves.  Precisely because we are finite and fragile, we must seize the moment to love, to rejoice, to embrace the good.  Martha Nussbaum helpfully reminds us of the beauty that is made possible by the fragility of goodness.  She writes, “There is in fact a loss in value whenever the risks involved in specifically human virtue are closed off.  There is a beauty in the willingness to love someone in the face of love’s instability and worldliness that is absent from a completely trustworthy love.  There is a certain valuable quality in social virtue that is lost when social virtue is removed from the domain of uncontrolled happenings.”[vii]  And so, as vulnerable creatures, we can even embrace fear as a gift, when it is kept within its proper bounds.

But with that said, it is certainly true that fearing excessively or fearing the wrong things produces a distortion of the soul that makes it impossible to risk, to love, to celebrate our fragile beauty.  It is in this state of distorted fear that many of us live today.  So, how can we learn to feel fear rightly, lest we become so concerned to avoid evil that we fail to do the good?

Finding Hope

Thomas Aquinas suggests that the opposite of fear (or at least one of its opposites) is hope.  Fear arises from looking to the future and imagining an imminent evil that is of great magnitude and thus not easily repelled.  Hope (which is both a passion and a virtue) arises from looking to the future and imagining a good that is desirable but difficult to attain.  As Aquinas puts it, “Fear and hope are principal passions, not because they complete the others simply, but because they complete them as regards the movement of the appetite towards something: for in respect of good, movement begins in love, goes forward to desire, and ends in hope; while in respect of evil, it begins in hatred, goes on to aversion, and ends in fear.”[viii] So hope and fear parallel each other in the same way as good and evil, hate and love, desire and aversion.

Fear and hope describe two divergent ways of orienting oneself toward the future.  Do we imagine the future primarily in terms of the goods it may bring to us or in terms of the evils we will have to face?  While we may all feel some fear and some hope when looking ahead, one of the two will prove more determinative of our actions, one of the two will provide our fundamental orientation toward the future.  If, on the one hand, it is fear, then we will all too quickly collapse into a mode of self-preservation.  We may hear Jesus promising that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39), but we are too afraid to take the risks involved in losing ourselves.  If, on the other hand, our orientation toward the future is hope, we find ourselves able to embrace life and risk radical discipleship (perhaps even to “lose ourselves”) because we trust that the future is ultimately in God’s hands.

We should not make the mistake, however, of confusing hope and presumption.  Presumption, Aquinas tells us, bears a “false likeness” to hope, “since it denotes an inordinate hope in God.”[ix]  That is, presumption seeks guarantees and thus approaches God as the divine guarantor of our desired happiness.  But those of us who follow a crucified savior know that there are no guarantees.  Neither our goodness nor our faith can guarantee that we get the future we want.  We live in hope, trusting (rather than demanding) that in the end “all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing will be well.”[x]

Recovering Providence

In the midst of a culture of fear, the churches need to be intentional about cultivating the virtue of hope—both as personally and corporately.  How might we do this? One way is to recover an understanding of divine providence that can help us trust the future.  For too long we have assumed that providence had to do with issues like omnipotence, foreknowledge, free will and determinism.  Insofar as the doctrine of providence was caught up in these abstract debates about the nature of divinity, it lost its edge as a practical doctrine meant to undergird faithful living. In its most basic form, the doctrine of providence declares our trust that God will provide.  And only as we trust that God will provide can we dispossess ourselves of the excessive wealth and the coercive power that we think we need to make ourselves secure.

Of course, trusting in God’s providence is easier said than done.  Providence has fallen on hard times in the last hundred years, and before that it was seeking desperately to stay above water after the floods of the Enlightenment made appeals to divine intervention increasingly unnecessary for explaining the world.  Indeed, from the devastation of the Lisbon earthquake to the horrors of the Holocaust, it has become easier not to believe in providence, since such a belief would have to account for the apparent divine inaction in the face of horrible suffering.

How might we reclaim providence today—not as a thoroughgoing description of the conditions of possibility for divine action in the world, but as a way of narrating history so that we can, with faith, leave the future to God’s hands?  Here the work of Karl Barth is extremely helpful.  Barth takes on both Lutheran and Reformed Orthodoxy, charging that both sides reduced providence to a set of abstract affirmations of divine power, a worship of abstract sovereignty unshaped by trinitarian thought.  Lacking a properly trinitarian account of providence, these stale orthodoxies were unable to name the meaning, purpose, or direction of God’s lordship.  They seemed strangely content to let God’s sheer power suffice as an account of providence.  Barth writes,

The orthodox Lutheran and Reformed teachers are rather at one in teaching the divine lordship over all occurrence both as a      whole and in detail without attempting to say what is the meaning and purpose of this lordship.  They understand it as the act of a superior and absolutely omniscient, omnipotent and omnioperative being whose nature and work do of course display such moral qualities as wisdom, righteousness and goodness, etc.  But this is all.  According to the agreed doctrine of orthodoxy, this empty shell is the object of Christian belief in providence.  It does not seem to have occurred to whole generations of Protestant theologians to ask what this lordship has to do with Jesus Christ. . . . Even in the establishment of the knowledge of God’s providence there was no thought of looking in the direction of the triune God.[xi]

Instead of being content with an abstract expression of absolute power (which inevitably leads to endless debates about free will, foreknowledge, and determinism), Barth argues, divine providence ought to be concerned with a particular kind of lordship determinatively shaped by the character of Jesus Christ.  God’s rule is not that of an arbitrary tyrant but that of the loving God known finally and fully in the gracious life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  For Barth God’s lordship must be Christologically narrated.  We see in Christ’s own life and being the shape of God’s rule over all creation, a kind of pattern or paradigm of God’s great “Nevertheless,” in which God faces down the powers of history that seem on the surface to rule unchecked but which in the end are made to do God’s will no less than the cross itself.

If Christians can trust that even (or especially) when our lives seem most determined by suffering and loss God is present as the one who has passed through death with and for us, then we can release the fears that hinder us from living joyfully, embracing the good, and risking faithfulness.  As Barth notes, being under the lordship of God means that one “does not need to be anxious concerning his own preservation or way or end.”[xii]  He goes on to say that in Christ, the Christian “is already at the goal, and he can look back and down upon all his distress as already alleviated, all his complaints as already redressed, all his questions, however they may engage or consume or agitate him, as already answered.”[xiii]  Out of this conviction about divine providence arises not presumption but hope, hope that God’s provision for the future will not only make a way in the present but will redeem in the end all that is lost on the journey.  Trusting our lives and our loves to God’s providential care, we can release the tight grip of fear and move with confidence into God’s future.

Risking Hospitality

What might it look like to live as a counter-cultural people of hope in the midst of fear?  More than ever in a culture that excludes and persecutes the stranger, Christians will need to be the ones to say “just as you do it to one of the least of these, you do it to Christ himself” (cf. Matt. 25:40).  In the face of a country ready to normalize torture and to imprison without charge, Christians must be ready to say, “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt. 7:12).  And in the face of a nation ready to legitimate preemptive war, Christians must be ready to say, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).  Only when we have overcome the tight grip of fear can we embody these marks of the Christian life in a culture that presumes such risky behavior to be irrational if not downright immoral.

Last summer Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss, volunteers with an aid group called No More Deaths decided to risk radical discipleship in the face of immigration laws that had been fashioned in a crucible of fear.  No More Deaths is a faith-based humanitarian group that works in southern Arizona, along the border between the and , delivering water, food, and basic medical assistance to those who have illegally crossed into the United States.  The group was formed in the spring of 2004 to respond to the fact that over 2,000 men, women, and children had died in the Sonora Desert of Arizona since 1998 while trying to cross into the United States from Mexico.  With another summer coming on, the group committed itself to patrolling the desert of southern Arizona ready to offer hospitality to the stranger.

On July 9, 2005, Strauss and Sellz picked up three migrants who were suffering from extreme thirst and hunger, vomiting ,and severe blisters.  While transporting them for medical treatment, they were stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol and were arrested.  They were charged with two felonies: transporting illegal aliens and conspiring to transport illegal aliens.  They faced the possibility of 15 years in prison.  The two aid workers refused to accept a plea bargain that would have involved their pleading guilty to the charges, since they contended that humanitarian aid is never a crime.  A first motion to drop the charges was denied in January of 2006, but on Sept. 1, U. S. District Judge Raner C. Collins overturned that decision and dropped the charges.[xiv]

Hospitality is one of the first virtues to be lost in a culture of fear.  Strauss, Sellz and others at No More Deaths have committed themselves to preserving the practice of hospitality even in the face of increasing fear-mongering about immigrants.  Their bold witness provides a kind of parable of faith in a fearful culture. By telling stories such as theirs we remind ourselves, and others, that we can indeed live with hope in ways that may make those around us uncomfortable but which ultimately beckon us all into the fullness of life beyond fear.

Questions for Reflection

1)  This article suggests that at least to some extent our fears are produced for the profit of others. How can we avoid being manipulated by fear-mongering? What tactics of resistance might we employ to ward off the fearful messages we receive every day?

 2)  The church has at times used fear of hell as a means of evangelism (“believe in Jesus or go to hell”) and as a way of keeping its members morally upright (“avoid sin or you will go to hell”).  Do you think this is a legitimate use of fear?  How might we address the temptation of the church to use fear to control or manipulate?

 3)  Do tragedies and disasters make it hard for you to believe in divine providence? How might it help to think of providence in terms of divine provision rather than divine control? How can the assurance of divine provision help us keep fear in its place?

 4)  Do you think suspicion makes you less likely to be hospitable to strangers?  How do we find the proper balance between being prudent and being hospitable? What would it look like for churches to embody hospitality today?

[i] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (New York: Scholastic Inc, 1999), p. 193.

[ii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 42, art. 4, online: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.html, accessed: October 6, 2006.

[iii] U2, “Peace on Earth,” All That You Can’t Leave Behind (Interscope Records, 2000).

[iv] Associated Press, “State Lawmaker Suggests Arming Teachers, Principles,” October 5, 2006, online: http://www.cnn.com/2006/EDUCATION/10/05/school.weapons.ap/index.html, accessed: October 6, 2006.

[v] See Barry Glassner’s excellent discussion of this in The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Thing (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

[vi] Aquinas, Summa, II-II, Q. 126, art. 1.

[vii] Martha Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 420.

[viii] Aquinas, Summa, I-II, Q.25, art. 4.

[ix] Aquinas, Summa, II-II, Q. 21, art. 3.

[x] Julian of Norwich, Showings,  Classics of Western Spirituality, trans. Edmund Colledge, James Walsh, and Jean Leclercq (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 225.

[xi] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.3, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance, trans. G. W. Bromiley and R. J. Ehrlich (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1960), p. 31.

[xii] Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.3, p. 240.

[xiii] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III.3, p. 273.

[xiv] Amnesty International, USA, News, December 13, 2005, online: http://www.amnestyusa.org/news/document.do?id=ENGAMR512012005, accessed: October 9, 2006; and “Charges Dismissed Against Tucson Humanitarians,” No More Deaths, September 1, 2006, online: http://nomoredeaths.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=38&Itemid=31, accessed: October 9, 2006.