Fear can be scarier when it is shared. I can remember several moments in the past few years where I’ve felt a palpable shared sense of fear, first in the build-up to the Iraq war, then more recently with the “financial crisis.” In each case, I can remember feeling that moral dilemmas, which would ordinarily involve some fairly straight-forward thinking, have become muddled and unclear.
So I became unsure, for instance, over whether a pre-emptive military policy in Iraq really had some merit. I had been opposed to this idea for years, but such conviction was harder to maintain after the evening news was saturated for weeks with stories about the possibility of long range nuclear missiles and chemical weapons in the hands of Saddam Hussein. Similarly, I remember that same sense of uncertainty – what might be called a cloud of fear – following me around when the financial crisis supposedly threatened the stability of our social institutions, including the viability of entire governments. Again, social fear was palpable as we assessed the limited options for economic recovery being proposed, which have now resulted in many countries propping up the very institutions and their leadership which bear responsibility for the economic crisis. Strange decisions result from strange times.
I’ve just spent the past weekend at an academic conference discussing another, perhaps even stronger, fear cloud – the threat of climate change. Speakers helpfully pointed out that climate change is but one of several issues which are accelerated by our consumptive lifestyles and disdain for the limits that God seems to have placed in the creation, as we face water shortages, peak oil, soil destruction, pollution, dead zones in the ocean, and the list could go on. I imagine we all have a personal, concrete experience with the some troubling ecological issue, whether that be a recent water shortage, the ugly smell of a nearby landfill, or extreme weather patterns.
One of the most useful interactions I had at this conference was a theological discussion on a proper Christian response to fear. What resources and guidance does our faith provide in seeking to respond to ecological or financial crisis? A frequent exhortation that appears in the Bible is to “fear the Lord.” Indeed Psalm 111:10 suggests that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” The hebrew word used in the Psalm for fear, yārēʾ, actually encompasses a wider range of meaning, including fear, reverence, to honor, worship, or be afraid of. There is some wisdom embedded in the language itself here, I think; it suggests that what we fear, we may also grant overriding control over our moral lives. Thus, if I fear the financial crisis, i.e. my own financial ruin, at the root of this fear is my own love of money and the economy which secures my wealth. Similarly, fears of environmental destruction may reflect an underlying worship of the patterns I am familiar with, such as a ready supply of tropical fruits or an abundance of consumer products without any indication of their source or true cost. In short, my fear may reflect an underlying reluctance to see change, whatever the source.
A Christian response to such fear, I think, is the act of repentance. In this, we identify the underlying idolatries (or distorted loves) that generate our fears and express regret for the destructiveness these misguided attachments have caused. Next, we detach our loyalties from them, and place our trust instead in the only thing which can correspond to our highest aspirations: the personal God who created us. This redirection offers an entirely new orientation by which we can respond to bad news and conceive of our life within changed circumstances. This orientation holds, even if the pennies are few and the winter comes too early.