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Sunday, June 27, 2004

Fear and Awe

This morning the pastor preached on 1 Peter 2:17, "Honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, and honor the king" (NASB). He then used this passage to discuss three levels of authority that Christians are under starting with God, continuing with fellow believers, and then including secular rulers.

While there are all sorts of implications that fall out of the third exhortation ranging from the justification of the American Revolution to honoring leaders like Bill Clinton, I was most interested in his description of the "fear of the Lord" as the Old Testament says and was reminded that Proverbs notes that this "fear" is the beginning of knowledge. But what exactly is the fear and why is it the beginning of knowledge?

Obviously, our English usage of the word fear is restricted to irrational phobias (as in spiders or heights) or the entirely rational dread of physical pain and suffering. Here, however, fear retains the older connotation of reverence, respect, and awe. At its core I think you can describe this fear as one basic to humanity and that is brushed up against when one can tear ones self away from our blinding self-centeredness long enough to glimpse reality as it is. I think we see it when contemplating the summit of a distant mountain, the expanse of the ocean, or the vastness of the universe. In fact, it was this properly basic fear that gave man and continues to give men an experience of the supernatural, or the Numinous. The Numinous or "Awful" then is the beginning of, or the first stage of, religious feeling that only when connected with a personal and moral God becomes "the Holy".

The connection between the Numinous and a moral God was described well by C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the children Peter, Susan, Lucy, and Edmund are being led by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to find Aslan.

"Aslan?" said Mr. Beaver. "Why, don't you know? He's the King. He's the Lord of the whole wood, but not often here, you understand. Never in my time or my father's time. But the word has reached us that he has come back. He is in Narnia at this moment. He'll settle the White Queen all right. It is he, not you, that will save Mr. Tumnus."

"Is-is he a man?" asked Lucy.

"Aslan a man!" Mr. Beaver said sternly. "Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don't you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion-the Lion, the great Lion."

"Ooh!" said Susan, "I'd thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion."

"That you will, dearie, and no mistake," said Mrs. Beaver; "if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than most or else just silly."

"Then isn't he safe?" said Lucy.

"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver. "Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king, I tell you!"

So then why is the experience of the Numinous the beginning of knowledge? I think its simply because without a reverence, respect, and awe for a creator there is no central Fact from which the rest of reality flows. If the reductionists are correct and our experience of the Numinous is merely brain chemistry run amok, then there is no basis for reason, no basis for morality, no basis for service towards your fellow man, and in the end no basis for belief in a reality outside your own brain.

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