Monday, December 24, 2012

The Idolatry of Fear

Let me start with some rough definitions: by worship I mean ascribing worth to something, to the point of making it a guide for one's actions.  By an idol I mean something that does not merit the worship it is given.

Now: when fear becomes the guide for our actions, we should ask whether that fear deserves to be at the center of our attention.

Because what resides at the center of our attention starts to shape us.  I don't mean it remakes us completely.  I mean that what we mentally caress and cherish will affect our ethical decisions.  The inward life has outward consequences.

Some fear is prudent.  It is prudent not to stand on mountain ridges or under trees during thunderstorms.  But if we live in constant fear of lightning, something has gone wrong.  Either we live in the wrong place, or lightning has taken too central a role in our minds.  Lightning becomes a monster, a demigod, a perpetual danger that stunts our growth and keeps our heads down.

The same could be said when we fear our neighbors: either we live in the wrong place, or we give too much credence to potential dangers and crowd out from our consciousness the potential joys of human fellowship.  So our neighbors become monsters and we become their victims, and we worship them as fearful gods whom we come to despise.

What is the antidote to the idolatry of fear?  Someone once said "perfect love drives out all fear."  If I can conceive of my neighbor not as a monster but as someone worth loving--even to a small degree--then I have begun to let love -- philia, agape* -- dwell at the center of my consciousness.  And I can begin to lift my head, just a little.

* Philia can mean "love," or "friendship."  The latter books of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics give a thoughtful treatment of philia.  Among his insights there, Aristotle says that where there is philia, there is no need for laws.  Like philia, the word agape can be translated as "love."  Charles Peirce used this word to describe the kind of love that seeks the good of the beloved (you can see more here and also in the Gospel of John) and distinguishes this from eros, the love that seeks the good of the lover.

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