The Fear of God
February 6, 2011
A friend asked about the need for the concept of "fear of God" in the Baháí Faith. Can one be a Baháí without it? More generally, do Baháís accept that there can be compassion and altruism without this "fear"? I found the simple answer today: no (read on for the references). But as with so many concepts, it seems important to dig into the words, exploring their literal and symbolic meaning both inclusive of and apart from our pre-conceived notions.
I grew up with two different poles to the "fear of God". On the one hand there was the dread of judgment and eternal damnation – a never-ending series of torments where the only change is the devising of new tortures. This Dantean vision well fits the American Heritage Dictionary's first definition of "fear": "A feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger." On the other hand was the softer "feeling of disquiet or apprehension" (definition 2) about the loss of love and approval by displeasing God, which was a fear based more on love than punishment. Both poles clearly fit within the "big tent" of Christianity. Indeed, I feel like I learned both concepts at the same time in Vacation Bible School when I was quite young. A third definition of "fear" is offered: "Extreme reverence or awe, as toward a supreme power." Again, this version of the word can certainly be found in Christianity as well, and all three have clear precedents in Judaism (I leave the web search to the reader).
The Dantean vision never resonated with me. It might have been appropriate for a particular age of the world, but not in today's world where superstition has been burned away. The second and third senses have always held me in line – although as a child it was more the fear of disappointing my parents that kept me in line than the fear of the Divine. So much for pre-conceived notions, now on to authoritative Bahá'í writings.
Bahá'u'lláh makes plain that "fear of God" plays an important role in humanity's ordered life:
"... Verily I say: The fear of God hath ever been a sure defence and a safe stronghold for all the peoples of the world. It is the chief cause of the protection of mankind, and the supreme instrument for its preservation. Indeed, there existeth in man a faculty whihch deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame. this, however, is confined to but a few; all have not possessed and do not possess it." (Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p 63)
But which sense is this? The explicit linking of "fear" and "shame" lead me toward the second definition, and it is interesting in-and-of itself. Shoghi Effendi elucidated this concept, in a letter written on his behalf in 1946, quoted in Bahá'í Education, A Compilation:
"You ask him about the fear of God: perhaps the friends do not realize that the majority of human beings need the element of fear in order to discipline their conduct? Only a relatively very highly evolved soul would always be disciplined by love alone. Fear of punishment, fear of the anger of God if we do evil, are needed to keep people's feet on the right path. Of course we should love God – but we must fear Him in the sense of a child fearing the righteous anger and chastisement of a parent; not cringe before Him as before a tyrant, but know His mercy exceeds His Justice!"
In another letter, dated 1940, Shoghi Effendi wrote that "Fear of God" "... often means awe, but has also other connotations such as reverence, terror and fear." So, as with Christianity, all definitions of the concept can be found within the Bahá'í Faith. But, for the Bahá'ís, the "fear of God" is utterly devoid of devils, hellfire, brimstones, etc. There are certainly passages in the Writings that use the word "hell" in its traditional context. But Shoghi Effendi interestingly states that "Heaven and Hell are conditions within our own beings" (High Endeavours: Messages to Alaska, p50). 'Abdu'l-Bahá goes further in linking "hell" to an inner condition rather than a physical reality:
"The root cause of wrongdoing is ignorance, and we must therefore hold fast to the tools of perception and knowledge. Good character must be taught. Light must be spread afar, so that, in the school of humanity, all may acquire the heavenly characteristics of the spirit, and see for themselves beyond any doubt that there is no fiercer Hell, no more fiery abyss, than to possess a character that is evil and unsound; no more darksome pit nor loathsome torment than to show forth qualities which deserve to be condemned." (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Sec. 111)
Yes, the Bahá'ís hold to a concept of the Fear of God, but it is not rooted in eternal torment and Divine Retribution. Further, anecdotally speaking, "fear of God" is not prevalent in the daily discourse and worldview of the Bahá'ís I have known – acting out of love and compassion is much more so. I have found no other references expounding on the nature of this fear; in the absence of clear and authoritative interpretation, it is up to each of us to understand this notion, to let it shape our actions and our philosophies.