by Russell Kirk
A Michigan farmer, some years ago, climbed to the roof of his silo, and there he painted, in great red letters that the Deity could see, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” These words are on that roof yet. When in his cups, which was often enough, that farmer thrashed his daughter to fill her with a holy terror.
In his way, I suppose, the drunken brute did fear God. Surviving the thrashings, his daughter grew to be a woman; and though she did not much fancy her father’s company, she lived as decent a life as most. Her upbringing, bad though it was, may have been better than the formative years of the average American child nowadays, “permissively” reared. To the permitted brat with the permissive parents, few appetites are denied, and he grows up ignorant of the norms of human existence. Never learning in childhood that certain things exist which we ought to fear, he slides into physical maturity, bored, flabby in character, and moved by irrational impulses toward violence and defiance, the consequence of a profound disorder in personality.
Without a knowledge of fear, we cannot know order in personality or society. Fear forms an ineluctable part of the human condition. Fear lacking, hope and aspiration fail. To demand for mankind “freedom from fear,” as politically attainable, was a silly piece of demagogic sophistry. If, per impossibile, fear were wiped altogether out of our lives, we would be desperately bored, yearning for old or new terrors; vegetating, we would cease to be human beings. A child’s fearful joy in stories of goblins, witches, and ghosts is a natural yearning after the challenge of the dreadful: raw head and bloody bones, in one form or another, the imagination demands. From the great instinct to survive, to struggle, to triumph, comes the urge to contend with fear.
And there are things which rightfully we ought to fear, if we are to enjoy any dignity as men. When, in an age of smugness and softness, fear has been pushed temporarily into the dark corners of personality and society, then soon the gods of the copybook headings with fire and slaughter return. To fear to commit evil, and to hate what is abominable, is the mark of manliness. “They will never love where they ought to love,” Burke says, “who do not hate where they ought to hate.” It may be added that they will never dare when they ought to dare, who do not fear when they ought to fear.
Time was when there lay too heavy upon man that fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. Soul-searching can sink into morbidity, and truly conscience can make cowards of us all. Scotland in the seventeenth century, for instance, tormented itself into a kind of spiritual hypochondria by an incessant melancholy fawning upon the Lord’s favor. But no such age is ours.
Forgetting that there exists such a state as salutary dread, modern man has become spiritually foolhardy. His bravado, I suspect, will stand the test no better than ancient Pistol’s. He who admits no fear of God is really a post-Christian man; for at the heart of Judaism and Christianity lies a holy dread. And a good many people, outwardly and perhaps inwardly religious—for religio implies the cult, the common worship, the binding together, rather than the relationship between the Almighty and lonely man—today deny the reality of reverential fear, and thus are post-Christian without confessing it.
Christianity always was a scandal; and I rather think I began to fear God because I discovered that terror to be so unconventional, impractical, and off-color in our era. (Men are moved in divers ways, and belief actually will follow action.) Before I began to think much on the spiritual diseases of our century, I revolted against the disgusting smugness of modern America—particularly the complacency of professors and clergymen, the flabby clerisy of a sensate time. Once I found myself in a circle of scholars who were discussing solemnly the conditions necessary for arriving at scientific truth. Chiefly from a perverse impulse to shock this Academy of Lagado, perhaps, I muttered, “We have to begin with the dogma that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.”
I succeeded in scandalizing. Some gentlemen and scholars took this for indecent levity; others, unable to convince themselves that anyone could mean this literally, groped for the presumptive allegorical or symbolical meaning behind my words. But two or three churchgoers in the gathering were not displeased. These were given to passing the collection plate and to looking upon the church as a means to social reform; incense, vestments, and the liturgy have their aesthetic charms, even among doctors of philosophy. Faintly pleased, yes, these latter professors, to hear the echo of fife and drum ecclesiastic; but also embarrassed at such radicalism. “Oh no,” they murmured, “not the fear of God. You mean the love of God, don’t you?”
For them the word of Scripture was no warrant, their Anglo-Catholicism not withstanding. With Henry Ward Beecher, they were eager to declare that God is Love—though hardly a love which passes all understanding. Theirs was a thoroughly permissive God the Father, properly instructed by Freud. Looking upon their mild and diffident faces, I wondered how much trust I might put in such love as they knew. Their meekness was not that of Moses. Meek before Jehovah, Moses had no fear of Pharaoh; but these doctors of the schools, much at ease in Zion, were timid in the presence of a traffic policeman. Although convinced that God is too indulgent to punish much of anything, they were given to trembling before Caesar. Christian love is the willingness to sacrifice oneself; yet I would not have counted upon these gentlemen to adventure anything of consequence for my sake, nor even for those with greater claims upon them. I doubted whether the Lord would adventure much on their behalf: the vessels for dishonor are not necessarily the sots of Skid Row. If, for instance, there should come a moment in which these particular churchgoers should be confronted with the squalid oligarchs of our time, the gauleiters and the commissars—why, I would look for precious little sacrifice from them. Theirs was a light love. Gauleiters and commissars? Why, their fellowship and charity were not proof against a dean or a divisional head.
“Me supreme Wisdom and primal Love sustain”: this is the legend above the gate of the Inferno. The great grim Love which makes Hell a part of the nature of things, my colleagues could not apprehend. And, lacking knowledge of that Love, at once compassionate and retributive, their sort may bring us presently to a terrestrial hell, which is the absence of God from the affairs of men—with certain unattractive personal and social consequences.
In ceasing to fear God, their sort would find themselves, soon or late, naked before earthly frights; in mistaking God for a Sunday-afternoon dad reading the comics, or for a progressive kindergarten teacher, they would dawdle down the path to the bushes at the bottom of the garden—and find behind the prickly pear the King of Terrors. The guillotine made a Christian of the mocking La Harpe; the humanitarian professor made a God-fearing man of me.
Religiosity, or at least a festive and indolent and church-plate-passing Sabbatarianism, is sufficiently established in our America. But the God-fearing man is sufficiently rare among us, and not noticeably welcome in pulpit or pew. I have known of ministers given the sack by their congregations for fretting overmuch about the wrath of the Lord; indeed, there is ample precedent for this, Jonathan Edwards, our only theologian of mark, having been pushed into the backwoods for precisely such excess of zeal. Not many among us subscribe to James Fitzjames Stephen’s concept of God, though it is orthodox enough:
I think of [this Being] as conscious and having will, as infinitely powerful, and as one who, whatever he may be in his own nature, has so arranged the world or worlds in which I live as to let me know that virtue is the law which he has prescribed to me and to others. If still further asked, Can you love such a Being? I should answer, Love is not the word which I should choose, but awe. The law under which we live is stern, and, as far as we can judge, inflexible, but it is noble and excites a feeling of awful respect for its Author and for the constitution established in the world which it governs, and a sincere wish to act up to and carry it out as far as possible. If we believe in God at all, this, I think, is the rational and manly way of thinking of him.1
With Stephen’s description of God as judge, it is not unprofitable to contrast the vision of the Lord vouchsafed to a certain immensely rich and well-known living American, eminently successful in business and politics. This gentleman freely confessed that he was not wholly a self-made man: God loves him and has helped him on his way. “God always has his arm around my shoulder.” As a species of junior partner, God has been properly permissive and submissive. Our successful American does not fear God. Why in Heaven’s name should he? God knows his place.
Every age portrays God in the image of its poetry and its politics. In one century, God is an absolute monarch, exacting his due; in another century, still an absolute sovereign, but a benevolent despot; again, perhaps a grand gentleman among aristocrats; at a different time, a democratic president, with an eye to the ballot box. It has been said that to many of our generation, God is a Republican and works in a bank; but this image is giving way, I think, to God as Chum—at worst, God as a playground supervisor. So much for the images. But in reality God does not alter.
Because the graven image deludes, it is forbidden. Yet a mental image of some sort men demand, in any time. C. S. Lewis tells of a small girl who, on inquiring of her parents what God looked like, was carefully informed that God is a Perfect Substance. To the girl, a Perfect Substance meant tapioca pudding; and since she detested tapioca pudding, she grew up with a marked prejudice against God. God the patriarch, with the flowing white beard, is perhaps as true an image as little girls or big ones are likely to hit upon. The deceptive image, formed by our petty preferences in taste or politics, may do remarkable mischief. And God the Chum, never to be dreaded because He is indiscriminately affectionate—even promiscuous—may be a more treacherous idol, and more potent for the destruction of personality and of the civil social order, than the vision of God that had Agag hewed in pieces.
If in Scripture one thing is beyond dispute, it is the injunction to fear God. But in this enlightened era it is almost blasphemous to whisper this awkward doctrine in the sensitive ears of churchgoing folk. A vulgarized Pelagianism proscribes the description of sinners in the hands of an angry God; and, correspondingly, the idea of a retributive Providence is out of fashion. So far as Providence really is credited at all by most professed Christians today, that Providence is regularly beneficent, dispensing fur coats and Jaguars. Hints to the contrary are more often encountered in the writings of philosophical historians than in sermons. It must come as a shock to many positivistic professors of history to read Professor Herbert Butterfield’s account of the workings of Providence; for Butterfield’s is the archaic, orthodox, calm, and ultimately hopeful view that Providence is the operation of laws made for man, immutable and at least as often destructive as rewarding. “If atomic research should by some accident splinter and destroy this whole globe tomorrow,” Mr. Butterfield writes in his Christianity in History,
I imagine that it will hurt us no more than that ‘death on the road’ under the menace of which we pass every day of our lives. It will only put an end to a globe which we always knew was doomed to a bad end in any case. I am not sure that it would not be typical of human history if—assuming that the world was bound some day to cease to be a possible habitation for living creatures—men should by their own contrivance hasten that end and anticipate the operation of nature or of time—because it is so much in the character of Divine judgment in history that men are made to execute it upon themselves.2
Yes, this has become unpopular doctrine. Despite the catastrophes of our century, despite the evidence of the newspapers that the fountains of the great deep are broken up, the meliorism of the Enlightenment—now what the sociologists call a cultural lag, but not the less pervasive for that—still dominates all classes of modern society. In some quarters, it has assumed the ideological form of apocalyptic Marxism; in others, the garments of a “progressive people’s capitalism,” with its “revolution of rising expectations”; or it may be blended with the “Freudian ethic,” managing somehow to reconcile with the womb-gloom of Freud a cheerful confidence that all will be well if only we soothe and adjust and recognize or liberate repressed desires—and pay the psychiatrist. This obsolete but persistent meliorism inspires the rosy dreams of a universal political system, to be attained almost instanter by the United Nations organization or some other instrument, despite the clearly centrifugal motion of twentieth-century nationalism.
Probably the most influential popularizer of these notions was John Stuart Mill, with his conviction that if only want, disease, and war should be abolished—through economic progress and positive law—the human condition would be hunky-dory. Mill, rather than St. Augustine, is the authority for post-Christian man; and Stephen’s concept of God was inconceivable to Mill. How can we fear what rationalism cannot demonstrate?
“Do you feel happy inside?” asks the modern young minister in Marquand’s Women and Thomas Harrow. That clergyman himself is trapped into confessing that he often does not feel happy inside; but it never would do to let slip such heresies from the pulpit. What renewed consciousness of the need for fearing the Lord as has been expressed in our century, often has come from quarters notoriously unclerical. We find, for instance, a striking passage in Bernard Shaw’s preface to Back to Methuselah: “Goodnatured unambitious men,” Shaw observes, “are cowards when they have no religion.” Before the spectacle of half of Europe being kicked to death by the other half, they stare in helpless horror, or are persuaded by the newspapers that this is a sound commercial investment and an act of divine justice:
They are dominated and exploited not only by greedy and often half-witted and half-alive weaklings who will do anything for cigars, champagne, motor cars, and the more childish and selfish uses of money, but by able and sound administrators who can do nothing else with them than dominate and exploit them. Government and exploitation become synonymous under such circumstances; and the world is finally ruled by the childish, the brigands, and the blackguards.
Such is the post-Christian man, contemptuous of God but fearful of everything else, for whom Shaw would have invented a new sort of faith. Politically, the man who does not fear God is prey to the squalid oligarchs; and this is no paradox. What raises up heroes and martyrs is the fear of God. Beside the terror of God’s judgment, the atrocities of the totalist tyrant are pinpricks. A God-intoxicated man, knowing that divine love and divine wrath are but different aspects of a unity, is sustained against the worst this world can do to him; while the goodnatured unambitious man, lacking religion, fearing no ultimate judgment, denying that he is made for eternity, has in him no iron to maintain order and justice and freedom.
Mere enlightened self-interest will submit to any strong evil. In one aspect or another, fear insists upon forcing itself into our lives. If the fear of God is obscured, then obsessive fear of suffering, poverty, and sickness will come to the front; or if a well-cushioned state keeps most of these worries at bay, then the tormenting neuroses of modern man, under the labels of “insecurity” and “anxiety” and “constitutional inferiority,” will be the dominant mode of fear. And these latter forms of fear are the more dismaying, for there are disciplines by which one may diminish one’s fear of God. But to remedy the causes of fear from the troubles of our time is beyond the power of the ordinary individual; and to put the neuroses to sleep, supposing any belief in a transcendent order to be absent, there is only the chilly comfort of the analyst’s couch or the tranquillizing drug.
By the fashionable philodoxies of our modern era, by our dominant system of education, by the tone of the serious and the popular press, by the assumptions of the politicians, by most of the sermons to the churchgoers, post-Christian man has been persuaded to do what man always has longed to do—that is, to forget the fear of the Lord. And with that fear have also departed his wisdom and his courage. Only a ferocious drunken farmer is unenlightened enough to affirm a primary tenet of religion in great red letters, and he does not know its meaning. Freedom from fear, if I read St. John aright, is one of the planks in the platform of the Antichrist. But that freedom is delusory and evanescent, and is purchased only at the cost of spiritual and political enslavement. It ends at Armageddon. So in our time, as Yeats saw,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Lacking conviction that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, the captains and the kings yield to the fierce ideologues, the merciless adventurers, the charlatans and the metaphysically mad. And then, truly, when the stern and righteous God of fear and love has been denied, the Savage God lays down his new commandments.
Sincere God-fearing men, I believe, are now a scattered remnant. Yet as it was with Isaiah, so it may yet be with us, that disaster brings consciousness of that stubborn remnant and brings, too, a renewed knowledge of the source of wisdom. Truth and hardihood may find a lodging in some modern hearts when the new schoolmen and the parsons, or some of them, are brought to confess that it is a terrible thing to be delivered into the hands of the living God.
In a Michigan college town stands an immense quasi-Gothic church building, and the sign upon the porch informs the world that this is “The People’s Church, Nondenominational and Nonsectarian.” Sometimes, passing by, a friend of mine murmurs, “The People’s Church—formerly God’s.” In The People’s Church, the sermons have to do with the frightful evils of beer and cigarettes; all too probably, such townsfolk as are not present on the Sabbath have sunk themselves in these sins; and the congregation is congratulated by their pastor on their godliness in occupying the pews. A heavy complacency glows faintly in the eyes of these good people.
From The People’s Church, the fear of God, with its allied wisdom, has been swept away. So have I. Who could fear a teetotaling, nonsmoking, nondenominational, nonsectarian God? Not the professors and the shopkeepers and the landladies of this happy college town. If by any amazing chance they ever should find themselves in God’s hands—which is beyond reason, since they know that the real purpose of the church is merely to serve as a moral police—the members of this virtuous congregation, surely, would simply be patted and soothed like spaniels.
From this post-Christian church the fear of God, together with the odor of sanctity, has been cleansed quite away. In the cleansing, the college has assisted. Within the doors there remains, spiritually considered, only a vacuum—which nature abhors. Presently something will fill that vacuum; and it may be a rough beast, its hour come round at last, with the stench of death in its fur.
1. James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity (London, 1873), 45–46.
2. Herbert Butterfield, Christianity in History (London, 1950), 66.
This essay is from The Intemperate Professor and Other Cultural Splenetics (Sherwood Sugden & Company, Peru, Illinois, 1988), a collection of Dr. Kirk’s essays from various periodicals.
Russell Kirk, eminent lecturer, author, and critic, is the editor of The University Bookman and associate editor of Modern Age. He lives in Michigan with his wife and family.