From Fear to Trust
A Theological Discourse on Theodicy
Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora
Commission on Faith and Witness of the Canadian Council of Churches
Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora
Fr. Dr. Jaroslaw Buciora
In the contemporary theological discourse, there is a constantly growing interest in the subject of Theodicy. As discussion on the subject develops from the variety of theological perspectives, there are numerous approaches to identifying this particular field. Any discussion on Theodicy is mostly contextual and requires more analysis. From another side, contextualization of Theodicy incarnates essential elements of human life, but from the other, it limits the discussed subjects to a particular approach. From another perspective, contextualization of theological exercise brings us a living and valuable experience of people with God. This living experience with God broadens our perspective of the approach to the subject of Theodicy as a living reality.
Theodicy is a very stimulating question that entertains other very essential questions regarding our relationship with God and humanity. At the present time, when the concepts of the all-powerful God and God as a Judge are so much removed from societal beliefs, very rarely we will hear the terms “fear” and “trust” as they apply to our life. Despite all the negative convictions and beliefs in the all-powerful and almighty God, as will be shown in our analysis, the Orthodox Church brings the concept of “fear” forward and underlines it especially in its worship: Divine Liturgy.
The main purpose of this discourse is to analyse the theological element of Theodicy that is contained in a simple acclamation: “Fear of God”. Although this is a very short phrase, it contains in itself a tremendous amount of theological content for our discourse.
The initial interpretation of the phrase “fear of God” has a negative connotation that prevails in contemporary society. As everything is understood in modern society in the context of individual rights and privileges, this phrase can even seem offensive and difficult to reconcile with the individualistic concept of beliefs in God.
As we begin our analysis of modern man’s approach to God and Theodicy, we have to direct our foremost attention to the historical background of Western Society that portrays God and a “fear of God” in a harmful light. This conclusion can be also applied to medieval Eastern Christianity, which was heavily influenced by the Western way of thinking. The best example of this mindset in Western Europe can be found in the frescos of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel in Rome or even in some medieval Eastern Orthodox iconography. “The fear of God” was portrayed in a horrifying “Judgement” image, in the centre of which there was an all-powerful God on a throne judging the entire human race. This concept of the “fear of God” had one main objective: to educate people in a depicted form and to deliver a message to Christians of the final consequences of man’s separation from God. This approach was similar to the approach taken by St. Gregory the Great regarding the use of icons in early Christianity. According to St. Gregory, the icons were regarded as books of the “illiterate “. This was a “psychological methodology” to describe the metaphysical reality of human life outside of the Divine realm. We can call this kind of approach to Theodicy as an “educational pedagogy”. The use of pedagogical language was directed towards those people who were unable to comprehend or grasp the reality of distortion of life on earth. The final goal was always the same: educational salvation.
Analyzing the later development of medieval European Western Christianity, we have to emphasize a dramatic shift of methodology used by the Church in its quest for expansion. A continual separation from the sacramental experience of God in Christians’ life dramatically changed the orientation of people towards Theodicy. A negative shift in the experience of God by people was consequential for the separation and removal of God from Christian life. God came to be known as God of vengeance and judgement. In order to understand the development of defining God in the terms “order of justice” as this was presented in medieval Western Europe, we would have to go back to the early Christianity of the Roman Empire and Blessed Augustine, whose works together with those of Tertullian, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas were proclaimed as the official teaching of the Western Church at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The oversimplification and one-sided, exegetical, literal interpretation of the Old and New Testament verses by the Western scholastic theologians formed an environment of biblical fear of apocalyptic magnitude. This approach also distorted, via legalistic interpretations of biblical images, the aspect of incarnation and Christ’s death on the cross. As a final outcome, the medieval theological thought followed the Roman juridical tradition that developed a theory of “ransom” and “satisfaction of the divine justice”. In the end, the Church was transformed into a moralistic religion with a “sadistic God” in the centre. Because of the complexity of the subject and its importance in the development of Western theological thought, it would be appropriate to study it in a different context. Analyzing this kind of approach towards Theodicy from the present perspective, we have to be critical. From one perspective, the fearsome image of God, as was presented at the medieval time, could frighten people. From another perspective, God was robbed of the essential element of faith: love. It is because of Divine love that God manifested Himself in the divine-human flesh of Christ, transforming the entire human life by way of a restored relationship with God. Faith in God without hope of love tyrannizes people by bringing them into a slavery of faith. We have to underline the thesis that it is not the fear of God that should mobilize people to faith. It is not the fear before hell that man lives by faith, hope, and love. The most fundamental principle for Christian life is not fear but love. It is love that overcomes fear. The overemphasis of the fear of God and the sinful nature of man by medieval theology created a certain type of mentality that paralyzed and destroyed the presence of God in the mind of man. According to contemporary Orthodox thought, the basic mistake made by medieval Christian theology was the over-emphasis of one of the elements of eschatology: fear over love. The medieval moralists concentrated themselves exclusively on the subject of eschatology: the end of the world, condemnation of man and Divine retribution. This methodology was used as an image of a fearful God primarily as a method to convert pagans. From the Western perspective, the most thorough investigation on the subject of the theology of fear and guilt was presented by French historian J. Delumeau, who describes the centuries from XIII -XVIII as the centuries of the “murderous man and horrifying God”. In reality, God’s revelation has been used by a particular religious group as a weapon to annihilate the opponents. As a consequence, the Church of the medieval age became an institution of law, punishment, and Divine justice. In essence, for the medieval Western theologians, God became a heavenly policeman who, for the purpose of law, order, justice, and punishment, was envisioned as a horrifying Judge. It was a process of Divine treachery. It was the French Revolution and the Enlightenment in Western Europe that brought the final blow to the “theology of fear”. At the end of the 18th century, people rebelled against the belief in a fearsome God and, as a consequence, the other extreme of non-existence of God appeared. Jean-Paul Sartre and Hegel were the first in Western Europe to proclaim the death of the scholastic God. The final touch to this proclamation was made by Nietzsche, who categorically stated, “God is dead”. In reality, the last three centuries of the Western world were a “moral protest against a religion of fear”. We must be quite honest to state that centuries of the presented “theology of fear” tremendously weakened the Church and its credibility. For S. Bulgakov, it is essential for Orthodox theology at the present time to re-establish the authentic balance between eschatological fear and love. In the Orthodox perspective, eschatology cannot be reduced to the doctrine of God as the Judge and Avenger. Orthodox theology has to redefine a true image of God in the retrospective of the entire context of theology. Even the grievous distress of our separation from God cannot harm the authentic image of the Loving-kindness of God. A patristic approach to the discussed subject is not only required, but is fundamental for proper theological discourse. In general, the Orthodox approach has to be holistic, embracing all the spectrums of Church life. A further analysis of the “pedagogy of fear” was introduced by N. Berdyaev and N. Fedorov in the first part of the 20th century, which in itself deserves to be studied. The rebellion against the “theology of fear” in Western Europe is without any doubt one of the reasons, according to P. Evdokimov, for contemporary atheism. We are a part of this process as we are a part of Western society. If the Orthodox Church wants to be relative to the philosophy of modern society, the Church has to address this question in the perspective of the historical mindset that is essential for our analysis.
CONTEMPORARY ORTHODOX APPROACH TO “FEAR OF GOD”
The contemporary Orthodox interpretation of this particular term “fear of God” has a positive connotation. The “fear of God”, as it originates in the Old Testament, has a rather paternal and educational purpose. One of the characteristics of man in the Book of Psalms is the drama of human existence. Psalm 111:10 illustrates the fear of God as the beginning of wisdom, with all those who live by it growing by understanding. In their content, the psalms reveal the internal conflict of man and his cry for God. Because God is “life”, our approach to God, disregarding our alienation from Him, can be only a positive one. It is a progression towards knowledge of God and our recognition of our separation from the source of life. It is man’s recognition of a rapture of the paradistic relationship with God, which is being experienced in an existential loneliness. In contemporary Orthodox theological discourse, the experience of loneliness is the first sign of human mortality. This process can be characterized as a passage from slavery to the rank of child. To illustrate this internal conflict of man that is presented in the psalms we will use one element in the modern development of society that can help us immensely with a proper approach to this phrase. Two disciplines that have an immediate effect on our understanding of the concept “fear of God” are psychology and sociology. Using the discipline of child psychology, allow me to illustrate an example of a child facing the reality of a wrongdoing. When a child does something wrong in front of his/her parents, there is a sense of fear in the heart of the child for the committed act. But regardless of the committed act, this child knows (in most cases) that the parents still have a sense of deep parental love. It is a pure trust of the child that the parents will forgive and continue to love. This concept of complete love, which goes beyond human logical comprehension, has to be applied to our quest for an answer. In our life, we are alienating ourselves from God. One of the characteristics of alienation is the personal facet of this reality that becomes even more painful. Our continual self-hurting, suffering, and dying are the most meaningful examples of our alienation from God. We may try to justify ourselves and even, using today’s individual rights, legitimize our action, but deep down in our conscience, we know every action that separates us from God. We may camouflage our faces, we can even portray other masks of life in our daily activities, but the final outcome is constantly revealed in our separation from the source of all life-God. In effect, it is a manifestation of anxiety over the lost immortal life. Using an analogy, we are like the prodigal son (Lk. 15, 11-32) who, while living his own life removed from God, eventually comes home for the restoration of his life to its original state. In the prodigal son’s conversion, we can perceive an internal urge to contemplate our lost dignity. While the prodigal son is on his own, he is living his own life described by the Gospel as a “far removed country“. It is a life that does not have a name or description. It is life that disappears in self-confinement. It is very characteristic to notice that our alienation from God, although always personal, also avoids any name. It is a sphere of our life that constantly urges us to look for “something other”. But at the very end, as is portrayed in this story of the Gospel, the prodigal son comes back to his own original senses. He comes to the point of realization that the life he lives is not the life he inherited from his father. With this heavy burden on his shoulders, he comes home expecting the worst. In his mind, he creates different scenarios of punishment and rejection by his father and family. In his conscience there is a deep sense of shame portrayed in degradation to the level of complete loss of human dignity. In the Judaic tradition, the image of swine being taken care of by an individual is interpreted as total abandonment and isolation of this particular individual from society and family. As we observe the development of the story, there is a wonderful example of the response from the prodigal son’s father. While his son is still far away from home, the elderly father runs to him, embraces him, and cries with him. For the father, it is not important that his son has spent his inheritance on a lavish life. This father cries as his son comes back from isolation and self-determination. From one side, we see the immeasurable love of the father towards his son, but from the other, we see a son who comes home with a sense of hope for forgiveness. Based on the above said, it is imperative to characterize the conversion of two polarities. Conversion is not only a directive of man’s return towards the Divine, but it is also God’s kenosis towards humanity.
In the same perspective, we can definitely say that the concept of “fear of God” has two different polarities that are so characteristic to our life and to the story of the prodigal son. The first polarity is embraced in the definition of “fear”. The phrase warns us about the consequences of our alienation from God. For the Orthodox Christian, this subject is especially emphasized in the third week before Holy and Great Lent: the Week of the mentioned Prodigal Son. The entire Week of the Prodigal Son, especially the reading of the daily Gospels, underlines the aspect of eschatology. One of the characteristic icons of the Last Judgement that embraces in it the Orthodox teaching on the Last Judgement is the fresco of A. Rublev from 1408 that is being preserved at the Holy Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir. The fresco, in opposition to the fresco of Michelangelo, portrays the Last Judgement as an optimistic and joyful event. Even the fire of the Last Judgement is represented on the icon as fire of the infinite love of God towards the human race. The Fathers of the Church, who composed the services of the Holy and The Great Lent, were deeply convinced about the negative character of our alienation from God. As we look at all the Lenten services we observe a deep sense of our longing for God. There is a deep call made by those services, particularly to the personal soul, to awaken and to realize the lost relationship with God. There is a deep sense of distortion of our human life and a call to overcome the extreme alienation from God as it is portrayed in the personalities of the Old Testament. A constant reference to the Old Testament is a trial to reverse a course of our life and a call to God to have mercy on the human race. In a sense, it is a call to God to liberate humanity from the oppression and sorrow of loneliness, as our nature of life is communion. We may say that the services of the Holy and Great Lent, and particularly the first week, lead us towards recognition of our state and our alienation from God. From the other side, it is a call to rebuild the lost relationship with God, experienced by Adam and Eve in paradise.
The other polarity that is particularly characteristic for Holy and Great Lent is the evidence of the restoration of our pristine and unique place in God’s creation. The first Sunday of the Great Lent leads us to the prophetic personalities of Moses and prophets. The one common characteristic for those prophetic personalities of the Old Testament was the vision of God. The Fathers of the Church of the first seven centuries infiltrated in the worship the conviction that God never abandoned us in this world. God continues to care for His creation despite a deep alienation of man. From this perspective, the concept of the “fear of God” brings us a positive assurance that God is present in the suffering and alienation of humanity. The assurance is exceptionally characteristic on the fifth Sunday, where the example of St. Mary of Egypt prefigures the final restoration of creation. St. Mary of Egypt becomes a role model for the Church to rebuild and to redefine life. In other words, the Church in prayer leads us from a total alienation of humanity to a total restoration of our relationship with God. The conversion of St. Mary of Egypt is finalized on the day of Resurrection when the restoration of humanity becomes final. The “fear of God” leads us from the fear of alienation from God to the joy of being with God again in paradise. The image of St. Mary of Egypt as the final restitution of human destiny towards the Kingdom of God might be the answer to the icon of the Last Judgement written by A. Rublev. Even in the aspect of the Last Judgement as represented by Rublev, there is joy in the recapitulation of humanity towards its original place.
The most beautiful example of total conversion of fear into joy and trust is the Theotokos – Mother of God. On the Feast of the Annunciation, the angel of God tells the Blessed Virgin Mary not to be afraid of the Divine presence, because “she has found favour with God“. The fear of humanity, as it is expressed by the Blessed Virgin, is transformed by the assurance of God‘s presence in the world. The total transformation of this polarity is finalized by the will of the Blessed Virgin to give herself totally to the will of God. In the Blessed Virgin Mary, the entire human race finds a road to its original destiny. The aspect of the complete trust of Blessed Mary in the will of God is the only answer of humanity to God.
If we apply this analogically to ourselves, we may just be enlightened by the very fact that God loves us regardless of our transgressions and alienation. The concept of the “fear of God” leads us to the concept of complete hope and trust in the Divine. Based on the example of a child and the story of the prodigal son, trust and hope are the ultimate answers to the concept of the “fear of God”. In our prayerful life and longing for God, “fear of God” transforms itself into a tremendous hope, joy, and happiness, based on the fact that God still accepts us regardless of our alienation and refusal to share with Him His Divine life. In other words, it is the proclamation as a glorious chant where we express our total dependence on God. We realize the supreme sovereignty of God and His power over the entire creation. It becomes a confirmation of total dependency of human life on God. The “fear of God” has a positive and educational character that warns us that life without God is a meaningless utopia and complete annihilation of any purpose of life. Without the concept of God, we become a temporary anomaly that turns itself back into a madness of non-existence. The phrase also warns us before the alienation and degradation of our calling. In other words, the fear of God should exorcize all fear of what is not God. From the other side, this phrase advises us before the ultimate act of human will to love God and to be in unity with Him. The refusal to accept God’s invitation to share His Divine life pulls us into a sphere of total depravation of human dignity. Where there is no God, there is no shame. Where the human consciousness is eradicated, shame acquires a form of righteous life. In this context, we can only agree with Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky who concluded that without God, everything would be permissible. In this context, the phrase “fear of God” acts as a constant reminder of the higher Divine call that constantly pulls us into the realm of discovery of our angelic destiny. It helps us to realize that we are in a process to rediscover our own human authenticity. As we reverse the “fear of God” into the complete trust of the loving God, our life completes itself in the radiant glow of God‘s presence. The motion of trust in God leads us directly to the realization of our eschatological transcendence. In the words of Blessed Augustine: “Let us fear prudently that we may not fear vainly” (Hom. 15:1). It is a radiant glow of Moses in the Old Testament and a total transformation of St. Mary of Egypt. It is the glory of God that brings the saints to the ultimate beauty as it is seen in God’s presence. It is a living experience in the life of God: it is a Theophany. Fear of God transformed into a complete trust in God becomes a “face to face” relationship with Him who is the origin of our life, and “…used to speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Using the phrase of the contemporary Orthodox theologian P. Evdokimov, we become the “walking icons” in the midst of God’s creation. In retrospect, it is a gift of God’s holiness to humanity. For a Christian, the “fear of God” becomes a life’s passion that is totally embraced by the state of sainthood.
It is vital to confirm another essential aspect of this phrase. It is very characteristic that this phrase is being presented in the context of a worshipping community: the Church. The call to be fearful of God leads us also into an established relationship with God. It is not a generic proclamation, but a precise and characteristic directive to all those who have established unity with God. In this context, the phrase contains a certain conviction of the privilege and honour of all those who belong to His Church. It is not only privilege and honour, but also responsibility to preserve this unique and divine calling. The place to hear and to accept this calling is the community: the Church.
The call has two dimensions: the relationship of God and man and the interrelationships within the community. In the context of community, it is not an individual call but a communal action of the worshipping Church. As a worshipping community, the Church realizes this dimension as a process that is being achieved in a communal life. In this perspective, the phrase “fear of God” is being realized not only in the personal unity with God, but also beyond with the entire Body of Christ. The unity with God is also extended to the other members of the community, whom we also approach with tremendous joy and honour. Consequently, the “fear of God” brings the entire community into the presence of God. It is exactly the presence of the Holiness that is causing fear, trembling, and reverence that belong to the core of religious feeling. We will be right to present this experience as a sweet feeling that, being caused by the presence of God, has no “equal on earth”. The experience of man’s participation in God’s life, according to Evagrius, is man’s knowledge of God that brings him so much pleasure. Those words were once again recalled by St. Maximos, who defined the acceptance of God’s love as a “divine and inconceivable pleasure”. It is sweetness of inclusivity, in opposition to exclusivity, that puts us in front of the Divine presence. In an ecclesial life, it is a living faith of the worshipping community in front of awesome God. In the context of the community, the “fear of God “ brings us the aspect of hope that in extension is offered to the entire Church. We can’t forget that it is a “fear of God” as hope and not a human initiative that brings us together. From the liturgical point of view, the “fear of God”, as it is expressed right before the distribution of the Eucharist, is transformed by the very Body and Blood of Christ. The “fear of God” leads us ultimately to the very life in God. It is this vision and participation in God’s life from which the Orthodox Church can’t detach its gaze in fear and admiration. Because the call for participation in the Divine takes place within the Sacrament of the Eucharist, our life is essentially sacramental, which leads us ultimately to a new dimension of life. The Eucharist, according to the liturgical papyrus of Der Balyzeh, feeds the “hope of eternal life”. In its foundation, it is an ultimate thirst of humanity for God that feeds and transforms man’s life. The fundamental characteristic of the sacramental life of a Christian is the aspect of trust that comes out surprisingly from the “fear of God”. In fact, the sacramental aspect of our life is an invitation from God to enter into the relationship with Him. We are invited to direct and shape our life that is found in the Eucharist. In effect, the Eucharist is the place where the relationship of God and humanity is restored. In the Eucharistic community, God becomes the final transformation that is being shaped in our approach to the Divine. Life in God is our hope that is constantly accompanied by the elements of fear and trembling (Phil. 2, 12). In the eschatological perspective, the elements of fear and trembling are transformed in our life into an actual manifestation of the life of Christ. The Eucharist forms Christ within us. It is the reason why the members of the early Church called themselves Christians (Acts 11:26). The actual manifestation of Christ in our life brings us back to the original destiny that is found in the Kingdom of God. In the original context of God’s creation,
“we were created in paradise and for paradise, we were exiled from paradise, and Christ leads us back into paradise”.
In this context, man finds himself again in paradise, where he trembles and fears, like Adam in the garden, before God. It is a process that leads us from the horrifying image of God of the scholastic West to the total transformation and joyful participation in the very life of God. It is an experience of the Apostles of Jesus Christ after the Resurrection: from fear to joy, from uncertainty to glorification.
It has to be emphasized that the phrase “fear of God”, as this is presented in the liturgical context, is correlated with an additional phrase that, according to our analysis, complements the first one:
“With fear of God and with faith and love draw near”.
If the first part of the phrase reveals the awesome presence of God and, according to our analysis, our “total unworthiness” in participation in His life, the second part of the phrase overflows with love and assurance of God’s love for humanity. God descends in His kenosis to the level of humanity in order for all those members of the worshipping community with “faith and love” to ascend to His Divine life. God calls His creation to participate in His Kingdom. As we look at the phrase from this particular perspective, it is entirely God’s initiative to share His life. From one side, the phrase contains a tremendous amount of reality of our alienation from God, but from the other side, the phrase never abolishes the indescribable will of God for humanity to ascend to its original destiny. It is important to note at this point that, according to Orthodox theological thought, our way of theologizing about God is immediately rooted in our approach to the Divine in worship. It might be seen as a logical paradox that goes beyond anything known in the aspect of human life. The entire relationship of the Divine and humanity is a paradox of paradoxes. Although man can reject the relationship and participation in the Divine, God, like a loving father, patiently waits for His creation to return His call. As we look at this particular phrase, we might be overwhelmed by the reality of paradoxes and unknown contradictions. It is exactly here that the theological perspective on Theodicy enters another dimension. It is here that Theodicy deals with the infinite love of God for creation and the extreme possibility of an ultimate rejection of God by man. We have to remember that the entire phrase is an invitation from God to participate in His Divine life. At this particular moment man can reject this call and return to his own illusionary perfection. It is a mystifying risk on the part of God to give man such an ultimate choice. Regardless of the choice man makes in life, there is a constant will on behalf of God to share His Divine life. It might be correct to point out that the phrase enters another level of analysis of Theodicy that has to be studied with tremendous humility. It is only with the prophetic humility that we can approach what St. Ignatius referred to as “medicine of immortality and antidote of death”
As we can observe, based on this very brief analysis, the phrase “fear of God” contains an enormous amount of theological content. It would be our oversight to analyse this phrase based only on a historical or contextual approach. The Orthodox Church, as was presented in our short discourse, rejects the idea of analysing the phrase in separation from the second part of the acclamation that carries in it a theological completion. The traditional presentation of the phrase by the medieval Western Church has to be approached with a critical and constructive analysis. Centuries of presentation of the phrase “fear of God” in the negative Scholastic theological mindset created a culture of negation of God in man‘s life. In order to redefine an authentic Orthodox theological perspective on the discussed subject, we have to reconstruct the proper approach to Theodicy that will avoid reductionism.
As we study the phrase, we can easily perceive the difficulties that arise from our analysis. The constructive theological approach has to be comprehensive and holistic. The analysis in this approach would enter another dimension of Theodicy that is instrumental for our approach and comprehensive in its content. The holistic approach is critical for our analysis in order to avoid misinterpretation made in the past. Our brief analysis of the subject indicates that the holistic approach to the subject is dictated by the very experience of the Church. The Divine Liturgy, where the phrase “fear of God” finds its appropriate place, defines the theological approach to Theodicy. Further analysis on Theodicy also has to include the aspect of anthropology and Christology, as constitutive elements of Theodicy. Without those elements the entire analysis would be automatically inadequate. As was shown in our discussion, the “fear of God” in our further analysis of Theodicy enters the very life of God. Behind the initial negative impression of the phrase that was influenced for centuries by the medieval West, we discover assurance of God’s presence in our life. If the “fear of God” is attributed to the fall of man, the infinite love of God leads our discussion to the original destiny to live with the Divine that is articulated in the second part of the phrase. The assurance of God’s presence in our life, despite our alienation, comes in the very life of God: the Sacrament of Eucharist. God not only assures His creation of His constant presence in the world, but He gives His only begotten Son in order to bring man to His original place. It is exactly here that, entering the field of Theodicy, we have to enter the entire discussion with extreme humility. This new entrance defines our limitations of speculation. It also asks us for further analysis of Theodicy. Let us only hope that the analysis of Theodicy will continue in the future and that it will be relative to the life of man and to the entire creation of God.