While trapped in circumstances self-constructed or brought on by misfortune, the assurance of being loved has calmed and focused my guilty, anxious mind. Love experienced as an unexpected gift has turned meaningless tragedies into moments of contemplation, gratitude and even joy. Love has looked me straight in the eye, seen me exactly as I am, forgiven, accepted and embraced me, and eliminated my fears.
What can be said for fear? Fear has stopped me in my tracks, made the easiest task seem gargantuan, inflamed my rage, and left me spent and exhausted. At times it has transformed me into a "psychic" air-traffic controller alert to every niggling feeling, a caffeine junkie pumped up, ready to go but not exactly confident in what direction. Panicked perception can hardly be what the aphorism has in mind when it speaks of fear and wisdom.
Maybe I am too hooked on my definition of fear and its negative associations to discern its wisdom. Fear, like love, needs to be parsed out. After all, if I had a limited view of love I could make the case that love does not cast out fear but encourages us to fawn on or indulge one another, drawing us into deeper bondage.
There are at least four varieties of fear that might help us arrive at a useful perspective: natural fear, moral fear, religious fear and psychological fear. Each one is related uniquely to wisdom.
Fear of natural catastrophe or imminent physical danger brings with it the practical wisdom required for survival. We run from earthquakes, tornadoes and tidal waves. We ought to run in fear from our Promethean desire to build bombs or tinker with nature through genetics or dangerous technology. Scientist Robert Oppenheimer, who helped create the atomic bomb, described a well-placed fear at the bomb's first test:
A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. There floated through my mind a line from the Bhagavad-Gita in which Krishna is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty: "I am become death: the destroyer of the worlds."
Moral fear involves a type of wariness in relation to decision-making or discernment. This fear's accompanying wisdom ensures an appropriate seriousness, a gravitas as the Romans put it, which takes full responsibility for our social and political actions. It preserves and maintains order and justice rather than living impulsively within the confines of our invested interests.
Fear of making a mistake puts the breaks on actions that have unforeseeable consequences. Given our political situation today, we would do well to develop this fear of our own pride - that would be the beginning of wisdom. It is not a sign of cowardice to listen intently to moral and social fears; it indicates intelligent humility.
This discreet way of governing our actions is at the core of the early Wisdom tradition in Israel. This view supposed that God set wisdom in the structures of reality and that his commandment was that men and women were to search it out, to experiment with it and to refine it so that life could be protected from radical chaos. To excessively depend on creative spontaneity or hunches was to cheapen this gift or calling to wisdom. According to the sages, God was saying, "You are on your own to discover my gift of wisdom; use it with caution." The earliest sages didn't depend on "revelation" since direct experience was considered sufficient to live a life of well-being. They were leery to link their own views too closely with that of God for fear of being profoundly deluded.
Religious fear is rightly the most suspected fear in our liberal democracy. It is premised on the idea of a personal god, and fashioned on the model of an ancient potentate, a tyrant. In situations where human beings wielded almost unquestioned power there is an advantage to the construction of a god image to which those persons were ultimately responsible. Fear of God provided a check and balance to unbridled greed and expansion. In Israel the qualities of this sovereign God included humanizing tendencies toward loving-kindness, justice and forgiveness. The king's character eventually was to be judged on the likeness to a higher authority.
Religious fear has an impersonal component, where a person is struck by an overwhelming sense of reverential awe for a power or force that eclipses their personality. The early twentieth century philosopher Rudolf Otto named this an encounter the mysterium tremendum, defining it further as a tendency to be paradoxically attracted and repelled by transcendence.
There is something to be said for this fear in a time when we are so materialistic that the only truth is banal materialism. The genuine intuition that we are not alone, that there are other dimensions or worlds of sentient beings or orders can instill humility. If we do not, however, have the imagination for supernatural contact we may have the same feeling when we contemplate the immensity of the universe and its larger than human agenda. We are not at the center of the universe. That is also a good beginning for wisdom.
We are most familiar with psychological fear, everything from the bogeyman to the fear of the future, failure and success, and the parade of phobias we humans develop. This brand of fear is despicable because it is so ubiquitous and doesn't seem to serve a purpose. Its intention, like fear's other varieties, may be to humble us so we won't burn our egocentric waxwings on the sun of ambition. Fear prevents us from the crash and burn of arrogance. It also allows us to experience a need for interdependence on God and God's order, as well as the support of our friends and family.
Overall, fear's purpose is not to produce craven cowards of us but to temper our self-centeredness. This sort of fear does not lower our self-esteem but positions us in relation to others and creation. We are warned by fear before we are embraced as part of the whole by a compassionate inclusivity called God. That is why fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The culmination of wisdom is liberating love that no longer needs to fear.