Prophetic Dialogue: An Invitation to the Dance – Putting Fear in Its Place
During 2013, The Center Blog is exploring the theological, biblical, and practical implications of joining in the dance of prophetic dialogue – the theme of the Center’s Convocation in Chicago, IL on July 25-27, 2013.
The cultural imagination of the early twenty-first century is excited and shaped more by fear than by hope. Missional congregations are called to put fear in its place by embracing an ethic of risk rather than an ethic of security.
Watching for Jesus in a culture of fear. We need to understand fear better, to reconstruct our attitudes towards fear, and to find tools that will help us determine when fear is a natural and normal warning sign and when it is a toxic emotion that threatens our character and our communities. Fear itself is not evil, but it can become such. Read More…
Fear as a Cultural Metaphor. People within Western societies are living longer and more healthy lives. Yet despite the growing capacity to deal with problems facing humanity, many people live with an overwhelming anxiety that disaster looms just ahead. Read More…
The Roots of Fear. Fear is designed to be protective, animals use it to sense genuine threats to their survival. The brain’s fear circuitry processes perceptions and thoughts and tags them with the warning “Be afraid, be very afraid!” Read More…
Why Fearlessness is a Bad Thing. What is dangerous and destructive is not fear itself, but excessive or misplaced fear. Fear makes people aware of what they love and hold dear. Life without fear is also life without hope or compassion. Read More…
Putting Fear in Its Place. Excessive and free-floating fear can cause people to draw in, to narrow their vision, and restrict their lives. As they seek security through the accumulation of worldly goods (money, possessions, status), people may actually become more afraid, since the more that they have, the more they have to lose. Read More…
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What does it mean to view our culture from a missionary perspective?
- What are the challenges and what are the opportunities of entering into our worldly context, of “going where Jesus goes”?
Watching for Jesus in a culture of fear.
We need to understand fear better, to reconstruct our attitudes towards fear, and to find tools that will help us determine when fear is a natural and normal warning sign and when it is a toxic emotion that threatens our character and our communities. Fear itself is not evil, but it can become such. Excessive or disordered fear can drain the joy out of life, can constrict our vision and feed our hatreds. Fear can cause us to love less because we fear too much the seeds of sorrow that inhabit every love. Excessive fear can rob our lives of playfulness, exploration, and adventure. Fear can be a gift, but it can also be a poison. So, how do we know the difference? How do we put fear in its place?1
The cultural imagination of the early twenty-first century is excited and shaped not by hope but by fear. Indeed, more and more fear has become a problem in its own right. While earlier societies associated fear with clearly formulated threats—hunger, death, enemies—today many see the very act of fearing as a threat in itself. Fear has become unpredictable and free-floating and thus volatile and unstable. Since September 11, 2001 fear has continually expanded to cover almost all aspects of modern life. An exaggerated sense of fear can lead to health problems, to limited social interaction, to an avoidance of public spaces, and to anxiety about those who look or act differently. Personal and communal narratives are giving way to discourses of risk and danger. What is the role of the church in the midst of such a culture of fear?
As it engages in prophetic dialogue, the church is called to a “faithful watchfulness,” to explore and make decisions about the nature of its cultural and historical context. In every age the church is to observe and to name the problematic nature of its worldly context as well as to listen carefully for the signs of God’s presence. The church is under obligation to decide—indeed to judge: ”You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Lk. 12:56). Churches are called to be reconciling communities which affirm God’s solidarity with a broken and alienated creation. As those who intend to participate in God’s healing of that creation, they must involve themselves in the specifics of society’s problematic issues. As Douglas John Hall observes: “The disciple community can only become what it is called to be as it is again and again (sacramentally) immersed in the problematic of its context, plunged beneath the threatening waters of the present and impending future, and caused once more to recover its hope in response to the realities of that concrete situation.”2
The incarnational mode of witness means that the church is to take the world seriously, to be actively involved with human suffering and human hopes. However, faithful watchfulness does not mean simply accepting the issues and challenges of the worldly context on its own terms. As indicated in the above quotation, the church is called to engage in thoughtful and prayerful analysis. Putting fear in its place means identifying, understanding, and perhaps reconstructing attitudes and behavior about human safety and well-being. Rather than a haven from the world’s problems, the missional church can provide multiple and varied opportunities to surface, share, and probe the problems, anxieties, longings, and frustration of “the present time.” Thus the ministry of reconciliation involves formation: the forming of a learning and witnessing community of hope and compassion capable of venturing into the darkness of human life because it trusts in the redeeming light of faith.
Fear as a Cultural Metaphor.
People within Western societies are living longer and more healthy lives. Yet despite the growing capacity to deal with problems facing humanity, many people live with an overwhelming anxiety that disaster looms just ahead. While the ability to fear may be innate in the human physical and psychological makeup, what to fear, when to fear, and how to fear are largely learned. Thus more than an emotion or response to a perception of threat, fear can become a cultural idiom which signals a sense of unease with the surrounding world. As a cultural metaphor fear both shapes and interprets attitudes and behaviors.
The meaning and experience of fear are continually shaped by cultural and historical factors. As Frank Furedi explains: “Every culture has something distinct to say about fear. In ancient societies, people were instructed to fear their gods or ancestors. In medieval times, communities were incited to fear witches and other malevolent supernatural forces. Some cultures fear death, others are concerned about unemployment. Until recent times, Western cultures were preoccupied with the threat of nuclear war. Since the ‘great recession’ of 2008-2009, we have learned to fear the economy, the stock market, and economic collapse at any time. Or, are we being encouraged simply to regard fear as our default response to life itself. As Christophe Lambert observed in his study of French society, The Fearful Society, his compatriots are haunted by ‘fear of the future, fear of losing, fear of others, fear of taking a risk, fear of solitude, fear of growing old.’”3
The experience and intensity of fear is not necessarily directly proportional to the objective character of a specific threat. While there are certainly things to be fearful of today, many fears are not based on personal experience. This indirect aspect of fear may be one of the most distinctive features of contemporary culture. More an exercise of imaging than explaining, fear is often shaped by alarmist media accounts of bird flu in Asia or ebola virus in Africa. These are threats that people can neither flee from nor fight. These dangers cannot be confronted directly but simply feared passively. Surrounded 24/7 by modern technology, “Today we don’t just have the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but a cavalry regiment of doom-mongers.”4
The Roots of Fear.
Fear is designed to be protective, animals use it to sense genuine threats to their survival. The brain’s fear circuitry processes perceptions and thoughts and tags them with the warning “Be afraid, be very afraid!” Fear evolved because it promotes survival by triggering instant responses to a threat. Faced with a charging elephant, the brain detects danger and swiftly acts without deep analysis. Thus fear is a natural reaction to the unknown and is part of a built-in defense against a potentially hostile environment.
According to a Newsweek article on the roots of fear, the evolutionary primacy of the response to fear makes it more powerful than the brain’s reasoning faculties. “The brain is wired to flinch first and ask questions later. As the 18th century political theorist Edmund Burke observed, ‘No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.’”5 Thus fear can become irrational. For example, researchers compared people’s responses to offers of flight insurance that would cover “death by any cause” or “death by terrorism.” The second is but a small subset of the first. Yet the use of the word, “terrorism,” combined with the stark images the word evoked, triggered a greater response. The result was that people were more willing to buy terrorism insurance.
Fear is physiological and as long as danger is direct and real fear is normal. But even when natural dangers are no longer there, the response mechanisms are still in place. An adaptive fear response can turn into a maladaptive panic attack. Fear becomes a free-floating anxiety when it lacks a specific target. And being anxious and afraid makes people vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation. An example is the politics of fear, when politicians create fear around their central issues. Samuel Taylor Coleridge may have been right when he claimed, “In politics, what begins in fear usually ends up in folly.” But political activists are more inclined to heed Richard Nixon, “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it is true.” From overblown crime statistics to exaggerated germ scares to plane wrecks, a wide array of groups—including businesses, advocacy organizations, religious sects, and political parties —benefit and profit from promoting fear.
Why Fearlessness is a Bad Thing.
What is dangerous and destructive is not fear itself, but excessive or misplaced fear. Fear makes people aware of what they love and hold dear. Life without fear is also life without hope or compassion. Thomas Aquinas observed that “if the fear be moderate, without much disturbance of the reason, it conduces to working well, in so far as it causes a certain solicitude and makes a man take counsel and work with greater attention.”6 So moderate fear can focus actions and clarify priorities as it gives import and seriousness to life and work.
Drawing upon Aquinas’ discussion of “the vice of fearlessness,” Scott Bader-Saye argues that people can become fearless in three ways (none of which is good): (1) “The security of detachment” by loving nothing enough to fear its loss. Rather than live with the fear of being hurt, persons build walls and protect their hearts from pain in such a way that relationships are diminished. (2) “The bliss of ignorance” by engaging in a recklessness that ignores danger or threat. For example, dare devils create dangerous situations in order to experience and then overcome fear. (3) “The pursuit of invulnerability” which refuses to believe that loss is possible. The goal is to become so powerful that threats are impossible. Freedom from fear is achieved by destroying not only imminent threats but also all potential threats. The appropriate response to fear cannot be fearlessness, whether of detachment, ignorance, or invulnerability. Fearlessness is a bad substitute for wisdom and courage.7
Putting Fear in Its Place.
Excessive and free-floating fear can cause people to draw in, to narrow their vision, and restrict their lives. As they seek security through the accumulation of worldly goods (money, possessions, status), people may actually become more afraid, since the more that they have, the more they have to lose. For example, gated communities with high fences and elaborate security systems can lead to a fortress mentality. By keeping others out, those inside can become imprisoned. Rather than quieting fear, such actions may increase fear of the surrounding world.
Missional congregations are called to put fear in its place by embracing an ethic of risk rather than an ethic of security. Faith must be daring because Christian discipleship is risky. Jesus told his disciples to “take up your cross and follow me,” as well as “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Discipleship does not promise safety, but fullness of life through service and self-sacrifice.
The angels in the Bible begin their messages with “Do not be afraid” not because their appearance is so frightening, but because human fear can close ears and hearts to God’s call. Scott Bader-Saye describes an ethic of risk through the concept of “overwhelmings.” “We cannot command ourselves to feel less fear. Quite the contrary, our overwhelming fears need, themselves, to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a sense of adventure and fullness of life that comes from locating our fears and vulnerabilities within a larger story that is ultimately hopeful and not tragic.”8 That larger story is the story of God’s gracious dealings with a fearful world. It is within the life and ministry of the Christian community that people can learn to put fear in its place, to strengthen their resolve to follow Jesus, to share the risks of lives of hope and love, and to live courageously trusting in God and in God’s promises of full and abundant life.
- Why should we try to understand fear?
- What is meant by “faithful watchfulness”? What within the life and ministry of your church enables such an approach?
- Identify examples of fear as a cultural metaphor (from personal life, daily news, TV, movies).
- What constructive purpose does fear serve? When does it become problematic?
- What resources does the church have to help put fear in its appropriate place?
1 Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos Press, 2007), p. 52. This book is highly recommended.
2 Douglas John Hall, Thinking the Faith: Christian Theology in a North American Context (Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 81-82.
3 Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear Revisited (Continuum, 2006), p. ix.
4 Ibid., p. xii.
5 Sharon Begley, “The Roots of Fear,” Newsweek, December 15, 2007.
6 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica I-II (Christian Classics, 1948), Q. 44, art. 4.
7 Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, pp. 44-50.
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.