So where are the real scary things?

Simon Kuang, STAFF WRITER

No force of man or nature grips the human heart with as much violence as fear. We look both ways before crossing the street and procrastinate looking up our grades. We live in a decade in which the manipulation of fear has proven itself so insidious that nations and continents wage war to eradicate it. My challenge, however, is to look at the things that you fear as an individual: what are these things that paralyze us or move us to act? Rejection, disease, disaster, loss—surely, death? Alas, if we already rightly discern fear so influential in our thoughts and our actions, we must at some point give some thought to whether it is really well-founded or just a defect of human existence. Respecting this question, I intend to exhibit secular and then Biblical thought consisting for fear a sympathy and a refutation, followed by a renewed perspective that reconciles these antipodal reactions.

I believe that the fears I listed above are representative, albeit not exhaustive, of human fear, and that they immediately motivate a sharp dichotomy of the primary objects of human fear: we fear known things and we fear unknown things. Rejection and failure and disease are things that are universally understood. At least once have we all performed poorly at some crucial assignment and tripped on some infelicitous branch. We fear these things because we know them unpleasant and damaging, and with a knowledge we absolutely do not care to deepen. The object of this fear I will term “pain.”

On the other pole of my dichotomy there lie things that we fear not because they associate with familiar sensations, but because they are so alien to us. This is the fear with which I taste a food nobody has ever tasted before, and this is the fear with which I would enter a fantastic time-travel machine on its maiden voyage. Not surprisingly, my preferred equivalence term for the unknown object will be “death,” for death appears to be the most representative object in this class—there are some pains that are universal and some esoteric, but, ostensibly, there is not a single eyewitness who will inform us as to what, if anything, lies on the opposite side. Perhaps, one objects, death is to be feared partly for a common pain of of dying, aside from the abstract of the unknown. In that case, I will submit “death” partly to the equivalence class of “pain,” and my dichotomy stands.

I will restrict my discussion chiefly to this fear, for I consider every other fear subordinate—we ingrain this thesis in our very English idiom when we use phrases like “under pain of death” and “scared to death.” Klein recounts terminally ill patients under the treatment of potent painkillers who, confronted with the question of pain, answer such as that “pain no longer bothers me.”1 What about the patient who is likewise afflicted and awaits his analgesic: is he justified to fear pain? Indeed, just as Camus declares suicide the ultimate question to every worldview (“why?”), I assert our fear of death is the ultimate critic of every other fear.

In Western philosophy, it has been the predominant view since antiquity that fear of death is irrational.2 Most simply, Epicurus argues, if death is a ceasing to exist, there is nothing to fear because there is in fact nothing at all. His student Lucretius offers what is known as the symmetry argument: if we do not fear our former nonexistence (before our birth), then we have no business fearing our impending nonexistence (after our death). A more modern refinement is the argument by interests: the litmus test of whether something is good to fear is whether it is able to impede our interests; for example, I am justified when cycling to fear a pothole in the road because it threatens to prevent me from reaching my class. Then because the dead have no interests, they are impervious to any object of fear.

This is a position that has been relaxed in more contemporary philosophy. Green points out to Epicurus that perhaps it is too hasty to assert the boundedness of personhood, and criticizes the interests argument by invoking the fact that indeed we all act conforming to a longer view of at least virtual personhood if we pay respect or honor promises to the dead. Dutch philosopher Spinoza, writing from the cradle of the Enlightenment, deflects the discussion to how we should act: perhaps even if death is rational to fear, it is irrational on our part to act according to this fear. English political philosopher Hobbes argues likewise pragmatically that as a broad principle, nature must not be allowed to have its way over man; just as good government exists to restrain the evil of man, man must dominate nature, wherein death is considered evil because it opposes man’s right plans.

Can we really presume so easily that personhood is finite and that we have no interests beyond the here and now? One response to the former question might be to wager after Pascal (the most threatening reality believed, “just in case.”), but answering the latter satisfies the former, and I think the answer is a resounding “no.” It appears self-evident that there is something we esteem more dearly than life, or that we hate more bitterly than death—to Hobbes, many men would sooner suffer slander than death.3 In his last hour, Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych reflects on how cruel the world must be to tantalize us with work and ambition and opportunity, only to strike us with futility. Surely, he laments, there remained one last rung to grasp, one last stone to turn, one last opportunity to die satisfied and right one last wrong. What, then is the thing that we treasure more dearly than life itself, and why, if life truly is no more than an ephemeral probation facing an eternal plunge into nonexistence?

Qohelet quite agrees in Ecclesiastes:

Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end […] Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?4

The Jewish king, like Ivan, realizes the infinitely grave burden of existence, whence, having thoroughly known mundane pleasure, wealth, and wisdom; he despises it all for God, who “has made everything beautiful in its time.” What explains this enigmatic hope that pervades Christian Scripture? Surely mastery of pleasure must not, replies Job, who knew every earthly good thing then lost everything but his life:

For I know that my Redeemer lives,

and at the last he will stand upon the earth.

And after my skin has been thus destroyed,

yet in my flesh I shall see God,

Whom I shall see for myself.5

Over and over in Scripture a statue of imperturbable hope stands among the vapor and ashes of human brokenness. Indeed, emotion diffuses and edifices blow away, but the Christian faith hopes in what cannot change or fade away:

We shall not all sleep, but […] the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.  For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality […] then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”

“O death, where is your victory?

O death, where is your sting?”6

So where are the real scary things? Neither the strongman, nor the general, nor the scholar, nor even folly and chance will stand up to death. Humans by their sin are afflicted with temporal futility on Earth and sentenced to eternal condemnation after, for death, the Bible tells us, is the sour fruit of human sin. But Paul writes that death has no more power, because what death threatens to remove—the consciousness of life and the flesh of the mortal body—is perfected by God’s own work, a new creation fitting man’s new destruction. Jesus justly died guilty, condemning sin’s power of condemnation, and resurrected to show that true life is lived with God even now and forever. “One short sleepe [that is life] past, we wake eternally,” may we answer in chorus with Donne, “And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.”

The root of fear is power, and real power belongs not to death but to the terrible master of life and death both. As in “Dies Irae” in the Catholic mass for the dead, “King of fearsome majesty, who freely savest those that are to be saved, save me, O font of mercy.” The speaker trembles in his supreme wretchedness before God’s whelming holiness, supplicating for a mercy that is never denied.

God’s power is not like the disaster of nature wrought by chaos and chance—for he is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow; or the branch that stumbles, for God is strong to work all things to profit those who love and fear him. No instance of natural human fear so juxtaposes perfect power with perfect mercy. By the person of Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, the fear of the Lord boldly knows the unknowable god, dissolving earthly pleasures and anxieties in the succor of humble worship.

_____

1Klein, Colin. “An Imperative Theory of Pain.” The Journal of Philosophy 104, no. 10 (2007): 517-32. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20620051.

2Green, O. H. “Fear of Death.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 43, no. 1 (1982): 99-105. doi:10.2307/2107516.

3Murphy, Jeffrie G. “RATIONALITY AND THE FEAR OF DEATH.” The Monist 59, no. 2 (1976): 187-203. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27902415.

4Ecclesiastes 3:11

5Job 19:25–27a

61 Corinthians 15:51–55

Simon is a first-year EECS major quite distracted with chess, landscape photography, linear algebra, and Reformed Baptist covenant theology. His favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastes, and he is still exceptionally bad at arithmetic.

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