The defining feature is the belief that humanity is confronted by powerful destructive forces that threaten our everyday existence.1
‘Terror is the order of the day’—so decided the Convention in 1793 during the French Revolution, meaning that opponents of the Revolution would face terror. Looking out over western Europe you wonder whether fear has not become the order of the day. Secular and Christian writers alike have been commenting for over 20 years that western culture has an ambience of fear, as well as an air of brash self-confidence. It predates the attacks on the Twin Towers, although those terrorist crimes undoubtedly accelerated and inflamed it, and it has been only too evident in the cultural west over the last year. My own country, the UK, has opted to leave the European Union, but the manner of its doing so has been striking. Whether you were Exit or Remain, both sides in the referendum campaign invoked our fears. The issue could have presented as: ‘Which fear do you prefer?’ Going back to the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, again fear played such a large part, whether it was fear of going it alone or fear of Westminster. Western Europe more generally so often sees the plight of the refugee through the lens of fear of the other, and where fear can almost legitimate racist violence and fertilise the growth of far-right groups in mainland Europe. One of the dominating notes of our discourse about public safety and security in the UK is fear of so-called non-violent extremists, prompting a government that was none too sympathetic to liberty for dissident voices anyway to propose levels of surveillance that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. We are fearful to let our kids walk home from school let alone go out after dark. And as a European I look bemusedly at an American election where one candidate complements his extraordinary choice of hair-style with a ruthless playing on the fears of ‘the Other’ in US life as immigrant and potential terrorist, while his opponent plays on the fears this candidate inspires. The list of fears is extensive: our pensions, the level of the dollar or euro or sterling (take your pick), whether our children will be able to afford a house or repay their student loans, terrorism, whether what we have been eating turns out to be carcinogenic, and the list just goes on.
This ‘environment’ of fear, as Paul Virilio calls it,2 has some important features. First, it is exacerbated by the speed of movement of our culture,3 which heightens a sense that we do not know what is coming next, but—whatever it is—it is coming quickly and will be followed equally quickly by something else. Such speed cuts down our time to analyse, react and cope.
Secondly, that speeding, accelerating culture is also a very liquid culture and that, as Zygmunt Bauman remarks,4 reconfigures our relationships: how do I have long term relationships with you when you are a liquid and shifting individual and so am I? Relationships can have their edge of anxiety and fear—no wonder the film Four Weddings and a Funeral became so iconic when it included the theme of a commitment-phobic generation. The tragic trajectory, no matter what that film’s closing scenes suggest, is that in that kind of ‘liquid mass individualism’,5 we cut ourselves off both from loving others and receiving love from them.
Thirdly, this environment of fear relates to a more general sense of powerlessness. Somehow we have become a society open to the ‘blows of “fate”’.6 Bauman goes on:
‘Fate’ stands for human ignorance and helplessness, and owes its awesome frightening power to those very weaknesses of its victims.7
This impression of powerless stands closely with the perception that the blows of ‘fate’ are random, creating a cumulative picture of an environment where huge, unknowable, unmanageable forces afflict us haphazardly and randomly, both as individuals and as collectives. Oddly enough, there is a parallel here with the Hellenistic principle of Tychē.8 While Tychē is certainly something ineluctable that grinds remorselessly on, she is also deeply connected with randomness and the way some-one can be lifted up one moment and cast helplessly down the next. L. H. Martin aptly comments on Tychē:
Embodied in a single image, the goddess’ ambiguity or capriciousness, her double nature, positive and negative, is her most characteristic trait.9
Tychē at the end of the day is irresistible and unpredictable but also literally implacable. One may fear her, but it does little good.
In terms of Christian analysis, the view that fear relates to lack of power is central for Thomas Aquinas. He writes:
[W]hatever is entirely subject to our power and will, is not an object of fear; and that nothing gives rise to fear save what is due to an external cause.10
To this extent, our fear rises directly in proportion to our perceived lack of power to deal with whatever the threat may be. Fear can of course therefore be a good thing in that it leads one to recognise a situation or person one cannot control. But it certainly also does help reveal our perceptions. This in turn prompts some intriguing reflections.
First, the earlier list of what our culture fears has one conspicuous absentee. Our culture does not have fear of God on its worry list. Neither, come to that, does an awful lot of what passes for Christianity in the UK and mainland Europe. That’s not necessarily because of full-blown commitment to atheism. But if one looks at Aquinas’s account of fear to the effect it reflects my perceived lack of power, then my lack of fear readily reflects my perceived ability to ’handle’ whatever the threat may be. The underlying logic is that God is not a threat in the way that global economic downturn is, or a random encounter with a road-rage driver.
Unfortunately, such a lack of fear of God is ultimately despairing. Think of the list of fears as one considers the terrorist incidents over the summer: isn’t there the feeling that even if we cut out 99 out of the 100 bomb plots, it only takes one bomb on the subway or metro line to terminate us? Ultimately our culture has no answer to its fears, does it? With all those health and safety measures, accidents still happen. Some things remain beyond our control and power. And when we ceased to fear God, we ceased to have someone who could actually finally save. A God I need not fear is a god the terrorist need not fear either.
In fact, one way or another, the assumption is that we need not fear God because we can deal with him: perhaps we think we have earned security before him, or that we are simply entitled to it or that he will never do anything we would find uncongenial. Of course, the more we articulate this assumption, the more problematic it appears. If God is God at all, then, as the Beavers remark in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, he will not be ‘safe’, as in controllable by us. He may be good, but he is not tame or domesticated.
This has two consequences. First, it takes us back to the instructions God gives his people through Jeremiah and other prophets (E.g. Jeremiah 10:1- 16 . We are not to fear the idols and elemental principles that people without God do fear. We need not fear them because the God who is infinitely more powerful than us can deliver where we cannot. One current challenge for us is whether we fear God enough so that we need not fear the things that ‘the nations’ do. What we fear reveals a lot about where we think power truly lies. What, exactly, do we fear and in what order?
Second, one way of reading the environment of fear is that our culture would rather fear our modern version of Tychē with her grinding, ineluctable randomness than fear a God who providentially controls human affairs with purpose. I think it is indisputable that so many in the cultural do prefer Tychē to Jesus of Nazareth: but why?