The fear of God and peace among nations

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, October 3, 2001

In last week's column on positive contributions of Islam to Western civilization, I referred to a proverb that is found in Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

"The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God."

I suggested that this might be a good time in world affairs for all of us to contemplate its meaning. One of our coffee companions responded in part:

WELL, I HAVE contemplated it, and I would like to share some of my thoughts.

First, I wonder why you put the proverb in quotes. What is the source of this proverb? The reason I ask is because I found the statement to be outrageous.

Secondly, I do not understand how fear and wisdom can go hand-in-hand. In fact, I believe the opposite is true: there can be no wisdom while there is fear.

—Stephen Gobby, Cochrane

WELL, STEVE, I can't address all your concerns in this week's column. But if you'll allow me to don my scholar's robe for a moment, I'll attempt to provide at least some background on the proverb.

In Islam, the statement is attributed to Muhammad: "The fear of Allah is the beginning of wisdom." Since "Allah" is the standard Arabic word for "God," the proverb has appeared in translation also as "The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God."

In Judaism and Christianity, the statement is found in Proverbs 1:7 ("The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom") and elsewhere in the Bible. Indeed, this assertion is the key to understanding not only the Hebrew Wisdom Literature (Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), but the rest of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, as well.

In all three religious traditions, "wisdom," as used here, is all about the teaching and understanding of morally responsible living. The term embraces the day-to-day skills people need for their journey from birth to death, and especially in their relationship with one another.

This wisdom presupposes that the proper response of mortal, fallible human beings is humility and awe before the immortal, merciful, loving, holy and just God, creator and judge of the universe.

Which brings us to "the fear of the Lord" and your concerns about how fear and wisdom can go hand-in-hand.

Perhaps the traditional English translation, "fear," is not entirely a happy one in our own day. Most often we associate the word with ideas like "being afraid" and "anxiety." (We still speak of "the fear of the law," however.)

Finding the right word for things is one of my passions. So when, the other day, Cochrane coffee companion Libby Graham was telling me about her whitewater canoeing adventures down the Kootenay River in British Columbia, I knew I had found a better translation.

Libby loves whitewater canoeing. There are times and places where the river is a gentle provider of drink, food, and a place to bathe, she told me. Then there are those times and places where rocks, rapids and cataracts test your skill and endurance to the limit.

I asked her what she felt her relationship was with the river.

"Friend," she said at first.

"But what about its power to crush you?" I asked. "Fear?"

"No. Profound respect."

"So," I asked, "is it fair to say, the first thing you need to learn about whitewater canoeing is profound respect for the river?"

Libby agreed, and I knew she had provided me a clue for retranslating the proverb.

For, to enjoy her sport responsibly, the reasonable thing for her to do was to have profound respect for the ways and demands of the river and to live in harmony with them. This required instruction, observation, reflection, understanding, and appropriate action.

In a similar way, we might say, Judaism, Christianity and Islam declare in chorus: The first thing you need to learn about enjoying life responsibly – and about keeping peace among nations – is profound respect for God.

© 2001 Warren Harbeck

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