The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. – Proverbs 1:7
This wisdom saying makes an astounding claim: knowledge originates from religious devotion. In a culture that has marginalized religion to the sphere of private experience and limits knowledge to what can be experimentally tested and quantitatively measured, it is inconceivable to many that religious commitment may be essential to any kind of knowing. Yet in a biblical understanding of the human experience, how one seeks to comprehend reality (i.e. knowledge) is bound unavoidably to one’s relationship to the divine.
In this very moment, the phrase ‘the fear of the LORD’ brings to mind something unexpected and distasteful: cockroaches. Why? Because at my wife’s insistence I just killed two of them in the kitchen before sitting down to write this. While I do not like cockroaches in my house and prefer to get rid of them, my wife utterly abhors them (recently I found her screaming in the bathroom while standing on the toilet because one scurried past her in a moment of privacy). When I see one, I am able to respond calmly as I do what is needed to get rid of it. If I happen to fail, I can continue about my business, block it out of my mind, and tell myself rationally that it cannot really hurt me and that I’ll catch it next time. She, on the other hand, utterly loses focus and cannot take her mind off of it until it is destroyed. As long as this threat is present, it centers itself in her consciousness: she cannot do anything without some awareness of it.
Often those who interpret the Bible to help others understand its profound teachings are quick to make plain that when the Bible talks about fearing the Lord, this does not mean literal, visceral fear, but something more like deep respect or reverence. While I agree that these are valid synonyms, the “fear” in “fear of the Lord” does operate in a similar manner to this basic, primal kind of fear too. Since my wife plainly fears cockroaches, when one is present, she cannot do anything without reference to it: all her thinking in the moment is centered around the object of her fear. If you think about it, I believe you will find this to be true of things you fear too.
The spiritual application is quite straightforward then. To fear the LORD, is to center our thinking around Him such that we cannot do anything without reference to the reality of His presence. Unlike other tangible things we might fear, His presence is everywhere. Thus, fearing Him involves having an awareness of His ongoing presence at the center of one’s consciousness.
Believing that people are fundamentally religious beings who have a fundamental need to find meaning in life and who base our quest for meaning in something ultimate, in something that transcends ourselves and even our place in history, I would propose that everyone lives with this kind of religious fear. It is an essential aspect of what it means to be human.
Furthermore, I claim that this religious fear determines one’s basic orientation to reality and therefore profoundly shapes one’s experience of knowing. This requires more justification. How does fear, in the sense of fundamental religious devotion, relate to knowledge?
Everyone has a set of foundational beliefs that they do not question, but simply take for granted, or believe by faith. The simple question “how do you know?” seeks justification for the truth claims we make. But one cannot go one asking ‘why?’ forever. Eventually as you try to explain how one belief comes from another, you will arrive at beliefs that simply cannot be explained in terms of anything else: they just are (Aristotle called these indemonstrable beliefs). That’s why they are called “foundational” – if they were based on anything else, they would by definition, not be foundational.
Even those whose claim to base their knowledge only on what they can see cannot avoid such “faith commitments,” or trust in things they cannot see. Consider the simple claim that “one cannot know anything unless it can be proven by evidence from the sense.” Does the person making this claim know this to be true? That is implied. Can this claim be proven by evidence from the senses? Clearly not! What kind of scientific experiment or set of experiments could ever demonstrate this? Even if there was one, the experiment itself would have to assume what it is trying to prove.
This is why the pastor and author Tim Keller has said that everyone is doctrinal: to reject religious doctrine altogether as a source of knowledge is itself a religious doctrine, i.e. something that must be taken on faith, because it is not the kind of thing that is derived from one’s senses or justified by data, but is something that is just assumed to be true.
The Bible unashamedly and unequivocally holds out the LORD, the promise-making God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as the only Being worth of our “fear,” the only one we should trust our heart to. Doing so is the beginning of knowledge, or of a comprehensive understanding of reality that depends on having a right relationship with it. But there are other forces and influences in the world competing to be the thing we fear and giving their own ‘knowledge’ of reality. How does this understanding compare to what alternate ‘fears’ provide? This will be the question I attempt to answer in my posts this month and at this fall retreat!