Chapter from “Things That Count”
Chapter 1 of “Sun of Righteousness, Arise”
Chapter One of Grand Entrance: Worship On Earth As In Heaven
A chapter by Vanhoozer (starts p. 15) in Allison & Wellum (eds), Building on the Foundations of Evangelical Theology: Essays in Honour of John S. Feinberg
The New Testament authors may use the term “virtue” sparingly, but, as in so many similar cases, the substance
of the concept pervades their moral teaching. Moreover, ample documentation exists to show that some of the earliest
moral instruction in the Church uses the language of virtue. In fact, St. Augustine spoke about the virtue of Christ
himself as the principal support of the believer’s whole life.
The virtue of fear of God is little mentioned nowadays , but I would like to bring it back into our discourse. I invoke it because typically those who enter into some sort of moral discussion imagine that we are starting off from the standpoint of the good guys. Those who are moved by fear of God fear lest our own irresponsibility, our own hardness of heart and defect of vision perhaps be carrying us down a route that is too easy, one that is ever more free of voices which question and challenge us. So fear of God obliges us to a certain athletic tension with respect to our own way, lest it lead us into disaster.
Some of you may have known Benjamin O’Sullivan, a Benedictine monk of Ampleforth Abbey who killed himself early in 1996. As far as I can tell, Benjamin was set up by a reporter from the News of the World, and the only thing which prevented his death from being a murder was that Benjamin himself consented to the voice of the lynch mob and became the hand that put him to death. I felt that his death was brought about because this extremely attractive, apparently self-confident, effervescent young man had been unable to stand up as an ordinary gay man to the voice of the lynch mob. And the reason he had been unable to stand up to them was because he was bound in his conscience. Shortly after his ordination he had expressed a fear to me that he wasn’t really a priest, because “if they had known” surely they wouldn’t have ordained him. That hardly anyone who knew Benjamin well can have failed to know that he was gay is of course not relevant: the person caught in the trap looks at the world through fear-coloured spectacles, and fear darkens rather than illumines what it projects. But this gives a hint of what I mean by a bound conscience: the sort of person who can’t stand up and be what they are, who can’t trust in the goodness of what they are being given to become, whatever the lynch mob may throw at them, the sort of person who labours instead in a world of half-truths, any belonging being a half-belonging, because always feeling that “if they knew” then “I wouldn’t really be allowed here”. Which translates into a permanent and deep feeling of “I’m not really allowed here”.
Thank heaven for Jonah’s flight! Think how much more damage is caused by those who are not vulnerable to their own shame, who really do manage to fool themselves that their righteousness and God’s are cut from the same cloth. Something in Jonah’s being was vulnerable to the suspicion that the word of the living God would wreak havoc with his own carefully covered hatred and fear — the suspicion that that hatred of others and fear of himself were aspects of the same as yet unredeemed dimension of his own life. In that vulnerability was his flight, and through it, ultimately, he was reached so as to be taught how to be a bearer of God’s word.