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You’ve heard the phrase “proverbial wisdom,” right?
It comes originally, as so many of our modern concepts do, from Latin. To the Romans, “proverbium” meant the simple, concrete life sayings everyone knew and repeated and tried to live by. Those sayings expressed practical, common-sense truths in metaphors, maxims and short aphorisms.
Every culture has its proverbs.
The Old Testament even has a book called Proverbs – that’s where the phrase “the wisdom of Solomon” comes from – which functions as a guide for behavior and insight to those who follow the Founders of Judaism, Abraham and Moses; and to those who follow Christ, as well. Here’s one of the most famous of all the Proverbs, from the King James translation of the Bible:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction. – Proverbs 1: 7.
While fundamentalist, fire-and-brimstone interpretations of that well-known Proverb have scared children and adults for centuries, modern Biblical scholars now have a different interpretation of its translation and its meaning.
Instead of simply being afraid of the judgment of a wrathful deity, the old Biblical understanding of the fear of God now has a new, more nuanced meaning. The Lutheran philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto even came up with a new word to express this concept – numinous. Numinous means “surpassing comprehension or understanding, mysterious.” When something exceeds our scope of understanding, we instinctively have awe, respect and even fear for it.
The Christian writer C.S. Lewis used the word freely in his books and essays, but said that “fear of the numinous is not a fear that one feels for a tiger, or even a ghost.” Instead, he wrote, “it is one filled with awe, in which you feel wonder and a certain shrinking or a sense of inadequacy to cope.” Lewis described it as a fear that comes forth out of love for the Lord.
If you refer back to the origins of the word translated as “fear” in Proverbs, you’ll find that it comes from the Hebrew word “yirah,” meaning a sense of awe and reverence — which includes wonder, amazement, mystery, astonishment and adoration. Like many passages from scripture, we learn, the original meaning has suffered from mis-translations and misinterpretations. Instead of the quaking, terrified feeling we once associated with a phrase like “fear of God,” this new and more intelligent understanding leads us toward the knowledge of the greatness and creative power of a loving Supreme Being. The great Jewish scholar Maimonides came to the same conclusion, when he categorized the fear of God as a positive commandment — the feeling of human insignificance that comes from contemplation of God’s “great and wonderful actions and creations.”
So rather than dread or fright at the prospect of a harsh judgment, the phrase “fear of God” originally meant wonder, admiration and reverence.
The Baha’i teachings have a similar view of the concept of the fear of God. Baha’u’llah calls it a “guiding light” to all people, and says that practicing it encourages us to become “wise and reflecting souls.” He asks every person to find courage and honor by developing a healthy awe and respect for the Creator, and promises that those who do will “be afraid of no one”:
Whoso hath known God shall know none but Him, and he that feareth God shall be afraid of no one except Him, though the powers of the whole earth rise up and be arrayed against him. – Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 200.
For Baha’is, the fear of God means something very different than the standard western understanding of the term. Baha’u’llah writes that “true wisdom is to fear God, to know Him, and to recognize His Manifestations.”
When the word “fear” occurs in a Baha’i context, you can almost always read it as meaning a healthy respect, the recognition of an awe-inspiring mystery, the wonder and astonishment we all instinctively and deeply feel when we contemplate that unknowable essence, the Maker of the universe.