A Holy Fear of Man

Last week, I pointed readers to the fascinating debate between Robert Spencer and Peter Kreeft on the subject of Islam, promising to offer my own reflections later. If you haven’t yet watched the debate, go bookmark it now, and when you sit down to watch it, prepare to be . . . unsettled. Pour yourself a bourbon and keep the rest of the bottle ready. The truths this exchange turned up left all of us squirming in our seats — especially the students and young couples in the audience. As they learned, a child born tomorrow will grow up in a world where two hostile forces will face off in what used to be Christendom.

The first of those forces is Islam, which from its foundation is intrinsically as much a political ideology as a religion, a system for governing human society committed to imposing across the world what it holds to be the will of God. Allah, as Muslim scripture describes him, borrows many elements we can recognize from Jewish-Christian revelation. He is stark, all-powerful, unitary, ineffable, indescribable, utterly beyond our conceptions, and absolutely sovereign in his will. The duty of every believer is to discern that will and obey it, and to reconstruct society in accord with it, so that God’s law and man’s laws are one. Thus far, he resembles the God who, at the end of the Book of Job, answers His tormented servant’s legitimate questions with blunt and blinding force:

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Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?
When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddlingband for it,
And brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors,
And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed?
Hast thou commanded the morning since thy days; and caused the dayspring to know his place;
That it might take hold of the ends of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it?
It is turned as clay to the seal; and they stand as a garment.
And from the wicked their light is withholden, and the high arm shall be broken.
Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?
Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all. (Job 38:4-18)

If Job were the last book of the Bible, we all of us should be Muslims. If the Muslim’s fear of God were the last word in religion, we could cringe before his blind force, or courageously defy it. An Allah who (as Spencer amply demonstrates) denies his creatures free will, then capriciously damns or saves whomever he chooses, does not ask us for love but demands islam (submission). He deserves instead to hear from each of us: “Non serviam!


That’s the phrase, addressed to a very different God, which sums up Enlightenment Humanism. This movement embraces the power of the human mind to comprehend reality and formulate laws that protect individual liberties and promote the common good. Humanism rejects the coercion of consciences and other assaults on human dignity; it seeks to defuse conflicts among groups of people based on racial or creedal claims — seeking, in author Sam Harris’s words, to discern a disinterested and rational morality that promotes human thriving. Like Islam, this movement shears off an important piece of Revelation, then exalts it as the whole.

That assertion might surprise you. Humanism depends on . . . revelation? Surely, if (as Robert Reilly proves) Islam exalts blind faith, the Enlightenment stands for pure reason. But things really aren’t so simple. In fact, unaided reason cannot achieve all the admirable goals laid out above. History proves this point; neither the Greeks nor the Romans derived their morality from theology. The gods of Olympus and the Pantheon, even while men still believed in them, were never the source for the moral codes that governed pagan societies. Politicians and philosophers, quite independent of what they’d heard from Homer or Hesiod, created the laws that governed the city-states, kingdoms, and empires of the ancient world — laws that codified slavery (at one point, one-third of the residents of the Roman empire were slaves), allowed fathers to put their rebellious children to death, rewarded rulers for conquering and pillaging foreign countries, and subjected at every turn the hapless individual to the interests of the polis or the ruler. There was little of what we’d recognize as freedom — even for freemen — in the ancient world, and one’s life and property were usually subject to arbitrary seizure. There was freedom of religion — except when there wasn’t, for instance when the Roman state persecuted the Cult of Dionysius, or deported all the Jews, or decided to hunt down the Christians.

Nor when Faith waned, and pure rationalism again began to govern human thought, could men be trusted to discover a humane morality in the findings of unaided reason. Neither Hegel, nor Comte, nor Nietzsche, nor Marx foresaw a society that defended the liberties we all cherish, while on our side of the ocean Social Darwinists urged the “die-off” of “unfit” weaklings who held back the progress of the species. The great Humanist H. G. Wells looked forward to the disappearance of the “people who had given evidence of a strong anti-social disposition,” including “the black, the brown, the swarthy, the yellow.”

For once, let’s leave Hitler out of this — since the one thing we can’t accuse him of is rationalism — and move up to the present. While Harris may argue that modern science points us toward a morality based on promoting the best interests of our species, secular reason cannot even agree on that. Environmentalists make a strong case that the human race has proven toxic to its home planet, and animal-rights utilitarians argue that it is mere, irrational “speciesism” to prefer human beings over other sentient beasts. Where stands the Magisterium that will settle this argument — NPR?


The Humanism that dominates the post-Christian West depends for its force on the sense of the sacredness of the human person that came from Judaism and Christianity. There is no impregnable argument for man’s inalienable rights, which are only “self-evident” to someone who grew up in a Christian culture. Harris’s moral compass, whether he knows it or not, points north not because of the “findings” of modern science, but thanks to that faint, residual force exerted by the quaint old rectories all across Europe that are even now being closed down, sold off as pubs, or maintained as architectural oddities. When the last of these parishes closes, the laboratories Harris looks to as the wellsprings of moral progress will forget how to tell apart human beings and lab rats.

If we favor human thriving, we do so because we are the feckless heirs to a vast estate passed along by the Christian Church. We began with the fear of God, but the incarnation of Christ taught us also a “fear” of man — that we ought, on pain of sin, to hold in religious awe the liberty and sanctity of the created human person. Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to Muslims, made this point:

Only by starting with the recognition of the centrality of the person and the dignity of each human being, respecting and defending life which is the gift of God, and is thus sacred for Christians and for Muslims alike — only on the basis of this recognition, can we find a common ground for building a more fraternal world, a world in which confrontations and differences are peacefully settled, and the devastating power of ideologies is neutralized.

Of course many Christians have sinned grossly against human dignity over the centuries, sometimes driven by a distorted fear of God — for instance, when we persecuted heretics or non-believers, arrogating for human authority control over something as sacred as the individual conscience. But our own creed undermined and exposed as immoral such abuses; for every inquisitor we commissioned, there were hundreds of humble Franciscans who preached the Faith in freedom, and silent Carmelites who suffered and prayed. For every Francisco Pizarro there was a William Wilberforce.

In embracing religious liberty at the Second Vatican Council, the Church was not surrendering to modernity, but claiming back from the Humanists a treasure they’d borrowed from us. At its heart, the Christian Church belongs to the martyrs, not the inquisitors. That is what humanized the Humanists, and what makes us the sleepless enemies of the prophet who wielded the sword.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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