Friday, August 22, 2014

Richard Dawkins on Down Syndrome and Abortion

In case you haven’t heard, Richard Dawkins is in the headlines again for (surprise!) saying something dumb. This time, he made a remarkably insensitive comment about the moral imperative to abort fetuses with Down Syndrome (hereafter DS). Naturally, there was a huge backlash, followed by an explanation by Dawkins and the predictable internet bickering between the offended and his devotees. The initial story is here. His response/apology is here.

I won’t be saying anything here about his initial statement, nor about the moral or political issues surrounding abortion generally. That is not the purpose of this blog. Instead, I want to look at a statement Dawkins tweeted in defense of his original claim (i.e. that it’s immoral to bring a DS child into the world), as I find it philosophically interesting. He says this:
There’s a profound moral difference between “This fetus should now be aborted” and “This person should have been aborted years ago.”
This is an interesting claim to me, and I was at first unsure what I thought about it. If it puzzles you too, then what follows is my attempt to think through it.
I should also caution you that I am here considering this question like I would any other philosophical issue, and that as a result there may be a certain coldness to my discussion. Please do not take this to imply anything about my own position on abortion, or people with DS, or anything else. I simply want to know if Dawkins’s latter claim, just quoted, has merit.
In his apology, he expands on this point a little:
[There were some] who took offence because they know and love a person with Down Syndrome, and who thought I was saying that their loved one had no right to exist. I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one…I combated it in a tweet as follows: “There’s a profound moral difference between ‘This fetus should now be aborted’ and ‘This person should have been aborted long ago’.” I would never dream of saying to any person, “You should have been aborted before you were born.” But that reluctance is fully compatible with a belief that, at a time before a fetus becomes a “person”, the decision to abort can be a moral one. If you think about it, you pretty much have to agree with that unless you are against all abortion in principle. The definition of “personhood” is much debated among moral philosophers and this is not the place to go into it at length. Briefly, I support those philosophers who say that, for moral purposes, an adult, a child and a baby should all be granted the rights of a person. An early fetus, before it develops a nervous system, should not. As embryonic development proceeds towards term, the morality of abortion becomes progressively more difficult to assess. There is no hard and fast dividing line. As I have argued in “The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind”, the definition of personhood is a gradual, “fading in / fading out” definition. In any case, this is a problem that faces anybody on the pro-choice side of the general abortion debate.
So is this difference really morally significant? Here's the state of affairs we're evaluating:
At time t1 action a is morally permissible (or even obligatory), while at time t2, a is morally objectionable.
We want to know first if this is a consistent possibility in the case of aborting a DS fetus, and if so, if it is a plausible moral hypothesis. Here a is the action of aborting a fetus with DS, t1 is some time before birth, and t2 is some time after the fetus has grown to a sufficient age to grant it personhood (on Dawkins’s schema).
So what are the relevant differences between the fetus at t1 and the person at t2? Right away, we see the major one: personhood. Presumably, this property is acquired at some point in the childhood of the DS fetus. There is also the accumulated experience of the DS child, as well as the accumulated experience of its parents (as well as any siblings), whose lives are irreversibly altered by the experience of raising the child, rather than aborting it. Lastly, there is the potential effect on society that the DS person may have, whether positive or negative. There are probably other relevant differences, but this is enough to be getting on with.
Now, it may be that these last three differences (accumulated experience of the child and the family, and social effects) are only significant insofar as they affect the outcome of the initial personhood question. I.e. they may be just a more detailed way to say the same thing: “The DS fetus acquires personhood after birth,” and “The DS fetus has experiences and affects the lives of others after birth” may be equivalent. But it is important to note that this is an open question. I for one don’t know if personhood is anything over and above a subject’s conscious experience and the effects the subject has on the experience of others. That is an important metaphysical question, and it requires a great deal of careful thought. I can tell you that there is no consensus on the matter among philosophers.
It is also important to note that even if we grant that personhood is reducible to effects on conscious experience, this does not settle the question for us whether Dawkins’s claim is plausible. This is because while it would allow us to discount the experience of the DS child at t1 (since the fetus presumably is not conscious), it would not allow us to discount the effects of the fetus on the consciousness of its family members at t1, whose experience is already altered by the existence of the fetus. And for all we know, this may be sufficient in itself to affect the personhood of the fetus, and so affect the moral valence of action a.
Another thing to consider is whether a at t1 (let’s call it a1) and a at t2 (a2) can really be said to be the same action. Dawkins’s claim is that deliberating about a1 is morally different from deliberating about a2. Thus, he seems to assume that thinking about aborting a fetus before it happens is significantly morally different from thinking about aborting the same fetus after it has grown into an adult. But is this right? It is, after all, the same fetus we’re talking about. The only relevant difference is that the person considering a2 has the benefit of hindsight, and can consider all the experiences in the life of the DS child. But Dawkins himself wants to disallow such “emotional” considerations in deciding the question of the moral permissibility of a. As he says,
I have sympathy for this emotional point, but it is an emotional one not a logical one.
He later adds:
I do not for one moment apologise for approaching moral philosophic questions in a logical way. There’s a place for emotion & this isn’t it.
So it seems Dawkins is constrained to admit that the action under consideration is the same (i.e. the abortion of a particular fetus), regardless of when that action is considered.
So this leaves us with the following possibilities: either personhood is reducible to experience or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then it is possible that the DS fetus is a person. If it is so reducible, then it is still possible that the DS fetus is a person. Hence, for all we know, the DS fetus may be a person at t1, and a1 is therefore morally ambiguous. But if a1 is possibly the termination of a person, and a1 and a2 are identical, then a is morally ambiguous no matter when it is considered.
So on reflection then, it seems that Dawkins’s claim is without merit. He is guilty both of begging the question of personhood (since to say that a is objectionable at t2 and not at t1 is to assume that the fetus is not a person),* and of inconsistency in his use of emotion (i.e. he wants to say that appeals to one’s experience with DS persons are emotional and therefore prohibited, but he must rely on such appeals to say that considering a2 is significantly morally different from considering a1).
So whatever the truth is about the morality of aborting a DS fetus, Dawkins’s defense of his insensitive claim (that considering this question before and after the fetus is born makes a significant difference) fails.
Of course there is something right about Dawkins’s point, and that’s simply that it would be morally repugnant to tell any living person that they should not have lived. This is why, I think, Dawkins’s defense has an initial ring of plausibility. Nonetheless, if Dawkins’s preferred moral theory is correct, it may very well still be true that that person should not have lived, even if social convention dictates that we not tell them that to their face. To remain consistent, Dawkins will have to admit that, yes, it would have been morally better—i.e. there would have been more pleasure and less pain overall—if those living with DS had been aborted.
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether Dawkins was fairly castigated.
* This is of course assuming that the moral permissibility of abortion tracks personhood. I think Dawkins would grant this, so I’m not going to try to defend it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

God Likes You

The other day I was in a restaurant seated near a couple with a young son. He looked to be about two or three, and from all appearances, a rather unremarkable child. Not that there was anything apparently wrong with him; he just seemed...normal.
I note this because the entire time I was in the restaurant, the boy's parents were absolutely gushing about him. Whenever the waitress would come around, they'd point out some new extraordinary thing about the child--the way he ate, the things he liked, how smart he was, interesting (to them) aspects of his developing personality. To her credit, the waitress played along. Clearly, these parents were fond of their child.
I've noticed an interesting trend lately among some of my more progressive evangelical friends. These friends are intent on separating themselves from a certain theological strand that portrays God as a cold and unapproachable Judge, who requires Jesus to intercede for him in his dealings with humanity. On this view, it is true in a sense that God loves us, but his contact with us must be mediated through Jesus (who seems to be a bit softer), so as to avoid consuming us in his wrath. This view is summed up nicely in this colorful quote from a well-known pastor:
"You have been told that God is a loving, gracious, merciful, kind, compassionate, wonderful, and good sky fairy who runs a day care in the sky and has a bucket of suckers for everyone because we’re all good people. That is a lie…God looks down and says ‘I hate you, you are my enemy, and I will crush you,’ and we say that is deserved, right and just, and then God says ‘Because of Jesus I will love you and forgive you.’ This is a miracle." *
In other words, God "loves" us, but he certainly doesn't like us.
To counter this picture of God, I have noticed several of my friends beginning to talk about God liking us rather than loving us. And this is perfectly understandable. What they want to get across is that God feels very similarly to us as those parents mentioned above feel about their son. He's crazy about us. He can't help bragging about us to whoever will listen--even the most unremarkable of us. And he doesn't need anyone else to shield us from him. He's not afraid that he won't be able to resist devouring us in his anger. And he isn't so double-minded that he needs Jesus to keep reminding him that he's on our side. In short, he doesn't just "love" us—he really, really likes us too!
I find this shift in language fascinating. It is, so far as I can tell, the only significant social sphere where the meanings of “love” and “like” have been effectively inverted. The only other similar occurrence I can think of is within a family situation, when one might utter something like, “I love you [i.e. because we’re family], but I don’t have to like you.” Here too one sees the tendency to associate “like” with affection and fond feelings, while “love” is seen as something more like obligation.
This is reinforced by the tendency of many Christian teachers (myself included) to stress that love—especially the biblical kind—is not a feeling. It is, rather, a decision, a commitment to act in a certain way toward others, regardless of how they respond. And this, too, is certainly understandable, for not many words in our language have been more corrupted than “love.” For example, there is a real need to distinguish between divine love as described in John (agape) and the love that one feels for her iPhone. But I worry that in our zeal to hold up Christian love as something wholly other, we have allowed the misconception that it is somehow opposed to simple good feeling. It is of course true that affection is not necessary for Christian love, but it is also true that Christian love is not complete without affection. And this is a fact rarely acknowledged in evangelical circles. Bill Craig recently considered this point, and noted that “a full and mature love will involve a genuine affection for the other person.” The key here is the “full and mature” bit. So long as we merely tolerate the other (including the enemy), our love is not yet perfect.
I have two issues with all of this. The first is that it is often the same people who are concerned with proclaiming that God likes us who are also pointing out that love is not a feeling. I see a potential inconsistency here. On the one hand, love is associated with decision, as opposed to feeling. On the other, God’s love for us (presumably the paradigm of love itself) is described as being more associated with feeling than with obligation.
You see the problem? If we aren’t careful, we may appear double-minded to those trying to make sense of divine love. After all, how can God like us (i.e. feel affection for us) if love is not a feeling, and God is love?
The second issue I have is that in moving from using “love” language to “like” language, we seem to be ceding the definitional rights of these words to those who abuse them. In other words, why should we let bad theology (see quote above) dictate what “love” means? Of course, we can’t follow this path too far, because we (progressive evangelicals who believe God is fond of us) don’t have the right to make words mean what we want them to, either.
But we can at least insist that when we use the word “love” to talk about God, people are to understand that we mean he is both willing to save us, and that he is so filled with affection for us that he annoys his buddies with stories about all the mediocre things we do.
So my recommendation is this: if what we want people to understand about God is that he is excited to be in relationship with us—that the very thought of us gives him warm, tingly feelings—then let’s try to be consistent in our use of “love.” Don’t get caught up in the temptation to see Jesus’s love and God the Father’s love as different. They aren’t. Jesus is the expression of the Father’s love, not a concession to his better nature. **
* Charity dictates that I not mention the source of this disturbing quote, though many will likely guess it.
** Yes, you may quote this. :-)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013


My father was 50 when I was born.

Though he always seemed young to me, this admittedly made for a rather unique upbringing.

There were drawbacks, of course. We didn't do too many active things together, for instance. We probably had less in common than younger parents might have with their children. And there always seemed to be a social stigma attached to having older parents somehow, especially among my peers in grade school; the question, "Is that your grandfather?" got rather old. The worst thing was (and is) the knowledge that there are certain life events that I may not be able to share with my parents.

But there are advantages as well. By the age of 50, most folks have gotten over the bulk of life's trivialities, and also a good many of its more serious distractions. Or at least, if they're going to, it's likely going to happen before this point. For me, this meant that the great majority of my father's poor decisions were behind him well before I came along, while the wisdom gleaned from those decisions remained. It also meant that he had the opportunity to meet my mother, and to become the kind of person that she would have. And perhaps most significantly, it meant that he had the time to recognize his need for Jesus, and to commit his life to him. That last, of course, changes everything.

And so I grew up, with an older father than any of my friends, but also without many of the issues that a lot of my friends had to deal with. I am convinced these two things are linked. In fact, I sometimes wonder if there shouldn't be a minimum age requirement for parenting.1

Now, it's well known that Jesus often referred to God as "Father," as did the Jewish tradition before Him (though He arguably personalized it a good deal). And the church has always taken God's paternal relationship to us very seriously. However, a lot of folks have a hard time with seeing God this way. This is understandable, because a lot of earthly fathers are truly awful. Whereas fatherhood, like all loving human relationships, was meant to reveal something to us about what God is like, for many, fatherhood has only taught pain and disappointment. Thus, their ability to understand God, and know Him as He desires to be known, is seriously impaired.

I have never had this problem. When I think of God as Father, I immediately recognize generosity, kindness, sacrifice, gentleness, a desire for justice, charity. I also see honor, discipline, wisdom, a shrewdness earned by long experience dealing with the world, a quickness to express love, and a heart that I know would do anything for me. I am able to see all these things in my heavenly Father because I first learned to recognize them in my earthly father. And unlike most, I was able to recognize them all from an early age, because my father was in the appropriate stage of life to exhibit them for me.

All that to say, I am continually immensely grateful for the father God chose to give me. I call him "Daddy." It is admittedly an intimate title, but it is also mature, somehow, and carries an element of respect (this may be a southern thing).2 I'm even grateful that God waited as long as He did to give us to one another, as I would undoubtedly be a different person if He hadn't. And I like who I am. What's more, I know my Daddy (and my Father) does, too, because he (and He) tells me so regularly.

Today, Daddy turns 76. I'm thankful for the years we've had together, and I pray for many more before the ole' mortal coil is shuffled off. But mostly I'm thankful that he has always loved me so well. Because of this, I am able to approach the One who is Love, unencumbered by any distortions or perversions of what love looks like, or what fatherhood is meant to reveal.

I wouldn't trade that for anything.

Happy birthday, Daddy.

1 At least until we learn (remember) how to submit our lives--including our parenting--to one another in Christian community. But that's a blog for another time.

2 In case you're wondering why I don't include a discussion of "Abba" here, it's because the Abba-Daddy connection seems to be a myth.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Incarnation and the Anthropic Principle

I made the image a bit bigger than usual this time so you could see it better. It still isn't quite big enough. What it says there in the red is "Local Superclusters." That means that that tiny little piece of the universe contains the "superclusters" that are in our "neighborhood." To give you some perspective, a supercluster is (appropriately) a group of clusters, which in turn is a group of galaxies. Within these "local superclusters" is one called the "Virgo Supercluster," which contains the "Local Galactic Group," which contains our Milky Way galaxy. Within the galaxy, our "interstellar neighborhood" lies on the outskirts of one of the Milky Way's spiral arms, and within that neighborhood is our solar system, i.e. our sun and (now eight) planets. The distance from earth to the nearest star in our interstellar neighborhood other than our own sun—called "Proxima Centauri"—is 4.243 light years. That means it takes light over four years to get from there to here. In case you forgot, nothing in the universe is faster than light (that we know of). The distance from us to something like another supercluster is too vast to even begin to comprehend.

Obviously, the universe is pretty stinking big. Big enough, in fact, to make one wonder how humans could ever have thought they had a significant place in it. This is perhaps especially true for Christians, who, historically, have not only thought we were significant, but the very purpose of the universe. Heck, we even had a hard time letting go of the idea that we weren't the center of it. 1

Now, a lot of folks (theists, mostly, but others too) have noted that as big as the universe is, things in it sure seem to be just right for life to occur. Take the "cosmological constant," for example. It is one of a list of about 26 or so " fundamental constants." These are basically values describing things like how fundamental particles interact in the universe, and the important thing is that they have to be very precise in order for the universe to permit life. If the cosmological constant, for example, were changed by one part in 10120, no life. The others are similarly mind-boggling.

In response to these numbers, and the claims of theists that they suggest something about our place in the universe, astronomers came up with what is now called the "anthropic principle." I don't really want to go into a lot of detail here about what exactly that means, or the various versions of the principle and how they affect theism. For that, I recommend this paper. 2

Basically, the principle says that in order to observe the conditions required for our existence (like we do with the constants), we have to already be existing in a universe compatible with our existence.

Pretty simple right? Of course, atheists want to use this rather obvious observation as a weapon against theists who use fine-tuning arguments, and then theists have to make a bunch of clarifications and use fun thought experiments like in that paper I just cited. 3

I, however, want to do something completely different.

When atheists use the anthropic principle to attack theists, they are ultimately saying that we shouldn't be surprised that we exist or that our appearance in the universe needs no explanation, certainly no divine one. In effect, we are utterly insignificant in the vast, empty blackness that is our universe.

In response to this, I suggest that instead of replying by trying to correct their use of the anthropic principle, we cut to the heart of their claim, and just agree with it.

Atheist: You Christians are so dumb. Don't you know that the size of the universe and the anthropic principle show conclusively that we are tiny, insignificant specks in the universe? We mean nothing.

Christian: I know right!?
Isn't it amazing that God chose to become one of us?!

See what I did there? The fact that we are relatively small, seemingly insignificant inhabitants of a cosmos so big we can't even think about it clearly, should not be a surprise to Christians. I've written here before about incarnation. It is the very center of the Christian worldview, and it means, crudely, that God loved us so much that He voluntarily relinquished His position as creator and sustainer of that whole vast conglomerate in that picture up there, so that He could become a human being. Someone who itches and poops and gets sick and dies. The very thought is scandalous. We (the church) have been thinking about it for over 2,000 years now, and we still find it hard to believe.

Some atheist telling us the universe is big and that we shouldn't be surprised to be observing it really isn't big news to us.

So to the atheist who likes to use the anthropic principle to bash Christians: we already know God must love us an awful lot. But thanks for reiterating our point!

1 In case you're thinking, "Well, in that picture, it sure looks like we might be in the center of the whole thing," remember that that's the observable universe, which happens to look pretty much the same, regardless of where we point our telescopes. Naturally, if the universe is bigger than we can see, then when we chart the part we can see, it will look like we're in the center. Actually, this might not be a bad illustration of the anthropic principle...something like, "Since the universe is so big that any part of it we see will place us in the middle, we shouldn't be surprised to find ourselves there..."

2 In it, Craig helpfully separates the Anthropic Principle, which is a kind of meta-scientific claim, from what he calls the "Anthropic Philosophy," which adds claims to the Principle, such as that the fine-tuning of the universe ought not surprise us. Here's an excerpt:

Now it needs to be emphasized that what the Anthropic Philosophy does not hold, despite the sloppy statements on this head often made by scientists, is that our existence as observers explains the basic features of the universe. The answer to the question "Why is the universe isotropic?" given by Collins and Hawking, ". . . the isotropy of the Universe is a consequence of our existence," is simply irresponsible and brings the Anthropic Philosophy into undeserved disrepute, for literally taken, such an answer would require some form of backward causation whereby the conditions of the early universe were brought about by us acting as efficient causes merely by our observing the heavens. But WAP neither asserts nor implies this; rather WAP holds that we must observe the universe to possess certain features (not that the universe must possess certain features) and the Anthropic Philosophy says that therefore these features ought not to surprise us or cry out for explanation. The self-selection effect affects our observations, not the basic features of the universe itself. If the Anthropic Philosophy held that the basic features of the universe were themselves brought about by our observations, then it could be rightly dismissed as fanciful. But the Anthropic Philosophy is much more subtle: it does not try to explain why the universe has the basic features it does, but contends that no explanation is needed, since we should not be surprised at observing what we do, our observations of those basic features being restricted by our own existence as observers. 
3 See my own brief treatment of it here.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What does it mean to "fear" God?

The Bible says a lot about fear. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to make sense of some of it. Or at least, it can be difficult for me, and I'm guessing I'm not alone.

What really trips me up is all the stuff the Bible says about fearing God. In case you haven't checked lately, it's in favor of it. Big time. Here are a few examples:

  • The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction. 1
  • But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine. 2
  • The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. 3
  • He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them. The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy. 4
  • The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love. 5

And it's not just the Old Testament either:

  • His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 6
  • “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him." 7
  • Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. 8

Getting the picture?

What I struggle with is how to understand this mass9 of verses in light of other things the Bible says about fear. Things like this:

  • There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 10
  • For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. 11
  • For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. 12

In addition to all this, pastor/teacher types throw around statements about fearing God all the time. Unfortunately, I don't recall ever hearing a good explanation (or even a bad one) for what fearing God means. We get a lot about its results and why we ought to do it, but not much about what it is. Take this Oswald Chambers quote for example: "The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God, you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God, you fear everything else." 13 He gives us no help in figuring out what fearing God is, and so leaves himself open to responses like this one from an atheist blogger:

There was a time when I thought that all non-Christians lived their life in constant fear. Fear of the future, fear of death, fear that they would be wrong in the end and have to face judgment. I now know this to be a lie. It is a lie spread by Christianity in order to protect itself from unbelief. If believers think that without god there is only fear, they will be less likely to question their beliefs. When I see something like the [Chambers] quote it makes me wish...I could tell them that, no, I don’t fear everything. I don’t fear god. I don’t fear death. 14

The atheist makes a good point: if "fear" here means what it normally means in popular vernacular, then Chambers is just wrong. Atheists don't have to fear everything in that sense.

But is that the sense in which the Bible means we should "fear" God?

I don't think so.

So what does it mean then? It is tempting to interpret it as "having a reverential respect and sense of incredible awe towards Yahweh’s powers." In fact, that is exactly how another theist-turned-atheist blogger interprets it. She continues,

If you think your deity is perfect, good, loving, and can do anything for you that you ask for, then I can see how the world and our struggles might appear less daunting or intimidating. If I had Superman in my back pocket, I’d feel pretty safe. 15

You see the problem with this interpretation? It puts the focus of the fear on God's power, presumably His power to control our circumstances or protect us from bad things or perhaps "smite" those He chooses (see image).

I agree with this atheist, too, that this kind of fear is unacceptable. I think, however, that there is another alternative.

Now, I'm not (yet) a theologian in the academic sense, nor do I have any credentials that qualify me to speak authoritatively on ancient Judaic conceptions of God or fear. However, I recently had a chat with a friend about what it means to fear God, and afterward he suggested I write about it here so other people could benefit from my perspective. So here it is, for what it's worth.

My current working definition of the "fear of God" as it is used in both the Old and New Testaments is something like, "recognizing God's nature and my relation to it." This is "fearful" because when I see how loving and good He is, I simultaneously see how far short I fall of that, or even of desiring that, and that unless I can learn to love what He is, I am doomed.

Notice that this is entirely consistent (so far as I can tell) with all the verses about fear above. In fact, His being Love (see 1 John 4:8) entails this: since love is the most real thing in the universe
and, I would argue, the only sort of relationship that is possible with Godif I refuse to participate with Him in a love relationship, then the only other option (logically) is my separation from Him. And since He made me and sustains me in existence, this is just my destruction.

Further, since I am currently not fully acclimated to His being/presence (i.e. love), it can be very uncomfortable to be around Him. Hence the "fear."

Note that on my interpretation fear is not an integral part of our love relationship with God, nor is it a result of reflection on His "smiting power." Rather, it is a second-order (that is, after-the-fact reflection) realization of the difference between God's nature and my own desires. On my definition, I reflect (based on experiences with the divine nature) on God's love, and realize that in order to be compatible with it, my desires will have to change, and that this will likely involve suffering. The only other option, however, is voluntary destruction. This realization then produces fear, but it is a fear which motivates (or should motivate) action to transform (hence, it makes sense to say that it is the beginning of wisdom). 

Thus, my "fear" of God would result, not from any essential inconsistency in our beings or from His ability to punish me, but from the current state of my will/desire, shaped as it is by the history of humanity's sin, along with my own. I recognize that what I want and what He is are very different, and yet I simultaneously recognize that what I need is Him. Reflection on this then produces fear. But that fear is always temporary and always dispelled as love increases, and my nature/desire is more closely aligned with His.

I, for one, find this interpretation both satisfying and provocative. It also avoids the objections so easily leveled against the other sort of interpretation we mentioned, as it isn't based on God's power or wrath but on His love. Join me in praying that those two atheists will encounter that love directly and be changed.

And let me know what you think!

1 Proverbs 1:7

2 Psalms 33:18-19

3 Psalms 34:7-11

4 Psalms 145:19-20

5 Psalms 147:11

6 Luke 1:50

7 Luke 12:4-5 This one is particularly interesting, as two verses later it says don't fear! Surely Jesus wasn't contradicting Himself!?

8 Philippians 2:12-13

9 For a much longer list, see here.

10 1 John 4:18

11 2 Timothy 1:7 Some translations use "fear" instead of "timidity," but for consistency I'm keeping the NIV here.

12 Romans 8:14-17

13 From "The Pilgrim's Song Book," available here.

14 Full post here.

15 Full post here.