The Dangers of Fear, Pride, and Ignorance
In the life of faith, there are two heresies (among others) which must be overcome in order to reach the fullness of that life: these are the fear of death and self-deification. It may sound odd for me to speak of these things as heresies, but to use the word in a truly etymological sense, it is fitting; the word comes from the Greek hairesis, meaning “choice”. Therefore these two heresies are choices that one makes personally in an attempt to avoid the totality of truth that is the gospel. As choices, they are utterly intrinsic to the very meaning of the person and of personhood; Kierkegaard, in his late work The Sickness unto Death, proclaims that “the self is freedom.” Freedom is nothing less than the capacity to make choices, and if this capacity is the self, then choice is at the very heart of personal existence.
This is why the choices we make, in practical activity, but chiefly in the life of the spirit (e.g. our beliefs, inclinations, affinities, etc.) are of such great importance: these choices form the essence of the person, and as such they form the person themselves. Much non-theistic thought defines freedom as the capacity and right to believe anything one wants, regardless of the truth or veracity of those beliefs — but this doctrine reveals itself to be a perversion of reality. Freedom is the self, and choice is the crux of freedom.
Therefore to choose to belief what is false merely because it lends one an illusory sense of security and happiness is actually a defamation and degradation of freedom, not an affirmation of it. The highest affirmation of freedom is to choose to believe what is true, regardless of the toll or burden it imposes on one’s being: soon enough one realizes this toll is inconsequential compared to the glory and opportunity of even being able to believe and come to a knowledge of the truth.
To return to our original objective, we must make an analysis of the two great heresies (or false choices) that one can make before the beginning of the ultimate realization of truth in the life of faith. The first of these is the fear of death. Now, it may again sound strange to call fear a choice, especially one so grand as the fear of death, which many claim fundamental to mortal life. But here we can appeal to ancient Stoic thought: they defined not only fear but all emotions to be false judgments concerning the nature of life and the world. To fear anything at all is simply to make a bad judgment; it is to allow irrationality to impose itself on oneself as a person and destroy the sovereignty of one’s reason.
The fear of death is no different: to fear death is to fear a chimera of one’s own creation — especially in the light of the gospel of eternal life. That gospel is the truth, and so one must conform one’s mind to the reality that one will never truly die, whether a saint or an unrepentant sinner. Revelation from God from eternity has guaranteed this reality. To ground the truth and reality of God would take us too far off course in this essay, but I would appeal to the reader to research John Macquarrie’s dialectical theism, as well as contemporary studies of the formal arguments of the cosmological, ontological, and teleological types in favor of the reality of God.
To appeal back to Stoic thought, the way to defeat this heresy is through the affirmation of the sovereignty of one’s reason, which itself is derived from the ultimate, divine wisdom and reason. This affirmation of reason will allow one to realize the absurdity of this fear, and allow one to overcome it by the strength and veracity of one’s reasoning faculty. The grounding of this faculty in the divine reason is ultimately the same act as affirming God’s reality and thus the truth of eternal life, disarming the fear of death over time as one comes closer to God and as one further experiences the truth of revelation.
The second heresy which is the object of this essay is a far more pernicious one: that of self-deification. By this term I mean the attitude and tendency of the finite person, by extremes of pride and ignorance, to assume that they themselves are God and that their woefully and bafflingly limited, finite knowledge and perspective constitute the Ultimate. I say this is a far more pernicious heresy because it can be hidden in a multitude of forms. But these forms can truly be limited to two: pride and ignorance.
Pride is the exultation of the individual above other people and above God. It is an entirely false and illusory mode of being which has a very close kinship with ignorance, and yet can and does exist on its own accord. To be proud is to lose sense of the sheer conditioned nature of oneself; to lose sense of the vast realms of reality that are closed off to your knowledge and perspective; to lose sense of the utter dependence one has on other people and on reality itself. Pride destroys the natural harmony and unity of the person, and as it were amplifies the negative aspects of the person, those being their conditioned nature, limitation, and lack of knowledge and experience.
A proud person loses sight of these humbling aspects of their being, and tends to minimize and ignore the reality of these aspects. Needless to say pride is a vice which eats away at many precious virtues, chief among them being humility, charity, and thanksgiving. The gospel and the conscious affirmation of the truth of revelation are the antidotes to a parasitic pride, which steals not only from the proud individual but also all those to whom they come in contact and all those with whom they interact. These truths include the absolute dominance and control of the supra-personal God, the dependence one has on this God and on other people, and the charity and almsgiving that is expected of one — this charity not necessarily involving the giving of money to charitable organizations, but chiefly the giving away of oneself to God and for others, which is the path to divinity.
The other aspect of this heresy (and far more heresies) is that of ignorance. Ignorance is much less alarming than pride, but can easily allow the flood of selfishness to overwhelm the river of the person. Ignorance is not necessarily simply the lack of knowledge: it is most chiefly the will towards ignorance, which likewise with pride destroys the necessary humility of the individual. Ignorance can also manifest as a refusal to live according to and to recognize the truth that one already possesses and knows.
The overcoming of ignorance is significantly less daunting than the overcoming of pride: one must simply eliminate the willful laziness towards the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom, and reorient one’s intellectual life towards the pursuit and growth of this wisdom. One must also affirm often the reality of the truths that one knows to be true, and especially the reality of what has been divinely revealed.
To overcome these heresies is to approach much more closely to the state of beatitude in Christ which is the absolute affirmation and jubilation of the person — which God wants all of us to achieve and maintain. There are other pitfalls on the way to holiness which I have not mentioned here, but these heresies stand alone as among the most pernicious and dangerous to be defeated on the way to God.