Sometimes fear is more contagious than a virus. Today’s show features Miroslav Volf on the need to fear rightly as the culture of fear threatens to engulf us, Matt Croasmun on anxiety and seeing oneself as a source of contagion, and Drew Collins on the ways that fear induces a desire for action and elimination of danger, when perhaps what is most needed is trust in the close, if hidden, presence of God.
For the Life of the World is produced by the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more info, visit faith.yale.edu
Follow Miroslav Volf on Twitter: @MiroslavVolf
-0:12 Introductory Teaser
-0:57 Summary and introduction to the topic of this podcast—fear.
-3:35 Miroslav begins.
-3:40 Thoughts from Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety
-4:15 “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” Proverbs 9:10
-4:50 The two questions we should have toward fear: 1. What do we fear for? 2. What are we afraid of?
-6:21 Miroslav Volf: “... we are not just afraid of the virus, we are afraid potentially of everyone and almost everything. A carrier of the virus and, therefore source of danger, is everyone and everything. Between us and much of what we see and touch there is something like an invisible aura of danger and therefore also an invisible source of fear.”
-7:15 Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety
-7:28 “Fugitives and wanderers” Paraphrase, Genesis 4:14
-8:10 Miroslav: “And, of course, the more we fear, the more we are focused on ourselves and the less we are capable of caring for others. Fear diminishes our other-directedness; fear diminishes our civic mindedness, which is precisely what we need in pandemics.”
-9:10 New section: fear of infecting others, Miroslav joined by Matt Croasmun.
-9:22 Volf and Croasmun, For the Life of the World: Theology that Makes a Difference
-11:27 Matt Croasmun: “...I’ve found myself thinking about to what extent Christian ethics are good at thinking about moral actions that you can only ever evaluate in terms of the statistical likelihoods of causing harm. It’s one thing to think ethically about I take an action and I see that someone is harmed and here it is I am taking an action, and I don’t know if someone is harmed and the best I could do would only ever get me to a probabilistic estimation of harms that I could be causing people that I’ll never see. That somehow runs around some of the psychology of the Christian ethic of love of neighbor—a neighbor that I can see.”
-14:23 New section: Miroslav on living in a culture of fear.
-14:45 Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation and How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century
-16:13 “Like people, saying, ‘peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Ezekiel 13:10)
-16:30 “Unnecessary products that promise protection from imagined or exaggerated harms” Bader/Baker/Day/Gordon, Fear Itself
-17:20 Reference to Psalm 137:4
-18:28 “The Black Death” [1346-53], which killed 75-200 million, or the “Spanish Flu Pandemic” , which killed 20-50 million.
-20:05 Risk Societies by Ulrich Beck
-21:00 Miroslav: “When a bacterial or a viral pandemic like COVID-19 breaks out, the social pandemic of fear is not far behind.That’s partly because when we see others fearing, we catch the malady of fear ourselves; fear is infectious; that’s partly also because the culture of fear has weakened our immunity to fear.”
-22:20 New Section: Miroslav and Drew Collins on the location of God in the midst of fear.
-23:21 Drew Collins: “When I think about the contagiousness of fear, we could also describe it as coercive—there’s a way in which our fears are foisted upon other people. Even when in more and more spots, misperceptions of potential dangers and in some ways, making those invented dangers real and making people grapple with them as well.”
-24:30 1 Kings 19
-25:30 Drew: “And what I take from that is we often expect of ourselves to respond to fear with action. We expect God, we pray to God to alleviate our fears by acting, changing something. But what if the passage suggests that God’s promise in the midst of fear—real, genuine fear—is first and foremost not some grand gesture or grand action or even a response. But just the promise of God’s presence. A promise and trust that God is real and present in a direct way but hidden.”
*Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is produced by the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
*Miroslav Volf (Introduction teaser): ...When a bacterial or viral pandemic like covid-19 breaks out, the social pandemic of fear is not far behind. That’s partly because when we see others fearing we catch the malady of fear ourselves—fear is infectious. It’s partly also because the culture of fear has weakened our immunity to fear…
* Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of your humanity.
* I’m Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. It's the first week of April in 2020, and there is a crack in the hull. There’s a leak in the lifeboat. The pandemic caused by covid-19—the novel coronavirus—seemed to slowly leak in. It was other countries' problem, until it was our problem. A collective move to crisis mode has massively disrupted life all over the world. We refresh the news, scrolling and trolling social media as exiles in our own homes. Some of us sitting on thrones of toilet paper, health care workers desperately in need of protective supplies and ventilators, working to keep a semblance of economy on the rails, more and more people trying to keep a semblance of a job. What is the meaning of shelter in place when you’re uncertain of how you’ll pay rent for that place?
* We wait for political action, we wait for stimulus checks; and we hope, but we fear. The fact is, we’re still in that early mode of immediate reaction to a dangerous crisis event—with anxiety, worry. The adrenaline and cortisol spikes, as we feel like we're losing the control that we once had, if we ever had it at all. We thought we were impervious and immune to global pandemics (in that, many of us—myself included—just didn’t think of them at all).
* As of this week, we’ve topped one million cases of covid-19, with 60,000 deaths worldwide.
* Stock markets have tumbled almost 30% from an all-time high in February.
* 3.3 million Americans became jobless last week. Then this week, that figure doubled. And 10 million Americans don’t have the job they had two weeks ago.
* Oh, ahh, yeah, we’re still that election cycle that we’re in the middle of.
* As threats both known and unknown abound, this week’s episode of For the Life of the World is about fear. Specifically, a diagnosis of the culture of fear in covid-19 time. We’re all right in the middle of this, but we need to stay alert, reflective, attentive, and caring about our individual and collective responses.
* If you’re just hearing about us, don’t forget to subscribe to our feed wherever you listen to podcasts, we’ll drop a new episode every Saturday (and maybe the occasional mid-week).
* Today’s show features Miroslav Volf on the need to fear rightly as the culture of fear threatens to engulf us, Matt Croasmun on anxiety and seeing oneself as a source of contagion, and Drew Collins on the ways that fear induces a desire for action and elimination of danger, when perhaps what is most needed is trust in the close, if hidden, presence of God. Thanks for listening.
Miroslav Volf on Learning to Fear Rightly
Miroslav Volf: The great Danish Christian thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, believed that we have to learn “how to be afraid” rightly; if we don’t, he insisted, we will be lost—lost either for knowing no fear at all or lost by “being completely engulfed by fear.” And then he added, “The person who has learnt how to be afraid in the right way has learnt the most important thing of all.”
*Now, I am not sure that being afraid rightly is the most important thing of all, though it comes close to being that if we believe the Hebrew Bible, which insists that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” I am also not sure that we have to worry too much about people not knowing to fear at all. For almost all human beings—every one of us finite, every one of us a fragile and self-aware creature—fear seems to be unavoidable.
*When it comes to fear, I think we can ask two questions:
*One is, What do we fear for? For what do we fear? And the answer is fairly simple and deeply distressing: as we watch covid-19 spread and the number of dead rise exponentially, we fear for our own lives and the lives of those who we love—our children, our elderly parents, our spouses, and our friends; or as we see the economy slow down, as people lose jobs, and wages do not get paid, we fear for our livelihood; we worry how we will put food on our tables or pay our rent; we worry that, together with our economy, our whole way of life might collapse.
*But there is a second question and that is the question, What are we afraid of? Now that is about the source of fear, and in this case the source of fear is easy to name, but it is hard to identify, and even harder—I think—to understand. Now we are afraid of a particular virus: novel coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2. Now the difficulty is that the virus does not come holding a flashing red light, waving its little hands, and screaming at us: “I’m here!”
*You can be infected without knowing it; and you can be a source of infection without you or anyone around you knowing that you are.
*As a consequence, we are not just afraid of the virus, we are afraid potentially of everyone and almost everything. A carrier of the virus and, therefore source of danger, is everyone and everything. Between us and much of what we see and touch there is something like an invisible aura of danger and therefore also an invisible source of fear.
*What’s worse is the fear is magnified because we don’t understand well the character and behavior of the virus, and we are unable either to eliminate or adequately control it.
*No wonder that many of us are engulfed in fear. Instead of fulfilling its proper function to protect us from danger, fear itself has become our danger. We languish, and some of us, to use Kierkegaard’s word, are lost—living, as we do, a life of fear.
*Our lives are in turmoil; like Cain after killing his brother Abel (Genesis 4:12), we have become “fugitives and wanderers,” and we are such even in what should be the safety of our own homes; we are anxious; we are gripped with inchoate sadness over the future.
*When we are engulfed by fear, we don’t just perceive our neighbors as potential sources of danger; they appear to us as competitors, even as enemies in the struggle for scarce resources—even that with resource, that crazy toilet paper; and so fear erodes social trust, without which no healthy social life is possible.
*And, of course, the more we fear, the more we are focused on ourselves and the less we are capable of caring for others. Fear diminishes our other-directedness; fear diminishes our civic mindedness, which is precisely what we need in pandemics.
*Fear also clouds our judgment, our ability to make decisions; struggling to ward off imagined or exaggerated dangers, we fail to attend to real dangers; expending our resources on false remedies, we are unable to implement real remedies.
*Being in the grip of fear is bad for us—almost as bad as not fearing at all. Engulfed in fear, we are lost in a toxic fog. We seem not to be able to find our way out.
Evan Rosa: Here’s Matt Croasmun, associate research scholar and director of the Life Worth Living Program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. He and Miroslav co-authored a recent book, the name should ring a bell—For the Life of the World: Theology that Makes a Difference.
Matthew Croasmun: It strikes me that often these days I’m feeling like I’m the source of contagion. We can think of the world as potential sources of contagion that could potentially harm me. I’m finding that a lot of my energy is spent on considering myself a part of the contagion.
*(This may have something to do with the Lutheran theology that I was raised with; I’ve always thought of myself as a source of moral contagion.)
* But I wonder if, Miroslav, you could respond a bit to that; some of us are walking around sort of feeling like we have something to be afraid of. Others of us—and I think probably all of us are to some degree are in both camps—are also walking around fearing that we are in fact the thing that others should be afraid of; we’re the source of contagion or the cause just by going on and living our lives we could bring about untold harm to people we know and to people we don’t know. I think that is raising my anxiety level as well these days.
Miroslav Volf: Matt, you mentioned Luther, I think there is something really Lutheran about it; namely, the fear is there: not just that I by my sheer being there and that which may be as well, but precisely in trying to attend in the most caring way to whatever it is that I need to attend, I might still, in doing that, cause harm. That seems to be a part of a paralyzing experience in some ways.
Matthew Croasmun: I wonder if even more broadly than this challenge, we tend to think consequentially. We are trying to maximize the best sort of outcomes, and in a very, very complex system, we don't know what the outcomes are going to be of our actions. And I think in particular I’ve found myself thinking about to what extent Christian ethics are good at thinking about moral actions that you can only ever evaluate in terms of the statistical likelihoods of causing harm. It’s one thing to think ethically about I take an action and I see that someone is harmed and here it is I am taking an action, and I don’t know if someone is harmed and the best I could do would only ever get me to a probabilistic estimation of harms that I could be causing people that I’ll never see. That somehow runs around into some of the psychology of the Christian ethic of love of neighbor—a neighbor that I can see.
MV: But might it be the case here, might this not be an example where our personal individual interests and interests of the larger public that to a large part overlap. So you have this strange case where attending to yourself in the proper way is also attending to others in a significant way. And I think that that is a hopeful sign where we can stabilize the behavior that comes to our benefit and also benefits others.
Matt Croasmun: Didn’t you come to the surprising moment then—and I wonder if this applies to Christian culture’s response to the virus—where an impulse to resist one’s own personal fear—“I’m not going to be afraid of the virus; I’m going to live courageously in the face of this threat”—because your interests and the interests of the group are aligned, your willingness to put your own interests and not live in response to your personal fear, your reversal of that also drives you to not take appropriate precautions. Does that make sense?
*Because our interests are aligned in a simplistic Christian ethic that anticipates that they will be in opposition to each other and then we try to subvert; we try to put ourselves second, but because they are aligned, we are actually putting our neighbor second as well. In which case we are just seeing evidence of the fact that, in the moment, we are too caught up in our own fears; I think that we are not fearing the right thing. We are fearing mostly the impact on us and not fearing the impact on our neighbors. That’s how we find ourselves into that dead end.
Miroslav Volf on the Culture of Fear
MV: Today we seem to be “engulfed in fear” to use the term that Kierkegaard used. And we seem not to be able to find our way out. But what hinders our way out is not merely a personal weakness, it is also a culture of fear. That phrase “culture of fear” comes originally from the Frank Furedi has written extensively about it; there was an original book written in (1997) entitled Culture of Fear, and again more recently How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century (2018). And he describes a culture of fear. What he is referring to is not simply to the fact…
…that fears are contagious, pervasive and often shared—think of the fear of immigrants, of criminals, of terrorists, of natural disasters, of conspiracies—not that they are in that sense a social and cultural phenomenon.
*He didn’t also mean that media, which shape our picture of reality, systematically exaggerates fears and then infects us with those fears; he did not mean that also politicians often stoke fears so they can gain power or so they can stay in power; it can be in their interests to also minimize dangers (as President Trump originally did with COVID-19 and as we speak the Brazilian President, Bolsonaro, still does): like false prophets in the Bible, they mislead “people, saying, ‘peace,’ when there is no peace” (Ezekiel 13:10).
*Back to Frank Furedi, he didn’t also mean that advertisers sometimes manufacture fears so that companies can sell “unnecessary products that promise protection from imagined or exaggerated harms” (Bader/Baker/Day/Gordon, Fear Itself, NYU, 2020).
*All this intentional and unintentional fear mongering is very worrisome, I think. But that was not Furedi’s main point. By ‘culture of fear’ he meant that we experience ourselves to a large degree as threatened, vulnerable, fragile, as inadequate to cope with the dangers that face us; that we seem easily gripped by fear and increasingly lack ability to live with danger, let alone to flourish, danger notwithstanding.
*In biblical words, he points out that we are increasingly unable to sing the Lord’s song in the strange land of danger and fear. (Now, keep in mind, Furedi’s claim is not that we fear more today than we feared in previous centuries; there is no telling exactly whether that is the case or not; his claim is that we have forgotten how to live well with fear.)
*One reason for the “culture of fear”, for this forgetfulness, is that the primary way we have come to deal with the problem of fear in the course of modernity is by seeking to eliminate dangers, the external sources of fear.
*In contrast, through most of human history, the main way people dealt with danger and fear was by cultivating courage to face dangers that could not be eliminated. That’s largely because in ancient societies people had few resources—knowledge, technological know-how, and wealth—they had few such resources to work on eliminating dangers; they felt impotent with respect to many dangers, the prime example perhaps being pandemics (e.g. “The Black Death” [1346-53], which killed 75-200 million, or the “Flu Pandemic” , which killed 20-50 million).
*Today, technological developments have made it possible to eliminate or diminish many dangers; but these same developments have also helped form the expectation of being able to create a fully safe environment. Paradoxically, this expectation itself makes us more fearful, for it focuses our hopes on eliminating dangers so much that we tend to forget about the importance of conquering fears.
*But the truth is that dangers cannot be eliminated from human life and that we cannot get rid of fear from our lives by eliminating all its sources. As this pandemic shows, sources of danger seem not to be diminished in the modern world. It is the reality of these dangers and not simply a culture of fear that feeds the dystopian mood of today.
*Moreover, the very technology which helps us mitigate dangers also creates new dangers, it generates risks which are consequences of our own action, but which we were incapable of identifying, certainly identifying at the time when we embarked upon a given course of action.
*For example, things we use daily are full of toxic materials that were originally not recognized as such. Now sociologists call living with these kinds of risks—which is a modern phenomenon—living in “risk societies”. And that creates also a feeling of being endangered and gives us reasons to fear. More basically, as long as we remain human, we will be constitutionally fragile, vulnerable, never capable of placing ourselves far from the edge of breaking down, far from the abyss of death.
*My point is this: As we are busy doing the important—I emphasize, the important—but unending, work of eliminating dangers, we are forgetting to cultivate the ability not to be ruled by fear when facing danger. When a bacterial or a viral pandemic like covid-19 breaks out, the social pandemic of fear is not far behind.
*That’s partly because when we see others fearing, we catch the malady of fear ourselves; fear is infectious; that’s partly also because the culture of fear has weakened our immunity to fear.
*So the task before us is twofold:
*We need to work assiduously on diminishing dangers—in the case of covid-19, we need to understand the disease better, to find cures and vaccines, and practice personal hygiene and social distancing. This is not acting in fear, but acting out of love and concern for the common good.
*But we also need to fight against the culture of fear. Since we cannot eliminate all dangers and since it takes time to eliminate the dangers we can eliminate, we always have to live with dangers, both real and imagined. We need to cultivate the ability to live with fear—to master it rather than letting it engulf us.
Evan Rosa: To wrap things up today, Drew Collins, associate research scholar at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture who recently taught with Miroslav our Christ and Being Human course at Yale Divinity School. Drew draws out a scriptural connection—the prophet Elijah taking action when you are terrified and seeking especially the action of God.
Drew Collins: So one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about is an additional dynamic; which is that fear has a way of validating itself. Taking a misperception of danger and making it real. There is a difference between genuine and invented fears. But it seems to me that it is also the case that invented fears are particularly pernicious, because they can become real. So as soon as we act out of the fear of losing the competition for resources to others in our community, the threat of competition becomes real.
*When I think about the contagiousness of fear, we could also describe it as coercive—there’s a way in which our fears are foisted upon other people. Even when in more and more spots, misperceptions of potential dangers and in some ways, making those invented dangers real and making people grapple with them as well.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, I think that’s right. And if I’m hearing you rightly, it underscores the importance of cultivating the ability to live well in the context of dangers; not just because there are real dangers there, but that there are constantly new imagined dangers. So also manufactured and, at the level of our experience, we often cannot tell which one is which.
Drew Collins: Exactly; fear is inherently reactive. It’s not a sound basis of the mitigation of future risks or a course of action precisely because it lacks central commitment at its core and its purely responsive.
*I’ve been thinking of the story of 1 Kings 19: Elijah has a sort of “sacrifice-off” with the prophets of Baal. Jezebel finds out and she says “what you did to them, I’m going to do to you.” And Elijah flees into the wilderness, afraid for his life, it says. It’s fascinating because Elijah has been bold up until this point in response to the fear of his life and in response to Jezebel he flees, flees into the wilderness, into utter isolation.
*While he is out there the word of the Lord comes to Elijah and tells him to go out and stand out on the mountain before the Lord, because the Lord is going to walk by.
*A great wind issues forth, but the Lord is not there.
*There’s an earthquake and there’s a fire, but the Lord isn’t present in those, either.
*But where Elijah does discern the presence of the Lord is in the sound of sheer silence.
*And what I take from that is we often expect of ourselves to respond to fear with action. We expect God, we pray to God to alleviate our fears by acting, changing something. But what if the passage suggests that God’s promise in the midst of fear—real, genuine fear—is first and foremost not some grand gesture or grand action or even a response. But just the promise of God’s presence. A promise and trust that God is real and present in a direct way but hidden.
Evan Rosa: That’s it for our episode. But one final note: while this episode has focused on the diagnosis of fear. Next week we will discuss the particulars of fearing rightly and conquering fear. As my colleague at the Center for Faith in Culture, Karin Fransen, pointed out, the fact is many people all over the world do not have the privilege of eliminating the dangers they face. Far from thinking we can deal with fear by eliminating the danger, we have a lot to learn from those people who cultivate faith and courage in the very midst of threat. More on that next Saturday. Thanks for listening.
For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center of Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity school. This episode featured theologian Miroslav Volf, founding director of the Yale Center of Faith and Culture. You can follow him on Twitter: @MiroslavVolf. This episode also featured Matt Croasmun and Drew Collins, both associate research scholars at the Center for Faith and Culture. I’m Evan Rosa and I edit and produce for the show. For more information, visit us online at faith.yale.edu, and subscribe to the show wherever you listen to podcasts. If you’re looking for a way to support us, it can be as simple as telling a friend, writing a review in Apple Podcasts, or sharing the episode in your social feeds. Thanks for listening; we’ll be back next week.