Today is Halloween. On this All Hallows’ Eve, thousands of America’s children disguised as witches, goblins, mummies, and Doctor Who will roam the streets in search of candy and fright. This evening, young adults will seek out ghosts in haunted houses and front yards will, for one night, turn into grave yards where some may encounter the dead or perhaps a few werewolves. Growing up as an Evangelical Christian, I never really partook in Halloween. “Halloween is a celebration of death!” I was told, “It is meant to terrorize people!” To many of my Evangelical brothers and sisters, fear and faith are dichotomized in this way. One cannot be counted among those of the faith while also learning to be afraid at the same time. But is that the way the Christian faith has always presented fear? I do not believe so. But allow me to explain with the use of some fairytales.
One of my favorite Grimm Fairytales is about the boy who “went out to learn to be afraid.” He never knew the feeling of dread and then, accordingly, journeyed to find it. He wanders through terrible woods and all the countryside only to return unmoved and unafraid. Regarding this fairy tale, Soren Kierkegaard wrote:
“In one of Grimm’s fairy tales there is a story of a young man who goes in search of adventure in order to learn what it is to be in anxiety. We will let the adventurer pursue his journey without concerning ourselves about whether he encountered the terrible on his way. However, I will say that this is an adventure that every human being must go through… The person who has learnt how to be afraid in the right way has learnt the most important thing of all.”
For Kierkegaard, learning to be afraid is one of the most important lessons to be acquired and, according to him, everyone is a pupil and no one is exempt. But how can a Christian say that the life of fear is anything but a distortion of truth? “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear” the Psalmist chants. “Be anxious for nothing” Saint Paul once wrote. And of course, my favorite, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). Why would one seek to fear when, so it seems, the bible states that we ought to seek faith?
It is quite clear that the perfection of the Christian life is one without fear. But who among us wishes to assume such perfection now? Concerning this, CS Lewis writes:
“Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several other things — ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.”
Until love has been perfected among us, Lewis imagines the Christian life going one of two ways: either our fears will be fully present to us, or we will find some way to pacify them through “inferior agents,” something he sees as wholly undesirable. Though Lewis lists several “inferior agents” that could be used to pacify fear (presumption, alcohol, passion, etc), it is of value to remember that at the core of all of these agents is our compulsion to control. “If I can dominate… if I can manipulate, convince, or force my will,” we reason, “then I don’t have to feel helpless and scared.” If we can control, we will never feel out of control.
A significant way humans have attempted to regulate and manipulate their surroundings is by classification and narrative development, or by “making sense” of the world. According to Heidegger, we are sense-making beings. We identify, classify, and analyze. We construct narratives and assign roles. If we can properly place certain peoples, actions, and symbols in their corresponding boxes, then life will be safe and free of anxiety. But what happens the categories we keep the world in begin to break down? For instance, why is there so much fear concerning minorities in America? Nationality is an abstract construction referring to geography and land mass- a recent invention in modern history. Minorities scare majorities because they are “different” and difficult to categorize- there is an abstract purity that needs to be protected and the minorities must be quarantined- so the logic goes. According to Heidegger, because of humanity’s sense-making compulsion, angst (the German word for fear) is the crisis of meaning; when we can no longer make sense of things or when our rigid categories are proven untrue.
It is in the constant refusal to silence our fears, to exist within the crisis of meaning, that the Christian life is lived. When Saint Anthony heard the words of Jesus “Go and sell everything you own and give it to the poor…. Then come and follow me,” he took it as a call to escape the “inferior agents” that compulsively seek to substitute themselves for perfected love. It was in the wilderness that Saint Anthony faced his demons of fear, greed, and anger and overcame them by the love of Jesus. Mother Teresa wrote about only being able to meet Jesus in the darkness, being unable to feel His presence for over fifty years… And yet she never turned to the “inferior agents” Lewis spoke of.
“Till We Have Faces,” Lewis’s retelling of the classic myth of Psyche and Eros, is about two princess sisters: Psyche (the beautiful younger sister) and Orual (the older and uglier one). Orual was a manipulative and dominating person (much more so on becoming queen) and, because of her ugliness, she wore a veil over her face to cover herself. She hated the gods, especially the god Ungit. She hated him because he was masked himself in darkness, refusing to speak with anyone openly. Her hatred burned for them even more when they took Psyche away from her, which prompted Orual to write a complaint to the gods. The story of Orual is about an incredibly manipulative and possessive person that constructs a self-justifying narrative about how she is the real victim and the gods are the ones who are evil. At the end, she finally gets to stand before the council of the gods and read to them her complaint. She reads what she had always assumed to be an eloquent response. However, in reality it turned out to be a few lines of narcissistic blathering about how Psyche belongs only to her. Upon realizing the lunacy of her complaint, she fell silent and recollected:
“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
As a sign of control, Orual refused to show her face. However, this refusal to show her face, to lose control, to maintain vulnerability, meant that she would lose any meaningful connection around her. In other words, by attempting to cast out fear through control, she made it impossible for love to get to her. Until she took off the veil that was masking her face, the gods could never speak with her face to face.
What does this have to do with Halloween? Halloween is a time when, like the young man in the fairytale, we can go out “to learn to be afraid.” When death comes to our door this evening, we have an opportunity to look him in the face and feel our crisis of meaning (albeit while giving him candy). When we go through our haunted houses, we can be allowed to feel the anxiety that our perceived control on the world is illusory at best and destructive (to ourselves and others, ex. Orual) at worst. Our shared Christian life isn’t lived by dichotomizing fear with faith/hope/or love. Rather, our fear is the avenue down which we will arrive at these virtues. As St. Isaac the Syrian once wrote, “Just as it isn’t possible for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear.” Perhaps this All Hallows’ Eve, we can view venturing into the darkness as actually stepping into the light and, maybe, by veiling ourselves with masks and frightening one another, we can, with Orual, learn to take off our masks. Without learning to be afraid in the right way, we have no hope of love reaching us. And so I ask you, as we wait for perfect love to cast out our fear, would you learn to be afraid with me tonight?
 S Kierkegaard, “The Concept of Dread” pg 139
 “The World’s Last Night” in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, pg 51
 Heidegger, “Being and Time”