The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear

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Michael Kinnamon
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , February
     120 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


It is the pervasive culture of fear in contemporary America that occasioned Michael Kinnamon’s recent book The Witness of Religion in an Age of Fear. He writes that American society is now saturated with a fear often out of proportion to actual threats. This is the fear of the “other”; what he has in mind is the prejudice against Muslims. The avowed purpose of the book is to mobilize the resources available within the sacred traditions of the world to fight against fear. While the author accepts that fear has its utility, and that terrorism is a real threat to be taken seriously, he simultaneously believes that in contemporary America this fear has become obsessive and excessive, and misdirected in identifying a false target in a particular religious community. Such fear is a hazard to public health and a strain on finite public resources. Kinnamon argues that it can lead Americans to misperceive the world around them, and it can also lead to a break-down of dialogues between cultures, thereby hurting interdependence, which is a fact of human existence, and obstruct an appreciation of hopeful trends in the world. 

Coming from one of the most respected theological leaders of the ecumenical movement, this book is a welcome initiative pointing towards the much-needed involvement of religious groups in dissociating fundamentalism from religion per se. Compared to purely political discourses, this book is written from the standpoint of world religions andis a more powerful critique of this ever-growing prejudice because an insider’s view is always more powerful owing to the authority of experience and belongingness.

The first chapter deals with the contemporary culture of fear in America and possible explanations for this. First, it could be leadership—the failure of political leaders “to provide inspiring alternatives and to call us to our better nature” (19). Kinnamon givesthe beautiful example of Nelson Mandela in the case of South Africans, who in fact have more reasons to be afraid, but are not as wildly driven by fear as Americans thanks to a certain legacy of leadership. The second explanation (following Peter Stearns) describes the change in the socialization process from the 1920s onwards that sought to sidestep fear instead of confronting it. This was premised on the idea that children are emotionally fragile and should not be exposed to the emotion of fear, contrary to the earlier practice of teaching children to overcome fear. Another theory explains the rise of fear as a result of the eroding predominance of Europe and North America in the world. Kinnamon then discusses other explanations such as the role of the media, the interest of political groups, and so on.

The next two chapters engage with perspectives on fear from Jewish and Christian traditions and the other religions (Bahaism, Sikhism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism) respectively. There are various nuances and diversity of views within a single religion and between religions, but thereis also common ground. First, many sacred traditions talk about the need for “fear of God,” but this fear is distinguished from worldly fears—the latter destroy, while the former redeems. Kinnamon discusses at length what Christianity, Judaism, and a few other religions have to say about the fear of God.He explains that this fear is more about awe and reverence, a bowing down before the majesty and omnipotence of God. One might feel that “fear” is not the right word in contemporary English for the kind of sentiment hinted at here. In fact, it is misleading and perhapsshould be abandoned, for love and fear never go together. Our religions attest to that too and Kinnamon quotes passages from different scriptures to support this belief. Then why are people called God-fearing and not God-loving? Kinnamon points out that some theologians believe that love is for the evolved ones, while fear (of punishment for wrong-doing) is required to keep the average person in check. But can fear eventually lead to love?

One of the gems from Buddhism is that “the world does not exist separately from the mind” (55), and that fear is a “delusion” caused by a misapprehension of reality. What is this reality then? According to Vedanta (mainly the teachings of the Hindu scriptures—the Upanisads), every person is the atman, the immortal spirit, which is identical with brahman, the cosmic principle. In the section on Hinduism, Kinnamon mainly discusses the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, the modern champion of Vedanta, who always called for fearlessness. As rightly pointed out by the author at the beginning, “our deepest longing for security can be traced to the fear of death”(28). The Upanisads say weare immortal, it is only the body that dies.The Bhagavad Gita reiterates the same truth, and so does Vivekananda. If we are immortal, then what is there to fear? 

The second most important aspect of Vedantic teaching is that there is only one Reality, one entity—absolute, divine, blissful, and infinite (for comparison, one might recall Paul Tillich’s idea of a “God above God” [41]), and the variegated world is merely a manifestation of this single entity. The Vedantic idea of Godhead is at once transcendent and immanent. Now, if God has become this world, whom should we fear? Kinnamon missed out on the famous verse from the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad (1.4.2): Fear arises from the existence of a second entity. There is no “other,” so whom should we fear? And of course, there is Mahatma Gandhi who knew that hate is not the enemy; it is fear. Because hate originates in fear.

Chapter 4 is on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The final chapter gives ten recommendations for religious communities to check the culture of fear. At the end of the book, there is also “A Guide for Study” with questions to be discussed in groups. The purpose of the author was to show that “trust in the Holy One, in Ultimate Reality, should be an antidote to fear in human society, not a cause of it” (7), and he succeeds in doing that. Particularly moving is his appeal: “To borrow a formulation from the Russian Christian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, security for oneself is a material issue—not necessarily sinful, but also not a highest value. Security for one’s neighbor, however, is a spiritual issue. Protecting persons who are most at risk, even when it is risky, is the calling of those who follow Jesus” (43).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Arpita Mitra is an Independent scholar based in New Delhi, India.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Kinnamon is one of the most widely respected leaders and scholars of the ecumenical movement. He has held many noteworthy positions, including General Secretary for the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, Executive Secretary of the World Council of Churches' Commission on Faith and Order, and Dean of Lexington Theological Seminary. Kinnamon has also served as a professor of ecumenical and interfaith studies at seminaries and universities in the United States and India. He is the author of several books on the ecumenical movement, including Can a Renewal Movement Be Renewed?



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