Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue
Oxford, England: Oxford University Press ©2001
In our current, seemingly "anything goes" culture, making the case for the renewal of an ancient concept like reverence may be an uphill battle. But more and more people, including those in the hipster hang-outs of these United States, are searching for a sense of civility in their interactions and relationships. Our public discourse isn't the only thing that's become coarsened, partisan, and polarized. Our private relationships, our workplaces, and our everyday lives are more strained, stressful, and full of strife. It doesn't have to be that way.
So says Paul Woodruff in Reverence, a small and intense but engagingly readable volume that covers a lot of territory. From the ancient civilizations in Greece and China to modern literature and politics, we see the value this now-neglected virtue plays in holding a civilization together. Yes, it's that important.
Just what is reverence? As Woodruff introduces us to the concept, he states that "reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it the capacity for respecting fellow human beings, flaws and all. This in turn fosters the ability to be ashamed when we show moral flaws exceeding the normal human allotment. The Greeks before Plato saw reverence as one of the bulwarks of society, and the immediate followers of Confucius in China thought much the same. Both groups wanted to see reverence in their leaders, because reverence is the virtue that keeps leaders from trying to take tight control of other people's lives. Simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods."
Woodruff makes some surprising assertions, including the notion that reverence is more political than religious, although it's applicable to both arenas. Religion without reverence leads to aggressive war or violence, while politics — equated with power — without reverence is arrogance. "Politics without reverence is blind to the general good and deaf to advice from people who are powerless." Woodruff describes reverence as belonging to community: "Wherever people try to act together, they hedge themselves around with some form of ceremony or good manners, and the observance of this can be an act of reverence. Reverence lies behind civility and all of the graces that make life in society bearable and pleasant."
But lest you think that this is a book without humor, Woodruff is quick to remind that we can be reverent and still laugh a lot. We have misinterpreted the term "irreverence" and, especially in the media, applied it to qualities that are not truly irreverent. "We naturally delight in mockery and we love making fun of solemn things," says Woodruff. But "a better way to say what we have in mind would be 'bold, boisterous, unrefined, unimpressed by pretension' — all good things. Reverence is compatible with these and with almost every form of mockery.... Reverence and a keen eye for the ridiculous are allies: both keep people from being pompous or stuck up."
Woodruff also distinguishes between reverence and respect, reminding us that "it is silly to respect the pratings of a pompous fool; it is wise to respect the intelligence of any student. Reverence calls for respect only when respect is the right attitude." Because reverence is a virtue — "a virtue is a capacity to do what is right, and what is right in a given case...depends on many things" — thoughtful discussions, like those found here, are most helpful and welcome.
In this book, we see what a world is like without reverence; we discover how to find reverence in two common elements of life (music and funerals), and how reverence spans creeds and religions, as it requires neither. We're also tuned in to its application in business leadership, in education, and in our home lives. In one timely re-thinking of the value that a renewed sense of reverence holds, Woodruff suggests that "if you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone share your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent."