Reverence

Posted on August 25, 2009 by

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I received an email today, entitled “Reverence is more than just quietly sitting…”, that included the following quote on reverence:

Reverence has more to do with politics than with religion. We can easily imagine religion without reverence; we see it, for example, wherever religion leads people into aggressive war or violence. But power without reverence — that is a catastrophe for all concerned. Power without reverence is aflame with arrogance, while service without reverence is smoldering toward rebellion. Politics without reverence is blind to the general good and deaf to the advice from people who are powerless. And life without reverence? Entirely without reverence?

That would be brutish and selfish, and it had best be lived alone.

-Paul Woodruff

I think that we in the church misunderstand reverence because we teach it as an action when it’s really a relationship. In other words, you can only be “reverent” in relation to something you “revere”. When we learn reverence in primary, we are not taught that our reverence has an object, and that it is the object of our reverence that guides our actions; rather, we are taught the forms of reverence in a vacuum.

The problem (if there is a problem) is structural. There are two approaches to reverence, both of which are directly opposed to modern sensibilities.

The first approach is reverence-as-worship. Reverence-as-worship says “You [the object of my reverence] are greater than me. Your will is greater than my will. Your wisdom is greater than my wisdom. What you command, I will do, even though it seem wrong or foolish to me.” It establishes a master/subordinate relationship between the reverant and the reverer.

This type of reverence relies on the social doctrine of vassalage, where a subordinate is no longer morally culpable for his actions. He becomes an agent of his master, and his actions are ascribable to his master. Our society is increasingly wary of this sort of relationship, as it leads to religious fundamentalism, wherein adherents deny personal responsibility for reprehensible choices.

The second approach is reverence-toward-an-ideal. In this case, the object of reverence is not a person or ideology, but rather a perfection. This is the kind of reverence Paul Woodruff calls “the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have”. Our cultural opposition to this kind of reverence grows out of cultural relativism. One hundred years ago it might have been tenable to call western classical music the pinnacle of artistic musical expression. Today that kind of belief is considered ethnocentric or parochial.

My point is that the concept reverence is intimately connected to the concepts of truth and beauty. Reverence, in the traditional sense, requires either an absolute truth (reverence-as-worship) or an absolute beauty (reverence-toward-an-ideal) as an object. I lament the modern decline of reverence, but I am grateful for the expanded views of truth and beauty we enjoy today. Forced to choose between the two, I will take the latter.

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Posted in: Church, Musings