In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks offered an assessment of one of the presidential candidates, noting, “He appears to have no ability to experience reverence which is the foundation of any capacity to admire or serve anything bigger than self, to want to learn anything beyond self, to want to know and deeply honor the people around you.”
Reading those words, I was captivated less by the critique of the candidate (there are plenty of those to go around) than by the use of the word reverence to describe an essential quality of our humanity. Brooks’ one-sentence description is helpful, but I needed more, perhaps because the word and its meaning seem so rare in our current religio-political culture. So I went looking for reverence in the works of some of my favorite writers. What I discovered is that like all our best traits, reverence is as powerful as it is elusive. Its meaning is articulated, explicitly and implicitly, by a diverse array of commentators. Pursuing reverence, especially these days, is worth the quest.
For me, reverence begins with a sense of transcendence, something “bigger than self,” a recognition of that which is beyond us, whether it be the presence of God or the sacred, the vastness of the universe, or simply that as a species we humans are not the center of all things. With all due respect to the Psalmist, we may be “a little lower than the angels,” but we are also “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”; our days are numbered.
In A History of God, Karen Armstrong cites Rudolph Otto’s “idea of the Holy” — “that when human beings are confronted with this transcendence, they no longer feel that they are the alpha and omega of existence.” Biblical writers linked reverence with awe, even fear, when encountering the Divine Other. For people of faith, therefore, offering reverence in response to transcendence requires a humility which recognizes God alone as the eternal Present. The rest of us are just a-passing through.
Reverence requires transcendence, but it is also abidingly immanent, this-worldly in its implications, ever shaping our response to other human beings. Reverence is thus inseparable from an engagement in and with community. In She Who Is, Elizabeth Johnson writes, “Justice and peace throughout the world of nature and the human world are the effects of the Spirit’s renewing power, coming to fruition whenever human beings find community in mutual relations of sympathy and love.” Such truly communal moments are very rare, Johnson admits, but are often mediated by “Spirit-Sophia” who “like a midwife … works deftly with those in pain and struggles to bring about the new creation.” Reverence calls us outside ourselves to engage with others, particularly those who are hurting. It means cultivating our participation in community — familial, social, historical and spiritual (and political?).
Reverence thus moves us beyond mere respect, or shallow sentimentality, to the vulnerability of an enduring, restless love. In To Know as We Are Known, Parker Palmer captures the link between reverence and love, noting, “We are known in detail and depth by the love that created and sustains us, known as members of a community of creation that depends on us and on which we depend.” With characteristic directness, William Sloan Coffin unites love and reverence with action: “I believe God dwells with those who make love their aim. And there is no sentimentality in this love; it is not endlessly pliable, always yielding. Prophets from Amos and Isaiah to Gandhi and King have shown how frequently compassion demands confrontation. Love without criticism is a kind of betrayal. Lying is done with silence as well as with words.”
Reverence requires, indeed demands, a response to injustice in ourselves and our society. Again, Sloan Coffin asserts, “To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him [or her] an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.”
Walter Rauschenbusch wrote similarly a century earlier in The Social Principles of Jesus. Invoking Immanuel Kant, Rauschenbusch affirmed a “reverence for personality” that required treating persons, “not as a means only, but always as an end in” themselves. He concluded that “Jesus did not talk about eliminating the unfit. He talked about saving them, which requires greater constructive energy if it is really to be done.” Reverence has social implications.
Rauschenbusch cited Oberlin College President Henry C. King’s conclusion: “The principle of reverence for personality is the ruling principle in ethics, and in religion; it constitutes … the truest and highest test of either an individual or a civilization.”
Such reverence for personality seems at a premium in a society where blogs, Facebook pages, tweets and cable news often manifest abject disrespect for persons and ideas different from our own. And then, for one brief moment, a Muslim mother appeared on our television screens, so filled with grief for her deceased son-soldier that she couldn’t speak a word. Yet her very silence bespoke a reverence that touched (perhaps even shamed) a nation — an unanticipated, communal moment of reverential grace.