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Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue

Often unnoticed, overlooked, and unappreciated, but still persistently stirring somewhere within us, lurks an aspect of human life that Paul Woodruff, a Professor of Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, explores in Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue [New York: Oxford University Press, 2002].

Woodruff contends that reverence is something more fundamental than religion and that it is urgent that we coax it out of the shadows, befriend it, and allow it to take a central place in our lives. Realizing that this book was published only three weeks after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center [1], makes this contention especially poignant.

Reverence is an ancient virtue that survives among us in half forgotten patterns of civility, in moments of inarticulate awe, and in nostalgia for the lost ways of traditional cultures. [2]

Confessing that “Reverence compels me to confess that I do not know exactly what reverence is,” [3] he none-the-less offers this definition: “Reverence is the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have.” [4]

Awe emerges as we understand our limitations in the face of that which is greater in power, beauty and goodness than we are and beyond our control. Humility and mutual respect for other equally limited and flawed beings flow from this. When we violate reverence by acting as “gods,” or by treating others as somehow less than ourselves, we rightly experience shame. [5]

Woodruff begins (chapter 1) by reminding us that reverence is not just about what we think. As with all genuine virtues, it is also something that impacts how we feel at the very core. When we fail to respond reverently this deeply, relationships deteriorate, rituals lose their richness or fail to be practiced all together and participation in the community seriously wanes. (chapter 2). In contrast (chapter 3), there are moments when, as when listening to a symphony, sharing a meaningful moment at a memorial service, or being lost in awe by a sunset, we sense reverence stirring from those deeper places within.

Woodruff demonstrates through presentations of classic Greek stories and ancient Confucian texts (chapters 4-6) that reverence in this sense transcends time and culture. Going further (in chapters 7-9), he argues that reverence is basic and vital to being human as such, whether or not one believes that the “something more” is in some way divine.

Woodruff rejects the argument that “the reverence of one culture is just as good as that of any other.” [6] He contends instead that the elements of reverence that he has identified (a sense of limitations, awe, respect and shame when we fail to respond appropriately) provide ways we can and should measure its cultural and religious expressions. Finally, (chapters 10-12), he reflects on the implications that taking reverence seriously might have in various contexts ranging from military leadership to the classroom and the home (chapters 10 – 12). We would do well to linger awhile among these implications, those he mentions and those he does not. I do so from my location as a member of the Adventist community.

Woodruff’s assertion that reverence is more fundamental than religion provides a basis for conversations with those who have no connections with organized religion and perhaps may not believe in any kind of God. Even though we may name and understand “reverent” experiences differently, being able to talk about them as things that impact us deeply and profoundly, not only personally but also on how we relate to each other, gives us ways to connect with people with whom we might not otherwise have any substantive conversations. [7]

In addition, Woodruff somewhat obliquely but effectively points us toward a reality that we have been slow to embrace but which we dare not ignore. This is that there is something more basic that defines us as humans, or from a Christian perspective, as persons created in the image of God, than the doctrinal expressions that we often look to for this purpose.

This is evident to anyone who has witnessed believers contending for their understanding of doctrinal purity in ways that deny the very patterns of life from which these statements are supposed arise. Reverence is about a way of life and too often religion is about protecting doctrinal turf at the expense the very life it claims to defend.

Without diminishing the value of being careful and thoughtful about how we describe what we believe, when those articulations rather than the realities that lie beneath them become the basis of our identity, we face the perils Woodruff describes in this book. Ironically, one of the first casualties is reverence itself. We have much work to do here. For those with ears that hear, Woodruff’s voice is one more that “cries out in the wilderness.”

But perhaps on the most basic level, in the midst of a way of life in which it is far too easy to become excessively busy, cynical, or self-defined, Woodruff invites us to pause long enough to allow that which is too easily forgotten to surface. Our world is desperately in need of people who have finally figured out that they really are not “gods,” and that there is something (Someone) much larger that is beyond their attempts at control. Knowing this has profound implications for how we relate to those around us and we experience profound losses when we fail to honor what these implications require.

I find it encouraging and hopeful that I find myself in the midst of a community that, when moving with the rhythms of reverence, has a message of very good news to share. It is sobering to think that it can only do so only to the extent that it does not lose track of this too easily forgotten virtue.

1 This point is noted in the interview Paul Woodruff gave to Bill Moyer in a PBS interview in January of 2003, the transcript of which you can find at
2 Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 3.
3 Ibid., 8.
4 Ibid.
5 Woodruff qualifies this sense of respect by pointing out that it is informed respect, “Another easy mistake to make about reverence is to confuse it with respect . . . It is silly to respect the prating of a pompous fool; it is wise to respect the intelligence of any student. . . To pay respect to a tyrant would not be reverent; it would be weak and cowardly.” Woodruff, Reverence, 5.
6 Woodruff, Reverence, 155. He also articulates the classic flaw in relativistic reasoning that “The instant he defends his relativism against criticism, he implicitly abandons it – because at that point he has to disagree with those who reject his position.” Woodruff, Reverence, 150.
7 Romans 1:18-20 and Acts 17:16-28 might be fruitful starting places for exploring the implications of what it might mean to enter into these kinds of conversations.
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