Uncertain Faith

Finding the courgage to live with uncertainity


Butch Rogers

07 Oct, 2015

The dictionary defines reverence as deep respect for someone or something.  A reverent person then is someone who shows this kind deep respect.  Another way of saying it is people who are reverent live with a sense of awe.  They are in awe of life itself and all that life encompases.  Reverent people humbly live with a sense of duty toward their fellow man.  We often associate reverence with religion, however, reverence transcends religion.  In her book Altar in the World , Barbara Brown Taylor helps me to better understand reverence with these words.

 "According to the classical philosopher Paul Woodruff, reverence is the virtue that keeps people from trying to act like gods. 'To forget that you are only human,' he says, 'to think you can act like a god—this is the opposite of reverence.'  While most of us live in a culture that reveres money, reveres power, reveres education and religion, Woodruff argues that true reverence cannot be for anything that human beings can make or manage by ourselves.

By definition, he says, reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self—something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding. God certainly meets those criteria, but so do birth, death, sex, nature, truth, justice, and wisdom. A Native American elder I know says that he begins teaching people reverence by steering them over to the nearest tree. 'Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?' he asks them. If they say yes, then he knows that they are on their way.

Reverence stands in awe of something—something that dwarfs the self, that allows human beings to sense the full extent of our limits—so that we can begin to see one another more reverently as well.  An irreverent soul who is unable to feel awe in the presence of things higher than the self is also unable to feel respect in the presence of things its sees as lower than the self, Woodruff says.  This raises real questions about leaders, especially religious leaders, who cite reverence for what is good as their warrant for proclaiming whole populations of people evil.

Woodruff posts a number of cautions for those ready to draw a straight line between reverence and religion.  While a church service may seem like the most natural place in the world to teach people how to be reverent, Woodruff says a formal worship service can be a confusing place to look for reverence.  'To begin with,' he says, 'worship is not always reverent; even the best forms or worship may be practiced without feeling (and therefor without reverence), and some forms of worship seem downright vicious.'

Some of the most reverent people I know decline to call themselves religious.  For them, religion connotes belief.  It means being able to say what you believe about God and why.  It also means being able to hold your own in a debate with someone who believes otherwise. They, meanwhile, are not sure what they believe.  They do not want to debate anyone.  The longer they stand before the holy of holies, the less adequate their formulations of faith seem to them.  Angels reach down and shut their mouths."

From an Altar in the World, by Barbara Brown Taylor, HarperCollins e-books 2009