By Dave Hunter, originally published in the journal "religious humanism", Vol. 44, No. 1.
In which Pooh and Piglet explore the 100-acre wood and the meaning of reverence. (apologies to A.A. Milne)
Pooh and Piglet are out for a walk.
Pooh: Christopher Robin wants me to join the Cub Scouts.
Piglet: What’s that?
Pooh: It’s sort of a club for young bears; they do things together.
Piglet: Sounds like fun.
Pooh: But you have to learn stuff.
Piglet: Like what?
Pooh: Like what is reverence.
They continue walking, quietly, then Pooh says:
Pooh: Piglet, we’re in the 100-acre wood.
Piglet: Why, so we are. Look at those trees.
Pooh: They’re so tall, I can’t see the tops of them.
Piglet: How do they make you feel?
Pooh: I don’t know. They’ve always been here. They’ll always be here. They’re awesome. I’m humbled. I’m speechless.
Piglet: Did you know that the trees provide homes for birds and bumble bees and badgers?
Pooh: What good trees. I just want to say thank you.
Piglet: How would you feel if someone wanted to cut them all down?
Pooh: That’s impossible! No one would want to do that! It’s unimaginable!
Piglet: And how would you feel?
Pooh: Angry. Trees, I love you. Piglet: That’s what reverence is about.
Pooh: I feel a hum coming.
I love the trees
so filled with bees
so filled with bees
They reach so high
up to the sky
up to the sky
I love you
If you had asked me, when I was, say, ten years old, “what is reverence?” I might have said something like “keeping quiet in church.” And maybe I would have mentioned that on those occasions when we said grace before dinner – and that was only when we were with my grandparents – when my father or grandfather would say grace – on those occasions reverence meant “sit still and bow your head.” Though perhaps I’m giving my ten-year-old self too much credit.
Now, if you had asked me fifty years later, “what is reverence?” I’m not sure I would have done any better.
A few years ago, when Bill Sinkford was the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we had the debate within Unitarian Universalism over the use of what was called “the language of reverence.” Sinkford observed that our seven principles – from worth and dignity to the interdependent web – you’ll find all seven of the principles in the UUA hymnal, a page back from hymn #1 – Sinkford pointed out that our principles do not use religious language.1 Indeed, the discussion was about religious language. There apparently was an implicit assumption that the language of religion is the language of reverence. We’ll see about that. And by religious language was meant the language of Christianity, or at least the language of a non-Trinitarian Christianity – words like “God,” “prayer,” or“salvation.”
A couple of years ago, when Kerry and I were the ministers for the UU congregation in Fayetteville, Arkansas, we learned that the philosopher Paul Woodruff was coming to town, to give a lecture on the topic of reverence. The lecture was based on his book: Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (2001), published three weeks after the September 11 attack. The person who introduced Prof. Woodruff that evening posed three questions to him: Do you have to be a Christian to be reverent? Do you have to be religious to be reverent? And can a criminal be reverent? His answers to the first two questions were No and No: Reverence is not restricted to Christians, nor is it restricted to those who are religious. I assume that Woodruff would agree that being a Christian or being religious does not guarantee that one will be reverent. His answer to the third question was that he hopes that criminals can be reverent.
In reading the short biographical sketch in the program, I noticed that Woodruff had attended Princeton. I approached him after the lecture, and he told me that he was a member of the Class of 1965 at Princeton University, just one year behind me. But we did not remember each other. Though he is a professional philosopher now, specializing in ancient Greek philosophy, he was not a philosophy major as an undergraduate. I was.
But his topic of reverence took me further back than our mutual academic days, all the way back to my Boy Scout years. The so-called Boy Scout law states various characteristics of the proper Boy Scout, but the only ones I could remember, 50 years after leaving Scouting, at least remember in the correct order, were the last three: brave, clean, and reverent. As a Scout, I had a vague concept of bravery, though I don’t think I had had any personal experience of being brave. I don’t think I have had any since then, either, for that matter. I thought clean was simple enough – wash your hands before eating. Little did I imagine that they had something quite different in mind.
Here is the Boy Scout explanation of reverence, from their website: “A Scout is reverent toward God. He is faithful in his religious duties. He respects the beliefs of others.” If you don’t already know what it is to be reverent – or if you’re not sure about God – how does it help to be told that “a Scout is reverent toward God?”
With respect to the requirement of fidelity to religious duties, what if you are not aware that you have any religious duties? Does that give you a pass on that requirement, or is that a disqualifier?
And the advice that being reverent requires one to respect the beliefs of others could lead to unfortunate results, depending on what the others believe. The official Boy Scout position with respect to God is – you’ve got to believe, in Him. The website scouting.org declares “The BSA maintains that no member can grow into the best kind of citizen without recognizing an obligation to God ... (t)he recognition of God as the ruling and leading power in the universe and the grateful acknowledgment of His favors and blessings are necessary ... (n)o matter what the religious faith of the members may be ...”
Scouting was an important and valuable part of my life for several years, and I received the Scouts’ God and Country award. But it didn’t get me any closer to understanding reverence. Here is Woodruff’s description:
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.
Reverence, to summarize, is the capacity for awe, respect, and shame. Woodruff goes quite a ways beyond this ten-year- old’s notion of not misbehaving in church, and I find his explanation more helpful than that of the Boy Scouts. I readily agree with the role of awe in reverence. I’m not so sure about the inclusion of respect and shame.
I had always assumed, without feeling the need to give it much thought, that reverence was on religion’s corner of the playground. Woodruff sees it differently. Reverence, he explains, is more relevant for politics than for religion. Reverence is essential for community, for our living together. And we have to live together: we cannot survive as isolated individuals. But we can, he insists, get along without religion, and religion is possible without reverence.
Woodruff sees reverence and religiousness as overlapping, but they can exist independent of one another – neither entails the other. Atheists can be reverent. Of course, Unitarian Universalism is living proof that atheists can be religious.
Some religions place a high value on reverence, and others do not. Faith-centered religions – these are religions emphasizing beliefs and adherence to creeds – may have little interest in reverence.
In his discussion of reverence and belief, Woodruff makes his only reference to Unitarian Universalism – a reference that doesn’t make it into the book’s index. He argues that if reverence were a matter of belief, then reverence would be real only if the underlying beliefs were true. But if that were the case – and I’m not persuaded – then Presbyterians and Unitarians could not both be reverent, because Presbyterian and Unitarian beliefs about God conflict: they cannot both be true.
Woodruff here shows a confidence about UU attitudes towards God that is possible only for someone who is not a UU. Indeed, I strongly suspect that Presbyterians also have a much wider range of beliefs about God than their official creeds would suggest.
A central part of religion – or, I should say, a central part of some religions – is worship. Reverence is no more tied to worship in particular than it is to religion generally. Worship may be practiced without feeling, and thus without reverence.
Worship can emphasize faith, which is different from reverence, and worship, Woodruff asserts, can be “downright vicious.”
Reverence is awe for things outside our control. That doesn’t just mean things outside my personal control, but rather, things outside humanity’s control. Thus I shouldn’t say that I have reverence towards our church’s sound system, no matter how much in awe of it I stand. I have no understanding of it at all, but humanity collectively, and even a few humans present on any Sunday, understand and can control it. I have a reverential feeling of awe for the Grand Canyon, for the miracle of life of each new child, for the string quartets of Beethoven, for the ideal of a world of peace with justice.
This suggests that the more ignorant we are, as a people, the more reverent we can be. It suggests that expanding the frontiers of science is an anti-reverent activity. But the idea of maintaining reverence through forced or even voluntary ignorance strikes us as wrong-headed. Some things, perhaps, after study, will no longer inspire feelings of awe. Perhaps reverence for the British royal family – as an American I don’t actually feel such reverence – will decline after the British public reads the butler’s memoirs. Here’s what the 19th century British constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot was quoted as saying about British royalty: “Above all things, our royalty is to be reverenced, and if you begin to poke about it, you cannot reverence it. Its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.” But with other things, our awe may increase with our understanding. The cosmologist’s awe at the wonder of the universe increases with study.
Is it adequate to call reverence a feeling, or the capacity for feelings of awe, respect, or shame? Or is more, specifically action, required? Here my attitude about reverence is similar to my attitude about spirituality: a feeling is not enough. You can feel in awe of the Grand Canyon, of its natural beauty, of its incredible size, of how it took millions of years for it to form, but then if someone proposes a dam or a quarry, or advertising on the canyon walls, or an elevator to the bottom, and you do nothing to stop the desecration, in my mind, your reverence for the Canyon becomes suspect.
If you claim a reverential attitude towards Beethoven, but you always find a way to avoid attending concerts featuring his string quartets, I will eventually doubt that your reverence for Beethoven is authentic.
If you claim to stand in awe of the beauty, the power, the mystery of mathematics, but then you resist paying higher taxes to provide an adequate mathematical education for our community’s children, again, I will find your reverence credentials unpersuasive.
And I find Pooh’s anger in response to the possibility that the 100-acre wood might be cut down consistent with reverence.
I’ve been praising reverence, but in our society we often seem to hold irreverence in higher esteem than we do reverence. Which side should we be on? Woodruff suggests that praise for irreverence is really praise for “boldness, independence, and honesty” and contempt for anything “pretentious or arrogant.” True irreverence is for a mortal to act like a god, or at least to act the way we imagine a god would act.
So far my examination of Woodruff’s reverence has dealt mostly with awe, but what about respect? For this he starts with the Confucian concept of li, which refers to “rites, proper conduct, courtesy, doing things the right way, propriety.
... What has been lost in all the standard translations [of li],” according to Woodruff, “is the reverence that has to be in the minds of those who practice li.” Woodruff explains that li refers also to civility as well as to reverence.
Confucian li leads human beings to accept their proper niche between the divine and the animal. Li restrains human power, protecting the weak. One acquires li through the careful observance of ceremony. Through ceremony one acquires the acceptance, the feelings that are necessary for one’s conduct to count as civility or reverence.
Those who have cultivated li, Woodruff explains – that is to say, not mere ceremony, but ceremony accompanied by the right feelings – have developed their capacity for feeling grief, shame, respect, and reverence, when appropriate. The emperor, and others with power, follow li because they feel it, they have internalized it, li has become a settled virtue in them.
“Confucians are silent about the gods, and so they must understand li as reverence toward a Heaven about which there is nothing to be said,” about which nothing is known,
Woodruff tells us. “Li preserves a harmonious relationship between humanity and Heaven by maintaining in human beings a sense of their place in a larger (but unknown) scheme. Li, then, is independent of any particular beliefs about the gods and focuses primarily on the expression of reverence in daily life.”
To be honest, I did not expect Woodruff’s journey through the land of reverence to lead us to Confucius, and I certainly did not expect to go from ancient China to Vietnam, and, in particular, to the Vietnam War. While I was in Washington, D.C., protesting the war and organizing against it and fighting the draft, Woodruff was a junior officer in Vietnam, learning about reverence. Or perhaps it’s safer to say he was absorbing experiences and lessons that a few decades later would inform his understanding of reverence.
When was the last time that the Army Field Manual was quoted in a book of philosophy?
During his first few weeks in the army the soldier often asks – and this is Woodruff, quoting the Army Field Manual – the soldier often asks, “Why are drill and ceremonies needed? Why couldn’t I use my time more advantageously learning how to fire my weapon?” The answers are that individual efforts alone do not bring survival or victory for the soldier; that the soldier has to learn teamwork and the value of unified and cooperative action.
In the military, you do not receive respect from another because the other holds you in good opinion. Rather, respect comes first, and good opinion grows from it. “Long before they have any opportunities to test each other, junior officer and colonel must show respect to one another. Respect is given, not earned, and to think otherwise would tear any hierarchy apart.”
“Reverence,” in this setting, “is a shared devotion to high ideals. Respect – the respect that flows from reverence – requires that we recognize each other’s devotion to those ideals.”
How would what Woodruff learned in the Army, apply to life in a congregation, or in a humanist community? What implications for the respect we have for each other flow from our reverence, that is, from our shared devotion to high ideals?
Unitarian Universalists sometimes assert that, underneath, at their core, all religions are the same. All religions share basic values, such as the Golden Rule. We look at the Holy through different windows, perhaps, or we feel a different part of the elephant, but we have the conviction that, deep down, there is common ground. Stephen Prothero, a religion professor, has devoted a 2010 book to the contrary view. Prothero describes the various religions in order to show us that the questions they ask are different, and thus, so are the answers.
In a chapter on Relativism, Woodruff, agreeing with Prothero, but writing almost a decade earlier, states that “It is not reverent to say that all religions are the same deep down.” He argues that anyone “who is reverent towards the truth” – and who could revere the truth more than a UU? – will want to avoid the false belief that all religions – especially those involving beliefs – are at heart the same. We cannot claim that truths are personal and thereby avoid the confrontation of conflicting beliefs.
Woodruff reminds us of Plato’s famous argument against the Relativism espoused by Protagoras. “The instant Protagoras defends his relativism against criticism, he implicitly abandons it – because at that point he has to disagree with those who reject his position.”
Relativism is arrogant, and thus irreverent, in the proper, and harsh, meaning of that word. Complete relativism tries to offer us an immunity from argument that denies or ignores human fallibility. Relativism is hubris, an attempt to claim equal status with the gods, and hubris is the antithesis of reverence. “Relativism,” Woodruff concludes, “here as elsewhere, is an evasion of responsibility.”
You will have observed that I’ve used the term God or the gods somewhat freely in this paper. I’ve tried to make it clear that Woodruff’s approach to reverence does not imply the existence of any sort of god or supreme being, and nor does my approach.
But what is required is something beyond you and me. Protagoras, in his relativist approach, maintains that “a human being is the measure of all things.”26 But there is much that is beyond humanity, isn’t there? – the ideal of justice, the mystery of existence, the reality of death, the wonder of love, the endurance of truth. Let us put aside haughtiness, hubris, and arrogance, and embrace civility, humility, and reverence.
Let us, like good Boy Scouts, be not only Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, and Clean, but also Reverent as well.
Like Pooh and Piglet, we’re all walking in the 100-acre wood, at least metaphorically, with trees so tall we can’t see the tops of them. So may it always be.
Bill Sinkford, in A Language of Reverence, Dean Grodzins, ed., Meadville Lombard, Chicago (2004).
Bill Moyers, interview with Paul Woodruff, PBS, 1/3/03, http://www.pbs.org/now/transcript/transcript_woodruff.html.
http://scouting.org. This quote is apparently from an earlier version of the site.
Ibid., Charter and Bylaws, Article IX. Policies and Definitions, Section 1. Declaration of Religious Principle, Clause 1.
Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, Oxford University Press, USA, 2002, p.3.
Ibid., p. 53.
Ibid., p. 46.
The New York Times, April 24, 2011, p. WK5.
Woodruff, p. 78.
Ibid., p. 180.
Stephen Prothero, God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World – and Why Their Differences Matter, Harper Collins, New York, 2010.
Woodruff, p. 149.
Woodruff, p. 150, quoting Plato’s Theaetetus, 171.
Ibid., p. 151, quoting Theaetetus, 152b.